Overcoming the North/South impasse

Repro Fee …. 5-7-13 …..North / South Ministerial meeting held in Dublin Castle in Dublin . Pictured at the North South Ministerial meeting being held in Dublin Castle were Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy first minister Martin McGuinness as they chat to Minister for Finance Michael Noonan.   Pic Maxwell's - No Repro Fee   5-7-13 Northern division and southern indifference explains slow progress on cross-border co-operation, Andy Pollak writes. However, all-island tourism and business links stand out as success stories.

It can be argued that people’s expectations of the impact of North/South co-operation in Ireland – and particularly economic co-operation – are often exaggerated. The economists John Bradley and Michael Best warned against this in their 2011 study ‘Cross-Border Economic Renewal: Rethinking Regional Policy in Ireland’. They argued that given the very different industrial specialisations of Northern Ireland and the Republic, and the preponderance of consumer goods over inter-firm transactions (the most dynamic driver of trade within the EU) in North/South trade patterns, potential gains from greater North/South trade would remain modest compared to the potential of both jurisdictions to trade in international – including British – markets.

In the shorter term, the deadlocked state of Northern Irish politics will also be inimical to greater North/South co-operation across a range of fields. In particular, the impasse over implementing the welfare reform demanded by Westminster – complete with allegations that Gerry Adams vetoed a compromise deal because he felt it would undermine Sinn Féin’s populist anti-austerity image in the Republic – has led to a new low in relations between the DUP and Sinn Féin at Stormont. These are now described as “poisonous” by informed observers.

Some level of mutual trust between the parties in the Northern Ireland Executive is a pre-requisite for both the internal government of the North and for good North/South relations. It was bad timing that the July plenary meeting of the North South Ministerial Council (NSMC) was due the day after the unionist parties walked out of reconvened talks over flags, parades and dealing with the past.

Its postponement may have been because of unionist reluctance to be seen hobnobbing with Sinn Féin and Irish Government ministers by their loyalist constituents (angry at the Parades Commission’s ban on a 12 July Orange parade marching past Ardoyne) but the signal it gave was an unfortunate one: that North/South co-operation was once again hostage to the vagaries of sectarian confrontation within Northern Ireland.

Delivery gap

There is now a perception that North/South co-operation has stalled – or even gone backwards – after the optimistic early years following the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

Dr Cathal McCall, a Queen’s University Belfast sociologist who specialises in the Northern peace process and cross-border co-operation, articulates this when he describes that North/South process as “now relatively sterile, with little or nothing in terms of concrete initiatives coming out of it.” He adds: “There is a big gap between what was proposed in the early years and what has transpired. Look, for example, at the major infrastructure projects promised then: the A5 Monaghan-Derry road upgrade, the reopening of the Ulster Canal, the Carlingford Lough bridge – none of them has come to fruition.”

He believes a major factor in this has been the lack of enthusiasm for North/South co-operation by the post-2011 Fine Gael-Labour government in the wake of the economic crisis. Officials in the North/South bodies also point to their budgets having been cut in both jurisdictions, and an even more pronounced reluctance than usual on the part of northern officials to take decisions – exacerbated by fears of ‘putting a foot wrong’ in the current fraught political climate there.

However Irish Government officials strongly reject any accusation that the NSMC has presided over a stalling of North/South co-operation. They say that co-operation between the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive is “running smoothly, growing organically without grabbing headlines, and doing co-operation where it makes sense and leads to mutual benefit.”

They point to the recently announced €463 million EU Peace and Interreg package for Northern Ireland and the Southern border counties for 2014-2020, and progress on the cross-border radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin hospital in Derry and on planning approvals for the Ulster Canal. They also mention the appointment for the first time of a junior Minister at the Department of Foreign Affairs with an explicit brief for North/South matters. However, Dublin observers wonder if Sean Sherlock’s surprise designation has more to do with Labour’s desire to head off Sinn Féin by being seen to do something about the North than any renewed commitment by the coalition to North/South co-operation.

thumb-large-22 Successes

There have been some notable all-island success stories. Tourism Ireland is one of these. The amount spent by overseas tourists in Northern Ireland (including from Britain) was up 13 per cent in 2013 and the number of British tourists (the North’s biggest market) in the first quarter of 2014 was up 37 per cent compared to four years ago.

A few years ago the responsible northern Minister, Arlene Foster, used to snipe regularly at Tourism Ireland, complaining about its lack of focus on Northern Ireland. In January this year, she quietly signed off on the organisation’s 2014-2016 plan alongside her southern counterpart, Leo Varadkar.

Similarly InterTradeIreland has done some good work in recent years. It has led an all-island steering group examining ways in which Irish and Northern Irish universities and companies can capitalise on the EU’s €80 billion Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. With recent cuts in the UK’s research councils’ funding, the two northern universities in particular have woken up and are seriously engaged in this cross-border exercise for the first time.

Another factor cited by critics of the slow pace of North/South co-operation is the shelving of the key second part of the review of the North/South bodies and areas for co-operation agreed as part of the 2006 St Andrews Agreement: the part which could propose new such bodies and areas. There are strong arguments for increased North/South co-operation – if not for new North/South bodies – in a number of economic areas.

One of these is agri-food. Two years ago, InterTradeIreland produced an impressively argued report for moving towards a more integrated all-island market in this sector (following the example of major firms like Kerry Foods and Moy Park) along with a blueprint proposing six areas for concerted action.

There is also some stirring on the business front. The once very active Joint Business Council of Ibec and CBI Northern Ireland was wound up in late 2011. Following strong reaction from some business leaders, particularly in the North, a meeting will be held between the two business confederations this month to discuss a new initiative “to discover areas of joint opportunity for the business community in both jurisdictions.” For those of us who believe in greater practical, mutually beneficial North/South co-operation as a key element in the peace and reconciliation process on this island, that could be the most hopeful sign for some time.

Andy Pollak is a journalist and former Director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh.

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