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A sign in a Newry shopping centre. Do we take our right to free travel for granted? Julien Behal/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Column Viewed from abroad, Ireland’s reconciliation is a success story

David McCann travelled to Korea, a partitioned country with a chequered economic history. The view from there is very different, he writes.

Another attempt on the life of a PSNI officer has sparked concern about the peace process. But we remain an example in the international sphere, writes David McCann:

THIS IS THE time of year where our media outlets conduct reviews of the months that have just passed in politics, treating us to another round of some of the more negative events that took place through 2012.

We had trouble in Northern Ireland, a sluggish economy and a debate about abortion rights. It was disheartening, when the 1982 state papers were released recently, that Ireland is still debating many of the same issues. If you were not disenchanted about the direction of the country before, the year-end reviews would most certainly have converted you.

This got me thinking about how we view ourselves in the a global context. Last month, I presented a paper on relations between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic to the Korean Political Science Association in Seoul.

We have many issues in common: Korea is a partitioned country, has an unsure relationship with its former colonial master in Japan and also enjoyed a period of rapid expansion as a leading Asian Tiger economy leading to an IMF bailout in 1997.

In explaining how relations developed between the two states of Ireland since partition the predominant reaction that I expected was one of indifference. Yet what I found was a real interest in how Northern and Southern Ireland got past their ideological barriers to achieve formal co-operation in matters of common interest.

Free travel

We sometimes take for granted in Ireland that residents of both states can travel freely across this island and that members of the two governments have regular meetings through the North-South Ministerial Council. Compare this situation to Korea, where aside from a brief period under South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s ‘Sunshine Policy’ which saw aid to North Korea and a industrial park set up along the border, there had been no economic interaction between the sides since the Korean war.

Relations since 2008 have actually gone backwards after the South Korean government under current President Lee Myung-bak declared this policy a failure, believing it was merely strengthening the regime in North Korea rather than bringing reunification of the country closer.

What about political interaction? Since 1953 there have only been two meetings between the leaders of North and South Korea. To put that in context, Enda Kenny and Peter Robinson met three times last year alone. Even during times when relations were more hostile –  during the sixties – the then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Terence O’Neill, met his Irish counterpart four times in two years and that’s not including the various ministerial/civil servant meetings that were being conducted well into the Troubles.

But Ireland’s positive approach extends beyond our internal situation. We have a positive story to tell in how to deal with a former colonial master. Ireland and Britain over the past twenty years have enjoyed an improving relationship as both states have attempted to work past their differences achieving more economic co-operation with one another and ending the Troubles. The culmination of this improved relationship came with the state visit of Queen Elizabeth in May 2011.


Compare this to relations between Korea and Japan. The current South Korean government has demanded that should a visit by the Japanese Emperor ever take place, an apology for Japanese actions during its period of occupation would be necessary. It is hard to believe that until just a few years ago Japanese dramas, music and cars were banned in South Korea. This anti-Japanese sentiment is not helped by far right Japanese politicians arguing that their period of occupation is something that Korean’s should be grateful for.

Here, we have seen apologies from the British government over events such as Bloody Sunday. So why does this matter? It matters because when it comes to dealing with past foes Ireland has a story worth telling and solutions worth sharing. As recent events have shown our situation is not perfect – but we should just pause for a moment to think about how far Ireland has come in such a short period of time.

During my time in Seoul I often heard the saying “the Koreans are the Irish of Asia”. Having seen a glimpse of a modern country trying to wrestle with its past I can see why that is a fair comparison. People who are working toward reconciliation in Korea are paying attention to Ireland – and while in this country it is in vogue to write about where we go wrong, it is sometimes appropriate to point out that we are also doing a lot of things right. We hope that our example, while not perfect, can provide a template for a nation like Korea to come together in a more peaceful environment.

David McCann is a PhD researcher in Irish politics at the University of Ulster.

Read previous columns by David McCann>

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