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Casement Park brings North/South cross-Border co-operation on to a new pitch

Cross-Border co-operation has become easier in recent years, but it remains a balancing act

Every politician walks a tightrope when it comes to cross-Border co-operation, even if it has become an easier journey to navigate in recent years.

Speaking online because of Covid restrictions as he launched the Government’s Shared Island programme in October 2020, Micheál Martin emphasised that co-operation did not mean unity.

“We can all work together for a shared future without in any way relinquishing our equally legitimate ambitions and beliefs – nationalist, unionist or neither,” he said.

Shared Island was, and is, about practical co-operation, not ideology, one where “all sections of society, North and South – nationalist, unionist or neither – can engage fully and confidently”, he said then.


Ever since, politicians from the Republic have pointedly mentioned “all island” – rather than speaking just about “Ireland”, emphasising that it is about sensible co-operation, shorn of constitutional ambition.

Unionist politicians, on the other hand, have become more comfortable, if not entirely so, with Shared Island, partly because Mr Martin deliberately started out with low-key projects.

Equally, they are too canny to reject southern cash for projects that are self-evidently in the interests of their own constituents, regardless of which side of the community they are on.

However, the programme passed a big junction on Tuesday, with the Government’s announcement of €600 million for a new A5 road connecting Derry and Tyrone with the South.

In addition, there is money to build the Narrow Water Bridge, linking the Mournes to the Cooley Peninsula, as well as a €50 million contribution to build the new Casement Park stadium in west Belfast.

Up to Tuesday, the projects chosen were lower key, such as extra college places for students across the northwest, cross-Border university research or local authority co-operation.

This time, however, the money is going into projects that everyone can see, not just those whose job it is to watch what is, or what should be happening, on cross-Border issues.

The language used in reaction to Tuesday’s announcement tells its own story, illustrating the tensions that exist within unionism following Stormont’s restoration.

In his very first sentence, the Democratic Unionist Party leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, drove home the message that none of this is new, rather that the southern cash for the A5 had first been agreed with Rev Ian Paisley back in 2007.

The subliminal message, one could be forgiven for thinking, to his own die-hards, unhappy to go back into the Assembly and Executive, is that if it was “good enough for Paisley, it’s good enough for you”.

The Republic’s pledged contribution to Paisley had fallen away “following the financial crash” when it was “unable” to honour its commitments, but it is now being “restored”, a result he welcomed.

The decision to partly pay for Casement, however, is another story, since it brings Shared Island for the first time into a controversy based on identity, not pragmatism.

The DUP, Mr Donaldson said, welcomed support for “genuine cross-Border” projects, but it was “not the job, or the responsibility” of Dublin to fund Northern Ireland’s “general infrastructure”.

The GAA should receive the allocation “as previously agreed” with the Northern Ireland Executive to redevelop Casement, though he noted that would not be enough.

The DUP “could not see” how extra UK taxpayers’ cash would be available “when other public services are in need” and it would be up to London to “clarify”, he said.

In Dublin Castle this month, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar emphasised the benefits of sensible cross-Border co-operation, pointing to Dublin-supported cancer and cardiac services in Altnagelvin in Derry.

“By bringing Donegal together with Derry and Tyrone you had that critical mass. Otherwise, that would have been in Dublin, or Galway or Belfast,” he said, adding “it’s working really well”.

Equally, paediatric cancer services benefiting northern children is happening in Dublin, a development quietly pushed by unionist politicians: “Often this is all best done when it isn’t ‘constitutionalised’,” Mr Varadkar said.

However, North/South co-operation works best when there is a Stormont administration to co-operate with, so Dublin wants to see Stormont last, and succeed.

Casement will remain a sore, both because of its ascending costs and the sectarianism it provokes, but a solution is not, and will not be found, in Stormont’s own budget.

In his words in Dublin Castle, Mr Varadkar stressed that Euro 2028 was an Ireland/UK bid: “It would be a real shame if the only part of Ireland or the UK where games don’t happen is Northern Ireland,” he said then.

On the broader front, he said: “Casement Park will be the headquarters for Ulster GAA. There are nine counties in Ulster, so I don’t think it is unreasonable that we would make a contribution to that.”

For now, the Government will hope that Stormont Ministers sign off quickly on the A5 if the road gets planning approval, and get Narrow Water under way. Nothing convinces like the sight of diggers and shovels.

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy is Ireland and Britain Editor with The Irish Times