'Government must go beyond rhetoric in supporting cross-border co-operation' in the Irish Times 17/02/2012

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Government must go beyond rhetoric in supporting cross-Border co-operation


Last Updated: Friday, February 17, 2012, 00:00

OPINION:AT THE first annual Garret FitzGerald Spring School last week, Olivia O’Leary highlighted the negative implications of recession for cross-Border co-operation and called for a “real engagement” with Northern Ireland. Implicitly, O’Leary drew attention to the importance of such co-operation for the maintenance of peace and democracy in Ireland.

Responsibility for retreat from cross-Border co-operation rests squarely with the Government. After the successful visit of Queen Elizabeth to the Republic, the British prime minister, David Cameron, enthused it had put the British-Irish relationship on to a “new level”. Perhaps that’s the case, in terms of PR, imagery and flim-flam. Substantively, however, that relationship has yielded little in co-operation as Irish and British governments’ austerity programmes bite down hard.

In the 1990s and 2000s EU funding was instrumental in opening the Border to contact, co-operation and communication across it. As well as economic initiatives, such funding proved vital for projects working earnestly towards peace and reconciliation at the grassroots.

Such cross-Border, cross-community projects have included those that discussed Irish histories with the aim of increasing mutual understanding, for example, the meaning of 1916 – the Rising and the Somme – for nationalists and unionists; music and sports events for young people (often with conflict resolution and cultural diversity awareness sessions attached); storytelling in projects within and beyond the confines of schools and languages – from carnivals to art in public spaces to film-making the life stories of former prisoners; and the flagship Cross-Border Orchestra of Ireland, which has travelled the world promoting our good peace news.

With EU funding for peace projects in Ireland now ending, it is surely down to the Government to pick up the torch and keep it lit. Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore has a special responsibility in this regard. Before the economic crash, the then minister was explicit in his undertaking that the government would help protect the “soft capital” peace infrastructure that has developed over the past two decades.

Very different economic times have elicited a deafening silence on such support. Yet, when abroad, engaged in important efforts to generate foreign direct investment and re-establish Ireland’s international credentials, the successes of the peace process are never far from ministers’ lips.

Again only last week, the Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation were in New York trying to drum up business for Ireland, with the peace process one of their main selling points. But if economic recovery depends on peace, and cross-Border co-operation is a central pillar of the peace process, then it is crucial that co-operation is carefully maintained and developed for future prosperity.

Northern Ireland Assembly politicians, particularly those representing Border constituencies, have an important voice that needs to be exercised on this issue. The DUP may, with some justification, be seen to represent an impediment to cross-Border co-operation. Yet, this is a party repositioning itself under Peter Robinson. These days, the Conqueror of Clontibret is Guest of the GAA. And as one leading Northern politician once said, “ . . . the DUP are never found wanting when there’s money and cheques involved”.

But it’s not just the politicians who are letting things slide away. Andy Pollak, director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies, an engine room for promoting public, private and third sector cross-Border co-operation, recently bemoaned the fact that not one economist based on this island attended either of two important conferences on cross-Border training and reviving the Border region economy, both held in Cavan at the end of last year.

Had they been there they would have heard important interventions, like that made by Pádraic White, former managing director of the Industrial Development Authority, who outlined his innovative ideas for the Border region economy.

Others, drawing on the empirical evidence that comes from working in the region, have stressed the importance of cross-Border co-operation and conflict transformation for economic regeneration. Implicitly, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and our economists know this, but do they understand it?

Dr Cathal McCall is senior lecturer in European studies, school of politics, international studies and philosophy, Queen’s University Belfast
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Period17 Feb 2012

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  • TitleGovernment must go beyond rhetoric in supporting cross-border co-operation
    PersonsCathal McCall