PEACE CAN BE DESTROYED BY OUR OWN COMPLACENCY
Dr Katy Hayward, lecturer in Political Sociology, QUB, member of the Board of the Centre for Cross Border Studies
I am honoured to be here representing the Centre for Cross Border Studies, as a member of its Board. Many of you will remember Andy Pollak, who founded the Centre in 1999 and led it until his (active) retirement four years ago, when Ruth Taillon succeeded him as Director.
Some of you, too, may recall Andy’s regular ‘Note from the Next-Door Neighbours’ in which Andy used his journalistic skills to pen an open monthly letter on the subject of cross-border relations. It was typically engaging and forthright. Andy’s passion for cross-border cooperation and delight at its improvement after the Agreement, did not blind him to the myriad problems and inadequacies that saw opportunities for mutual benefit missed time after time.
His last such letter in June 2013 outlined some of the many successes of the Centre – bearing plaudits from far afield and from leaders of all political hues. It also bemoaned the sectors most stubbornly uninterested in cross-border affairs, among which he most forcefully criticised the media and (I’m ashamed to say) the universities.
Andy viewed this lack of interest as boding gravely ill for the future; he warned:
None of this [uninterest] would matter if North-South cooperation remained high on the agenda of the responsible governments. But it doesn’t. … in recent months in particular it has seemed to me to be lower than ever. … necessary ‘North-Southery’ has almost disappeared off the map.
…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… will be in danger of raising its ugly head again.
This was the time at which I came onto the Board of CCBS and our experience since (with some notable exceptions) has been almost consistently one of an uphill struggle. This struggle could have been, possibly, interpreted a sign of success: peace felt normal, cross-border contact unremarkable; it was easy to blithely slip into complacency. That conditions could descend into the ‘malign cycle’ about which Andy warned was happily quite inconceivable.
THE LEGACY OF THE HARD BORDER LIVES ON HERE
But within a few short years, the same complacency about the peace, about power-sharing, about cross-border cooperation, about, even, EU membership has allowed the unthinkable to happen. Such things that we have cherished and, indeed, brandished around the world as a sign of success have become playthings, tossed lightly up in the air in acts of outrageous political hubris. One after the other is falling to the ground and suddenly not only the future but the very present is characterised by uncertainty and instability. How can it be that we now find ourselves expected to take some solace from Prime Minister May’s assurance that there should be ‘No return to the borders of the past’?
My critical point, then, is that the biggest question we should be asking now is not how to preserve the integration and cooperation achieved, but rather: why is it that we do not have more? Similar regions in the EU would have far greater comparative levels of integration, cross-border movement, workers, and trade. It is clear, here, that the legacy of the hard border lives on here. This is a legacy not only of the conflict but of decades of ‘back to back’ development that forged the dominant and divergent trajectories of policymaking north and south.
In the current absence of information on the future iteration of the border, the worst fears and rumours arise. Recently, in collaboration with ICBAN, I have held focus groups in the border region on the topic of Brexit. Unprompted, participants talked a lot about the former border: being stopped by Irish customs, British customs, British army and RUC on each outward and return journey. Nobody romanticised it. The scars run deep.
There is, thus, a striking paradox in the experience of the contemporary border which makes it difficult to explain to the array of outsiders now curious about it. In a way, the border doesn’t exist, most people don’t think about crossing it. Yet at the same time the border is ever present. It is a lingering strain. One young man in a focus group in Monaghan described it thus:
Mentally, the border would wear you down. Everyone feels it.
And the psychological impact of Brexit in its reawakening of the border is very dangerous.
THE GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT NOT ENOUGH
Thinking of Brexit: in order to avoid provoking resentment or unrest in other parts of the EU (or even the UK), the ‘flexible and imaginative solutions’ that are being sought for the Irish border will have to be premised, first and foremost, on their connection to peace. A focus on such ‘unique circumstances’ for Northern Ireland means that we are propelled towards the Good Friday Agreement.
But the formal structures of the Agreement do not, in and of themselves, hold enough for securing deep cooperation. Instead, the most steady and innovative progress has depended first on the capacity of individuals and small organisations to identify areas of mutual interest, and then on their courage and vision to build upon them.
The stark reality facing us now is that we – north and south – have shown far too little interest, far too little capacity and far too little courage to forge economic, social, non-political initiatives in such number and strength as would be needed to navigate the unchartered territory of Brexit intact. The archives of CCBS are full of fantastic reports about opportunities just waiting to be developed… and waiting… and waiting.
Michael D’Arcy’s 2012 report titled Opportunities in North/South Public Service Provision is an excellent example of this. It identified ten key opportunities to begin cooperative public service projects that would be likely to deliver positive results for citizens of the whole island within 10 years. These included:
If these had been taken up at the time, we would already be half way through to reaping benefits across the island. Instead, we continued to rely on EU funding, which itself is on occasion vulnerable to the willingness of either government to dedicate the necessary contributions.
THE NORTH-SOUTH SOCIAL INNOVATION NETWORK
Undeterred, CCBS is still presenting fresh ideas for stimulating and supporting cooperation. One such model is the North-South Social Innovation Network. This Network was set up just last year by CCBS, DCU, Queen’s, UU, and DKIT, in association with, among others, Probation Board NI, Creative Spark, NICVA, and CAWT. All of these organisations have arrived at a common understanding of the need to develop cross-border cooperation in various sectors (e.g. health, education, justice, culture), finding collaborative solutions for common social needs. An inaugural conference took place in Dundalk in November 2016 and all who attended expressed a desire to move forward on an outcome-oriented basis. Could we imagine a more positive model for planning future north-south relations? Now is the time for such imagination, and for choices.
MORE THAN ABOUT AVOIDING A HARD BORDER
Do we set out the bottom line and trust that the tug of war between Sinn Féin and the DUP, pulling in opposite directions, will create some sort of equilibrium? Tension can be productive after all. But what if the rope of devolution, or subsidies, or ceasefires became precariously frayed and both parties end up sprawled on the floor?
Alternatively, is it possible to use the spectre of Brexit to focus minds on our mutual interests, and to set out what we would all like to see in the future. This has to be more than avoiding a hard border, or even preserving what we already have. We can easily lay our hands on a wish list of missed opportunities, untapped connections, under-developed ideas to dust off and begin work on. It could be the only means of trying to formalise a fabric of cooperation that has otherwise largely depended on the types of contacts and networks that are all too vulnerable to disruptive forces, be they in the guise of customs controls or resurgent paramilitarism.
These omissions and aversions have occurred along all three strands of the Agreement. Our imaginative solutions must be equally complex and multi-layered. They must also entail a renewed commitment to the Agreement by all parties and both governments, as a vital foundation.
Ultimately, all our visions of the future must converge on our common commitment to peace. Not because we are frightened of what paramilitaries may do, but because we recognise that – regardless of what we think of them – we are stuck with the next-door neighbours we have. Cooperation among us is the foundation for peace; necessary peace, ordinary peace. This is a peace that can be destroyed – we know now – not just by violence but by our own complacency.