Northern Ireland news

Co-operation Ireland work is 'public rebuke to those seeking to drag us back' to The Troubles, says CEO Peter Sheridan

Peter Sheridan CEO of Co-Operation Ireland responds to Brian Feeney's column. Picture by Hugh Russell.
Peter Sheridan

WHEN Brendan O'Regan started Co-operation Ireland in 1979 it was because of his concern that relationships on the island had become estranged after the onset of The Troubles.

A Clare native who made his name by developing Shannon Airport, he invested time and energy into strengthening existing relationships and building new ones for mutual benefit.

This work has continued and in our 40th year the charity's reputation for relationship building continues to be recognised and financially supported by both the British and Irish governments and the Northern Ireland Executive.

During the Brexit process both governments have reached out to the charity to facilitate visits to the border region.

I have escorted politicians from around Europe and the UK to help build understanding of the complexity of the border and how issues of identity trump trade concerns.

I repeated this message when asked to chair a meeting between German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and an invited group in Dublin two weeks ago.

When The Agreement was signed the charity was already 15 years old and we then took on a wider role to develop Anglo Irish relationships, north south relationships and cross community relationships in NI.

Read more: Brian Feeney - Chasing the political middle ground in the north is a denial of reality (premium)

It was at a Co-operation Ireland event in 2012 that Her Majesty The Queen shook hands with late Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, a move pointed to as one of the defining moments of the peace process.

We were also centrally involved in the 2011 state visit to the Republic of Ireland by The Queen, and President Michael D Higgins’s return state visit in 2014.

These are not easy events to make happen.

It is easy to label our 28 programmes as anodyne cross community endeavours, good for tea drinking and not much else. But that is to misunderstand our work.

I have discovered in this most challenging work three groups of people: Makers, Watchers and Wonderers. There are Makers, who take action and make things happen and there are the watchers - happy to go along while making no difference themselves. Finally, there are those who just wonder how we got to where we are.

From our Open Doors programme that helps loyalist and republican ex-prisoners deal with problems arising from their time in jail, to our ROI focused programme that will help veterans of An Garda Síochána, the Irish Defence Forces and Customs Officers deal with legacy issues - we are involved in practical work in communities on both sides of the border.

Our cross community programmes are no less important. Take `Building Bridges' - an education programme we run in Derry/Londonderry. In conjunction with Yale university we fund places for gifted students from marginalised communities at the Ivy League college. This is the definition of a project with tangible results for those taking part.

On a wider scale we have our Amazing the Space programme, the highlight of which saw 5000 schoolchildren from 450 schools across Northern Ireland and the border counties come together at the former Maze/Long Kesh site to explore relationship building. This was a public rebuke to the people in our society who want to drag us back.

I am immensely proud of the work we the staff in Co-operation Ireland carry out, often in challenging circumstances.

It's easy to be a Watcher, sniping from the side-lines, and while I would be the first to admit we don't get everything right, I believe we are making a difference to those people who take part in our programmes. That can only have a positive impact on wider society.

* Co-operation Ireland CEO Peter Sheridan, a former senior PSNI officer, is writing in response to Brian Feeney's column of Wednesday April 17

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