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

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.

This 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 entity.

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 finally Sean 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 month.

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