WIP Class Intern, Eoin O’Liatháin Talks Politics, Leadership and Careers with Peter Cassells, Executive Director of the Kennedy Centre for Conflict Intervention at NUI Maynooth, Chairperson Irish Holocaust Education Trust Ireland, Former General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions & Member of the Institute of European Affairs and the Council of the European Movement.
What were you doing at the age of 22?
First of all Eoin, when I was aged 22 I was working for what was then the Department of Social Welfare here in Ireland. I had joined straight from second level college at 18 but when I was 22 I was also actively involved in the public service. In the following year I applied for a job in the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and that’s what shaped my life after that.
You’re on multiple Boards, Executive Director of the Kennedy Centre for Conflict Intervention; you’ve represented Ireland at a European level on a number of levels. What do you think were the factors that have gotten you to such a high level?
Well, I think there are a number of factors. One was that I started in the organisation [ICTU] very young because I started there when I was 23 and my main area of interest was policy, and economic and social development. I think also my capacity for developing relationships and being interested in people, how people work and how organisations work; I think it is the key thing of where you can have a deep involvement and an interest in sort of the policy issues you’re dealing with. You need a strong interest in terms of the people you’re dealing with. I also had a very strong commitment at an early stage to Ireland in the sense of being involved in Europe and the need for that bigger, outward looking view of the world.
Who has been the most influential person in your life and why?
That’s a question I’ve been asked a number of times and I keep fluctuating between the temptation to mention world leaders like Nelson Mandela and John Maynard Keynes but I think at the end of the day if I’m being truthful it’s my mother and the areas she was involved in. She was very actively involved in the Irish Countrywomen’s Association, the ICA, and very actively involved in charitable and social organisations. So I guess right from the beginnings of my development and particularly when I became conscious of these issues, the importance of having an outlook and cause that’s bigger than one’s self and is bigger in terms of involvement with other people from the individual to family to local community to society to the world generally. All that, and the commitment to wider things and not just the individual, came from there.
If there was one thing you could change about the Irish/Northern Irish Political system, what would it be and why?
In the context of the relationship between the two I would not be a nationalist. I have been involved in active campaigns both against the IRA and against that campaign during the 70s and 80s. I would be a very strong advocate for, in terms of Northern Ireland and its status in the United Kingdom and the Republic, that it is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland to decide. I am also a strong advocate for both Articles 2 and 3 in our constitution where we claim jurisdiction of Northern Ireland to be removed, I’ve been involved in a broad range of campaigns to have that deleted. That policy of consent I mentioned, I think I have been of the view since the 1970s. I’m very influenced in that context by Conor Cruise O’Brien and his analysis of the relationship. I was tempted to say to you that we should re-join the commonwealth but that’s probably too complex for anybody to explain to anybody else. But the change would be that we would, in both jurisdictions, be happy and relaxed with that policy and notion of consent. In other words the relationship between the two parts of the island would be one that recognises that people have different allegiances and that it’s possible to live with those different allegiances.
In terms of conflicts and disputes, what’s your opinion on economic factors? The Economist did a recent poll which found that if Scottish people were to see themselves lose or gain £400 a year from the outcome of the nationalist question it would swing the vote. So the choice of a nation comes down to the price of an iPad. How much of a driving factor behind conflicts is basic economics? Is that a very cynical view?
No, I think it is important. It’s important for the individual and for their families and their future. That’s a strong starting point which then works out to the local community and to society. I think if you were to ask that same question to the Republic of Ireland about the possibility tomorrow morning of a united Ireland and taking on the responsibility for Northern Ireland and the UK treasuries responsibility people would very quickly say that we have enough problems here thank you very much. So I think it is an important factor and one which shouldn’t be regarded as being a narrow, self-interest; people are sensible about that issue, they know what’s feasible and what isn’t.
You’ve had a lot of experience in business and academia looking at conflict and dealing with difference. Do you see any parallel between conflict that exist in the corporate and political spheres? Can you compare the two?
I’ve always believed strongly Eoin in two things and I think it applies across conflicts whether political or in the field of business or employer relations. The first thing if you want to prevent conflict or resolve what is happening is to try and see if people can develop a shared understanding of what the conflict is. I think that’s crucial because in many areas the problem is the lack of, not just time and effort, but diagnostics that goes into people really trying to find out the scale of what the issues are and developing a shared understanding of them. That means they might still disagree about the problem but at least now they have a shared understanding of what the problem is. Secondly, what that helps you to do is to move into problem-solving. That is, is there a way to solve the problems and issues we’re talking about or is there an accommodation we have to reach, like the Belfast agreement, of a way of living together without conflict and adversarial views. I do think that that dual approach of developing a shared understanding and problem-solving applies across all conflicts.
How effective do you think academic programmes and cross-border initiatives such as the Washington Ireland Program are in terms of conflict resolution and reconciliation? Do they contribute and how important are they?
I think they are crucially important. I’ll use a wider analogy and come back to the specific one in relation to WIP. If you look at the European Union you could say that it is the longest running peace process in operation at the moment all the way since the Second World War; that effectively is what it is. I know we talk about economic and monetary union, integration, we talk about political development, but at the end of the day it is that much broader peace process. Now what’s very interesting is how that comes about. There is a range of programmes, initiatives bodies, organisations (the council of Europe, the Erasmus Programme would be good examples) which are engaged in nothing else but getting people from different countries to meet each other, to learn about each other’s backgrounds, cultures, aspirations for themselves and their countries and discovering in that context that at least while there are differences 75% of their aspirations and experiences are the same. Differences that exist are based on historical circumstances, cultural backgrounds, family, and religious background. So it’s crucial because what generates ignorance and responses that people can play on to try and generate xenophobia is very much around the lack of understanding. Ultimately, you can’t go to war with somebody you’ve developed a relationship with and got to like. So going back to the Washington Program, the importance of these programmes is very much around that area of people meeting each other, seeing what they have in common and in terms of young graduates this can be how they are coming to grips with things and their outlook of the world, their country, themselves as individuals, their hopes, their fears. They’ll find that many of those hopes and fears they share very much in common. Programs like WIP are a safe space where all of that can happen.
People my age, it seems, in the republic are quite detached from the period that was the troubles, or don’t internalise the struggles this country has gone through in very recent history. Do you think that’s a good sign or are we too ignorant?
I wouldn’t be worried about it. I think it is important that people move on. The one aspect of it though that I think is important is that young people know about these things and understand so it won’t happen again. Now this is a bias on my part so take that into account but people that might vote Sinn Fein will not understand what the links to the IRA are and what the IRA did. You can’t come along and say that everything you did was right or say that you weren’t involved. There is a concern that young people wouldn’t know about that. I wouldn’t be saying that young people should be wallowing and getting held up about it but you study history to know where we came from but also to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes. I would hope that young people understand this and there wouldn’t be an attempt to say the clock really only started with the Belfast agreement so forget about everything that went on before that.
Are you optimistic about current relations between Northern Ireland and Ireland?
I think there are two elements. I am optimistic about north-south relations in that I think that has come to a very settled understanding of the different relationships. I would be optimistic about Northern Ireland in the general sense but where I would be worried is that, and this would be my personal experience on the ground, the two communities haven’t really come together. I’m not sure and I don’t have an answer to this, but the very complicated political arrangements that had to be put in place in order to bring the agreement about and having prime ministers and deputy ministers and the weighting between the various parties gives a strong sense that there are two communities and that everything has to be weighted that looks after the interest of both communities. Now the question being how does that evolve to one of where that’s no longer a necessity. It’s difficult to see how that’s going to develop because of the two interpretations of what happened out of the Belfast Agreement. If you were Sinn Fein and appealing to their communities you would be saying that this is a stepping stone to a united Ireland, that we’ve settled here of where we have our own parliament and we share power and we’re on our way. If you’re coming at it from the perspective of the DUP you would be arguing that the claim of Ireland over Northern Ireland in its constitution is gone, that Northern Ireland will remain as part of the United Kingdom as long as the majority of people from Northern Ireland want it but in order for that to happen we have to share power. So there are two different interpretations, one saying that we are more secure in the United Kingdom, the other that we’re closer to a United Ireland. Paradoxically, the fact that the DUP and Sinn Fein have emerged as the two dominant parties has solidified those two approaches and how that’s going to play out over time, I struggle to see. I’m still optimistic however. For people like yourself, and leaders in cross-border initiatives it’s an interesting topic.
So my final question Peter is what advice would you give to a young university graduate in Ireland?
My advice is to give a very open sense to the word generally, and not just to Ireland itself. The reason is that things are moving very rapidly to where we will be very much both Irish and European – which we should be very open to – and this will require us to operate both in an Irish and European context. Also, particularly in the Irish context, we have a very high level of multinational investment so they should be open to moving to countries within the framework of these companies. And with new technology and social media travel and being open is important. A bedrock within that and particularly with what’s happened in the world with the financial market I would also add having a very strong developed sense of social responsibility. I think that would stand to them as individuals as well, and I don’t just mean it as a Mother Theresa point of view. Having social responsibility for the future not only has good economic and social benefit but it’s good for personal development as well.