Invisibility and inertia: the disappointing story of North-South cooperation

Whatever has happened to North-South cooperation in recent years? As somebody who was intimately involved in it for 14 years, it seems to me to have become almost invisible. The North South Ministerial Council, set up by the Good Friday Agreement to oversee it, is suspended. I hear occasional radio adverts from InterTradeIreland offering small grants to help businesses get ready for Brexit. Tourism Ireland is the only one of the seven North-South bodies that is clearly a success story. When I read about 156 North-South cooperation programmes listed in a recent British government report, I count the 40 or so I have come across and wonder how significant the others are. One thing is certain: in the words of Seamus Mallon, one of their great champions in the late 1990s, they are “grossly underdeveloped.”

Where, for example, is the evidence of progress in those areas where it just plain common sense to have greater practical cooperation on this small island: in agriculture, health, energy, tourism, and education? The potential both for major economies of scale and greater mutual understanding here are immense. What I can see in these areas is mainly missed opportunities.Let us take them one by one.

Agriculture, with its huge importance to the economies of both North and South, is an obvious area for greater cooperation. There was a high level of cooperation between the two Departments of Agriculture during the 2001 foot and mouth disease crisis. Back then there was a lot of discussion between Belfast and Dublin about an all-island animal health policy which would help Irish farmers, north and south, to trade internationally from a disease-free island; bring localised outbreaks of animal disease quickly under control; and react jointly to common animal health problems in the farming industry. So what has happened to that eminently sensible proposal?

Joint marketing is another area that makes great sense. Northern farmers and food processors could benefit enormously if their produce was sold as Irish-made in expanding markets in Europe and Asia. Nobody in most of those countries has the slightest idea about the existence of the border; what they know about is the clean, ‘green’ image of Irish food, which has contributed to a spectacular growth in its export performance in recent decades. And a lot of Irish food is produced on a cross-border basis.

Take the example of poultry, an important sector in the border region. Here eggs might be laid in the North, hatched in the Republic, and then the birds sent back across the border for ‘rearing’. Yet the Department of Agriculture in Dublin and Bord Bia, the state’s food marketing body, do not recognise any duck, turkey or chicken with any part of its processing based in Northern Ireland as Irish for export purposes. Would it not make sense for the two Departments of Agriculture to work together to maximise the export potential of farmers in the whole island by selling such produce as Irish in the big food fairs around the world? The same goes for beef, lamb, milk and all their highly valuable processed by-products.

It is no coincidence that the past 20 years has seen most of the big food processing companies in the South expanding their operations into Northern Ireland, so that most supply chains in the industry in both jurisdictions are now cross-border. They recognise that this is now effectively an all-island industry. The government departments in Dublin and Belfast should have followed suit long ago, although such a joint approach will become extremely difficult after Brexit.

Health is a key issue in a society, north and south, which by European standards is both rural and ill-served by public transport (making hospital access often very difficult). The most successful North-South network here is Cooperation and Working Together (CAWT), the partnership of health boards and trusts set up in 1992 to serve the whole border region between Derry and Dundalk. It has used EU funding to undertake and provide a range of cross-border projects and services in acute care, primary care, family and child care, learning disabilities, health promotion, public health and mental health in that peripheral region. More than 50,000 people have benefited from the cross-border services it has pioneered in areas like radiotherapy, cardiology, ENT and paediatric heart surgery. It has been singled out by the European Commission as a model for cross-border health cooperation in Europe.

However CAWT’s successful example has not been followed elsewhere. This is a major missed opportunity for North-South health cooperation. As one senior Northern Ireland official of my acquaintance put it recently: “Neither health system is in good shape, but some rationalisation could have been done together. The cross-border justification could have been used: ‘this has to happen on a cross-border basis – otherwise it won’t happen’. 60% of people on the island live in the Dublin-Belfast corridor, yet there is no sense of any coordinated services or activities there.”

Another key sector is energy, which ironically was not designated as an area for cooperation under the Good Friday Agreement, but where the electricity companies have acted as a major commercial driver. This saw the extension of the South’s natural gas pipeline network to the North in 2005; the establishment of an all-island (wholesale) electricity market in 2007 and an all-island electricity grid in 2008; and finally, the Republic’s state-owned electricity company, the Electricity Supply Board, buying the North’s largest supplier, Northern Ireland Electricity, in 2010. These highly complex linked operations were accomplished successfully with little publicity and little opposition from unionist politicians impressed by the strong economic arguments for them.

As we move from oil and coal-fired electricity to renewable energy from a wide variety of natural sources, there must be huge potential for further cooperation – and exporting to international markets – in this island of high winds and big waves and strong tides. At a time when the need to combat catastrophic climate change by switching to sustainable energy is becoming more and more urgent, this is an example where cooperation on the island could help in a small way to protect the planet!

Tourism Ireland, which markets tourism on the whole island overseas, is an outstanding example of how a successful all-Ireland service industry can be sold abroad. The World Economic Forum has put Ireland third in the world when it comes to overseas tourism marketing. Northern Ireland has benefited spectacularly from its work. Over a million people visited the Giant’s Causeway in 2018 compared to just over 100,000 in the mid-1980s. Belfast’s Titanic Centre had 850,000 visitors. In 2017 there were 2.2 million tourists to Northern Ireland, up 70% over the previous eight years.

In this sector the border simply does not make sense. Few if any overseas tourists care or even know about it. Yet the hugely successful Wild Atlantic Way initiative to promote the beautiful south and west coasts has to stop in Donegal: the overwhelming logic is that it should continue along the Causeway Coast in County Antrim. Similarly, the Ireland’s Ancient East campaign, to promote 5,000 years of history and archaeology, has to exclude the rich ancient sites of Armagh and Down. The new Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands programme, in the Shannon basin, cannot include Fermanagh. What possible reason can there be for not replicating our impressive overseas marketing of Ireland abroad, by putting in place the efficiencies and economies of scale that would result from the establishment of one tourist board for the whole island at home? As the head of Tourism Ireland, Niall Gibbons says: “Peace brings tourism and tourism brings peace; they go hand in hand.”

Education can play a vital role in ensuring that the barriers of mutual ignorance and misunderstanding – between North and South, unionists and nationalists – which my generation and previous generations suffered from, do not endure. In the 25 years from the late 1980s onwards, North-South cooperation in education and training saw thousands of mainly short-term individual projects funded by the EU and other foreign donors, but which suffered seriously from a lack of the kind of coordinating structure which should have been provided by the Departments of Education in Dublin and the North.

However some of these projects were significant. In 2010, wearing my hat as director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies, I did a report for the two departments which estimated the large numbers of students and young people involved in them: 70,000 in the European Studies programme, involving nearly 200 Irish secondary schools; 30,000 in the Dissolving Boundaries project, which brought primary, secondary and special schools together through IT and face-to-face contact; 17,000 in the Wider Horizons youth training and employability project; 14,000 in the Education for Reconciliation secondary schools project run by City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee; and so on. I estimated the amount of EU and other overseas funding (along with some from the two governments on the island) that went into these and other educational projects in the first decade of the century at more than €133 million; this is now reduced to a trickle. 

I concluded that report as follows: “This must be the largest cross-border movement of young people for the purposes of education and mutual understanding anywhere in the world in recent memory. This movement affects not only the students themselves, but their teachers, their families and their communities. There is a great opportunity here for consolidating the present peace and future reconciliation of Ireland by continuing to work with the more open minds of children and young people. This must not be lost by lack of foresight on the part of the leaders and planners of the island’s educational systems. If the gains of the extraordinary explosion in North- South educational cooperation of the past 10-15 years are allowed to peter out, what will the people of Ireland say in 10 or 20 or 50 years?” Nine years on, I can only say with great sadness that this is precisely what has happened.

The level of North-South cooperation nearly 21 years after the Good Friday Agreement is frankly disappointing (and this is before Brexit). When there was significant EU Peace and INTERREG money for such cooperation up to around 2014, there was some important work going on. That continues in parts of the private sector such as agri-food and energy. But two unimaginative and largely inert governments and their public services in Belfast and Dublin have failed utterly to build on the high hopes of the years after 1998. I only hope that Brexit is not the final, knock-out blow to this vital element in both the peace process and the longer-term prospect of reconciliation through practical cooperation on the island.

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3 Responses to Invisibility and inertia: the disappointing story of North-South cooperation

  1. Gary Mason says:


    I actually did an email about this topic yesterday, and how we need to be engaged much better, like many up here I am tired of the verbal gymnastics around Brexit, be good to chat soon.


    > Rev. Dr. Gary Mason > Director Rethinking Conflict > Tel: +447767271460 > > > See our Facebook page at >


  2. hegemonic says:

    Great stuff, Andy. Very helpful for all the detail.

    I would now wager that Brexit is more likely than not to be stopped by its inherent craziness-especially now what is left of the British bourgeoisie after Thatcherite deindustrialisation and Cameronite austerity is jumping up and down about broken supply chains and cut-off export markets.

    If so, there is a potential progressive rebound, so to speak, which would allow us in Ireland to re-foreground the north-south agenda. I had a useful lunch with the political and reconciliation director in the DFAT on Wednesday, discussing that. We agreed to continue the discussion after the Brexit smoke had cleared.

    Kind regards


  3. Frank Dolaghan says:

    Excellent article which should make political parties in both parts of the island hang their heads in shame but they are not the only ones to blame. Given the huge investment in developing cross border cooperation why has the movement not developed a momentum of its own? Most sectors in both parts of the island have taken their eye off the ball.

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