Picking up the Pieces in the Border Counties

imageThe fifth programme in RTE Radio One’s ‘Picking up the Pieces’ series features peacebuilding in the border counties of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, focusing on the work done among republican ex-prisoners and the Protestant minority in the Republic.

The border counties are often neglected in analyses of the peace process, which seem preoccupied with the violence in urban centres like Belfast and Derry/Londonderry.

The rural border counties experienced the conflict in different ways, which included dealing with the presence of the British Army and republican paramilitaries, militarised border crossings, and heightened fear and insecurity among those living on isolated farms.

I’ve recently been reading a new book edited by Maria Power (University of Liverpool), Building Peace in Northern Ireland (Liverpool University Press 2011), which features a chapter on ‘Building Peace and Crossing Borders: The North/South Dimension of Reconciliation’ by Katy Hayward, Cathal McCall and Ivo Damkat (all of Queen’s University Belfast).

This chapter explains why and how the border areas have been a priority of European funding schemes, setting a useful framework for listening to this Picking up the Pieces programme.

As Hayward, McCall and Damkat note, the main EU cross-border programmes address the ‘twin objectives of economic development and peacebuilding’ (p. 195) and include both cross-border and cross-community dimensions.

Presented by Barbara Walshe, a graduate of my School’s Reconciliation Studies programme, ‘Borders’ for the most part explores work administered through the Cavan Family Resource Centre (CFRC). This centres on its Border Minorities project, a dialogue initiative among republican ex-prisoners and Protestants, and includes interviews with Sr Eileen Brady, who facilitated the project, as well as with participants.

Throughout the programme, I was struck by the extent that border Protestants felt insecure – fearful of a return to violence or fearful that they could not gain simple acceptance as equal citizens in their communities.

For instance, Sr Brady contrasted the reactions of republican ex-prisoners and border Protestants to the invitation to participate in the programme:

Republicans welcomed the invitation … they were dying to know how Protestants ticked. They were very confident … Protestants were a lot more reticent so we recognised that and offered them single identity work [at the beginning] … they began to trust us, they found we were honest brokers.

The programme also includes a fascinating interview with Angela Graham from Drum, County Monaghan (now project coordinator of CFRC’s Deep Dialogue Group).

Graham has a family history that marks her as an odd one out among citizens of the Republic: her family were among those who started the first Free Presbyterian Church in the Republic, and she plays in an Orange band.

Graham describes to Walshe how throughout the Troubles, these aspects of her family history insured that she worked hard to keep her head down.

‘[As Protestants] our stated position during the conflict was heads down and mouths shut, don’t draw attention to yourself. … mind your own business, don’t talk about the conflict … [because] beneath the surface [many of us] had [relatives in RUC] … That affected our lives, [for example if there was] a wedding or a funeral, you were putting your family at risk to have them at events in County Monaghan.’

A turning point for Graham came in 1999, a year after the Good Friday Agreement, when she applied for and got a job working for a community forum in Clones. She said that she had been warned she would never get a job in a ‘republican town’ but that subsequently working there had been transformative. She said she observes a similar process within the border Protestant community:

‘Things have improved greatly … we have got into a different way of going, we have started to believe in ourselves as a community … in the past 8 or 10 years we have really learned about community development principles and about funding … we discovered that there was a place for us and we learned how to communicate … we learned how to liaise with Monaghan County Council and we thought we were treated with respect and were encouraged.’

Though Graham’s experience is encouraging, her ‘whatever you say, say nothing’ descriptions of the Troubles have not been overcome by all border Protestants, and much anguish remains.

This was clear in a 2008 report on border Protestants called Whatever you Say, Say Nothing, commissioned by the Church of Ireland’s Hard Gospel Project. As noted at the time on Slugger O’Toole, a few parts attracted the most media attention:

“The question of whether or not there had been a concerted campaign of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the Border regions was for most interviewees an accepted fact,” the report has found.

“Many people were able to articulate various detailed accounts of how this occurred in practice, identifying the individuals and families directly affected and in some cases going further and identifying those they believed – often citing this as ‘common knowledge’ – had carried out the acts of violent terrorism.”

The report adds: “What was in no doubt was the vicious finality and painful legacy visited upon the few and observed from a distance by the many.

One person was unequivocal: ”It wasn’t ‘the Troubles’, it was violence!’
Another commented: ”When you reflect on what happened to the Border Protestant people during the Troubles it’s amazing that the population remained as settled as it did.”

Walshe’s programme also features the work of La Nua, a republican ex-prisoners group, which supplied many of the participants in the CFRC project.

It highlights the issues they face, including dealing with families and relationships broken during the period of violence, difficulties in gaining employment, and the grief felt by ‘displaced persons,’ including wives of prisoners who may have been forced to move during the Troubles.

The personal testimonies of those interviewed by Walshe attest to the effectiveness of grassroots community programmes in building confidence within and between communities.

Of course, it could be argued that Walshe selected the people who were going to tell the best, most successful stories – and this may well be the case.

But the chapter by Hayward, McCall and Damkat cites other research which confirms the effectiveness of some of these programmes, including evaluation reports for the Special EU Programmes Body (p. 207, footnote 66).

Hayward, McCall and Damkat lament that the foundation laid down by the EU-funded programmes has not been mainstreamed by the Irish and British governments, meaning that their future is precarious at best – and that much of the learning gained from them may therefore be squandered. They end their chapter with this warning (p. 204):

‘When commitments to building ‘hard’ cross-border physical infrastructure are undermined in the context of severe economic downturn, then prospects are gloomy for ‘soft’ factors such as enhancing social capital and trust. In straitened times, inter-governmental support for supporting local, small-scale reconciliation projects in the Irish border region may appear to some unnecessary, irrelevant and even extravagant. However, peacebuilding on the island of Ireland is a process that, as confirmed throughout this volume, is still at an early stage. To lose the momentum behind a community-based process of reconceptualising the border as a meeting point would be short-sighted and potentially disastrous for the wider process of reconciliation on the island of Ireland. Peace can only be built by crossing borders.’

(Image: Cover of the Church of Ireland report, Whatever you say, say Nothing.’

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