Little Community Sector Interest in North-South Cooperation

There aren’t many people who get up every workday morning and say to themselves: “What can I do today to advance practical North-South cooperation in Ireland?”  I sometimes think we in the Centre for Cross Border Studies  – along with our neighbours in the North South Ministerial Council Joint Secretariat down the hill in Armagh – are among the very few.

This came home to me recently when I was doing some research for the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust into cross-border cooperation between civil society organisations in general, and the community and voluntary sector in particular. I discovered what my passionate commitment to the value of such cooperation as an essential building block of peace and reconciliation on this island may have served to conceal. 14 years after the Belfast Agreement which brought 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland to an end, not many  people in either Irish jurisdiction outside some government and business circles are that interested any more.

There have, of course, been many hundreds – even many thousands – of cross-border projects funded by the EU PEACE and INTERREG programmes during this period, many of them in the immediate region between Northern Ireland and the Southern border counties. This has led to an extraordinary blossoming of community development in that region, and particularly on the Southern side of the border, where it had been particularly underdeveloped before the 1990s.

That generous EU funding is running out now. And it is becoming apparent that since North-South cooperation arising from the Belfast Agreement was largely government-led – and particularly Irish Government-led – now that the Irish Government has huge problems closer to home, North-South cooperation in non-governmental sectors, and particularly in the community and voluntary sectors, has largely run out of steam.

I was struck during my research for the Rowntree Trust just how little North-South cooperation there has been over the past decade and a half between significant NGOs in Ireland and Northern Ireland dealing with community development, the voluntary sector, poverty, housing, youth work, human rights and civil liberties and so on. Contact between the major community and voluntary sector ‘umbrella’ bodies in the two jurisdictions – such as NICVA, The Wheel and Social Justice Ireland – has been very limited.  This cannot simply be explained by the huge cutbacks suffered by the Southern community and voluntary sectors in the past four years as the Irish Government has slashed their funding as part of austerity programmes. There wasn’t much more contact during the bounteous years of significant EU and governmental funding between 1998 and 2008.

The excuse that the North/South Consultative Forum to bring together civil society bodies in both jurisdictions wasn’t established as promised by the Belfast and St Andrews Agreements doesn’t hold much water either. In 2002, 2007 and 2008 the Centre for Cross Border Studies, along with a group of border region community workers called the Border Exchange Action Network, organised seminars to bring together the main community and voluntary sector ‘players’ in both jurisdictions to discuss whether they might be interested in helping to set up a parallel NGO forum to try to inject a little energy into the process – they weren’t. In 2009-2010 the Department of the Taoiseach organised three North/South conferences for the community and voluntary sector, again as a kind of embryonic N/S Consultative Forum that didn’t need DUP approval. With last year’s change of government in the South, the all-encompassing fiscal crisis and the lack of any real enthusiasm from the sector itself, this initiative also died on the vine.

In the current dire financial climate, any such forum is certainly now off the agenda. As one leading Southern observer who knows the sector well puts it:  ‘If you set up such a North-South discussion forum, what would be the link with government? The community and voluntary sectors in the two jurisdictions don’t just want a discussion forum, they want some purchase on the two governments, preferably including some funding. If the two governments are now totally disengaged, it’s a problem.’

This observer points out that the community and voluntary sector in the South is now ‘in headlong retreat’ with over 30% of its funding cut by government and many of the government agencies that had supported it now abolished. With the sector ‘financially and politically under siege, North-South cooperation is not the first thing on its mind.’

The situation of the Northern community and voluntary sector is nowhere near as desperate, but the level of interest in cross-border work seems equally low. A year ago the Centre for Cross Border Studies and the Belfast-based Building Change Trust (an associate body of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland) exchanged papers on the possibility of a cross-border conference on change management in the voluntary sector, but the BCT board wasn’t interested. The recent well-received INCORE report, Progressing Good Relations and Reconciliation in Post-Agreement Northern Ireland 1, had virtually nothing to say about the North-South dimension of reconciliation. And one highly regarded Derry community leader consulted for my Rowntree study put it bluntly when she commented: ‘Why would we do anything with the South when the South is in such a mess?’

One explanation for the low level of North-South cooperation in this sector may be a lack of leadership. There have been no influential individuals pushing for it as there were in other sectors: nobody like Sir George Quigley in business; nobody like Dr Martin McAleese working behind the scenes to bring loyalist leaders on board; nobody like Tom Daly of Cooperation and Working Together (CAWT) in health or Professor John Coolahan, co-founder of the Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South (SCoTENS), in education.

Andy Pollak

P.S.   Congratulations to Theatre Forum Ireland and the wonderful Maureen Kennelly for organising an All-Ireland Arts Conference in Belfast on 14-15 June. When was the last time anybody organised a major new all-Ireland event outside Croke Park?

1  Grainne Kelly, Progressing Good Relations and Reconciliation in Post-Agreement Northern Ireland, INCORE: University of Ulster, February 2012