North-South bodies the `litmus test' of Belfast Agreement

 

The presence of the Taoiseach in Belfast for today's discussions on North-South relationships gives the occasion a significance that goes beyond the nuts and bolts of cross-Border co-operation.

The Deputy First Minister, Mr Seamus Mallon, wrote in this paper on Saturday that the time had come for the Ulster Unionist Party to show it was fully committed to the Belfast Agreement. "The litmus test of this commitment will be the negotiation of the North-South bodies." Dublin sources say they will be using these talks as a way of finding out if the UUP leadership is serious about implementing the agreement and is not just using the decommissioning issue as a delaying tactic.

"It will become fairly clear in the next couple of weeks." No dramatic developments are being forecast for today, but there will have to be agreement on North-South issues in the very near future if the two governments are to have time to put legislative and other arrangements in place before the transfer of power early next year.

Dublin's broadly sympathetic approach to Mr Trimble's internal difficulties has caused some rumblings on the republican side. Senior figures in that camp worry that there has been a shift in Dublin from an essentially nationalist approach to one of pragmatic deal-making.

Republicans said they had made clear to both Mr Ahern and Mr Blair that there would be no decommissioning until the causes of the conflict had been removed. They were somewhat puzzled therefore when Dublin, in particular, continued to put pressure on to obtain the unobtainable. One senior republican reflected rather ruefully that "the Brits" were behaving better than Dublin from a republican point of view.

In a sense the two governments are going along with the UUP strategy of playing a long game by agreeing to "park" the decommissioning issue until the time of the transfer of power. But there is also a sense in which Mr Ahern at least is trying to get around the decommissioning problem in another way by attempting to generate some momentum on the cross-Border elements of the agreement.

Civil servants on both sides have prepared papers on different areas where (1) co-operation could take place through existing bodies and (2) new cross-Border bodies would be established.

The papers prepared by the Northern Ireland Civil Service have been lodged in the library of the Assembly. The final decisions will be made by the politicians, North and South, but the thinking of the civil servants may be a harbinger of things to come. It is understood there is a fair amount of agreement between the officials on both sides, although the Irish papers are believed to be somewhat broader in their sweep: too broad for unionists at any rate.

The agreement specified that at least six new cross-Border bodies must be established and it is interesting to note the areas which find most favour with Northern officials in this context.

Inland waterways, for example, is an area where there has already been a well-publicised instance of North-South co-operation which is generally agreed to have worked well, namely, the reopening of the Shannon-Erne Waterway to link the two rivers in 1994.

The waterway is maintained and operated on a day-to-day basis by the Rivers Agency of the North's Department of Agriculture and the Republic's Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands. A joint co-ordinating committee meets every two months. Last year the two departments jointly commissioned a feasibility study on the restoration of the abandoned Ulster Canal.

The paper prepared by Northern officials states that "the feasible option is for joint action through a single, newly-created body". Tangible benefits would include a clearer focus on developing the canal network on the island "to the advantage of both North and South" and "the possibility of promoting and marketing the facilities on an all-island basis and maximising revenue from tourism".

Tourism is also a key factor in the decision by NI officials to recommend a new North-South body for inland fisheries. There would be economic benefits north of the Border. The paper on this topic states: "Northern Ireland has a comparatively underdeveloped approach to tourism angling, reflecting the difficult circumstances of the last 25 years. Already there are significant developments, and an integrated approach could capitalise on an all-Ireland tourism product."

Most nationalists would regard tourism as an obvious area for the establishment of a North-South body but this would probably be considered a "bridge too far" by a good many unionists.

Perhaps conscious of this, a paper on tourism offers a variety of options: (1) Enhanced co-operation between the tourist boards, North and South; (2) Formal liaison and co-operation between departments and agencies on both sides of the Border; (3) An All-Ireland Tourism Forum which would be a talking-shop for the industry; (4) An All-Ireland Tourism Marketing Body to market the "island of Ireland" overseas; (5) An All-Ireland Tourist Board which would effectively incorporate the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Bord Failte.

Setting up an all-Ireland tourist board would require new legislation in both jurisdictions. The paper on this topic states: "The time-scale of normal legislative procedures would preclude the necessary legislation being in place in advance of the `transfer' date [i.e. the date for the transfer of powers, expected to take place in early 1999]." But as in the case of inland waterways and fisheries, NI civil servants see economic advantages: "Tourism presently makes [a] much more significant contribution to the economy in the South than in the North. Contribution of NI's tourism industry to GDP is more likely to rise if there is an integrated approach."

Another area where most nationalists would wish to see a cross-Border body established is in overseeing the distribution of relevant European Union funds. But Northern officials say it is "difficult to quantify the benefits or see how value would be added" by such a move and they favour joint consultation and action using the existing machinery.

In the area of environmental protection, the officials say "it would be feasible to create a new body to bring cohesion and direction at a strategic level to the existing arrangements".

Such a body "could also oversee the development of new areas of co-operation and co-ordination over a wide range of environmental issues".

The new body would be concerned with developing co-operation, co-ordination and the sharing of information and would leave regulatory and operational matters with the relevant agencies, North and South. Defining its brief in this way would enable the new body to come into operation quickly. The body might initially require some four full-time staff.

The Northern Department of the Environment also assessed the feasibility of establishing a North-South body for strategic transport planning. Since there is already a large degree of co-operation and co-ordination on transport matters, the main advantage of formalising these arrangements could be to secure a more structured approach to cross-Border transport at a strategic level. It might initially require four full-time staff.

By and large, where there are potential financial benefits for the North, the officials who wrote these papers are inclined to favour new bodies, but where a legislative tangle is going to be created, without obvious financial gain, they are less enthusiastic. Overall, there is also more enthusiasm for setting-up new cross-Border bodies when they have a strategic rather than an immediately practical role.