The Centre for Cross Border Studies celebrated its 20th anniversary in Dundalk last week with a conference reflecting on the Good Friday Agreement and cross-border cooperation. The importance of the Centre’s work was recognised by the keynote speakers, the three most senior civil servants in Britain, Ireland and Northern Ireland: Sir Mark Sedwill, British Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service; Martin Fraser, Secretary General of the Department of the Taoiseach and Secretary General to the Irish Government; and David Sterling, Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service.
I said in my short speech that I could not believe it was almost exactly 20 years ago that I walked into a dusty, half-decorated temporary office in the old Armagh City Hospital with my esteemed colleague, Mairead Hughes, to open the Centre.
I had to apologise that the tone of my remarks was less than celebratory. My hope back in 1999 had been that North-South cooperation, the so-called ‘strand two’ of the previous year’s Good Friday Agreement, would become one of the keys to a new peaceful dispensation in Ireland. This would be one in which the old battles over territorial sovereignty and national self-determination could be gradually replaced by a layered system of cooperation and governance on the island which would duplicate many of the better elements of the European Union: an economic single market, a strong element of multi-level cooperation – between governments, civil society actors and ordinary people – and eventually (this was my personal dream) moves towards some kind of confederation. And so it promised – in a limited but still hopeful fashion – in the years up to 2016.
Queens University Belfast sociologists Liam O’Dowd and Cathal McCall have argued that the distinctiveness of the EU’s contribution to Northern Ireland is “in the extent to which it seeks to de-territorialise the conflict, i.e. to build cross-border networks of cooperation around issues of common interest.” Human rights, the economy, the environment and new technologies were areas where it made obvious sense to co-operate through such transnational networks.
North-South cooperation as one of the keys to peace and reconciliation in Ireland was recognised as long ago as the 1960s by the then Taoiseach Sean Lemass and his visionary chief advisor Ken Whitaker. It was a central part of the short-lived 1974 power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland, which included a strong all-island Council of Ireland: too strong, as it turned out, to be acceptable to the great majority of unionists who were deeply fearful about anything suggesting moves towards Irish political unity. It was one of the key ‘strands’ of the Good Friday Agreement, underpinning the establishment of the new North South Ministerial Council and inter-governmental North-South bodies in seven eminently practical areas ranging from trade and business development to tourism.
Such cooperation was recognised as one of the “quiet success stories” of the post-Good Friday Agreement period by senior Irish officials. Its practicality and lack of threat to anybody’s cherished identity enabled DUP First Minister Peter Robinson to state in 2009 that “the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic has never been better than it is at the present time”. A small miracle appeared to be happening: moves towards all-Ireland economic unity, facilitated by the 1998 Agreement alongside the Single European Market, while retaining largely unchanged the forms of British and Irish political sovereignty.
With nearly €3 billion from a dedicated Peace Programme and the cross-border Interreg programme, the EU supported 24,000 cross-border and cross-community projects in a wide range of areas: in agriculture, business and trade, health, education (including the Centre for Cross Border Studies), the environment, tourism, justice, local government, community development and so on. It was a peace fund for a small, remote region of Europe whose generosity has never been equalled and will probably never be equalled again.
I believed this could have marked the beginning of the extremely difficult business of taking the poison out of centuries of bad relationships in Ireland. We in the Centre for Cross Border Studies added our two ha’pence worth (or maybe a bit more). In a 2011 article I listed the number of ‘firsts’ the Centre had achieved: the first North-South training courses for civil servants; the first citizens information website for people crossing the border to live and work, Border People; the first all-Ireland network of people involved in teacher education (SCoTENS), which its Oxford University evaluator called “an incredible achievement”; the first major initiative involving all Ireland’s nine universities working together (in this case to assist universities in Africa); the first North-South scholarship scheme for postgraduate students; the first in-depth study of how to regenerate the Border Region economy; the first Impact Assessment Toolkit for cross-border cooperation (the first of its kind in Europe); the first cross-border and all-island research projects across a wide range of subjects. I could go on and on.
Some of us might have thought the pace was too slow – but it was happening. Then, in June 2016, the British (or rather the English and Welsh) electorate – without a single thought for the impact on the Northern Irish peace process – voted to leave the EU. With the prospect of a return to the hardest of hard borders (the external frontier of the EU Single Market), that seems to me in my more pessimistic moments to mean the probable end – at least for the foreseeable future – of any vision of progress in Ireland based on cooperation between the British and Irish communities within Northern Ireland; between the North and the South on the island; and between the British and Irish governments as close cooperating partners (close and cooperating in a quite unprecedented way) in the European family of nations. Now, of course, we have a deep constitutional crisis in Brexit-bewitched Britain; an unyielding commitment to the backstop in Ireland; and Irish-British relations probably at their worst for more than 30 years.
Part of this multiple crisis was the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive in January 2017. The most arresting moment at the Dundalk conference was NICS Head David Sterling’s impassioned plea for the Executive to be returned as soon as possible. “We are already at the limits of what civil servants can and cannot do”, he warned. He estimated that economic activity in the province would drop by 9% over the next decade in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The police assessment was that there could be public protest and civil unrest “perhaps leading to disruption of normal life.” When added to a sense of threat to people’s identity and increasing calls for a Border Poll, his assessment was that “the cumulative impact of all of this will be grave for Northern Ireland politically, economically and societally.” In pleading for greater diversity in that narrow and inward-looking society, he also revealed that 35,000 EU citizens had left Northern Ireland since 2016: “We would hope that whatever way Brexit plays out, we don’t become a place that is seen as a cold house for people from elsewhere.”
From this normally extremely cautious senior Northern Ireland civil servant, this was dramatic stuff. Both Mark Sedwill and Martin Fraser praised Sterling for his outspokenness; Fraser paying tribute to the “bravery and dignity” of his speech. I hope politicians in London and Dublin were listening very carefully.
PS Congratulations to acting CCBS director Anthony Soares and his colleagues Mairead Hughes, Annmarie O’Kane, Tricia Kelly and Mark McClatchey for organising such a splendid conference. God bless the cross-border work.