So the people of the Republic of Ireland have voted ‘No’ to the Lisbon Treaty. They listened to the siren voices of right wing mavericks like Declan Ganley and Coir (Youth Defence under another name) and left wing mavericks like Sinn Fein and Joe Higgins rather than to the 95% of their elected representatives who – along with business, trade union and farmers leaders – had urged them to vote in favour.
Sitting here in Armagh, it is not for me to comment on this extraordinary popular decision, although the tone of my opening paragraph indicates where my sympathies lie. All I want to say is that we in the Centre for Cross Border Studies continue to believe strongly that the future of both parts of Ireland lies with the extraordinary invention that is the European Union: the most consensual, most peaceful, most democratic alliance of nations history has even seen, an oasis of political, economic and financial stability in an increasingly uncertain world. That world needs to hear the EU’s voice of sanity and dialogue in vital areas like climate change, fuel and food security and the Middle East. It would be a real tragedy if Ireland, having been helped by hugely generous EU partners to free its people from a narrow, inward-looking and poverty stricken past, were now to be marginalised and excluded as Europe faces up to the challenges of the future. In Northern Ireland, we have particular reason to be grateful to the EU for the 1.5 billion European taxpayers have pumped in over the past decade to help turn this violent boondock into a peaceful and prosperous region.
I was reminded forcefully of how much Ireland, North and South, owes to Europe during a conference the Centre organised in Dundalk on 12 and 13 June (coincidentally referendum polling and counting day in the Republic) under the title: ‘Cross-Border Cooperation as part of the Northern Irish peace process: Some Lessons for Europe’. People attended from 11 European countries – from Spain to Poland, from Scotland to Kosovo – to discuss how the development of border regions in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe has been assisted by support from the EU’s PEACE and INTERREG programmes, often after decades of neglect by their national governments. The conference was opened by Irish Justice Minister (until last month Foreign Minister) Dermot Ahern, who as a deputy for County Louth has worked manfully to help bring EU cross-border funding to Ireland in recent years.
It heard some fascinating statistics from Special EU Programmes Body chief executive Pat Colgan. He said that no fewer than 446,000 people in Northern Ireland and the Irish Border Region have benefited from EU funded projects in the past decade, with over 130,000 of them participating in cross-border activities, nearly 90,000 gaining qualifications and over 22,000 engaging in reconciliation activities.
The prominent Dublin social researcher Brian Harvey told the conference that 85% of community, voluntary and other ‘civil society’ organisations in the Irish Border Region are now involved in cross-border cooperation – largely as a consequence of EU funding – as are 65% of such organisations in Northern Ireland. He pointed out that such organisations were now much more comfortable working across the border than were government agencies, and cited examples of cross-border transfer of good practice (mainly from north to south) in areas like the environment, mental health and volunteering. And he expressed surprise that in the Republic in particular there was still no significant governmental funding stream for this vital practical peacebuilding work more than 10 years after the Belfast Agreement.
The chairman of the North’s industrial promotion agency, Invest Northern Ireland, Stephen Kingon, told the story of the success of cross-border cooperation in the field of trade and business. He described the plethora of North/South business bodies and initiatives that have sprung up to help make the island of Ireland more competitive internationally. These include InterTradeIreland, the IBEC-CBI Joint Business Council (funded by INTERREG), the North/South Roundtable Group, the North/South Business Enterprise Group, joint North-South trade missions and the cross-border financial services initiative announced in April by Peter Robinson and Brian Cowen.
There were responses by speakers from the Association of European Border Regions, the French government’s cross-border cooperation agency Mission Opérationelle Transfrontalière (MOT), the Basque Government, BUSINESS EUROPE and the Gronau-Enschede ‘Euroregion’ on the German-Dutch border (the original and exemplary European cross-border region, which is celebrating 50 years of cooperation between 130 local authorities on both sides of that border this year). One common strand through their contributions was that while they had been surprised to be invited to Dundalk to learn lessons in cross-border cooperation from Ireland, what they had heard here was both instructive and inspiring (presentations from this conference are available on www.crossborder.ie/cbnews/lessons.php).
On the conference’s second day, as part of an innovative electronic voting exercise to gauge participants’ opinions on the achievements of and challenges facing cross-border cooperation in Ireland, they were also asked for their views on the Lisbon Treaty. This group of people who had benefited so much from European solidarity with their marginal, often forgotten border regions had few doubts: they voted by 76% to 24% in favour.
Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.