So, after nearly 14 years, it is time to say farewell to the Centre for Cross Border Studies – although not to this blog, which is migrating to a new site (see below).
We have done some good things in our small centre in Armagh during that time, and I must pay tribute to my colleagues for their huge support and extremely hard work: incoming director Ruth Taillon, particularly for her superb work on impact assessment; deputy director Mairead Hughes, a brilliant financial manager, who has been my most valued colleague since the day we opened in September 1999; Patricia McAllister, as conscientious and efficient a personal assistant as exists on this island; Annmarie O’Kane, who has done wonders with the Border People cross-border information service; Eimear Donnelly and CarolAnne Murphy for their impressive organisational and ICT skills; and our good friends John Driscoll and Caroline Creamer, director and deputy director of CCBS’s ‘sister’ organisation, the International Centre for Local and Regional Development. Successive chairs and vice-chairs – Chris Gibson, one of the North’s leading businessmen, Helen Johnston of the National Economic and Social Council, and Pauric Travers of St Patrick’s College Drumcondra – along with the CCBS board have always been there for us when we needed them.
The Centre’s contribution to ‘Strand Two’ of the Northern Irish peace process has been welcomed by leaders from a wide range of backgrounds. The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, has called us an ‘important entity, doing important work’ and the Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore holds that work ‘in very high regard.’ Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin has called us ‘a courageous and pioneering initiative.’ The Republic’s most senior civil servant, Martin Fraser, says the Centre’s publications are ‘fundamental to understanding how cross-border cooperation works on the island of Ireland.’ Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has talked about the Centre ‘leading the North-South inter-connection process.’ For the unionists, DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson has warmly and publicly thanked the Centre for its work. Abroad, one of the EU’s top experts on cross-border cooperation, Joachim Beck of the Euro-Institut in Germany, has called the Centre’s impact assessment toolkit ‘a top project with a top partner – it would be hard to find a better one in Europe.’
Yet it is disappointing that we have become to a certain extent prophets with not very much honour in our own country. The lack of interest by the island’s third level institutions in the subject of cross-border cooperation as part of the Northern Irish peace process never ceases to baffle me. In the past 18 months I have spoken to academic and policy audiences on this fascinating topic from Norway to Israel, Austria to France, England to Belgium. But I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of such audiences I have been invited to address in Ireland over the past 14 years.
The media are another element who are almost totally uninterested in what we do. If I had not been a former senior journalist with The Irish Times (and a dab hand at putting out press releases, harassing newsdesks and writing letters to the editor), I doubt whether the Centre’s work would have raised more than a line or two in the press and on radio on this island. I have, for example, been trying in vain for a decade to interest education correspondents in the unique Irish success story that is the Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South (SCoTENS), described by the Professor of Education at Oxford University, John Furlong, as ‘an incredible achievement’.
None of this would matter if North-South cooperation remained high on the agenda of the responsible governments. But it doesn’t. I have to say that in recent months in particular it has seemed to me to be lower than ever. With the Northern system wrapped up in its interminable and risk-averse processes (and the G8) and the Southern system totally distracted by its presidency of the EU, necessary ‘North-Southery’ has almost disappeared off the map. The less pragmatic wing of unionism must be delighted.
All this is worrying. Without the active interest and involvement of both the British and Irish governments, the two main parties in Northern Ireland will go back into the tribal silos where they feel most comfortable, the world will forget about this insignificant and awkward province, and in another generation the malign cycle of sectarianism and violence which has been the pattern here for the past 160 years and more will be in danger of raising its ugly head again. And that active involvement can still pay off. Witness Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness’s recent package of measures aimed at a more shared society, which appeared to cynics to be a product of pressure from London along the lines of ‘share more and get more money from us’ (and we’ll announce it before the G8 comes to Fermanagh!).
Maybe this will change for the better in the autumn. I will be more an observer than a participant then (although I will continue to manage the Centre’s ‘Towards a Border Development Zone’ project). I plan to start writing a book about North-South cooperation and the Northern Ireland peace process, and to put up the occasional blog on my new site, www.2irelands2gether.wordpress.com (if any of the readers of A Note from the Next Door Neighbours would like to subscribe to this, perhaps you could let me know on email@example.com). I’m also available to do anything that will further the noble cause of cross-border cooperation for peace, reconciliation and mutual benefit in Ireland (occasionally for a small charge). I will be, in short, a cross-border gun for hire.
Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.