A solid statement that North-South cooperation is here to stay

Armagh is now on the Irish diplomatic circuit.  Next month the highly regarded Southern Joint Secretary of the North South Ministerial Council (NSMC), Tom Hanney, leaves to become Irish ambassador to Belgium. His successor, Anne Barrington, is finishing her days as ambassador to Tanzania. The man who will fill in over the summer, the current Southern Deputy Joint Secretary, Bill Nolan, used to be ambassador in Zambia and Lesotho. His predecessor, Niall Honohan, is now ambassador to Saudi Arabia. A magazine article some years ago claimed that Armagh was among the dozen most popular postings in the Irish diplomatic service.

We in our small South Ulster metropolis should be honoured. Irish diplomats are highly esteemed all over the world, from the United Nations to the British Foreign Office. Their diplomatic and drafting skills were honed to the limit in the negotiation and formulation of international treaties like the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the 2006 St Andrews Agreement, which are now widely studied as examples of ‘best practice’ in how governments can work together to overcome the ancient and seemingly insoluble problems of inter-communal conflict and clashing sovereignties.

The North South Ministerial Council Joint Secretariat which Anne Barrington is coming in to head, alongside another impressive woman, Northern Joint Secretary Mary Bunting, a senior official from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in Belfast, is itself a success story.

Since May 2007, when the Northern Ireland institutions were restored, five full Northern Ireland Executive-Irish Government meetings have been organised by the NSMC secretariat, along with 65 meetings of Ministers in the agriculture, education, environment, health, tourism and transport areas, and those overseeing the specific areas of cooperation carried  out by the six North South Implementation Bodies.

These meetings are now part of routine government business in both jurisdictions. The fact that the DUP is properly engaged with them makes unionist backbench sniping more difficult. And many unionists, albeit reluctantly, have come to admit that they have their uses. They have brought a €400 million capital investment to the North in the form of Irish government funding for the upgrade of the A5 Aughnacloy-Derry road (also serving Donegal), and the A8 Larne-Belfast road (also serving the whole eastern seaboard).

There have been agreements on mutual action to be taken against disqualified drivers in both jurisdictions; on Irish government funding to clean up Northern region waste dumps containing large amounts of illegal Southern waste; on an all-island suicide prevention plan; on radiotherapy in Belfast for Donegal cancer patients and the all-island provision of heart surgery for children. The work of InterTradeIreland in helping to raise the level of trade and business development across the border, and of Tourism Ireland in bringing in overseas visitors, is widely recognised. These are examples of practical steps that will actually affect people’s lives for the better – North-South cooperation ‘for mutual benefit’ is the mantra of the civil servants in Armagh.

There is more that could be done. The highly innovative collaborative cross-border spatial planning framework devised by the International Centre for Local and Regional Development (also Armagh-based) is still stuck on a deadlocked cabinet table at Stormont, as is the North-West Gateway initiative for Derry and Donegal. The Irish Government would love to see Belfast and Dublin working together on joint adaptation for climate change (hardly a respecter of national borders) and cooperation at a time of deep financial cutbacks in costly areas like higher education, research and development, and health and environmental services.  Now that the hugely irksome issue of devolution of policing and justice has been resolved, maybe the review of the North South bodies completed several years ago can be dusted down, published and acted upon.

In the meantime the NSMC secretariat has moved into smart new offices ‘at the nationalist end of English Street’, as one Armagh wag puts it.  Its concrete exterior may make it look like a not particularly distinguished example of  mid-twentieth century brutalist design,  but actually this building is an appropriate symbol of the ‘architecture of reconcilation’ the 30 odd Northern and Southern civil servants working amicably in partnership inside it are striving to achieve. Indeed it has already won an accolade as the top ‘green’ (in terms of its environmental rating) office building in Ireland, itself symbolic of an era of new challenges on this island.

It may not be beautiful, but the solid new headquarters of the NSMC Joint Secretariat is making a powerful statement: that close and significant – and certainly growing – cooperation between the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government is here to stay. It is part of what we are and what we will be in Northern Ireland and Ireland for many years to come. And all of us, Irish people in both jurisdictions, are the better for it.

Andy Pollak

P.S. Sadly, I also have to pay tribute to my much admired friend, Billy Tate, one of the great unsung heroes of cross-community and cross-border cooperation and mutual understanding, who died after a long illness earlier this month. Whether he was forging links with Monaghan schools during his time as principal of Aughnacloy Primary School in south Tyrone, or introducing his pupils at Belvoir Park Primary School in south Belfast to gaelic football and hurling (see ‘Cross-Community Gaelic Games take to the road’: July 2008), Billy’s brand of unionism was courageous, far-sighted, open-minded and welcoming to all. He will be hugely missed.

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.