Small town, would like to meet . . .

 

The concept of twinning has long been maligned as an excuse for county-council junkets, but the prospect of economic benefits means several EU towns are in the market for friendship, and maybe more

ONE OF THE pleasures of driving through France is to unexpectedly come across an Irish link. More than 100 French towns spread throughout the country are twinned with towns in Ireland and they usually advertise the fact with prominent signage on approach roads.

The concept of town-twinning is not confined to France and Ireland, though. It is a Continent-wide phenomenon involving more than 17,000 cities, towns and villages across the EU.

Twinning became fashionable after the second World War as a way of reuniting bitterly divided communities in Europe, with the most famous partnership involving a link between the two most-bombed cities: Coventry in the English Midlands and the German city of Dresden.

Not surprisingly, the emerging European Union encouraged the principle and today it funds twinning projects in Ireland and other member states. The official EU policy states that town twinning “can bring many benefits to a community and the municipality. By bringing people together from different parts of Europe, it gives an opportunity to share problems, exchange views and understand different viewpoints on any issue where there is a shared interest or concern.”

Here, twinning became popular in the 1980s and in that pre-Ryanair era of prohibitively expensive air travel, France, and especially ferry-accessible Brittany, was the destination of choice. Of the estimated 200 Irish cities, towns and villages with twinning arrangements today, some two-thirds are with French communities.

The catalyst for a link can be quite haphazard. Tipperary town’s French connection began when a local businessman married a woman from the town of Parthenay in the 1980s. Parthenay is a medieval walled town in Deux-Sèvres, a département(county) in the midwest Poitou-Charente region southwest of Paris. This is not traditional Irish tourist territory. It’s a predominantly rural area famous for the Parthenais breed of cattle. Its best-known public figure is Ségolène Royal, who worked as an au-pair in Dublin long before rising to prominence as the Socialist party candidate who lost the election for the French presidency to Nicolas Sarkozy.

Over the years, bonds of friendship were forged between Parthenay and Tipperary. Activities have included exchange visits between the two fire services and school students, and the towns were formally twinned in 1994. According to Tipperary town clerk Martin Nolan, the relationship is maintained by a committee of local volunteers with the support of the town council.

He says the twinning arrangement has been “very good” for Tipperary with the principal practical benefits coming from cultural exchanges and school links. A delegation from the French town will visit Tipperary in March.

Most twinning arrangements are managed by local councils but unlike France many smaller Irish towns have neither a council nor a mayor. In such cases, the relationship is managed by voluntary committees.

Despite criticism that twinning involves junkets by councillors, supporters claim there are tangible benefits. The Institute of Public Administration in Dublin runs the Irish operations of the EU-funded programme for town twinning. Mark Callanan, a public-policy specialist with the institute, cites the example of Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, which is twinned with Carhaix-Plougher in Brittany. Recently, both towns organised an exchange to share information about how to integrate migrants from the Baltic states into their respective communities. Meanwhile, Sligo’s links with Kitwe in Zambia have led to improved awareness of development issues in schools and fund-raising activities.

Callanan says “twinning has expanded in terms of the number of countries involved” and activities can “range from school-based exchanges, to economic and trade links”.

Dublin City Council has twinned with Barcelona, Liverpool and the Californian city of San José. The council’s director of international relations and research, Peter Finnegan, says “the concept of twinning is important at a time of economic downturn”.

A successful twinning, he believes, must involve the educational and business communities and the wider citizenry, and not just be a formal arrangement between the elected authorities and the executive. An objective of the policy is “to draw from international knowledge and connections” to create “practical projects that serve the development of Dublin as a sustainable and cosmopolitan city”.

The council believes the link with San José, established 23 years ago when Bertie Ahern was lord mayor, has enhanced Dublin’s and Ireland’s ability to attract investment from technology companies. Some 35 high-tech businesses based in the Silicon Valley city have established a presence in Ireland. Finnegan says future twinning arrangements should be “time-defined with a specific programme of work” designed to enhance economic, educational, and cultural links with the target city.

Friendship agreements (less formal than full-scale twinning) are also planned between Dublin and St Petersburg and Kraków.

Many towns and cities do not limit themselves to a single twin. While Tipperary is also linked to Mautern in Austria, Parthenay has six other partners, three in Europe, two in Africa and one in Canada.

Cork, for example, is twinned with no less than six cities: Coventry, Rennes, San Francisco, Cologne, Swansea and Shanghai. It also recently closed the application process for grants to “Cork city-based groups who are willing to pursue activities to promote the twinning links” in the cultural, educational, social, tourist, technical, scientific and economic areas.

But possibly Europe’s most prolific “serial twinner” is Galway, which has links to no less than 11 cities. Eight are formal twinning arrangements with: Seattle, Chicago, St Louis, Cambridge (Massachusetts), and Milwaukee in the US; Lorient in France; Aalborg in Denmark; and Bradford in England. And three are friendship agreements: Moncton (New Brunswick) in Canada, Qingdao in China and Waitakere in New Zealand.

The council says “there have been exchanges in the sporting, cultural and educational spheres” and that the benefits include “the interchange of ideas”, the “breaking down of barriers of fear and misunderstanding” and helping to “foster a better appreciation of our respective cultures”.

EU funding is available to make a contribution towards the cost of twinning exchanges between towns in Ireland and towns in other European countries under the EU’s Europe for Citizens programme.

The Institute of Public Administration is the contact point for the Europe for Citizens programme in Ireland, and can provide further information on the programme or on twinning in general, and advice on putting together an application for funding. www.europeforcitizens.ie

Irish towns and foreign twins

Ballybay, Co Monaghan – Gergweis-Osterhofen, Bavaria, Germany

Bagenalstown, Co Carlow – Pont-Péan, Brittany, France

Clonakilty, Co Cork – Chateaulin, France and Waldaschaff, Germany

Dungarvan, Co Waterford – Erie, Pennsylvania

Dundalk, Co Louth – Rezé, Pays de la Loire, France

Gorey, Co Wexford – Oban, Scotland

Portlaoise, Co Laois – Coulounieix-Chamiers, Dordogne, France

Tuam, Co Galway – Straubing, Bavaria, Germany


Five European towns Looking for friendship in Ireland

Morazzone

From: Lombardy, Italy. Population: 4,000. Historic town with Celtic origins, close to Milan. Interested in cultural, historic, sporting and economic exchanges with an Irish community.

Penestin

From: Brittany, France. Population: 1,500. Situated on the coastline of southern Brittany in France with a number of people working in the seafood/mussel industry, this town is particularly interested in pursuing exchanges in this sector.

Penrhyndeudraeth

From: Gwynedd, Wales. Population: 1,500. Small rural town on the edge of a national park and close to the sea, where most inhabitants speak Welsh as their mother tongue. It is particularly interested in establishing links with a Gaeltacht community.

Lapua

From: south Ostrobothnia, Finland. Population: 14,000.

Entrepreneurial city situated in mid-west Finland seeking to pursue cultural, economic/ business, educational and sporting exchanges with a town council in Ireland.

Bledów

From: Grójec, Poland. Population: 1,100. Small, largely rural community situated close to Warsaw, with a significant horticultural tradition. The local community is looking to pursue economic and educational exchanges in Ireland.