Dublin and London must not lose focus on North

Posted By: August 09, 2013

Andy Pollak. Irish Times.( Dublin). Thursday, August 8,
2013, 20:03
The mischievous streak in me likes the word “collaboration”: it
is a subversive word. I believe in the obvious – that the road to peace out of
any conflict, short of outright military victory by one side or the other, lies
in eventually collaborating with the old enemy. But in Britain collaboration
still has a strongly negative undertone left over from the second World War:
those who worked with the Nazi enemy were collaborators and therefore people to
be shunned and punished. And this sentiment was easily adapted by unionism to
the fearful instincts of that community
in Northern Ireland.

Collaboration also assumes legitimacy and equality
between two sides. Irish republicans don’t like the concept for this reason.
They insist on believing that the North and – to a lesser extent – the
independent State of Ireland don’t really exist, that they are unruly
half-completed waiting rooms on the journey to a proper all-Ireland

In the actual Republic of Ireland collaboration has no such
negative undertones. But its nice sister, co-operation, when used in the context
of co-operation with Northern Ireland as part of the peace process, has an only
slightly less damaging connotation: it reeks of boring “do-goodery”.

have spent the last 14 years – until retirement last month – as director of the
Centre for Cross Border Studies, promoting and developing what many unionists
still consider to be collaboration with the ancient enemy in Dublin; what many
republicans believe to be irrelevant to the real business of driving towards a
united Ireland; and what many people in the South think – when they think about
it all – is a deeply uninteresting and probably fruitless endeavour to win over
the seriously mad, often violent and probably unreformable people north of the

Most political leaders in both jurisdictions on this island now
devote little thought to North-South co-operation. In the early years after the
Good Friday agreement, Bertie Ahern used to bang the table and tell his
Ministers that such co-operation had to be close to the top of their agendas.
However, since Bertie departed and western capitalism as we used to know it
imploded after 2008, everything has changed.

The 1998 agreement’s
marvellously complex interlocking architecture was always predicated on all
three “strands” – within Northern Ireland, North-South and east-west – working
together. But in recent years this has decreased to the point where there is now
a worrying lacuna in Northern Ireland policy-making in both Dublin and

Admittedly relations between the two states have never been
better, a closeness symbolised by Queen Elizabeth’s hugely successful visit in
2011. The east-west institutions set up by the Good Friday agreement have become
largely symbolic and the real business between Britain and Ireland is now done
on a bilateral basis. But North-South co-operation, which until recent years was
much more vibrant, has also fallen way down the government agenda.

is reflected in other key areas of society. The media couldn’t be less
interested. In the North this is because of a provincial obsession with the
goings-on at Stormont and the old sectarian issues of flags and parades. In the
South it is indicative of the collapse of interest in anything to do with both
Northern Ireland and North-South co-operation, along with a deep bout of
26-county introspection caused by our failure as an economically independent

The higher-education system is also losing its North-South
dimension. The number of undergraduates crossing the Border to study at
universities in the other jurisdiction continues to fall.

Why is this
important? The first answer is obvious. It lies in what 50 years of
discriminatory self-rule in the North and wilful ignorance in London and Dublin
led to: 30 years of political violence, 3,600 deaths, and a society
whose deepened wounds and divisions will take many generations to heal. In
Dublin the North was ignored for most of the first 30 years after Independence
and then briefly became the subject of a futile international campaign
against partition – until finallySean Lemass and Ken Whitaker embarked on an
initiative in the 1960s to make friends across the Border through the first
fragile attempts at practical cross-Border co-operation.

And this
practical co-operation has helped remove fear and suspicion over the past 15
years. As the late Sir George Quigley said in 2008: “The negative attitudes to
the South, which have historically reinforced internal differences, have
steadily weakened. The development of surprisingly widespread acceptance of the
North-South economic project demonstrates that the straitjacket within which
people mistakenly seek to preserve their identity can be exchanged for more
comfortable clothing in situations where positive relationships, which are able
to replace negative stereotypes, can develop.”

The economy also provides
the second answer. All but a minority of unionists now agree that in a
fiercely competitive, globalised environment, it makes total sense for this
small English-speaking island to present a united face to the investing outside
world, and to capitalise on an all-island “domestic” market of more than six
million people.

Unfortunately Northern Ireland’s politics and society are
not yet mature enough to solve their problems of division and violence by
themselves. The sovereign governments must stay engaged. Without their active
interest and involvement, the two main parties in the North will go back into
the tribal silos where they feel most comfortable, and the world will forget
about this marginal little province. And in another generation – or less – the
malign cycle of sectarianism and violence will be in danger of raising its ugly
head again. That ugly head was all too apparent in Belfast over the past

Andy Pollak is this year’s director of the Merriman Summer
School in Lisdoonvarna, Co Clare, from August 14th-18th