Co-Operation Ireland founder's peace ideas once seen as 'a recipe for havoc'
Described by Mary McAleese as a true visionary, among businessman and former tourism chief Brendan O'Regan's many innovations was the world's first duty free shop. As founder of Co-Operation Ireland, he played a key behind-the-scenes role in promoting peace on the island – but his efforts were initially met with suspicion, writes Brian O'Connell
ON JUNE 27 2012 Martin McGuinness, then deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, shook hands with Queen Elizabeth backstage at the Lyric Theatre in a moment that was photographed and broadcast across the globe. The image of the former IRA leader and the British head of state greeting each other at a cultural event in Belfast had huge symbolic significance.
However, such a meeting might never have come about but for the acceptability of Co-operation Ireland (known as ‘Co-operation North’ prior to the Belfast Agreement), as the most active body promoting peace and reconciliation between the different traditions on the island of Ireland.
The cross-border nature of the Co-operation Ireland event at the Lyric provided an appropriate platform for the historic occasion.
Yet, the creation of Co-operation North in 1978 by Clare man Brendan O’Regan, who had earlier overseen the economic and social transformation of the Shannon region, had been a matter of some concern to certain senior Irish civil servants.
Despite the goal of this new body to create greater understanding and contact at all levels between people and organisations north and south, they viewed it as interference by amateurs in an area they considered the domain of ministers and civil servants.
One wrote that "there is a danger... Co-operation North, if it gets off the ground would... find itself at loggerheads with established institutions and/or parties, even with the government itself. It will, if established successfully, almost certainly become a pressure group, particularly in so far as semi-state bodies and local authorities are concerned".
O’Regan found scant progress had been achieved on the north-south co-operation he had tried to encourage as chairman of Bord Fáilte, in the aftermath of the meetings between then taoiseach Seán Lemass and the north's prime minister Terence O’Neill in the 1960s.
Following the outbreak of the Troubles, officials were anxious to create a distance between the Republic and Northern Ireland and reluctant to encourage any form of north-south co-operation between public bodies.
After some 60 years of two separate administrations on the island, the view of Northern Ireland as a foreign place was becoming ever more embedded in the thinking of the public sector in the Republic.
The 1998 Belfast Agreement would later attempt to address this issue by committing both administrations to "develop consultation, co-operation and action within the island of Ireland – including through implementation on an all-island and cross-border basis – on matters of mutual interest".
Yet when O’Regan promoted almost identical ideas of co-operation and joint action "on matters of mutual interest", fewer than 20 years earlier, they were dismissed.
The influential principal officer at the Department of the Taoiseach with responsibility for Northern Ireland, Frank Murray, suggested that: "The idea of senior personnel in semi-state bodies playing a full-time role in promoting north-south co-operation and better understanding generally, could well be a recipe for havoc in this area."
Several of O’Regan’s initiatives were thwarted by such views. Following a meeting he organised in 1978 between then foreign affairs minister Michael O’Kennedy and a group of CEOs of semi-state companies, a proposal emerged that the Irish government should commit funding and personnel to a full-scale programme of reconciliation which "could be justified on the grounds of the costs of violence alone".
This was summarily rebuffed by a senior official in the office of the taoiseach, Jack Lynch, who asserted that, "the violence does not come from here; it is indigenous to N.I. [Northern Ireland]. We are not at war with N.I".
This culture of partitionism also sank a plan O’Regan launched in 1980 to create a multi-million-pound cross-border industrial development scheme linking Donegal County Council, Derry City Council and Strabane Council.
A study paper written by economists from UCD, and the New University of Ulster, provided O’Regan with the rationale for his idea. It claimed that the main development needs of the island of Ireland were no longer in the west but in the north west, an area encompassing Donegal, Derry and Tyrone.
O’Regan lobbied governments led by Charles Haughey and Garret Fitzgerald seeking funding for a feasibility study. In October 1981, met the Fine Gael minister for foreign affairs James Dooge and forwarded him a brochure on the proposed cross-border zone.
When the managing director of the south's Industrial Development Authority (IDA) was asked about Co-operation North’s proposal, he replied: "Quite bluntly, our strategy is to distance ourselves from Northern Ireland. The IDA... [sees] itself in direct competition with the Northern Ireland Development Agency for a limited pool of international investment... I do not see much scope for cross-border co-operation, unless there is substantially more political co-operation."
One writer to the office of taoiseach Garret FitzGerald spoke of witnessing deep disappointment among moderates in Belfast about the latter remarks, suggesting that: "if a Dublin government were in any sense serious about winning the hearts and minds of northerners it could in no way permit statements of the sort alleged".
Fortunately, Co-operation North, mainly through O’Regan’s persistence and determination, did manage to get off the ground, and became by far the most active organisation engaged in delivering on the goal of all-Ireland reconciliation.
:: Brian O’Connell is the author of Brendan O’Regan – Irish Innovator, Visionary and Peacemaker, published by Irish Academic Press (iap.ie).