Co-Operation Ireland’s prominent supporters range from the Queen to Bill Clinton. As Arlene Foster joins the charity as a director, Mark Bain looks back at four decades of working for reconciliation
It may have been formed in 1979 but it really started in 1984 with a bike ride.
And 42 years later the wheels continue to turn, driving relationships between north and south to a better destination.
The impact of Co-Operation North, as it was named for the first two decades of its existence, was massive. It many ways it laid the foundation for the peace finally found in the 1990s.
The organisation, pulled from the mind of Dr Brendan O’Regan with the goal of bridging divides between communities and economies, built quietly for a few years before launching into one of the most iconic cross border events witnessed during the turmoil of the Troubles.
In July 1984 some 1500 cyclists set out on a three day peace ride between Belfast and Dublin. It quickly became known as the maracycle and set an example of just what could be achieved when people came together for the benefit of all.
The spirit of co-operation had arrived. And in the decades that followed those behind the organisation have been responsible for some of the most memorable moments of hope that have shown through troubled times.
Over 100,000 have now taken part in the cycle events, which extended to a ride from Boston to New York for the 40th anniversary in 2019.
By 1995 Co-Operation North had gone right to the top. Her Majesty the Queen and then President of Ireland Mary Robinson were announced as joint patrons. Mary McAleese took over the role on behalf of Ireland when she became President two years later, followed by Michael D Higgins. Movement in the highest of influential circles continues to this day.
Through the first three decades, Irish businessman Brendan O’Regan was weaving his magic. New doors opened. Relationships with leaders around the world were forged.
The man responsible for developing Shannon Airport, inventing the concept of the duty-free shop and transforming the Shannon Region of Ireland, had designs on a much wider influence.
When he died in 2008, aged 90, President Mary McAleese said that O’Regan was “a true visionary” and “leaves a legacy that permeates throughout all levels of economic, social and cultural life in Ireland.”
He didn’t live long enough to see one of the most memorable moments of pace time Ireland, when his organisation facilitated the 2012 handshake at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast between The Queen and Martin McGuinness.
Mr McGuinness was due to join Co-operation Ireland’s board but died before he could take the position. All the more reason why the appointment this week of former First Minister Arlene Foster as a director should not be treated as anything other than another positive, outreaching step by the organisation which continues to push the agenda of togetherness.
“We work from the level of ‘on the ground’ community work with young people from the Shankill or up the Falls Road,” said Chief Executive Peter Sheridan, who has been leading Co-operation Ireland for over a decade.
“But we then also have engagement right up to Prime Minister and Taoiseach and Tánaiste and Foreign Commonwealth level.”
Rattling through the history of Co-Operation Ireland, the name changed after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, throws up a litany of famous faces, world leaders and a who’s who of sporting stars.
Most recently, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle attend Co-operation Ireland’s Amazing the Space event in 2018 at the former Maze/Long Kesh site to support cross community peace building.
The contacts book is mightily impressive, but it hasn’t come about by accident. The design was there from the beginning. The seed of an idea crossed the Atlantic to New York and now spans the globe.
After the original maracycle put the fledgling Co-Operation North on the map, the idea that sport was a great unifier has proved a constant theme over the years.
And the ethos of Co-operation Ireland is summed up by two of Ireland’s greatest footballing heroes, one from the north, one from the Republic.
The friendship of Pat Jennings and Liam Brady has endured.
Former Arsenal and Juventus superstar Brady, has been a stalwart supporter since the mid-eighties.
“It would’ve been the mid-eighties when Pat Jennings asked me to come and play in a golf classic at Royal County Down in aid of Co-operation North.
“It was then I got interested in the organisation,” he said.
“You have to remember that the Arsenal team in the time I played there had three lads from the north and three lads from the south – so I always had an understanding of the situation.
“Pat (Jennings), Pat Rice and Sammy Nelson from the north and David O’Leary, Frank Stapleton and myself from Dublin were all at Arsenal at the same time. I knew sport was a great way for people to get to know each other and break down barriers.
“Coming to the end of my playing days I had my testimonial coming up in 1990 – Ireland v Finland at Lansdowne Road – and I knew I wanted to do something to raise awareness of the work Co-operation North was doing.
“Derek Dougan (former Northern Ireland player) was involved with the charity at that time and he was a really inspirational kinda guy so we got him to bring down a lot of kids from east Belfast for the game and got them to meet with young people from Dublin. At that time kids from east Belfast wouldn’t have been coming south and young people from Dublin weren’t going up north.
“It was our small contribution to trying to stop all the horror. We saw the best way to do that was through getting people to know one another – to find out we are no different than one another.”
Newry man Pat Jennings marks 28 years as a Co-operation Ireland ambassador in 2021, and he said his involvement stemmed from wanting to promote reconciliation at home and never severing his ties from his home town.
“All through the Troubles we never missed holidays back home. As soon as the football season ended we were straight over, even though all the troubled years we wanted to be in Ireland,” the former Tottenham and Arsenal goalkeeper said.
“Derek Dougan was organising my testimonial at the time and he had been working with Co-operation Ireland so that was when I got involved first. After that Derek and myself started to organise events.
“I hadn’t heard of the charity before that but when I saw what they did I was very keen to get involved.
Pat said his commitment to building reconciliation has never waned. Over 26 years of organising his annual October gold classic, well over £1million has been raised.
“When you look at what Co-operation Ireland is doing with projects like Amazing the Space – getting 10,000 young people into a room together from across Ireland – it’s brilliant. I am glad to help promote this work.
“I support anything that brings people together in whatever way I can.”
The football legends are just two of the famous names who have contributed to the success of Co-Operation Ireland.
Another of Northern Ireland’s famous footballing sons, Martin O’Neill, has been involved for almost two decades.
“Obviously, there’s always work to be done but the relationship between the two and the improvement over the years has been extraordinary and every little bit helps,” the former Celtic and Leicester City manager said.
“If you look at the change that has taken place since the start of The Troubles in the late sixties and early seventies, if you look at where we have come to now – look at Belfast thriving again – I think the relationships are pretty decent.
“I’m not saying everyone will be happy with any particular event that takes place or occurrence but I think we’d all have to admit that the relationship has improved in 30 years.”
Martin says he believes the work of Co-operation Ireland has aided this, and that’s why he remains an active participant.
“What the charity is trying to do is for a noble cause and I’m quite sure relationships will continue blossom as they have been and Co-operation Ireland has to take credit for that.”
That credit has been banked, but now the more difficult task of keeping the momentum is the challenge.
“In the 1980s and 90s it was easy to get support,” said Director of Fundraising Terry O’Neill, who has been responsible for pulling together some of the biggest events over the last three decades.
“We managed to bring together some of the most important people in the world,” he reflected. “The Queen, Presidents of Ireland, Bill Clinton. Those were the names to get things done,” he said. “They brought the publicity. They set the standard for building relationships.
“Relationships are still there, and so are we. We can’t afford to let them slide.”
Some 29 projects are currently ongoing through Co-Operation Ireland.
“It has to be all about youth,” he said. “In the early days, when we were just putting together leaflets, young people were asked for ideas. One of those was a cycle between Dublin and Belfast. It happened and the rest followed,” he said.
“When we started it was in a climate of revulsion against violence,” he said. “People wanted something to lift them out of that. The 1980s were much different to what followed in the 1990s, with ceasefires and a new feeling of hope.
“In those years it was all about the present. Now it’s about healing that past and looking to the future.
“But tension returning over Brexit and border polls. This is not the time to stop reaching out hand of friendship.”