North-South co-operation

Sir, –Newton Emerson is right to wonder about the accuracy and utility of the list of 142 policy areas of North-South co-operation identified by the British and Irish governments, Northern Ireland civil servants and the European Commission in 2017 (“Brexit mapping exercise is dangerously off course”, June 27th). The impression has been given to the public that this is a very important sector initiated by the Belfast Agreement which is now imperilled by Brexit.

As the founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh, and somebody who was dedicated to researching and developing North-South co-operation for 14 years, I have to say that this is an erroneous impression. Such co-operation is a tiny element in the governmental activities of both administrations in Dublin and Belfast. The seven North-South bodies and companies set up by the 1998 agreement had a total budget of €64 million in 2016 – this compares to total Irish government budget expenditure in that year of over €55 billion (thus around 0.11 per cent of total government spending).

To baldly list 142 areas of North-South cooperation, without further elaboration, is misleading in the extreme. Many of the items listed are mere technical mechanisms to allow for the passage and monitoring of goods across the Border. Very few are major cross-Border initiatives or programmes. Some, such as informal agreements on cross-Border taxi fares, three yearly meetings to talk about biodiversity or the occasional joint inspection of schools, are utterly insignificant or rarely happen.

In my experience, North-South co-operation over the past 21 years has largely been, in Seamus Mallon’s words, “grossly underdeveloped.” Take any area where it is plain common sense to have cross-Border co-operation on this small island, and you will see missed opportunities and unrealised potential. In agriculture, for example, what happened to the all-island animal health policy to help Irish farmers, North and South, to trade internationally from a disease-free island, which was so talked about after the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease crisis?


In health, why has the example of the highly successful Cooperation and Working Together alliance of Border region health boards and trusts, which has used EU funding to pioneer cross-Border services in areas like radiotherapy, cardiology and ENT, not been followed elsewhere?

In energy, why hasn’t the series of innovative steps which led to a single all-island electricity market and the purchase of Northern Ireland Electricity by the ESB led to major new co-operation in the vital area of renewable energy?

In tourism, what possible reason can there be for not building on the work of the most successful North-South body of them all, Tourism Ireland’s impressive overseas marketing campaigns, by putting in place the efficiencies that would result from the establishment of one tourist board for the whole island?

In 2010 I did a study for the two departments of education detailing the movement of over 150,000 school students and teachers across the Border through co-operation projects largely funded by the EU and other foreign donors. This has now been reduced to a trickle.

I concluded that report: “There is a great opportunity here for consolidating the present peace and future reconciliation of Ireland by continuing to work with the more open minds of children and young people. This must not be lost by lack of foresight on the part of the leaders and planners of the island’s educational systems. If the gains of the extraordinary explosion in North-South educational co-operation of the past 10-15 years are allowed to peter out, what will the people of Ireland say in 10 or 20 or 50 years?” Nine years on, I can only say with great sadness that this is precisely what has happened.

One can’t blame Brexit for these North-South cooperation failures; they pre-date the fateful June 2016 vote. However Brexit will make even the limited cooperation that continues to exist doubly or trebly difficult in the future. – Yours, etc.,


Rathmines, Dublin 6.