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Newton Emerson: Why we need to talk about Dublin and Belfast

Forget well-meaning waffle, could the North and South administrations work together?

Dublin and Belfast are Europe’s third- and ninth-ranked “tech cities of the future”, according to an annual survey published in last week’s Financial Times.

Conducted by the paper’s foreign investment intelligence division, it judged 76 European cities by five categories: economic potential; innovation and attractiveness; foreign investment performance; cost effectiveness; and start-up environment.

To have highly placed cities in Northern Ireland and the Republic is a blessing that must be nurtured for everyone's future.

Some reaction to the survey suggested it is an argument for a united Ireland.

It is not an either-or choice: both cities can compete with and complement each other to their mutual benefit

What does it mean for Catalan independence that Barcelona and Madrid were ranked eighth and eleventh?

It is a pity the relationship between the two capital cities on this island cannot be discussed without having to step over constitutional arguments.

An economic conversation is far more rewarding and ultimately points to more meaningful change.

The programme for government, should it ever be delivered, seeks “an all-island approach to national planning frameworks”, as well as developing an all-island economy and cross-Border infrastructure.

Under January's New Decade, New Approach deal, Stormont and the Irish Government are pledged to examine a high-speed rail link between Cork, Dublin and Belfast, described as "a spine of connectivity on this island".

The question is how Belfast and Dublin fit into this as partners and rivals. It is not an either-or choice: both cities can compete with and complement each other to their mutual benefit. However, what this would involve is rarely considered beyond well-meaning waffle.

The outgoing Irish Government’s Project 2040 plan, published in 2017, refers rosily to a Dublin-Belfast economic corridor along the east coast, where it is assumed a rising tide will lift all boats.

Planners and politicians in the North also occasionally nod to this idea.

In practice, cities tend to suck the life out of surrounding towns, better transport links can exacerbate the effect, and greater Dublin is almost three times the size of greater Belfast – big enough to start draining the life out of it too.

Project 2040 was so concerned about the pull of an overheating Dublin, it proposed building an entirely new city in the northwest or midlands.

How would the Republic feel about some of that growth going to Belfast instead?

As the Financial Times survey showed, Belfast and Dublin are competing with each other for foreign investment, inevitably and often deliberately: development agencies everywhere want the same kind of high tech jobs.

With Dublin bursting at the seams, cheap and cheerful Belfast could be a useful overspill for back-office functions and ancillary services

Stormont’s plan to stay competitive has been to match the Republic’s rate of corporation tax. While this is currently on hold, it is Stormont’s only big idea on the subject and remains an option. The Republic considers it a hostile act.

Yet, with Dublin bursting at the seams, cheap and cheerful Belfast could be a useful overspill for back-office functions and ancillary services.

Conversely, Dublin’s international reputation and air links make it a great front office for Belfast.

Are the northern and southern administrations capable of working together on this, as both say they want to do? Some evidence for it would not go amiss.

Belfast City Council is partnering up with councils across the eastern half of Northern Ireland to form a so-called city deal, with British government and Stormont support, creating a city region that will run right down to the Border.

This promises a more balanced urban counterpart to Dublin, whose commuter zone now runs right up to the Border. Again, there is no sign of this being seriously discussed on a North-South basis.

Brexit

Having two cities in separate jurisdictions creates problems and opportunities for business. Brexit will vastly amplify that, perhaps with no opportunities worth the hassle. Unionists and nationalists cannot help but see this through a political prism but most investors would be satisfied with clarity on how to move or split activities between Belfast and Dublin. There is precious little sign this is at the top of the agenda of the North-South forums and Brexit committees with relevant remits.

The economic conversation comes back to constitutional arguments quickly enough.

Belfast has a sense of itself as a capital that maintains its civic distinctness and has probably been significant in garnering attention and investment.

When the Irish Government was drafting Project 2040, it considered the possibility of a united Ireland but did not appear to appreciate this would turn its plans on their head.

Instead of a State with one overwhelmingly dominant city, trying to decentralise its growth out to the regions, Ireland would become a country with two major cities, complete with the classic problems of “second city syndrome”. Belfast would be the new Derry, no doubt to Derry’s great amusement.

Tying to make plans that work in the present while accounting for such a future is a complicated challenge. But that is the promise parties are making when they throw around terms like “all-island planning frameworks” and “a spine of creativity on this island”.