Cross-Border co-operation has paid dividends – but is it in peril?

Multiple programmes – the fruit of the Belfast Agreement – are threatened by Brexit

These days North-South co-operation runs deep and wide. But can it survive Brexit intact? Or will it, as an Irish official warns, be allowed to "wither"?

The 1998 Belfast Agreement makes explicit reference to 12 "areas for co-operation"on programmes and institutions run under the aegis of the North-South Ministerial Council.

But scratch the surface and the number soars.

British Brexit officials engaged in what they call an audit for the Brussels talks, now put the figure at 150 – mostly sub-categories of the 12 – and still counting. Some two-thirds of these are said to be directly or indirectly underpinned by EU law, compliance to which Ireland will remain committed.


Much of the co-operation may be mundane, but it is viewed by all sides as a crucial underpinning of peace on the island.

But whether it’s common approaches to the health of cows, the emergency surgery facilities in Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin, for children with congenital heart disease from across the island, cofunding of a new Dublin-to-Derry road, or working together on cleaning up our water, multiple programmes that are largely the fruit of the Belfast Agreement are potentially threatened by Brexit. Safeguarding them is a crucial and complex challenge for the phase-one “divorce” talks under way in Brussels.

Along with the protection of the Common Travel Area, on which significant progress has been made, broad political agreement on safeguarding North-South co-operation and the Belfast Agreement “in all its aspects” will be necessary, heads of government are agreed, before the UK will be allowed to proceed to second-phase talks on the “future relationship” and, crucially, on trade issues and our “frictionless border”.

Fractious talks

EU officials await with interest the UK audit – no doubt they will add to the 150 – and to hearing the UK explains how it proposes, as co-guarantor of the Belfast Agreement, to give the programmes a new legal base and lease of life.

Unlike the fractious talks on the UK Brexit bill, in theory the UK is committed in principle to continuity on all these programmes, but there are more than a few challenges that will be politically difficult and will need serious financial undertakings to be given – Ireland and the UK are currently partners in three EU-funded cross-Border co-operation programmes worth €650 million between 2014 and 2020. A lengthy legislative road lies ahead.

Take agriculture, a policy area where Ireland already willingly cedes to the EU sole negotiating rights after Brexit. In effect, North-South co-operation becomes North-EU co-operation, with the South acting on the union’s behalf, enforcing its regulations, which will no longer be binding on the UK.

The UK has said in its Northern Ireland negotiating paper that it hopes to shadow evolving EU regulations in the hope of maintaining an "equivalence" of standards on both sides of the Border and so make border controls unnecessary. But the EU will insist not only similar standards but equivalent enforcement mechanisms, including almost certainly the possibility of reference of disputes to the European Court of Justice.

That may be too much for the UK to stomach, particularly as it will also want to do separate agricultural trade deals with countries such as the US. And in crafting a deal specifically for the North, much will depend on the extent to which the UK is willing to devolve powers now held in Brussels to the still-suspended Northern Irish Executive.

Or there's health policy. One tangible outcome of health sector co-operation is the new radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry, which opened last year. When fully operational it will be able to treat just over 1,500 new patients, including patients from Donegal and Sligo who would otherwise have to travel to Galway for radiotherapy. This £66 million project has been funded on a North-South basis.

The hospital is currently subject to EU rules on everything from blood product standards to data privacy, organ transplantation to medical instrument testing. EU public procurement rules apply, and the staff, like those in all cross-Border bodies, can avail of social and employment rights such as the Working Time Directive. Again, the UK has said it is committed to transposing such rights intact into its law, but the EU will want to ensure that there can be no slippage in future and that new rules also apply.

Transport issues

In transport there will be issues, among many others, about co-funding major road and rail link infrastructure, such as the line from Dublin to Belfast; in education, the rights of children and students to study on both sides of the Border and the recognition of teacher qualifications; in security, although not strictly part of the Belfast Agreement list, questions will arise about the future of the European arrest warrant and sharing of data.

Environmental co-operation is also extensive. One key element focuses on the management of the three International River Basin Districts, which all cross the Border – the North Western, Neagh Bann and Shannon districts – and the implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive.

Then there’s the challenge of sustaining the all-island wholesale electricity market or Single Electricity Market developed from the all-island energy project of the North-South Ministerial Council.

Or what to do about the absence in the UK of a system of designated geographical designations that in the EU protect unique regional products from being copied – what future for Irish whiskey and Bushmills?

When the Brussels talks resume later this month, EU and Irish officials hope they can begin to discuss in detail such issues and “unique” solutions. It will be a lengthy and complex process.

Areas for co-operation

The North-South Ministerial Council, consisting of representatives of the Government and Northern Ireland Executive, is responsible for 12 “areas for co-operation”. Six are in areas where co-operation must be agreed together but implemented separately in each jurisdiction. Six more are in areas where co-operation is agreed together and implemented through shared all-Ireland “implementation bodies”.

Areas for co-operation where implementation is carried out separately:

- Agriculture: Common Agricultural Policy issues, animal and plant health, agricultural research and rural development.

- Education: Education for children with special needs, educational under-achievement, teacher qualifications and school, youth and teacher exchanges.

- Environment: Environmental protection, pollution, water-quality management and waste management.

- Health: Accident and emergency planning, co-operation on high-technology equipment, cancer research and health promotion.

- Tourism: The promotion of the island of Ireland as a tourist destination for overseas visitors via the establishment of a new company, known as Tourism Ireland.

- Transport: Co-operation on strategic transport planning including road and rail infrastructure and public transport services and road and rail safety.

The six all-Ireland implementation bodies are:

- Waterways Ireland: Management of specific and chiefly recreational inland waterways.

- Food Safety Promotion Board: Food safety awareness.

- Special European Union Programmes Body: Management and oversight of EU programmes and common chapters of the National Development Plan (Republic of Ireland) and the Northern Ireland Structural Funds Plan.

- The North/South Language Body: Promotion of the Irish and Ulster Scots languages through two separate agencies, Foras na Gaeilge (Irish) and Tha Boord o Ulstèr-Scotch (Ulster Scots).

- InterTradeIreland: Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland trade and business development.

- Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission: The management and development of Lough Foyle and Carlingford Lough and coastal lights through two separate agencies, the Loughs Agency and Lights Agency.