Peace Building in a Political Impasse: Cross-Border Links in Ireland
Centre for the Study of Conflict
School of History, Philosophy and Politics,
Faculty of Humanities, University of Ulster

Peace Building in a Political Impasse: Cross-Border Links in 
Ireland frontispiece

Peace Building in a Political Impasse: Cross-Border Links in Ireland

by Dominic Murray and Jim O'Neill
Published by the University of Ulster, Coleraine 1991
ISBN 1 87120 612 X
Paperback 50 pp £3.00

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Centre for the Study of Conflict
University of Ulster
Northern Ireland
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Peace Building in a Political Impasse: Cross-Border Links in Ireland

by Dominic Murray and Jim O'Neill

Centre for the Study of Conflict
University of Ulster




Register of groups involved in Cross Border activities

Case Studies of Co-operation


Co-operation North


MA Peace Studies
(University of Limerick/University of Ulster at Magee)


Boston Ireland Ventures




Groups not included in Register


Youth Links


School Links


The Centre for the Study of Conflict welcomes the publication of the first comprehensive register of cross-border activities in Ireland and the first consideration of their impact.

I wish to record my thanks to the researchers, Dr Dominic Murray and Mr Jim O'Neill, to the funding body, the United States Institute for Peace, to the University of Massachusetts at Boston, especially Dr Padraig OMalley and to Mr Clem McCartney for his work in Boston.

Before publishing a research report, the Centre for the Study of Conflict submits it to members of a panel of external referees. It is the Centre's custom to consult at least three panel members. At the time of submitting the report the Editorial Advisory Board comprised:

Professor Halla Beloff, Department of Psychology, University of Edinburgh
Dr Paul Brennan, UER Des Pays Anglophones, University of Paris III
Professor Ronnie Buchanan, Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University Belfast
Professor Kevin Boyle, Faculty of Law, University of Essex
Professor John Fulton, Faculty of Education, Queen's University, Belfast
Dr Richard Jenkins, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Swansea
Dr Peter Lemish, Department of Education, University of Haifa
Dr Dominic Murray, Department of Education, University College, Cork
Professor James OConnell, Peace Studies, University of Bradford
Professor John Rex, Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations, University of Warwick
Professor Peter Stringer, Policy Research Institute.
Professor Joseph Thompson, Department of Politics, University of Villanova, Pennsylvania

Seamus Dunn
Director, Centre for the Study of Conflict,

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In the post-war years, there has been considerable growth of interest in the alternative strategies available to reduce international tensions when the normal diplomacy has failed. Joseph Montville has described such activities as "Track Two Diplomacy". Until recently, the exploration of the concept has concentrated on major international conflicts and wars. It was considered that Ireland provides an ideal opportunity to examine the efficiency of these strategies in a manageable context The duration of the conflict has led to the inevitable evolution of subtle and sometimes effective crosscutting relationships between the parties in conflict. Given the political impasse in Ireland, the purpose of this project is to examine the present extent and further feasibility of such sub-political strategies and to study the social, educational and economic co-operation between the two parts of Ireland which may reduce tensions when normal diplomacy fails.

Montville (1982) has defined Track Two Diplomacy as 'unofficial, informal interaction between representatives of adversary groups or nations which aims to develop strategies and create an environment which could contribute to the resolution of their conflict'. He suggests that the potential for such activities lies in the fact that they are less fettered and perhaps less accountable than the more formal (and public) government! government or leader/leader contact. He cites Co-operation North as a case in point. The M.A. in peace studies currently being offered jointly by the University of Ulster and the University of Limerick might be placed in the same category. On the other hand, Darby (1986) claims that in the Northern Ireland context, 'the argument that people should get together because they were hostile towards each other was not (necessarily) persuasive'. This possibility prompted the research to consider a further type of contact i.e. economic, social and sporting links which create informal and formal relationships but which are, to a large degree, independent of political tensions, (The Irish Bridge Union is an example). We describe such links as 'Track Three Diplomacy', in the sense that, simply through meeting with each other they diminish mutual ignorance of each other. In Northern Ireland, ignorance spawns fear and fear engenders tension. If such tension is lessened through casual contacts, then this may make it safer for political leaders to take risks for peace. Such an outcome is in no way the principal objective of these social and sporting groups.

Nevertheless, it is highly likely that differing perspectives of the dimensions of the conflict will be gained through contact in a non-threatening milieu. Therefore their very lack of political intent may prove to be their greatest strength in this regard. Montville also argues that co-operative economic development aids conflict resolution in providing incentives, institutional support and continuity to the political process. One such development is studied in some detail - The Boston/Derry/Galway Ventures. This present research study of these various aspects of Cross-border activities has been funded by The United States Institute of Peace and was based in The Centre for the Study of Conflict in The University of Ulster at Coleraine.


The study is comprised of two parts:

  1. An attempt to gain a general impression of the broad range of cross border-activities.

  2. A more detailed study of three specific projects.

    (a) Co-operation North.

    (b) The M.A. course presented jointly by Magee College, Derry and the University of Limerick.

    (c)The project on economic co-operation between Boston, Galway and Derry.

Cross Border Activities

No central register currently exists which has attempted to collate information on groups in Ireland who are involved in cross-border activities. The first task of the research therefore was to attempt to identify them and to ascertain their aims, aspirations and modus operandi. Initially the contacts were made either by personal contact or letter. These initial contacts proved seminal in the sense that, not only did they elaborate on their own activities, but also provided both primary and secondary sources concerning other groups and individuals similarly employed. In this way, a bank of 130 such enterprise groups were identified. Questionnaires concerning objectives, development, funding and views on cross-border activities were dispatched in September 1989 with follow up letters sent to non-respondents in October 1989. 99 replies (66%) had been received by the closing date of 30/11/1989. The response rate was significantly better from The Republic of Ireland than from the North. It is speculated that this may have been due, to some degree, to 'Questionnaire Fatigue' in the latter province. Since the register section of the report is seen largely as a reference document, it is presented in two sections. The main body of the register is comprised of groups who responded fully to the questionnaire.

Entries include name of group, main activities and sources of funding. An appendix is also included which presents the addresses of groups who either failed to respond to the questionnaire or who gave insufficient information to warrant inclusion in the register itself.

Cooperation North

Founded in 1979, it's original remit was "to take action to build mutual respect and understanding through practical co-operation in the economic, social and cultural spheres with no political strings attached". The organisation has been described (by Montville) as 'one of the most ambitious and comprehensive citizen initiatives in track two diplomacy'. A research project, also founded by The United States Institute of peace and commencing in 1990, will specifically study the back-ground and development of Co-operation North. The research being presented here, will therefore, restrict itself to giving a brief and more general outline of the organisation's operations with special reference to its school-links, youth, and Network Community Programmes.

The research data were gathered principally through interviews with senior executives and field workers based in the Belfast office of Co-operation North and with participants who had received support or funding from the organisation. Lists of participants in the various programmes are included as appendices.

The M.A. in Peace Studies

This joint programme is unique in the sense that it is the first time that two institutions of higher education on both sides of the border have established such a formal relationship. These are the University of Ulster and the University of Limerick. The course has been in operation for three years. Of research interest, were the objectives, problems and potential of development, funding and perceptions of the course. Research data were collected by means of interview with academic and administrative staff in Derry and Limerick. Questionnaires were also sent to every student who had completed the course and to those who are currently engaged on it. An 80% response rate was achieved.

Derry/GalwayIBoston Ventures

The decision to study this particular project in detail was a response to the claim that co-operative economic development might aid conflict resolution. While there appeared to be varying perceptions and expectations of the individuals and groups involved, there also seemed to be four agreed central objectives:

(a) Inward investment in terms of industry,

(b) Property development,

(c) Tourism,

(d) Promotion of export sales.

It was anticipated that these would bring about job creation and aid the creation of wealth.

The study of this particular aspect of the research project posed certain methodological problems. Not least of these was the geographic dispersal of the personnel involved. Nonetheless, research data were gathered by means of interviews with as many as possible of the individuals with an involvement, both past and present, in the Ventures Programme. Interviewed personnel included representatives of political, religious, business and trade union groups. The interviews were carried out in Galway, Derry, Boston and Washington.

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The principal aim of this project was to attempt to identify and describe the range of alternative strategies being employed in Ireland to reduce tension and conflict there. It was informed by Montvilles work on Track Two Diplomacy which he has defined as unofficial, informed interaction between representatives of adversary groups or nations which aims to develop strategies and create an environment which could contribute to the resolution of their conflict. The project goes further in studying groups from north and south of the political border in Ireland who meet and mix with each other naturally. However, their activities differ from Montvilles definition in two significant ways. In the first place, they may or may not be representatives of adversary groups and secondly, while they may contribute to the resolution of conflict, this is in no way their primary purpose. We refer to such contact, and the benefits that accrue from it, as Track Three Diplomacy. This is a new concept in the sense that casual, rather than studied or contrived contact is treated as a legitimate research concern. Perhaps the word casual is unfair and further elaboration is required.

As stated in chapter one, the groups studied who were involved in cross-border activities could be located comfortably enough within three broad categories

  1. Those who existed specifically to improve relationships.

  2. Those who existed for a specific purpose but whose secondary objective would be to encourage relationships.

  3. Those groups who have always existed at an all-Ireland level and consequently have cross-border links but these are seen as incidental to the overall activity of the group.

Obviously those engaged in Track Three Diplomacy were to be found in categories 2 and 3. In Ireland, as in other areas which are experiencing conflict, the antagonists tend to have only a stereotypical knowledge of each other. This in fact is no knowledge at all since, by definition, one cannot have a stereotype of someone whom one knows. Ignorance can spawn suspicion which is a potent catalyst for conflict. It follows therefore that if such ignorance is diminished this may have a beneficial effect with regard to conflict resolution. This however is not invariably true. One can imagine occasions when, especially superficial contact, might do more harm than good. The question must be asked therefore which type of contact is most likely to have a beneficial effect on the reduction of tensions and conflict. In this context there is an argument, often expressed by project participants, that where contact is contrived, it tends to appeal to those who have least need of it. Such contact was often associated with a preoccupation with visits and partners. This research would suggest that cross-border contact in Ireland appeared to be most natural and perhaps most beneficial among what the report describes as campaign-based groups. The great advantage of such groups, in terms of conflict reduction is that rarely were the individuals aware that they were involved in such activities. The campaign (whatever it was) seemed to be perceived as having much more importance than any cross-border relationships which were essential to, and an integral part of, the overall plan of action. Knowledge of, and friendships with, each other grew naturally as they would in any social relationship. Thus, one of the crucial aspirations of those seeking conflict resolution i.e. ameliorating the effects of ignorance was being achieved. Of importance, is the fact that it was being achieved unconsciously and we believe that it is this unconscious element that is the essence of Track Three Diplomacy. This was demonstrated graphically at interview when participants in such groups seemed consistently not to see the point of them being questioned about their cross-border relationships. It was obviously so commonplace to them as to have become totally unremarkable. Perhaps therefore it is when this stage has been reached that Track Three Diplomacy will achieve most. In terms of achievement, it is possible that track three diplomacy will be more successful in controlling conflict at a day to day level (see Darby 1986) than in attaining the longer term objective of resolving the conflict.

It is important to state that no value judgements are being made with regard to the relative efficacy of casual versus studied contact. Indeed it would be invidious to do so. For example, the activities of Cooperation North fall very clearly within the latter category in the sense that the organisation exists specifically to improve relationships. Its achievements have been quite remarkable. For example, this project has identified 174 groups who have forged links across the border as part of Cooperation North's youth scheme and 214 schools who meet with Northern and Southern counterparts through their school links scheme. It would appear that the objective of all these activities is that a common concern, or at least a common awareness, will emerge from the contacts which they arrange. This is in fact an opposite approach to Track Three Diplomacy where contacts naturally emerge from the common concern. Boston Ireland Ventures would seem to lie somewhere in between in the sense that there is a conscious effort to capitalise upon a shared anxiety i.e. the reduction of unemployment. In fact the activities and approaches of all the groups studied varied tremendously, from the high-profile groups such as Cooperation North and Boston Ireland Ventures to small groups or individuals who are motivated either by a desire to reduce tension in Northern Ireland or who are engaged in the pursuit of a non-political ideal which is shared by members both north and south of the border. We contend that all of these groups help to reduce conflict in their own way. What the smaller groups lack in funding and personnel, they gain in freedom of action and independence. In fact it can be claimed that the bigger (and perhaps more institutionalised) a group becomes, the less radical it can afford to be. On the other hand, the closer a groups activities take it to the finger on the trigger the less likely it is to get support from recognised bodies. This latter point should be given serious consideration by statutory bodies. It may perhaps be a risky business being associated with such groups but maybe the time has come to take risks.

There was a temptation throughout this research to treat the border as if it were some kind of objective reality. This in fact is far from the case. A reality it may well be, objective it certainly is not. At a very obvious level, nationalists perceive the border as a frustration of their aspirations while unionists see it as a safeguard of theirs. This will come as no surprise to anyone. However, what was rather more interesting, was the range of differing perceptions which existed within these broad groups. At one extreme, The Gaelic Athletic Associations response to our questionnaire was that they did not recognise the border and therefore did not engage in any cross-border activities! On the other hand, several Roman Catholic representatives in Derry claimed that they were rarely aware of the border between their city and neighbouring Muff or Buncrana but they would be very conscious of it between distant Newry and Dundalk. If this is a generally held view, it would suggest that cross-border projects may have more chance of success if there are physical and geographical (as well as political) justifications for it. Would for example Boston Derry Buncrana ventures make more sense than Boston Derry Galway ventures?

Some saw the border very much in an economic context in terms of differing prices, taxation and social welfare provision. Others were rather more preoccupied with its cultural and political implications. It will be interesting to see what effect the introduction of the single European market in 1992 will have on such views. On the one hand it can be argued that it will make a nonsense of the existence of the border, at an economic level at least. On the other it may result in an even fiercer defence of cultural identity on both sides. If this is the case then it may well be that an attitudinal border may prove much less permeable than an economic one. What is clear, is that there will be an inevitable increase in cross-border traffic as a result of the single market. It is to be hoped that this will at least decrease the relative ignorance on either side which exists at the moment. The questionnaire data would suggest that this ignorance is particularly acute in Southern Ireland. Many respondents there claimed that the majority of the population neither knew, nor wanted to know, anything about Northern Ireland. It is difficult to know whether this should be seen as a cause or an effect of the fact that in cross-border activities, most of the movement tends to be from north to south.

There seemed to be a wide range of strategies employed by groups who were consciously engaged in attempts to reduce conflict. Some were convinced that economic investment was the best way to proceed. Others that increased contact among differing cultural, religious and political groups was likely to prove most productive. Some sought attitudinal change, others structural reconstruction. Indeed many groups had cross-border links but had no concern for conflict reduction. In this latter context, White (1983) has studied the extent to which the international frontier between The United Kingdom and The Republic of Ireland is ignored by private organisations. His primary interest was not in conflict reduction but rather in a preliminary reconnaissance of the mismatch between the state boundary and private organisations. He identifies 151 bodies who operate on an all-Ireland basis and claims that of these, the border is most frequently breached by church organisations. This concurs with our own findings. However, we also identified high levels of cross-border contact among youth, educational and community groups. The increase in this type of contact is probably due, in some degree, to the efforts of Cooperation North which largely post date White's research. What was clear throughout our research was that many people in Northern Ireland who could broadly be described as unionists, experienced absolutely no difficulty in getting involved in cross-border activities. This was so, either because no compromise of ideals was demanded (as seemed to be the case in campaigns, commerce, sport, tourism etc.) or, that the potential rewards justified any risk (As seemed to be the case with Boston Ireland Ventures and The The International Fund for Ireland). There may be a lesson here for those promoting the Anglo Irish Agreement and its concern to examine the totality of relationships within these islands. It would seem essential that they make greater efforts to convince unionists that there is no threat to their position and at the same time, increase the inducements to get involved in trans-cultural, -political and -border activities.

One significant shortcoming which was apparent throughout this research was the almost total lack of evaluation engaged in by the groups studied. This applied as much to the larger organisations as it did to the smaller groups. Cooperation North for example are concerned about this aspect of their operations and have recently commissioned an attitudinal evaluation of their institution. It is difficult to imagine how the quality and effectiveness of cross-border contact, in terms of conflict resolution, can be improved without having a clearer picture not only of the objectives of the participants, but also of the extent to which these objectives are being achieved. We have attempted to provide information with regard to the former, but, as yet, no information exists concerning the latter need. It is almost a truism to state that no matter how well intentioned cross-border activities are, it is inevitable that their achievements will be limited by a lack of knowledge of how (and perhaps of what) they are doing. We see an urgent need for this shortcoming to be redressed. Such an undertaking will obviously require assistance from those with expertise in the field of evaluation. Together, their responsibility might be to construct a profile of the objectives (and more importantly the achievements) of groups and organisations involved in cross-border activities. At the micro level, negotiation is required with individual groups to allow more closely focused study on their procedures with a view to help them clarify their objectives, procedures and results. It seems clear, that in the context of conflict reduction, the more informed people are about their activities and priorities, the greater their potential will be to make a contribution.

This of course will cost money and it must be asked where such funding might be obtained? In this context, in addition to the possible list of sources cited in section one, it may be productive for groups to look further afield for assistance. It is all too easy for people who are involved in cross-border activities in Ireland to perceive their problems as unique. However, a study of Europe should convince them that many of the difficulties which they face are in fact shared by many other groups on the continent. It is also possible that Europe may prove to be a valuable source of information, support and funding in this regard. At the moment the European Social Fund is supporting a whole range of what they refer to as transborder projects. Technical and, more especially financial aid has been given to encourage the countries concerned to set up joint developmental programmes for regions with an internal border. A joint educational project being conducted in Briancon (in the French Alps) and Bardonecchia (in the Italian Piedmont region) is an example. Another is The University of Ulster, Magee College(UU)-Letterkenny Regional Technical College(LRTC) Transborder Community Development Innovative Training Project. Other Irish projects receiving Community funding are the Louisburgh programme to develop a co-ordinated local response to tourism, the Inishowen project to promote local development and the Letterfrack innovative partnership programme. It is true, that currently the funded projects tend to take the form of vocational training schemes or promoting employment and geographical mobility. However, with the completion of the Single market in 1992, the last legal and institutional barriers to the free movement of capital, goods and labour within the European Community are expected to fall. This has precipitated opposition from groups who are concerned with the retention of cultural identity which in turn has highlighted the fact that the problems of implementing the Single European Act are far from purely economic. It was with this in mind that the Commission published its paper in 1987 entitled A fresh boost for culture in the European Community. Kockel (1989) claims that this represented a recognition of the need for a more comprehensive cultural policy which presumably would seek to take into account any implications the Single European Act might have for regional culture and perhaps for existing cultural problems especially in border regions. It would seem therefore that the time may well be opportune for groups with an interest in cross-border relationships and activities to seek support for their endeavours from the European Social Fund.

In fact, approaches of this kind have already been made. An application from The Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool is currently before The Commission for support for a pilot study of Ulster which will concentrate on historical, economic and political linkages between parts of an ethic/cultural region divided by a national border. It would also appear that bodies such as Cooperation North are looking more towards Europe for funding for their cross-border activities.

This research has attempted to provide a profile of the range of alternative strategies being employed in Ireland to reduce tension and conflict there. It is therefore essentially a reference document and for this reason is rather more descriptive than analytical. While some analysis is attempted, it became clear during the project that very much more was urgently needed. Many of the project groups seemed less than clear about how best to proceed in the future. Quite simply, they need help in this regard. We have attempted to illuminate the 'what' and perhaps the 'why' of cross-border activities. Urgent consideration should now be given to the 'how'.

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