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No Frontiers

North-South integration in Ireland

Carry on NGOing

Harriet Kinahan

Co-operation Ireland was founded, as Co-operation North (the name was changed last year), in 1979. That is two decades of accumulated experience in north-south co-operation.

Many people have heard, perhaps, of the annual Co-operation Ireland maracycle. But on the ground CI works with a plethora of target groups — especially youth, educational and community organisations. Often these are doing fantastic work: bringing people together face to face, discussing differences as well as what they have in common, goes a long way towards helping people understand that they need not be threatened by one another.

This appreciation of different identities is a recognition of how rich life on this island — not to mention the world — can be. (Indeed, CI has offices in London and in New York as well as throughout Ireland, in Belfast, Derry, Monaghan, Dublin, Cork and Limerick.)

Given the fear highlighted by Dominic Murray in his chapter, of creating a 'second border’ in Ireland — given the remit of the ‘peace package’, INTERREG and so on — it is worth underscoring that CI has always been all-Ireland focused. We would agree that that geographical restriction should be changed, so that programmes can benefit the whole island. Bringing people from Cork to Monaghan, or indeed to Belfast, so that they can be beneficiaries, is hardly going to touch many people in Munster.

Every year CI brings together about 20,000 people north and south — very often for the very first time. A specific initiative worth highlighting first, in this context, is involvement in the European Association of Border Regions. This has an office in Monaghan which co-ordinates the three immediately cross-border networks on the island. The link to EABR broadens perspectives by allowing comparisons to be made and contrasts drawn with similar initiatives in other border regions.

But it is the Youth Education and Community Programme which is the ‘bread and butter’ of CI. Within that there is a specific Cross-border Community Development Project. Under the EU Special Support Programme (measure 3.1), Co-operation Ireland acts as the intermediary funding body, working together with IBEC and CBI.

A media programme brings journalists together north and south. This provides valuable opportunities for journalists and media people to meet, out of the public eye, to share views on political development, culture, the economy and so forth.

CI recently received funding to mirror in the republic the excellent work in the north of Community Dialogue — a community-based initiative for discussion of difficult political issues. The idea was ‘stolen’ from Community Dialogue in recognition that many, many community groups in the south hadn’t begun to debate the issues arising from the Belfast agreement. The aim is to stimulate that debate, to bring community groups together and to encourage them to meet groups in the north who have been through this process rather longer, to share views.

CI is also involved in a project for emerging political leaders. The stimulus for this came from the us, and involved bringing together representatives from all the major parties on the island, along with young counterparts from the Republican and Democratic parties. They met both in the States and in Ireland — the latter coinciding with President Clinton’s 1998 visit — and some members of the group were elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

There is, further, an Economic Programme. This includes, for example, Agri-Link, which brings together the agricultural sectors north and south. Ditto for Hospitality Ireland, within the hospitality industry. CI also promotes local-authority linkages.

One doesn’t want to preach. But this peace won’t work without as many people as possible — as many ordinary individuals — being allowed to have a voice, to have a role in the new structures which are to be put in place.

A lot of lip-service is paid to the voluntary sector. There is a political endorsement in the Belfast agreement of the role voluntary organisations have played in promoting reconciliation, and there is a commitment there to enhancing that activity. This needs, however, to be worked and pressed for: many need to be convinced that more than lip-service will be accorded.

The agreement does need to be underpinned by work on the ground, bringing people together at all levels. And many, many other organisations beyond CI are involved in such work. Yet, particularly in the republic, only a pittance has been allocated towards it in the past. CI has received government funding but there are myriad groups that have not been able to afford basic secretarial back-up.

Such groups may have an ephemeral existence but it has been as a result of their efforts over many years that an attitudinal change has taken place in the republic. This is a recognition that those of us living in the south are part of the problem too, that we also need to work on our prejudices, that we have to learn more about our neighbours — and without any hidden agenda.

Yet that requires a commitment, particularly from government, and not only a financial one. It is very welcome that the republic’s government agreed in April substantially to enhance funding for groups working in this area.

But they must also have a voice in policy formation. The National Economic and Social Forum has helpfully explored the changing role of central government in light of the republic’s social-partnership arrangements (NESF, 1997). The NESF detects a shift from allocating, directing and administering — power-centred decision-making — to new and evolving roles which take into account the complexity of societies and the various partners and players that must have an input into policy.

So we have notions like ‘policy entrepreneurship’, of monitoring and facilitating, of protecting non-statutory organisations and supporting interest groups. There is a model here that, perhaps, the new Northern Ireland structures can embrace.

In the republic, meanwhile, -the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation, CI and a number of other groups have been working to establish a platform for peace and reconciliation organisations, so that they can co-operate and feed into policy formation. These all work on a north-south basis but there has not been enough serious analysis of the role of such groups in the south and of their needs. This is necessary for them to play a better part in the new political environment.

And, finally, another source of learning in the opposite direction. In Northern Ireland, as across the water, a compact’ has been agreed between government and the voluntary sector. This reflects a growing understanding of the need, if we are to have a healthy civil society, that the voluntary sector be given its proper place. The Northern Ireland compact says (DHSS, 1998: 9):

The shared vision of Government and the voluntary and community sector is to work together as social partners to build participative, peaceful, equitable and inclusive communities in Northern Ireland. This Compact will cement this partnership. It will enable the energy and talent both within Government and the sector to unite in creating a new dynamic for the betterment of society as a whole.

The political developments taking place in England, Scotland and Wales and in Ireland, north and south, may be at different stages. Yet one cannot but hope that, through the new opportunities to work together across the island, we can set aside our need to be in competition and, instead, take what’s best from these developments in the different jurisdictions, to support the processes we are all so much behind.


Department of Health and Social Services (1998), Building Real Partnership: Compact Between Government and the Voluntary and Community Sector in Northern Ireland, Cm 4167, Belfast: the Stationery Office

National Economic and Social Forum (1997), A Framework for Partnership: Enriching Strategic Consensus through Participation, Forum report no 16, Dublin: NESF


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