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New Ways of Engagement and the International Context: Northern Ireland and Ireland

by Prof. Paul Carmichael

Belfast 3-4 November 2022: This two-day conference was organised by the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Ulster University, in coordination with the Centre for Irish-German Studies (CIGS) at the University of Limerick, and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS). It successfully took place at Clifton House Heritage Centre, adjacent to Ulster University’s Belfast campus. The conference was a follow-on event to the gathering in Limerick in 2021.

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This multi-disciplinary conference focussed on three aspects:

  • A consideration of the relationship between Northern Ireland and Ireland in the context of Partition and a century of separate development including reflections on the Irish situation in comparative perspective.
  • An analysis of attitudes to Northern Ireland and Ireland, within both jurisdictions and from the UK, including in literary representations of change.
  • An exploration of the development of key public policy and services in Ireland and Northern Ireland, and of the extent of cross-border cooperation as well as their co-production and co-delivery.


The conference was conducted under ‘Chatham House’ rules, with attendance confined to invited participants.


Welcome Address:

The first day of the conference commenced on the afternoon of Thursday 3 November. The welcome address included acknowledgements by Councillor Christina Black (Lord Mayor of Belfast); Prof. Paul Bartholomew (Vice Chancellor of Ulster University); H.E. Cord Meier-Klodt (German Ambassador to Ireland); Mariko Higuchi (Deputy Head of Department for Economic and Global Affairs, German Embassy, London); Matthias Barner (Director KAS UK & Ireland); and, Prof. Paul Carmichael (Conference Organiser, Ulster University).

Prof. Paul Carmichael opened the Conference and provided background to the genesis of the event which had developed from his discussions with Prof. Gisela Holfter (University of Limerick) when they were both visiting fellows at the Centre for British Studies in Berlin. The final programme was compiled in collaboration with Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung whose partnership had also been instrumental in the preparation and running of the conference.

The Lord Mayor of Belfast spoke about how Belfast has been transformed in the years following the Good Friday Agreement which was approaching its 25th anniversary, and how she was delighted to welcome so many more visitors from outside these islands to the city, including for conferences and events, working in partnership with the University. Continuing that theme, the Vice Chancellor remarked on the importance for the University of forging international links but also locally, including with marginalised communities, drawing attention to the University’s newly expanded city centre campus and its aspirations to be open and fully inclusive of the neighbouring community. Welcoming the event as a follow on from the Limerick conference last year, together with the launch of the edited collection based on that event, H.E. Cord Meier-Klodt reiterated the bonds between the Ireland and Germany in an EU context as well as between both countries and the UK, which remained strong despite the upheavals of Brexit. He was echoed by Mariko Higuchi who stressed the resilience of British-German relations. Matthias Barner emphasised the continuing commitment of the Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung to supporting academic and practitioner engagement in furtherance of promoting understanding across boundaries. All the speakers reiterated the importance of maintaining good relations and raising awareness across borders between nations, particularly in a post-Brexit context.


Session 1: Understanding Cross-Border Relations in Ireland and the International Comparative Perspective

In this first main session, chaired by Professor Deirdre Heenan (Ulster University), there were five speakers, each invited to reflect on how the cross-border relationship in Ireland has developed. Inter alia, Dr Anthony Soares (Director of the Centre for Cross-Border Studies) noted that the ‘Northern Ireland Protocol’ was, in fact, the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, observing that the importance of the East-West dimension ought not to be overlooked. Anthony Harbinson (Northern Ireland Board Member for the Food Standards Agency, and the Chair of the NI Food Advisory Council) stressed the 1100 years of shared jurisprudence and importance of shared working between colleagues in both jurisdictions. Mark Hanniffy (Joint Secretary to the North South Ministerial Council (Ireland)) and Richard Hill (Joint Secretary to the North South Ministerial Council (Northern Ireland)) focussed on the evolution of the joint structures and how the arrangements have been operating. Charles Flanagan (TD, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Dail Eireann) commented on those aspects of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement which have been neglected or under-developed.


Session 2: Public Policy I – Analysing Public Policy, North and South of the Irish border

The speakers of session two of the Conference were introduced by panel chair Prof. Katy Hayward (Queens University Belfast). As one of two such panels, their focus was on public policy in both parts of Ireland. The first presentation was by Dr Bernadette Connaughton (University of Limerick) who looked at ‘Perspectives on Environmental Policy from North and South’. She highlighted the complexity of environmental policy governance and observed how the overarching framework hitherto provided by shared membership of the EU had conditioned how policy had developed in the two jurisdictions. ‘Housing Policy in Northern Ireland and Ireland’ was discussed by Professor Paddy Gray (Ulster University), who noted how there had been appreciable differences of approach in both jurisdictions although both shared acute pressures on the overall supply of housing, with resultant appreciation in prices as well as higher rents, especially in the growing private rental sector, making affordability a key issue in both North and South. Professor Deirdre Heenan (Ulster University) considered ‘Health Policy in Ireland and Northern Ireland’, remarking that, despite different models, the systems of health care in both jurisdictions were encountering major and long-term pressures, with a similarity of health statistics but a lack of discussion on outcomes and long-term strategic vision.


After session two had concluded, the formal conference proceedings adjourned for the day.

The official launch of the book based on the Limerick conference of November 2021 took place in the evening. Entitled Unions, Break-ups and Special Relationships: Aspects of Irish-German-UK Relations’, the book included chapters based on presentations delivered at Limerick as well as some specially-commissioned additional contributions. Professor Gisela Holfter introduced the book, its origins and aims. H.E. Ambassador Meier-Klodt offered some observations which placed the appearance of the book in a broader context. He was followed one of the contributory authors, Dr Paul Gillespie, who offered remarks on future priorities for research.


Session 3: Changing Ireland – Thoughts ion the Future of Irish Identities and Relations

On Friday morning, the conference resumed. The third panel considered ‘Changing Ireland – Thoughts on the Future of Irish Identities and Relations’. Chaired by Professor Fidelma Ashe (Ulster University), it comprised presentations from four contributors. Professor Jon Tonge (University of Liverpool) spoke about ‘Stablizing Northern Ireland’s political institutions’, commenting that, after 25 years since the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, and a series of suspensions and other disruptions to devolution, there was a case for a review of the working of the Agreement. In ‘Getting Heard on the Protocol’, Professor David Phinnemore (Queen’s University Belfast), pointed out how there is a voice for Northern Ireland in terms of the Protocol, with the Northern Ireland Assembly having a vote on the matter every four years. Continuing the theme of the Protocol, Professor Katy Hayward (Queen’s University Belfast) spoke about the growing sense of borders and boundaries, win-lose comparative discourses and a new context for political ideology in her presentation considering ‘Identities in Northern Ireland after Brexit and the Protocol’. In his ‘Reflections on Irish-British identities’, Prof Pol O’Dochartaigh (University of Galway) revisited the emergence and development of modern British identity in Ulster, wondering if the first truly British part of these islands might also be its last.


Session 4: Literary and Cultural Reflections on Cross-Border Relations and Questions of Identity in Ireland, North and South - Readings and Roundtable

The second half of Part II on Friday morning, chaired by Professor Jan Jedrzejewski (Ulster University), marked a different approach to proceedings. Opening remarks were provided by Professor Gesa Stedman (Humboldt University Berlin) who joined the conference remotely. She stressed how literature is an important, unique medium, for understanding issues of representation and identity. There then followed two sets of short readings. The first set, by Jan Carson (Northern Irish writer), involved two readings, one from her book ‘The Fire Starters’ and a second one from her book ‘The Raptures’. The second set, by Donal Ryan (Irish writer) also involved two readings, from his book ‘The Queen of Dirt Island’ . Professor Liam Murray (University of Limerick) reflected on self and social categorisation, observing how identity is an important part of living together but that it is a socially constructed and negotiated concept.


Session 5:  Public Policy II – Analysing Public Policy, North and South of the Irish border

The final session of the conference looked again at Public Policy. Chaired by Professor Joachim Fischer (University of Limerick), the first presentation, by Dr Noel Purdy (Stranmillis University College, Belfast), considered ‘Education Policy in Ireland and Northern Ireland’. From the perspective of Wenger’s communities of practice and boundary crossing, he observed divergence in terms of Brexit but convergence in terms of a shared focus on bullying in schools and underachievement. Professor Ann-Marie Gray (Ulster University) presented on ‘Social Care Policy in Northern Ireland and Ireland’ observing that it is an often neglected policy area, but one with a lot of similarities in both parts of Ireland, with most care provided on a private or even voluntary basis rather than by the state, but with a lack of data hindering efforts to better understand. The recent Shared Island report formed the basis of a presentation by Caitriona Mullan (Cross-border development consultant) who focussed on the particular situation obtaining in North-West Ireland (Derry & Strabane and Donegal councils) with some of its structural disadvantages and who reminded the audience that, despite the various regular upheavals in North-South relations, cross-border cooperation at local government level has never broken down.


Concluding Roundtable

The last part of the conference was an animated and fascinating roundtable discussion with a range of politicians, chaired by David Donaghue (former Irish Diplomat). The roundtable featured Claire Hanna MP (SDLP), Ian Paisley MP (DUP), Charles Flanagan TD (Fine Gael), John Gormley (Former Leader, Green Party), Declan Kearney MLA (Sinn Fein) and Sorcha Eastwood MLA (Alliance Party). Each panellist offered a brief resume of their thoughts on the key issues to be faced in terms of North-South relations in Ireland. Matters raised in earlier sessions were revisited while recent developments in the context of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, demographic trends and other societal changes were explored and contextualised, illustrating again the complex nature of cross-border Irish relationships, and how the island of Ireland relates to Great Britain, the EU and beyond. 

Organiser Prof. Paul Carmichael thanked all contributors, the audience, collaborating institutions and colleagues before officially closing the conference, specifically Prof. Gisela Holfter of University of Limerick. 



Building on the success of the Limerick conference, the Ulster event was another excellent example of institutional cooperation between two universities across the island of Ireland, in partnership with the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. The event has illustrated an appetite for gathering in person to discuss issues of major public interest in the hope of building understanding, raising awareness and fostering trust. Feedback on the event was uniformly positive, forming a favourable foundation on which to plan further such activities in a spirit of cooperative endeavour between the organising bodies, with a resolve to explore new and diverse ways of building and maximising engagement in future events.


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November 03 - 04, 2022
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