In defence of North/South Co-operation

In response to a recent piece in the Newsletter by Lord John Laird, Sean Farren provides a defence of the work of the North South bodies, and Northern Ireland’s medium to long term interest in it.By Sean Farren

Co-operation between Northern Ireland and the South is a positive political, economic and cultural fact of life in Northern Ireland. North/South bodies are making a positive difference and cross border co-operation is clearly delivering change for the better and mutual benefit.

Contrary to Lord Laird’s claims, the £67 million spent on North/South arrangements is well spent. His campaign distorts the reality of North/South co-operation, is ill-founded and damaging to Northern Ireland’s interests.

North/South co-operation is a key plank of the Good Friday Agreement and the arrangements agreed were essential to reaching that accord.

Where there is clear advantage from deepening co-operation – such as food safety, EU funding, management of our waterways and loughs, tourism marketing and trade – agreed North/South co-operation is managed by public servants. There is intensive co-operation in a number of other areas – such as health, environment, and education as well – and the management of this co-operation is achieved by existing Civil Service departments.

All bodies are fully accountable to Ministers North and South in the North/South Ministerial Council. Their activities and expenditure are also subject to scrutiny by the respective Comptrollers and Auditors General. North/South bodies are accountable not to one, but to two legislatures!

The £67 million which Lord Laird sees as “wasted money” represents start-up costs, together with salary and pension costs over a four year period for seven public bodies and over 700 public servants. It is an investment over four years in public organisations that are delivering real benefits for Northern Ireland.

Take the case of trade. The huge growth in the Southern economy over recent years is a golden opportunity for Northern companies. Thanks in great part to the work of InterTrade Ireland, cross-border trade and investment links are growing at a major rate. Its Equity Network programme,which promotes the better use of venture capital, has been very successful in terms of helping start-up companies in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland businesses exported over €1 billion worth of goods to the Republic last year. Since 1994, trade has grown by 35%. This volume of trade is sustaining jobs and creating new jobs.

Lord Laird asks: “What has Tourism Ireland done for Northern Ireland?” The answer John is a lot actually. A highly skilled and dedicated workforce of 150 people is working hard to market the island of Ireland, including Northern Ireland, as an overseas tourist destination. Their efforts support the excellent work of the Tourist boards North and South.

As a result Northern Ireland has been among the best performing tourist destinations in Europe in the last two years. Tourist figures are up, with an estimated 14% increase in overseas visitors in 2003.

John Laird also complains about an alleged lack of attention to the Ulster Scots market. Tourism Ireland has identified the potential to grow tourism from the Ulster Scots population in North/America – or Scots Irish as they are called there, and has also undertaken a number of initiatives in consultation with the Ulster Scots Agency.

The argument about unification and North/South co-operation is a red herring. The question of whether and how a united Ireland will come about, based on the doctrine of consent, is fully settled in the Good Friday Agreement. Yes, in the meantime, the new North/South institutions help to provide an institutional expression of the Irish identity of Northern Nationalists.

In his haste to condemn what he opposes for political reasons, John Laird misses a vital point. Experience in Europe and elsewhere around the world has shown that institutions are a key to successful co-operation between states. If there is any waste involved, I suggest that it is in the time and energy that John Laird is expending on railing against reality – the reality that North/South co-operation and its institutions are good for Northern Ireland, good for the people of Northern Ireland and here to stay.

First published in the Newsletter