Micheál Martin’s Shared Island: concrete cross-Border co-operation from an unlikely republican

€1bn ‘slush fund’ has overcome initial suspicions from unionism – but republicans think it falls short when it comes to aspirations for a united Ireland

Micheál Martin is probably the least traditionally republican Fianna Fáil leader since Jack Lynch. So it is ironic that the Shared Island initiative – very much associated with him – is seen by a significant portion of the unionist community as some kind of “slush fund for a United Ireland”.

Anyone familiar with Martin’s politics knows that being at the vanguard of a push for a unitary state is just about the last place he wants to be.

That said, the headline numbers of the Shared Island fund are big enough for critics to base such an argument. It has an impressive budget of €1 billion to splash around. That means spreading the largesse to a large number of projects and communities in the North. The Ulster Canal, which crosses the border into Co Monaghan, is one such project. Another is a contribution to the long-awaited upgrade of the A5 through Co Tyrone and Co Derry. Another project that has been talked about for almost a generation is the Narrow Water Bridge which will connect Omeath in Co Louth to Warrenpoint in Co Down across Carlingford Lough.

For Martin, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, the impetus for setting it up came during his time as taoiseach in 2021. It was borne out of his frustration at the inertia of Northern politics in recent years. Some north-south initiatives, hard won in negotiations leading up to the Belfast Agreement, were being allowed to lie fallow. The new Government wanted to do something that was practical and real to rejuvenate north-south co-operation. Martin framed it in such as to present it as being of mutual benefit to both communities, but without forwarding a particular constitutional position.


“There was a need to move things,” he told me late last week.

“All my life I’ve been listening to rhetoric about Northern Ireland and I’ve been somewhat impatient with it. There is a real hunger among people living on the island, irrespective of their political perspectives, to have pragmatic and practical engagement.”

And practical it is. There are dozens of projects (big and small) on biodiversity, bog restoration, cross-Border electric vehicle charging points, arts programmes, innovation hubs, sports clubs and cultural events, including some that are exclusively geared towards orangeism and unionism.

No more has the need for cross-Border co-operation been more obvious than in health. For hospitals such as Altnagelvin in Derry and Enniskillen, their population catchment areas straddle the Border. People from Donegal who need cath-lab services go to Altnagelvin. For some specialities or rare diseases and cancers (including for children), an all-of-island population is needed to justify centres of excellence.

Martin wants to deepen those ties and broaden them. For him, it all comes down to one basic question: “How do we live together in a more reconciled way without prejudging people’s different constitutional perspectives.”

When you talk to unionists they all point to the obvious benefits that come from, as a Democratic Unionist Party source put it, “being good neighbours”. Southern money going into the A5 makes sense because someone driving from Letterkenny or Buncrana to Dublin will have to pass through the North.

The announcement last week by the Government that it will spend €10 million in funding 250 nursing places in Northern Ireland is a case in point, although the news caught unionist politicians on the hop. There was a bit of self-interest in it for the Department of Health, as 200 of the places will be for southern students, although they will be free to work in either jurisdiction after graduation.

The response from the DUP was not outright opposition but it did not welcome the move with open arms. “The DUP wants to see more students from Northern Ireland being trained in Northern Ireland and staying in Northern Ireland to work in our health service,” said its health spokesman Paul Givan.

That’s the high wire act that’s involved, getting projects done, deepening engagement and co-operation between both jurisdictions, without being accused of it being part of a stealthy territorial grab.

Differing perceptions

While the Ulster Unionist Party has seemed somewhat more willing to accept the concept according to its own lights, its leader Douglas Beattie has said that differing perceptions of it being a threat or a benefit are found among his party colleagues.

“When you are a unionist and there’s a fund which is called the Shared Island fund, that creates a suspicion. It is probably unfounded but it’s still there,” Beattie told me.

“On reflection, when you look at this, it seems to be something that is actually positive. In fact, some unionist organisations have benefited from it. So I think we’re starting to get past that stage where the suspicion is deep rooted.”

For the DUP, the Northern Ireland Protocol has muddied the waters and made Shared Island harder to readily accept, and there is still lingering suspicion of the motives of the Irish Government. “The protocol was put in place,” says a party figure, “without any recognition from the Irish Government that it required east-west infrastructure. No nationalist would have tolerated that infrastructure on a north-south basis. The role of the southern Government led to a fraying of the relationship.”

The suspicion of the motives behind Shared Island runs deeper in the DUP than among more moderate unionism. “Some people see it as a slush fund for a united Ireland,” says the DUP figure who spoke on a background basis. “There are a million Protestants in Northern Ireland who are British and who want to be British.” He adds, a little cynically: “A few electric charging points along the Border are not going to lead to a united Ireland.”

To be fair, the DUP’s attitude to its southerly neighbour is a bit more subtle than a blanket defence. “The nature of the relationship is complex. We need to work and live together as neighbours,” says the same figure.

That conundrum was addressed in a speech by DUP leader Arlene Foster at the Killarney Economic Conference in 2018, which was seen as her most conciliatory towards the Republic. She recalled growing up on the Fermanagh-Monaghan border and her grandmother cycling to and from Clones to sell Irish lace.

In that speech, she likened Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to “semidetached houses” that look the same on the outside but are very different inside. However, both remained connected.

“Success for one of us is success for the other. As we chart a new course for the future, it is not in our interests to see the Republic of Ireland do anything other than prosper,” she said.


While there is broad support in the south for the initiative, some question Micheál Martin’s motives. Within Fianna Fáil there are some who believe its purposeful lack of a long-term aim of a united Ireland has diluted the party’s republicanism. As for Sinn Féin, it has supported the Shared Island project, but sees it not as an end in itself but rather as part of a larger process for which the end goal is Irish unity. It wants, among other things, a Citizens’ Assembly on Irish reunification and a Border poll. Speaking last October, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald described the Shared Island Unit as then taoiseach “Micheál Martin’s baby”.

She said: “It’s good enough but it’s not a substitute for what actually needs to happen.”

The project is much wider than just funding mutually beneficial projects. Shared Island has run a series of thought-provoking dialogues and forums on politics, health, education and society. It has also commissioned detailed and ongoing research from the Economic and Social Research Institute and from the National Economic and Social Council on life outcomes north and south. One recent finding showed a shocking disparity in education, with 14 per cent of those aged between 16 and 24 in the North leaving with no more than a lower secondary qualification, compared with 6 per cent in the Republic. ESRI research also showed that the perception that the National Health Service in the North is far superior to health services in the Republic “did not stand up to the data”.

Mick Fealty, who runs the Slugger O’Toole political website, has argued that the impact of Shared Island on Northern politics has not been given a fair hearing in the Republic.

“The significance of all this important north-south work appears to have been almost completely lost on the southern Irish media, and therefore the public it is meant to inform. It is not only the most practical and sensible way to bring the island together in areas of key concern to ordinary people, it is also a potentially transformative new emphasis based on developing fruitful relationships through joint working, rather than on old-style irredentist nationalism,” he wrote.

Martin has argued his proposition is a simple one. It is an effort to fully work the Belfast Agreement, nothing more. There is no latent agenda, no ulterior motives. It’s an end, not a means to one.

The Tánaiste is of a view that thinking has shifted on the project and more people realise practical co-operation and dialogue at the ground level is a good way forward, with few downsides for either community. “I think [unionists] would have been negative about it or maybe would not have participated a year ago. I sense they are not as ideologically opposed now. That’s the journey we have to travel I think. We need to learn more about each other, learn more about each other’s background, perspectives and traditions.”