Agents of cooperation in border life

February 9, 2001

Ignorance has marred relations between Ireland's north and south, but a centre for cross-border studies is seeking common ground on both sides of the divide. Anne McHardy reports.

In a windswept office on the hill that commands the City of Armagh, facing the Anglican Cathedral, is an institution intent on overcoming obstacles to the successful implementation of the 1998 Belfast Good Friday Agreement.

The 18-month-old Centre for Cross Border Studies, which describes itself as a "campus company", aims to promote social and educational ways of bringing together people separated by mutual fear and ignorance across the 80-year-old Irish border.

When the Catholic and Anglican archbishops of Armagh move clerics, they must consider geography: both dioceses straddle the border, but if they move the servants of God to the wrong bit of "God's Own Island", they can mess up their pension entitlements.

When you drive near the winding line that divides Northern Ireland from the Irish Republic, your mobile phone flicks constantly between a UK network and an Irish one irrespective of your side of the border.

If someone is desperately ill one side of the border, the nearest operating theatre may be on the other. The complexities of which health fund pays outstrip even the intricacies of UK health funding.

And the spice that differential subsidies for farmed animals add to the ancient game of smuggling is the stuff of legend. The fact that the mess the animals put into the water in one jurisdiction emerges as pollution in the other is a bureaucratic nightmare.

The Cross Border Centre was born out of conversations between academics and journalists during the Good Friday Agreement negotiations. It is jointly owned by Queen's University, Belfast; Dublin City University; and the Worker's Education Association (Northern Ireland). It gives grants to promote research, looking particularly to share experience with other troubled border areas. The centre's primary funder is the European Union's Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation, a vital underwriter of much of the social reconstruction being carried out in Northern Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement set up North-South ministerial bodies linking the governments in Dublin and Belfast, to promote economic and social cooperation, which it was felt would benefit both economies. The Cross Border Centre's intention is to provide research that can feed into their work. The administrative offices for the North-South bodies are under the same roof as the centre, although on the other side of a solid brick wall.

Armagh, seat of St Patrick and thus arguably Ireland's historic centre, was chosen not just because of its geographical position, midway between Dublin and Belfast, but because Queen's had space to offer on its existing campus.

As well as its cross-border parent organisations, the centre's board comprises members from a range of other public service and education institutions, including the Institute for Public Health in Ireland, the University of Ulster, the Centre for Community and Adult Education at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, and Dundalk Institute of Technology.

The centre's director, and one of its creators, is Andy Pollak, religion and education correspondent for the Irish Times on secondment. He says it was inspired by a desire for a worker's education college like Ruskin College in Oxford.

His family history helps explain the centre's aims. His father, a Czechoslovakian Jew and former communist, arrived as a stateless person in solidly Protestant Ballymena, in County Antrim, in what is now Ian Paisley's constituency, after having fled Prague pursued by the secret police. He had married a Ballymena woman when she was in Prague teaching English. The pair moved to London in 1949 when the young Andy was one year old. Pollak senior, also a journalist, wrote for German-language newspapers. Every summer, Pollak junior was sent to stay with his maternal grandparents.

"That was the root of my passionate attachment to this place," Pollak says. He identifies completely, he says, with his Irish antecedents. But he is an oddity in Northern Ireland in that he is a European by instinct and very conscious of confused identities.

When it was time for university, Pollak considered Trinity College, Dublin, but the need for a UK grant led him to the University of Sussex. From there, he went fleetingly to Paris, but the Northern Ireland turbulence was an inevitable lure for an aspiring journalist. Pollak moved to Belfast to work partly for the BBC and partly for Fortnight , a magazine revered by other journalists as a reliable record of the traumatic events.

He added his own cross-border dimension when he married Doireann Ni Bhriain, an arts producer and broadcaster and moved to the south.

Pollak had already dipped his toe outside journalism before his current secondment, taking time off in the early 1990s to coordinate the Opshal Commission, a European investigation that concluded that no progress could come without constitutional politicians talking to the paramilitary organisations' political fronts - Sinn Fein and the Loyalist groups. He returned to the Irish Times in 1993, a year before secret meetings between John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein produced the first IRA ceasefire.

That his maternal family was Unionist gives him an edge in the Unionist community - and it is the fears of that community that the Cross Border Centre understands need to be addressed urgently. Nationalists instinctively like cross-border cooperation.

Pollak wants the centre, as he put it in a recent lecture, "to suggest to non-nationalists and Unionists in particular, that such cooperation can also be in their interests and that the North-South strand of the Good Friday Agreement is not some terrible stalking horse inevitably leading towards a united Ireland, but a sensible, practical element - which can be a benefit to everyone in Ireland and a threat to no one".

He continues: "I believe that the success of such cooperation, particularly in areas such as the Dutch-German and Danish-German borderlands, can help Unionists to understand that cooperation across contentious borders can be undertaken - without threatening the national identity or sovereignty of either side."

To date, the venture has organised an international conference, attracting delegates from 12 countries to look at issues ranging from policing in border areas to investment and technology. Speakers included the Irish president, Mary McAleese, who is from Northern Ireland, and the first and deputy first ministers of the Belfast executive, David Trimble and Seamus Mallon.

Funding has been provided for significant external research projects, most recently one looking at the need to coordinate development of telecoms technologies. Another involves further and higher education and the development of key skills, and a third covers mental health and approaches to health promotion and community and nutritional health development.

Other research includes projects looking at the networks evolving from EU-funded cross-border programmes and at public administration and the cooperation between local authorities on the border. A community project is assessing local history studies, inevitably contentious in the country of the potato famine. In-house, the centre has three research projects: one on North-South school, youth and teacher exchanges; another on whether the University for Industry can be transplanted from the UK into the republic; and the third on an evaluation of cross-border health links.

The centre is seeking funding beyond its Peace and Reconciliation grant. Pollak - whose future is uncertain because his secondment is limited - is sanguine. For himself, he is sure that a new option will come along. "I concentrate on the project in hand always." For the centre, he is equally optimistic. Research projects good enough to merit support have far outstripped available cash. The centre, he is sure, will survive.

"That has got to be good. It means that the next generation is not going to grow up with the crippling ignorance of what happens across the border that my generation and my parents' generation grew up with. We will know each other a bit better. The sense of dread will be much much less."

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