Any good new ideas for cross-border cooperation?

Every two or three years the Centre for Cross Border Studies comes close to running out of money. The begrudgers on the Slugger O’Toole website may not believe it, but a small ‘stand alone’ research and development centre in an innovative but untrendy area like cross-border cooperation is always between 6 and 36 months from closing down.

I’m not complaining about this – only stating it as a fact of life. If I were a government department or an EU funding agency or a national lottery, I might prefer to give ‘core funding’  (i.e. funding to cover wages and essential overheads) to organisations working with poor people or sick people or deprived children or environmental improvement, rather than to a university-associated research centre like ours. So I am profoundly grateful to the Special EU Programmes Body over the past 12 years which – through its PEACE and INTERREG programmes – has deemed our work useful enough in the cause of cooperation and reconciliation in Ireland to keep funding the project ideas we regularly submit to it (and also to the Irish Department of Education and Skills for its grants).

I believe that’s one of the keys to our sustainability: good ideas, well carried out. Maybe it’s time to blow our trumpet a little. For the Centre has a fair number of ‘firsts’ and ‘bests’ to its name: the first North-South training course for civil servants; the first all-Ireland network of people involved in teacher education (SCoTENS), described by senior civil servants as the best such network to be set up since the Belfast  Agreement; the first information website for people crossing the border to live and work (Border People); the first major ‘off the island’ initiative involving the nine universities (the Irish-African Partnership, which the Centre, through Universities Ireland, initiated and helps to manage); the first North-South scholarship scheme for postgraduate students; the first in-depth study of how to regenerate the Border Region economy; the first impact assessment toolkit for cross-border cooperation (the first in Europe); the first time the government departments in charge of higher education in the two Irish jurisdictions have come together in a conference series (initiated and managed by the Centre); and the first cross-border and all-island research projects in a whole range of areas, from telecom technologies to mental health, from adult education to local sustainable development, from local government to services to minority ethnic groups.

We’re about 12-15 months away from running out of money at the moment, and times are hard everywhere. So it’s time for some more good new ideas to help us draw down funding for the years ahead. We are discussing our own ideas in the ‘corridors of creativity’ in Armagh. Cross-border energy efficiency, cross-border healthy tourism and cross border reconciliation through sport in education are among the areas we are exploring with potential partners.

At a meeting last December of the North-South Research Forum (another of the Centre’s ideas) to discuss the topical theme – ‘The future of cross-border public sector cooperation in a difficult financial climate’ – I put forward the following ‘value for money’ ideas for how public servants North and South might cooperate to their mutual benefit in the financially daunting period now facing the island:

  1. They should look at how the two jurisdictions might work more closely together on obvious areas of environmental common interest: for example, by moving actively to implement the agreed management plans for the three cross-border river basins designated under the EU Water Directive.
  2. Given the need to rationalise higher education institutions, they should give serious consideration to bringing Letterkenny Institute of Technology and University of Ulster into a multi-campus university to serve the whole north-west (as those two institutions themselves were doing in a 2008 study to examine enhanced collaboration).
  3. They should take one or two ideas from the unpublished joint feasibility study between the two Departments of Health and act on them: e.g. given the Republic’s poor facilities for the treatment of cystic fibrosis (a condition where Ireland has the highest incidence in the world), and the better facilities in the North and Britain, this could be an obvious area of cooperation.
  4. They should start working on a long-term plan to upgrade the Belfast-Dublin rail service. Of course nothing will happen this side of a recovery from the recession, but the example of the new 250 mph London-Birmingham line, which was unveiled last year but on which construction will not begin until 2017, should be noted.
  5. Border region local authorities should be encouraged to start working more closely together. The level of local government cooperation until now has been low, but Newry and Louth showed the way in Brussels recently when they signed a Memorandum of Understanding to work together in areas such as tourism, renewable energy and emergency planning.

These are some new ideas that the Centre has suggested to government. If any of our readers have good ideas about projects the Centre for Cross Border Studies itself might undertake over the next three-five years (on our own or in partnership with others), I would be very grateful to hear them. With the all-encompassing Irish, British and international financial crisis monopolising everybody’s thinking these days, we can sometimes feel a bit isolated and ‘out of the mainstream’ in our peacebuilding through cooperation work here in Armagh.  Feedback from our friends and supporters is always hugely appreciated.

Andy Pollak

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.