Dublin and London must not lose focus on North
Comment: Failure to engage in Northern Ireland’s affairs could lead to another cycle of sectarianism and violence
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth meeting then president Mary McAleese at Áras an Uachtaráin in May 2011. “Relations between the two states have never been better, a closeness symbolised by the queen’s hugely successful visit.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
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 republic.
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”.
I 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 Border.
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 London.
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.