Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

Twin cities: Newry and Dundalk

A developing relationship between neighbours presents both opportunites and challenges

The Quays shopping centre, owned by local businessman Dr Gerald O’Hare and developed by Parkergreen, is one of the most visible signs of the regeneration of Newry in recent years.

Organisations in Newry and Dundalk, as well as Letterkenny and Derry City, are keen to build on the mutual benefits of improving relationships with their cross-border near neighbours.

The land border on this island is now a diminished obstacle to business development.

Business investors such as Gerald O’Hare (in the Quays), John McGuckian (in Buttercrane) and Lord Ballyedmond (in Norbrook Laboratories) have already put Newry on the international stage.

The most recent development has been the launch of a study on a collaborative framework in ‘The Newry-Dundalk Twin City Region’ which has the endorsement of Ministers from both Governments and the representatives of local Government.

The critical feature of any cross-border proposals is a recognition that commerce and industry can function normally across the border with a reduction in man-made disruption.

The scope for mutually beneficial co-operation is wide ranging although still subject to unavoidable obstacles inherent at an interface between two Governments even when both Governments are well disposed to co-operation.

Conspicuously, both administrations have taken steps to improve the transport and communications infrastructure or put these plans into their investment strategies.

The logic of cross-border co-operation, for mutual benefit, is that public services should be encouraged to serve communities on the basis of effective delivery rather than inflexible administrative boundaries.

Easy examples are cases where ambulances and accident and emergency units avoid distortion of services and fire and rescue services respond to need.

The Newry by-pass and the motorway which avoids travelling through Dundalk have transformed (or will transform) business and personal travel for millions of people, not only within the local catchment area.

Improved rail services now attract daily commuter traffic affecting both Belfast and Dublin.

The memory of formal and time-consuming border customs checks, on all personal movements, whether by train or by car, is fading.

Membership of the European Union was a significant step in creating the unimpeded movements of goods and services, as well as people, as part of the larger European framework.

There is now extensive goodwill to minimise any unhelpful distortions on cross-border business. Goodwill, in itself, does not solve all differences.

The border still exists and includes features that impose costs. Differences in VAT rates, excise duties and variations in the £/€ exchange rate are still major determinants of cross-border shopping.

Currently, these features have brought very large volumes of business from the south to the north.

Unfortunately, these fiscal and monetary variations cannot be treated as permanent: tax rates and exchange rates will vary from time to time.

The most significant change in the last decade is that the cross-border pattern of commercial business, decisions on living and working either side of the border, and access to public services are much less constrained by administrative obstacles.

The challenge to the authors of the Newry-Dundalk twin City Region report was to identify helpful ways to further enhance development. Their report makes four proposals. Each will call for concerted effort to bring them to fruition.

  • A major promotion of the geo-tourism features along with agreed management of the landscape and natural heritage
  • Creation and co-ordination of an appropriate regeneration strategy for both cities
  • A Newry-Dundalk Centre of Excellence to create a sustainable energy community linked to a parallel EU scheme
  • A cross-border International Services Zone linked to international financial services

These ideas have differing probabilities of success but each merits closer examination.

Perhaps the surprise is that the proposals do not go further in terms of a wider range of topics including expanded education and training initiatives, business development networks and pointers to further investment in improved port facilities.

The challenge now, for a range of agencies, is to maintain the momentum for change.

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