Talking to a cosmopolitan, community-focussed nationalist who is full of good ideas…

Conor Patterson emphasises that he is not a politician, political commentator or member of a political party – he is a businessman with a passion for community development in his home town of Newry, in Northern Ireland and on the island of Ireland.

To use an old-fashioned and probably politically incorrect phrase, he is a working class boy “made good”. Patterson’s father was a welder (sometimes with his own small company, but often unemployed), his mother a telephonist, originally from Dundalk. A bright boy, he passed the 11 Plus and went to the local Christian Brothers Abbey Grammar School. He says he owes a lot to his mother in particular. In the late 1970s the streets of Newry, with weekly rioting against the British Army, were an exciting and sometimes dangerous place for teenage boys. His mother was determined that her children should see a different world. When he was 17 she organised for the family to go on a camping holiday in Brittany. As far as their neighbours in the Barcroft estate were concerned, they “could have been going to Mongolia.”

In the following year, in the summer of the 1981 Maze Prison hunger strike, Patterson joined a group of friends on an archaeological dig in northern France. It was a “life changer” to be camping with young people of various nationalities and to have the sense of status that came with being an international volunteer. He went to Coventry Polytechnic to do a degree in planning and then to Trinity College Dublin for a masters in economics.

After a short period back in Coventry lecturing at the polytechnic (now a university), he joined Grampian Council in Aberdeen as a planner. This was the era of powerful regional councils in England and Scotland having wide-ranging responsibilities over social services, housing, roads, policing and economic development – the sort of functions that years later would be devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive. He was soon promoted to the key job of managing EU programmes for the council, in which he had an annual budget of £40 million. It was a formative experience that made him into an internationalist, a champion of European economic cooperation and integration.

Following the 1994 IRA ceasefire, he and his wife – also from Newry – decided they wanted to come home. He got a job running the South Armagh Area-Based Strategy, a new intervention to bring economic and social development to that marginalised and formerly violence-ridden district, which brought together 15 partners ranging from the local community association to government departments, district councils and the International Fund for Ireland. He says it was “an early introduction to the complexity of the public sector in Northern Ireland.”

In 1996 he was successful in his application for the post of chief executive of the WIN (‘Work in Newry’) business park, headquartered at the Newry and Mourne Cooperative and Enterprise Agency (NMEA); it was the first community-owned workspace project in Ireland. Over the past 27 years he has turned this into an extraordinary success story – although he is quick to pay tribute to the people in the NMEA who came before him, notably its first manager, Frank Dolaghan, its long-time chair, John McMahon and its current chair, Peter McEvoy. There are now 82 business units employing 500 people on its Newry site, and a further 400 employed at four enterprise centres in the Newry and Mourne area under its management. The most remarkable of these is probably at Flurrybridge, on the border in South Armagh, which now employs nearly 300 people and generates £12 million every year for the local economy. In largely unionist Kilkeel, Binnian business park is another successful centre.

It is difficult to over-estimate the transformation of Newry, in which the NMEA and its WIN business park have been key players. When the WIN site was purchased in 1975 with £60,000 collected from local people (including five pounds from Patterson’s mother), Newry, with an unemployment rate touching 30% and experiencing daily Troubles-related violence, was one of the most deprived towns in the UK. Now, with that rate dramatically down to 2%, it is one of the most dynamic towns in Ireland, with major companies in areas like veterinary pharmaceuticals, engineering, robotics and financial services, as well as being a hub for large British retailers setting up stores to cash in on its lucrative cross-border market.

The WIN model was adopted by the International Fund for Ireland to fund economic development partnerships in local council areas all over Northern Ireland. Patterson believes these council-led partnerships, directly involving the community and business sectors, but largely dismantled by the NI Executive in 2008, represented an important element in the upsurge of community involvement and local enterprise between the late 1980s and early 2000s, and thus a key grassroots development in the years of the peace process.

While running WIN, he completed a PhD on ‘the role of social capital in economic development in Northern Ireland’. One of his most interesting findings was that the areas where local economic development was a significant ‘change factor’ were predominantly nationalist – where, for example, credit unions were a key feature. He remembers discussing this with Newry unionist MLA (and former NI Executive minister) Danny Kennedy, who told him Protestants were very private people, and that the idea of their peers discussing their business and deciding whether they were worthy of a loan, was ‘anathema’ to them.

Until 2016 Patterson was just an energetic local business leader with an interest in community development and mediation (he had worked closely with the late Brendan McAllister, founding director of Mediation NI).What politicised and radicalised him was Brexit. He remembers being roundly dismissed by the DUP’s Sammy Wilson on the BBC’s Nolan radio show a few days before that vote, when he said that a hard Irish border would be the inevitable outcome of a vote to leave the EU, with a devastating impact on border towns like Newry. He was Newry Chamber of Commerce’s representative on the Northern Ireland Remain campaign, and became that campaign’s border spokesperson. He believes Brexit radicalised many Catholic middle-class people like himself, pointing to how the South Down Westminster constituency, a much sought after place to live, had gone from being represented by Enoch Powell, succeeded by two SDLP MPs, to having a Sinn Fein majority. He is now the health spokesman for the nationalist lobby group, Ireland’s Future.

Asked to define his nationalism, Patterson uses the rather old-fashioned term “anti-partitionist”. “I believe partition has been bad for Ireland, north and south, and particularly bad for Newry. I’ve seen that myself, I’ve seen the frictions and disharmonies that have affected our ability to develop normal relationships within Northern Ireland and on this island”. He gives the examples of the local Daisy Hill hospital, often threatened with serious service reductions, which only has half a hinterland (and the brand-new hospital in Enniskillen, which cannot provide emergency medical surgery because it doesn’t have enough patients); and Dundalk Institute of Technology, which cannot be designated a Technological University in the Republic because it can’t reach the required student numbers (and has few students from the adjoining jurisdiction a few miles up the road).

He stresses that he is not a “cultural exceptionalist” – I don’t think that people who identify as Irish or British or as another national or cultural group are exceptional just because they were born in a particular place. I respect people because they are fellow human beings grappling with life’s challenges.”

In a recent paper read to the Belfast dialogue group, Compass Points, Patterson expanded on these reflections. “I want to end partition because I want to end the enforced separation of people living on this small island where there are no topographical barriers to separate one group from another…I want to end the constraining or the sheer preventing of collaborations in business and the delivery of services and collective working more generally, and the effect of that on personal and social patterns of behaviour.”

He advocates “a new 21st century framework of governance with subsidiarity as its guiding principle, in which decision-making is devolved as close to citizens as possible. This would be a model which envisages multiple tiers of sovereignty, one overlaying another, from the community level up through local government, to regional structures and national competences, through to the international collaborative structures which will have an increasing role to play – in disease management, protection from economic exploitation, climate change, ecosystem protection and resource renewal.

“In this model sovereignties would be layered across the island, unencumbered by an externally imposed, sub-optimal partition boundary, because so doing would bring measurable benefits to people here. This model would also mean that, where it made sense, the sovereignty for some functions or resources would be shared with parts of or all of Britain and others internationally…This would be a multilateral model. There would be a west/east dimension, and there would, for practical, administrative reasons, be a continuing Northern Ireland region dimension.

“But there will have to be a much more significant north-south level of governance, because it makes sense for business and for the delivery of public services. Failing to do that in the last 100 years has stymied the economy of the six counties that make up this region. It has made the public sector bigger by far than it should be – because this tiny jurisdiction has had to retain all the paraphernalia of a state rather than a regional tier of government – and it has made the private sector weaker and smaller than it should be (and that has stymied innovation). The effect is that the productivity of the region is carried on the shoulders of a smaller number of wealth creators per capita than elsewhere in Ireland or Britain.

“The future I want to look to is one in which a constraining border has been removed and there is a new collaborative settlement between peoples, traditions and cultures. I say to those who define themselves as British that this model doesn’t envisage an end to links with Britain. I wouldn’t suppress your Britishness. It envisages communities of common purpose not just spanning this island but also spanning the Irish Sea, including at the sub-regional level, for example between Antrim and Dumfries and Galloway, between Newry and Mourne and the area of Lancashire around Heysham (linked by shipping services with the port of Warrenpoint), between Dun Laoghaire and Anglesey, and so on.

“More fundamentally, I want to ask those who are uneasy about change in the role culture plays in society, and any perceived dilution of British culture in Ireland, to think instead about change in the world of technology and business, change in how young people interact with the world, change in the natural world (climate change, loss of species and habitats), change in lifestyle expectations, change in what is demanded of public services, change in how humans communicate, in how we secure and process information, change in how we move between places across this globe.

“Think about these things in the context of this island, these islands, this region of the world. Is it realistic or ethical – might it even be counter-productive – to ignore these strong and powerful change currents? Might it be better to seek to understand the direction in which those currents are flowing, how they interact and how they might affect the wider ecosystem in which we live – rather than try to stop the tide?

“Consider the integration of business on this island to maximise its international competitiveness – do you want to halt that? Consider the interactions between people on this island for whom those interactions make sense – whether it is working or socialising or sport or shopping – do you want to increase the frictions to make those more difficult? What about the ability of people to access effectively public services closest to them and best suited to their needs (for example in healthcare or education) – do you want to make that easier or more difficult?”

Patterson advocates a “utilitarian approach – i.e. the configuration which maximises the benefits for society and the natural environment which hosts our society.” He believes that strong cultures, like the British and Jewish cultures, for example, can thrive irrespective of (or beyond) national boundaries. He asks if isolation, nay-saying and denial are the best ways to ensure that British culture thrives on the island of Ireland.

He believes the three strands of the Good Friday Agreement can be built upon to develop a multiplicity of other strands, and that different local areas in Northern Ireland can have different ‘flavours’ (with protections for minorities built in) depending on their cultural Britishness or Irishness. “My proposition is to vest the bulk of meaningful power in the structures of local government and local civil society institutions. In Switzerland most power is in the hands of the cantons and municipalities. Three, arguably four, different cultural and language groupings live together in peace and harmony in that country because a framework enables it. We tried to do this in a meaningful way here up to 2008 through District and then Local Strategy Partnerships. I contend that those structures played a significant part in embedding the peace and building the transformation. I believe their work threatened interests which were invested in maintaining the status quo, dysfunctional and damaging though it had been, and that’s why the local partnerships were closed down. For me, it is not coincidental that when the ability to shape local change was taken out of the hands of citizens, that’s when progress slowed down, stuttered and eventually stopped.”

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