Be clear on 'Irish' collaboration

October 25, 2002

The future of cross-border collaboration in higher education in Ireland is up in the air following the suspension of the devolved institutions created by the Belfast Agreement ("Labour MP takes over for long spell of direct rule", THES , October 18). While I support collaboration, I have a number of reservations following a meeting in Armagh of 150 delegates from universities and colleges from both jurisdictions just before suspension.

First, there was the use of language. The seminar title, "Ireland as a Centre for Excellence in Third-Level Education" gathered all institutions together and called them Irish. Nearly all speakers also referred to "Irish" institutions and to "all-Ireland" initiatives.

There is an important, but subtle, distinction here between all-Ireland, which is part of the nationalist discourse, and the preferred term of pro-agreement unionists of "all-island". Most Protestants in Northern Ireland do not regard the two universities there as "Irish". The language used by many speakers and delegates ignored these political sensitivities and subtleties. Ironically, careful use of language lies at the heart of cross-community dialogue in Northern Ireland.

Second, there was an automatic assumption that greater student mobility such as through Erasmus/Socrates, could aid the peace process. Many Protestants were negative about the rise in the number of students from the Irish Republic coming to Northern Ireland in the mid-1990s. They saw this so-called "greening" as offering little to them, and more Protestant students sought entry to universities and colleges in Britain. The reconciliation needed as part of the peace process is between the two communities in Northern Ireland, not between northern Catholics and students from the Republic. Recent evidence shows the sectarian gap is widening.

Finally, the Belfast Agreement is the only political framework in town, and increasing collaboration is good and necessary. But there is an issue of scale. Going for large-scale, high-profile initiatives might look attractive for institutional and sector PR. Given the continuing political instability, however, surely going for small-scale practical collaboration, with clear added value, will provide a firmer basis for longer-term sustainable collaboration and one that is less likely to disturb the political environment.

Bob Osborne
School of Policy Studies
University of Ulster

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