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.

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit


    what a positive article, surely you could have thrown the begrudgers even a small bone to chew on?

    re. “maybe the review of the North South bodies completed several years ago can be dusted down, published and acted upon.”

    Seems ridiculous that we are not entitlde to see it – are they in dispute over the executive summary or does it just need 2 singnatures?

    Under freedom of Information are we allowed to know why we are not allowed to know something?

  • Drumlin Rock

    First thing Andy, the building is an eyesore in the heart of the a conservation area, it should never have been allowed on that site.
    Your list of achievements is rather short, and some of them are questionable, the A5 as i have said before is more of a White Elephant than a gift, considering it only covers about a third of the project costs and is unnecessary at that scale.
    There have been questions about Northern Ireland getting the fair share of promotion in Tourism Ireland, and the Pork Dioxins food scare shows the scant regard the Irish Government has for cross border food safety.
    With regards health we still have another unresolved white elephant with regards the Autism centre at Middletown.
    Waterways Ireland seem no closer to achieving any progress on the Ulster Canal.
    Is the little achieved worth the money spent?

  • Drumlin Rock

    PS, was sorry to hear about Billy Tate, he was a larger than life character and certainly brought a different view to things while still holding his principles dear.

  • EIRE32

    Best thing I’ve read on here.

  • Cormac Mac Art

    Nice one, Andy. It is good to read something positive here.

    Whatever the merits/demerits of a united Ireland, north-south cooperation can only benifit both jurisdictions. Good neighbours make good fences, and visa versa.

  • Brian Walker

    Hi Andy. You give a list of practical cross border issues, solved or down for solution, not all well reported, as far as I can see from London. What struck a particular chord was the info about Donegal people now eligible for radiotherapy in Belfast. I didn’t know this, although I admit I’m remote from the action. A friend in Donegal and I had an illness in common a couple of years ago. He lamented his long journey and frequent visits to Dublin, with disruptive overnights built in. Service in Belfast will transform his sort of case. Putting on your old hat, this needs better publicity and follow-ups about take up – and further developments, as I’m sure you agree. Best wishes, Brian

  • John East Belfast

    It all reads to me like a lot of bureaucrats spending money.

    Why does the ROI need such a large diplomatic corp anyway – ambassador to Tanzania ?

    Sounds to me like the kind of thing Dublin should be outsourcing.

    We all – north and south – dont need this level of Government – this is jobs for the boys by way of quangos.

  • Alias

    Except, of course, that Ireland doesn’t need to transfer sovereignty over its internal affairs to the United Kingdom in order to “co-operate” with it. And that is what is actually the constitutional position behind the deliberately misleading label of “co-operation.”

  • Cormac Mac Art

    But John, the Dublin government is not your government. As an independant united country, Ireland should be free to run her diplomatic services as she sees fit.

  • John East Belfast


    If it is posted on Slugger then I think it is open to fair comment.
    There are no shortage of ROI commentators on here commenting about Stormont.

    Anyhow I wasnt questioning their legality for what they do I was simply questioning the reason for it ?

    The bigger point is the desire for many on this island for government, quangos and expense accounts – all of which cost money.
    In terms of this thread we are actually boasting and celebrating it and extolling the virtues of how Irish diplomats are highly regarded around the world – who gives a proverbial when the country is saddled with debt

    If you are hapopy for your tax payers money to pay for an embassy in Tanzania then that is up to you

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit

    Cormac Mac Art,

    re. “Ireland should be free to run her diplomatic services as she sees fit.”

    The NSMC is a Stormo constitutional requirement as laid down in GFA legisaltion so ‘Northerns’ of both persuasions have a right to say in how it operates.

    It would be a a complicated state of affairs if we all had to have our passports checked before commenting on a topic on Slugger to check our eligibility.

    Regarding the “united country”, I appreciate that you may be trying to rile some commentators but as JEB points out we do get a lot of Free Staters straying across internet frontiers who are warmly welcomed and sometimes a source of (inadvertent) amusement.

  • Cormac Mac Art

    Fair points, Sammy. But the Irish state ceased to be called the Free State a long time ago. Eire, Ireland, ‘the republic’ or ‘the south’ are all viable terms.

  • Cormac Mac Art

    I agree that its a fair point, John.

  • It would seem that the Irish joint secretaries of the NSMC and British Irish Intergovernmental Conference enjoy the rank of minor ambassador – despite protestations to the contrary!!

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit

    Cormac Mac Art ,

    Three Hail Marys for you.

    re. ‘Free Staters’
    As you may be aware this (archaic) term is sometimes employed perjoratively.

  • Cormac Mac Art

    Which is why I’m taking said perjorators to task. Have to do something to fill in the time in my old age.

  • Greenflag


    All and any official info on Ireland / Northern Ireland and Tanzania is available on the above link .

    I wonder if Anne Barrington is anything to the infamous Jonah Barrington the almighty world class wielder of a squash racket of world wide renown and who was oft accused of being infrequently sober during his years at Trinity College but who nonetheless squashed all opposition on the courts ?

  • “The North/South Language Body has not filed accounts since 2004, a report by the Public Accounts Committee has said.”

    “The report also expressed disappointment that there is no requirement for the bodies to disclose pay, pension and other benefits for their senior executives.”

    Have PAC members not been told that there is no parliamentary scrutiny of ‘inter-governmental’ activities?

  • vanhelsing

    it’s free to live in the Republic? Perhaps this 32 county thing isn’t so bad after all. I jest of course 🙂

  • Driftwood

    There have been agreements on mutual action to be taken against disqualified drivers in both jurisdictions;
    No there have not.

    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;

    That’ll be fantastic. The world will watch and learn.

    Self serving bureacracy at its (very well paid) worst..

    What next? A North-South joint plan to stop domestic cats killing mice. Absolutely pathetic self congratulatory gibberish.

  • “have a right to say in how it operates.”

    How do they exercise that right, Sammy?

  • Hello Brian
    I’ve been away on holiday so forgive the tardy response – it’s good to hear from you after all these years.There’s a lot going on in the way of practical North-South cooperation that people in London (and journalists in Belfast and Dublin!) don’t know much about. People working hard and cooperatively cross the border together doesn’t make headlines. Another example is energy – watch for my July ‘Note’.
    Hope to cross paths with you again some time soon.