North-South relations a key priority, says Cowen


IMPROVING North-South relations should be given a greater priority at the present time than campaigning for a united Ireland, Taoiseach Brian Cowen has suggested.

In a lengthy interview, he stressed that the process of North-South co-operation was more important at this stage than the ultimate result.

“The ultimate destination of any political project is a matter of time working itself out. Therefore the destination is not the thing to be talking about. That will be for other people to decide in another time maybe,” he told the latest issue of the Journal of Cross-Border Studies in Ireland.

Setting out his vision of economic co-operation between the two parts of Ireland in the era of the Belfast and St Andrews agreements, he said: “We would be working the agreements we have, recognising the legitimacy of our respective traditions – one loyal to Britain, the other looking to Irish unity as a legitimate objective, but one that will only be pursued peacefully by common consent.

“Therefore there would be no threatening, exclusivist political philosophy which would make people defensive or insular or non co-operative.

“The genius of all of these agreements is that we are all on a common journey together where we have not decided on the destination. The problem with our ideologies in the past was that we had this idea about where we were going but we had no idea how anyone was going to come with us on the journey.

“We have now all decided: let’s go on a journey and forget about the destination – the destination isn’t really important in that respect. We can all work for what it is we would like ideally to see, but this is not something that can be forced or imposed upon people on either side of the island,” the Taoiseach said.

The Belfast and St Andrews agreements, he said,  “have enabled us to rebuild relationships, and the North-South co-operation process is about rebuilding relationships between the two parts of the island on the basis of mutual benefit”.

“Unfortunately in the past the absence of constructive dialogue and the overwhelmingly negative impact of conflict meant that there was no space for those relationships to be mended, for building trust and normality so that we could achieve good neighbourly relations between people who have a lot more in common than what separates them.”

The two parts of the island had “moved on from the paramilitarism of the past to a political culture which is about democratic principles and consensually working together, accommodating each other’s differences and seeing strength in diversity, rather than not exchanging because of past differences”.

“If you look over the past 10-12 years at the joint infrastructural projects we have undertaken; at the promotion of the island of Ireland for tourism purposes; at the joint trade missions; at the far greater levels of co-operation between our educational institutions, particularly in research and development – these are all strategic gains from the principle and practice of North-South co-operation.” The challenge for the North-South bodies set up under the Belfast Agreement was “to be more creative and ambitious”.

“In the initial stages we have ensured that any unnecessary suspicions about surreptitious agendas have been dispelled. North-South co-operation is a transparent, up-front, co-operative model in areas which make a lot of sense to people,” he said.