From policing to peace-building

Peace is much more than the signing of an agreement. Owen McQuade talks to Co-operation Ireland’s incoming Chief Executive Peter Sheridan to discuss what needs to be done to build a lasting peace.

Peter Sheridan is best known as a PSNI Assistant Chief Constable and the force’s highest-ranking Catholic officer. His forthcoming move from “a very hierarchical organisation” to his new role as Chief Executive of Co-operation Ireland will be a change of scene in some ways, he also sees this job as an extension of what he has already been involved in through the Police Service. A lot of policing work behind the scenes in recent years has been “keeping the peace to allow others to make the peace”.

“Whilst the politicians were trying to get on with making the Belfast Agreement, police officers were out putting police tape round the streets to prevent people being murdered,” Sheridan explains.

Established in the midst of the Troubles, Co-operation Ireland has been encouraging better understanding between North and South, and between communities in Northern Ireland, during difficult times in the island’s history. As the province settles down in relative peace, the organisation faces new challenges.

“Co-operation Ireland has been very successful in a conflict situation for the last 30 years but the context has changed out there and the challenge will be to be as equally successful in the next 30 years of Co-operation Ireland in a different context,” he remarks.

“You’re in a peace-building context. People have this view that the peace is done and it’s all over. And to some extent that part of the conflict is over but it’s by no means stable yet. Yes, a lot of the engagement has been at the top political level but actually the grassroots hasn’t been engaged in it.”

Pointing to a nearby table, he comments that while Stormont looks “pretty steady on the surface”, the political situation, like the table’s legs, is “very shaky at times” as shown when disputes have occurred over the devolution of policing and justice and the murder of Paul Quinn.

“All of that political agreement needs stabilised and needs underpinned at the grassroots level, which is what peace building’s about. In some ways, the peace-making is a pragmatic enterprise whereas peace-building is much more vision-oriented. It’s not about single events, it’s about process and a process that will take years. And so the context becomes more difficult.”

An extra challenge is the arrival of new actors on the stage in the Governments which have supported the peace process. Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen have replaced Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern respectively, while a new American President will be elected by the end of the year. Attention is moving from Northern Ireland to other more pressing issues.

Sheridan explains: “To be fair if you look at the last 10 to 15 years, there’s been huge energy put in by the British and Irish Governments, particularly at a prime ministerial level, and by Clinton. The danger in this is that the British, Irish and American Governments think it’s done and we become a bit of a backwater.

“Even in media terms, because there are new conflicts out there in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kenya and so on, we will be struggling to get the attention that we have got for the last 20 or so years.”

The economic slowdown will also reduce the amount of funding available from government and private citizens and the organisation will have to “fight in a smaller pool”. However, its firm base and credibility built up over the last 30 years should stand it in good stead.

For co-operation to be effective, everyone involved must gain from it. Good examples include the increasing trading links between businesses on both sides of the border and the delivery of health services on a cross-border basis. Sheridan is also keen to point out that skills gained by people involved in making and keeping the peace in Northern Ireland can also be used elsewhere to help solve other conflicts. He has spent two weeks in Gaza to help build the new Palestinian police force.

The emerging problem of racism across Ireland, he maintains, is “not any different to tensions between Catholics and Protestants” and there is a risk of new ‘peace walls’ being built in the South where there are divisions between Irish people and migrants from eastern Europe: “The new peace walls could be built around those people in the future if we’re not careful. Now all the learning that’s went on in the North about understanding the other will be hugely beneficial in that.”

In conflict situations, people attack others because “they are different or seen as different from them” and understanding those differences in a better way can help to break down the barriers that exist. Indeed, seeing those barriers removed is a high priority for Co-operation Ireland as it lobbies the Executive to take the province’s continuing divisions more seriously.

“Do any of us want to be still living in Northern Ireland or Ireland in 30 or 40 years’ time with segregated housing still? Is that what we as a society want? And so there’s a huge amount of work in terms of mainstreaming government policies and influencing those policies so that actually in 50 years’ time we know we’re not going to have segregated housing because policies will have been put in place that prevent that.”

Equally, the organisation is concerned that the Executive has no clear idea of what it wants North/South co-operation to achieve, and so it is difficult to measure progress. Co-operation Ireland wants the concept of “overcoming division for mutual benefit” to be treated as just as important as any other government policy. Just like economic policy, it says that policy in this area should have the same amount of attention to detail and consultation when it is being drawn up.

“The language sometimes puts people off but it is about reconciliation and having an island where people are at peace with themselves whatever their identity is. And that people who have their own cherished identities aren’t threatened in any of this, but actually the mutual respect and understanding in that co-operation is for all our benefit,” Sheridan adds.

While some observers think that North/South co-operation creates difficulties for unionists, this is not necessarily the case. Peter Robinson was recently the guest at a Co-operation Ireland awards ceremony for people in east Belfast and Drogheda, County Louth, who had been learning about each others’ histories. The key word in its work is “mutual respect” which means that people should be secure in their own beliefs so they can share them with others. As the organisation has no hidden agenda, it can go in and talk to people in all kinds of communities, loyalist and republican alike.

He acknowledges that the move away from an abnormal society – where is it normal to be defined by your sport or where you live – to a more normal one is set to be a long-term and complex process, but a very necessary one.

“You have to be realistic with 42 staff about what you can achieve, but what we can do is be facilitators, the people who can be the influencers and drivers to get other people to pick up the baton. If somebody doesn’t pick up some of these issues, we’ll still be sitting around this table in 30 years’ time complaining about peace walls.”

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg did not walk around the topic at the US investment conference, when he stated that “the brightest and the best” would not settle in a city divided by walls, and warned that Northern Ireland could not expect investment to come ‘flooding in’ until these barriers were gone.

Sheridan appreciates that economic prosperity has an important part to play in building the peace, pointing out that the opposite – poverty – leads to an increase in crime and inequality in society.

And he realises that many people have yet to see the peace dividend.

“Most people out there since the Good Friday Agreement in working class Catholic, nationalist, loyalist, unionist areas haven’t seen their quality of life change to that extent. They haven’t got the sense that this has been really to our benefit economically.”

Faced with helping to deal with these challenges in the new Northern Ireland, he concludes: “It’s a different context, the dynamics have changed but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Personal profile

Peter Sheridan is originally from Enniskillen, where he attended St Michael’s College. A priest who was a careers teacher suggested that he joined the police. He started his policing career in Derry and has lived in the city since 1978. It was “a good place to work despite all of the difficulties” and he found its people more willing to change their attitudes than those in Belfast due to its smaller size: “It’s maybe because people’s fathers genuinely did work in shirt factories together.”

Since 2003, he has worked in Belfast. His interests outside work are “pretty mundane” – sport, football, family, holidays, travel, and cycling – and he has just finished a two-year Masters degree at Cambridge University, during which he completed a thesis in trust, which he hopes will prove useful at Co-operation Ireland.

About Co-operation Ireland

Dr Brendan O’Regan founded Co-operation Ireland in 1979 after attending a peace march and realising that more should be done to promote understanding and respect between the people of Northern Ireland and of the Republic of Ireland. The organisation achieves this through promoting practical co-operation.

It has found that some views of the North from the South, and vice versa, are outdated and misinformed, and the lack of knowledge between the two parts of the island is just as great as between communities in Northern Ireland.

“A couple of years ago we had a young person taking part in a Civic-Link programme and they were asked who they thought they would be meeting – they were due to meet kids from a Dublin suburb. They thought they’d meet was people that got up at 5.30 in the morning, milked the cow, left the thatched cottage and all supported the IRA,” outgoing Chief Executive Tony Kennedy remarks.

From the beginning, it has been apolitical and it maintains that regardless of the island’s political and constitutional arrangements, there is still a need for people North and South to understand each other’s point of view.

In its early stages, Co-operation Ireland presented discussion documents for government but then realised that it needed to take on responsibility to improve co-operation. It has since focused on building links at the youth, community level, business and local authority level, and is an implementing body for EU funding programmes.

Its patrons are the Queen and President Mary McAleese. The organisation has a turnover of around €3.5 million – half from government sources and the rest from its own fundraising. To achieve its goals, it works in partnership with other organisations such as Border Action, the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland and the ad hoc North South Group, which develops ideas for co-operation and includes the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the IBECCBI Joint Business Council.

Co-operation Ireland’s programmes bring people together on issues that they have in common. This allows people to build trust in each other and encourages them to work together. They then move beyond this to talk about their differences moving from friendliness to friendship. These programmes include exchanges between communities and schools, the Pride of Place regeneration awards for local authorities and the cross-border cycle.

Details of cooperation Ireland’s programmes can be found at

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