Dublin, Belfast and London Ministers have told a conference of the "huge" opportunities of exploiting the "Dublin-Belfast economic corridor" to drive growth and investment in the island of Ireland.
The remotely broadcast Dublin-Belfast Economic Corridor conference was organised by eight councils located along the 100 miles from Belfast to Dublin and was hosted by economist David McWilliams, who described the corridor as the “most vibrant hub” and “the heart” of the island economy.
The initiative began in 2018 with the goal of becoming a “powerhouse” project that would “transform the region’s prospects for economic recovery”, although the concept of a Dublin-Belfast economic corridor has been sporadically discussed since the mid-1990s.
The conference was founded on a recent study by Irish politics and public policy expert, Professor Deiric O Broin of Dublin City University and Dr Eoin Magennis, a senior economist in Ulster University's economic policy centre, who wrote about the opportunities that would be available through strengthened cross-Border cooperation.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said that he saw the corridor project as a means of "enhancing economic and social cooperation between Dublin and Belfast and all parts in between".
Reflecting on how Dublin was twinned with Barcelona, Beijing and Nablus in Palestine Mr Varadkar asked, “Why is Dublin not twinned with Belfast? There should be so much more contact between the cities and all the places along the route.”
Mr Varadkar said there was opportunity for further growth and development and also for joint North-South trade missions to promote investment.
The North's finance Minister Conor Murphy of said the importance of "pooling all of those assets" along the corridor area and the "two major cities on the island" was "hugely important" both globally and domestically.
It could become a "growth driver" for the island as a whole. He particularly wanted to see the project benefit areas such as Newry and Dundalk which, he said, due to partition had been an "economic wasteland".
Northern Ireland Office junior Minister Robert Walker said the corridor offered a "huge area of opportunity" and that the "two economies need to work with each other as seamlessly and collaboratively as possible".
“Greater prosperity in one will benefit the other,” he said.
The academics Professor O Broin and Dr Magennis highlighted how the total population along the corridor is two million and is the fastest growing population in the island, and expected to grow to 2.5 million by 2040.
Focussing on the positives the academics reported how employment along the corridor is above the island average while economic inactivity is less, and how 34 per cent of the two million population have third level qualifications, which is higher than anywhere else in Ireland.
They also reported that along the corridor there are 125,000 firms with entrepreneurship and survival rates higher than elsewhere on the island of Ireland (although less so in Northern Ireland) and more people employed in mid-sized and large businesses than elsewhere on the island
They also referred to the positive influence of foreign direct investment, of the development of sectors such agri-food, financial services and high-tech manufacturing and of the tourism potential of the corridor post Covid.
They said there was a buoyant labour market with 970,000 residents at work in 2019 and “rising to one million on the eve of Covid”.
On the negative side they pointed to the cross-Border trade problems potentially caused by Brexit, to housing needs, and traffic congestion
But overall Dr Magennis said there were opportunities for “deepening and broadening growth” along the corridor and lifting the “whole island economy”.
Prof O Broin said it was important to have a long term view on the project. There should be “less big bang and more slow burn”, he said.
The eight local authorities involved in the initiative are: Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council; Belfast City Council; Dublin City Council; Fingal County Council; Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council; Louth County Council; Meath County Council; and Newry, Mourne and Down District Council.