Posted on behalf of Katy Hayward and Eoin Magennis
Blog from the Special Issue of Irish Political Studies: Breaking patterns of conflict in Northern Ireland: the British and Irish states
When asked to conjure up an image of a typical ‘peacemaker’, people in Ireland, north and south, may think of a wildly diverse range of people: from ‘American President’ to ‘working class woman from the Shankill Road’… but it is very unlikely that ‘wealthy Dundalk business man’ would feature among this imaginary group. Indeed, although discourses connecting economic growth with peaceful ‘normalisation’ are well-established in Ireland, the contribution of the private sector to bridging these goals is rarely suggested. Our starting point for this paper was the realisation (coming, in part, through the witness seminars of the Institute for British-Irish Studies)* that a crucial section of the population has been left out of most accounts of how patterns of conflict in Ireland have been broken: the private sector.
Cross-border business cooperation on the island of Ireland provides a fascinating case for examining the ways in which processes naturally associated with business growth (including negotiation, network creation and market expansion) can make a positive contribution towards improving relationships across state and communal borders. If the profit motive is strong enough and businesses can adapt pragmatically to overcome barriers, it is notable what risks businesses may take. One interviewee described the way business adapted to the challenges posed by conflict during the 1970s:
We had to manage [cross-border trade] against a background of violence – I suppose the summary of it was that it was good business [so] we said we should continue with it as best we could. I would use the word ‘hostile’ in the sense that the environment was hostile.
This case was not exceptional; for many, the likelihood of a good profit overrode the additional obstacles (and costs) of trading across the border. Companies that did not see quite such an obvious and immediate economic gain generally lacked the necessary incentive to take on the risks of cross-border cooperation (this was not helped by the wider economic and political context).
When the situation eased, some local business leaders were willing to take up the opportunities opened by the new cross-border business-friendly ‘environment’ of first the EU and then the post-Agreement context. This was reflected in the steady growth in joint cross-border events organised in the early 1990s, such as shared conferences between the Dublin and Belfast Chambers of Commerce or the foundation of the all-island Joint Business Council. As the political process of peacebuilding appeared more solid, opportunities grew for businesses on both sides of the border to ‘get it together at the same time’. One participant articulated the non-idealistic justification for engaging in such initiatives: ‘I am a business person and we were simply there to make stuff in the North and sell it into the South and make a few bob out of it’. The potential complementarity between making a profit and peacemaking is evident here; thus a small but significant number of business leaders saw it worth their while to invest in events that could be ‘catalysts for people to come together’ in order to create a foundation for mutually beneficial cooperation in the longer term.
Our study fits the case of cross-border peacebuilding in Ireland into a small but growing literature that seeks to investigate the role of business leaders (from chief executive officers to local market traders) in activities that contribute to peacebuilding (Banfield et al., 2006; Forbes, 1997; Sweetman, 2009). As with elsewhere, the pragmatism and networking necessary for expanding cross-border business on the island of Ireland have only been made possible through significant changes in the policy environment, propped up by direct investment, and through the leadership of key individuals in business. The efforts of some business leaders in Ireland, north and south, have proven that peace may be built even when the profit motive remains paramount and pragmatism triumphs over idealism at every turn.
Banfield, J., Gündüz, C. & Killick, N. (Eds) (2006) Local Business, Local Peace: The Peacebuilding Potential of the Domestic Private Sector (London: International Alert).
Forbes, H. (1997) Ethnic Conflict: Commerce, Culture and the Contact Hypothesis (Yale: Yale University Press).
Sweetman, D. (2009) Business, Conflict Resolution, Peacebuilding: Contributions from the Private Sector (London: Routledge).
*The interviews and witness seminars referred to in this article are the product of the ‘Breaking Patterns of Conflict’ research project in the Institute for British–Irish Studies, University College Dublin. As these are still under embargo, quotations are unattributed; see Coakley, J. & Todd, J. (2014) Breaking patterns of conflict in Northern Ireland: New perspectives, Irish Political Studies, 29(1), pp. 1–14.