I was looking through the Government’s 2014 spending estimates the other day (as one does) and noticed that spending this year on international cooperation (i.e. cooperation with countries in the developing world) will be €481.5 million, down from €629 million two years ago. This represents 0.47% of Ireland’s Gross National Income, not bad by international standards, but well below our nearest neighbour – whom we love to characterise as isolationist and right-wing – which, under a Conservative government, last year became the first G7 nation to reach the United Nations target of 0.7% of GNI spent on development aid.
In another spending category under the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade I noticed how much the Government is spending this year on ‘reconciliation and cooperation on this island’. This amounts to just over €17 million. Most of it will go on the North South Ministerial Council and the seven North/South bodies and companies set up under the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
That represents 28 euros spent on aid to the developing world for every one euro spent on the cooperation and reconciliation process in Ireland. I’m not criticising this imbalance – in fact, I believe Ireland should be following the UK’s lead and increasing her aid contribution to 0.7% of Gross National Income. But is does show where on the scale of government priorities peace and reconciliation in Ireland comes.
Compare this to the recent news – unreported by the Southern Irish media, as far as I can see – that the EU have awarded €463 million to Northern Ireland and the Irish border region under the PEACE and cross-border INTERREG programmes for the period 2014-2020. This is only very slightly down on the amount these two EU programmes spent in the northern part of the island in 2007-2013, despite warnings that the PEACE programme in particular, after nearly 20 years in existence, and with the EU in poor financial shape, would be very small this time round. It brings to more than €2.5 billion the total given by Europe to this small region since the mid-1990s. Congratulations to the Irish Government and the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB), under Pat Colgan and Shaun Henry, for negotiating another extraordinarily generous deal.
Whatever about the Department of Foreign Affairs’ negotiating skills, it is noticeable that once more the great bulk of funding for peace initiatives in Northern Ireland and cross-border cooperation between North and South comes from Europe. The British and Irish governments put very little of their own money into such work (apart from the 25% national government match funding that is required by the EU in order to draw down its money). It is also deeply ironic that this largesse by the European Union to the island of Ireland is almost totally unappreciated here. Indeed, the euro-scepticism of the Unionist parties and Sinn Fein has, if anything, increased. The strong antipathy towards the EU from the ‘little Britons’ of the DUP and UUP was particularly striking during the recent elections to the European Parliament.
A new emphasis in the post 2014 PEACE programme will be on children and young people, with the ‘shared education’ agenda espoused by the ruling parties at Stormont in line for significant funding (whatever happened to integrated education, one might ask). On the INTERREG side, there will be a strong emphasis on research and innovation, which will benefit both business and higher education institutions (although the latter have hardly been trail-blazers for cross-border cooperation up to now).
The SEUPB have also managed to find a useful home for the €17 million in EU money that wasn’t spent on the abortive Carlingford Lough bridge project. As somebody who believes in rail as an environmentally preferable option to road, I’m delighted that this money is now being spent on improvements to the venerable Drogheda railway viaduct and upgrading the carriages on the Belfast-Dublin Enterprise express.
You probably won’t have read about any of these important developments in the national press in Ireland. Northern Ireland and North-South relations are simply off the agenda as far as the mainstream media is concerned. When I listen to lively debates on RTE about the nation’s finances, education, health service or mother and baby homes, I realise that in the 16 years since the Good Friday Agreement, the hugely important issue of relations between the different – and historically opposed – groups of people on this island has never even entered the mainstream of debate in the Southern jurisdiction. Apart from the occasional flare-up caused by contentious parades, the North is now ‘out of sight, out of mind’ as far as the vast majority of citizens of our Republic are concerned. Which leaves the all-Ireland field entirely in the hands of Sinn Fein, with dangers I have outlined in previous columns and will return to in the future.
Let me end on a personal note. The reason I became interested in Ireland’s record on development cooperation is because I have recently completed a review of a couple of Irish Aid development education projects. I bid for this work because, disappointingly, there seems to be little or no research into North-South cooperation at the moment. There is actually very little new work in North-South cooperation at all, although a couple of interesting ‘baby steps’ (in the words of one official) have emerged in recent months: an InterTradeIreland led North-South steering group to maximise the island’s take-up of EU research and innovation funding under its Horizon 2020 programme, and an inter-governmental committee to plan a joint bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
But is there any cross-border research going on? I have expertise in cross-border governance, education, health, business, trade unionism and community development. A year after retiring from the Centre for Cross Border Studies, that expertise is still relatively fresh – in two or three years it won’t be. This is an unashamed pitch for work. Without wanting to appear immodest, it seems to me a pity that 14 years of knowledge of how to do cross-border cooperation in Ireland and leadership of the highly successful Armagh-based CCBS can’t be put to some use in researching and developing new ideas for this still vitally important area of peace and reconciliation in Ireland.