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Andy Pollak: Whatever happened to north-south co-operation?

Nearly 21 years after the Good Friday Agreement, the history of cross-border partnership in agriculture, health, energy, tourism and education is one of many missed opportunities, writes Andy Pollak


A Brexit protest sign on the border

A Brexit protest sign on the border

A Brexit protest sign on the border

Whatever has happened to cross-border co-operation in recent years? As somebody who was intimately involved in it for 14 years, it seems to me to have become almost invisible. Where, for example, is the evidence of progress in those practical areas where it is just plain common sense to have greater co-operation on this small island: in agriculture, health, energy, tourism, and education? What I can see in these areas is mainly missed opportunities. Let us take them one by one.

Agriculture, with its huge importance to the economies of both north and south, is an obvious area for greater co-operation. There was a high level of co-operation between the two departments of agriculture during the 2001 foot and mouth disease crisis.

Back then, there was a lot of discussion between Belfast and Dublin about an all-island animal health policy, which would help Irish farmers, north and south, to trade internationally from a disease-free island, bring localised outbreaks of animal disease quickly under control and react jointly to common animal health problems in the farming industry. So, what has happened to that eminently sensible proposal?

Joint marketing is another area that makes great sense. Northern farmers and food processors could benefit enormously if their produce was sold as Irish-made in expanding markets in Europe and Asia.

Nobody in most of those countries has the slightest idea about the existence of the border; what they know about is the clean, "green" image of Irish food.

It has contributed to a spectacular growth in its export performance in recent decades. And a lot of Irish food is produced on a cross-border basis. Take the example of poultry, an important sector in the border region. Here, eggs might be laid in Northern Ireland, hatched in the Republic and then the birds sent back across the border for "rearing".

Yet the Department of Agriculture in Dublin and Bord Bia, the Irish state's food marketing body, do not recognise any duck, turkey, or chicken with any part of its processing based in the north as Irish for export purposes. Would it not make sense for the two departments of Agriculture to work together to maximise the export potential of farmers in the whole island? The same goes for beef, lamb and milk.

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Health is a key issue in a society, north and south, which by European standards is both rural and ill-served by public transport (making hospital access often difficult). The most successful north-south network here is Cooperation and Working Together (CAWT), the partnership of health boards and trusts set up in 1992 to serve the whole border region between Derry and Dundalk.

It has used EU funding to undertake and provide a range of cross-border projects and services in acute care, primary care, family and child care, learning disabilities, health promotion, public health and mental health. However, CAWT's successful example has not been followed elsewhere. This is a major missed opportunity for north-south health co-operation.

Another key sector is energy, which ironically was not designated as an area for co-operation under the Good Friday Agreement, but where the electricity companies have acted as a major commercial driver. This saw the extension of the south's natural gas pipeline network to Northern Ireland in 2005; the establishment of an all-island (wholesale) electricity market in 2007 and an all-island electricity grid in 2008; and finally, the Republic's state-owned electricity company, the Electricity Supply Board, buying the north's largest supplier, Northern Ireland Electricity, in 2010.

As we move from oil and coal-fired electricity to renewable energy from a wide variety of natural sources, there must be huge potential for further co-operation in this island of high winds, big waves and strong tides. At a time when the need to combat catastrophic climate change by switching to sustainable energy is becoming more and more urgent, this is an example where co-operation on the island could help in a small way to protect the planet.

Tourism Ireland, which markets tourism on the whole island overseas, is the one big cross-border success story. The World Economic Forum has put Ireland third in the world when it comes to overseas tourism marketing. Over a million people visited the Giant's Causeway in 2018 compared to just over 100,000 in the mid-1980s. Belfast's Titanic Centre had 850,000 visitors. In 2017 there were 2.2 million tourists to Northern Ireland, up 70% over the previous eight years.

In this sector, the border simply does not make sense. Few, if any, overseas tourists care, or even know, about it.

Yet the hugely successful Wild Atlantic Way initiative to promote the beautiful south and west coasts has to stop in Donegal: the overwhelming logic is that it should continue along the Causeway Coast in Co Antrim.

Similarly, the Ireland's Ancient East campaign, to promote 5,000 years of history and archaeology, has to exclude the rich ancient sites of Armagh and Down. What possible reason can there be for not replicating our impressive overseas marketing of Ireland abroad, by putting in place the efficiencies and economies of scale that would result from the establishment of one tourist board for the whole island at home?

Education can play a vital role in ensuring that the barriers of mutual ignorance and misunderstanding which my generation and previous generations suffered from do not endure. In the 25 years from the late-1980s onwards, north-south co-operation in education and training saw thousands of mainly short-term individual projects funded by the EU and other foreign donors, but which suffered seriously from a lack of the kind of co-ordinating structure which should have been provided by the departments of education in Bangor and Dublin.

Some of these projects were significant. In 2010, wearing my hat as director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies, I did a report for the two departments which estimated the large numbers of students and young people involved in them: 70,000 in the European Studies programme, involving nearly 200 Irish and Northern Irish secondary schools; 30,000 in the Dissolving Boundaries project, which brought primary, secondary and special schools together through IT and face-to-face contact; 17,000 in the Wider Horizons youth training and employability project; 14,000 in the Education for Reconciliation secondary schools project; and so on. I concluded that report as follows: "This must be the largest cross-border movement of young people for the purposes of education and mutual understanding anywhere in the world in recent memory.

"This movement affects not only the students themselves, but their teachers, their families and their communities. There is a great opportunity here for consolidating the present peace and future reconciliation of Ireland by continuing to work with the more open minds of children and young people. This must not be lost by lack of foresight on the part of the leaders and planners of the island's educational systems. If the gains of the extraordinary explosion in north-south educational co-operation of the past 10-15 years are allowed to peter out, what will the people of Ireland say in 10 or 20 or 50 years?" Nine years on, I can only say with great sadness that this is precisely what has happened.

The level of north-south co-operation nearly 21 years after the Good Friday Agreement is deeply disappointing. I only hope that Brexit is not the final, knock-out blow to this vital element in both the peace process and the longer-term prospect of reconciliation through practical co-operation on the island.

Andy Pollak was the founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh (http://crossborder.ie)

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