Is it time to be humble and learn a little from the north?

This isn’t a good time to be Irish. After the euphoria of the years of the Northern Ireland peace process and the Celtic Tiger economy, we have the disillusion, and even despair, brought on by the cataclysm of the banking collapse, the resulting slump in the economy and the rottenness of a political system that ignored and often encouraged the greed, recklessness and incompetence that has brought the country to its present sorry state. It is a desperately difficult time for Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore – by all accounts decent and honourable men – to be taking over the reins.

It’s at a time like this that we need all the friends we can get. But as Pat Cox, the former MEP and President of the European Parliament, said in a superb interview on the Marian Finucane programme on RTE on 2 April(1), this is exactly the time when we have lost many of our friends in the most important place of all, the high temples of power in Europe.

The previous day the Secretary General to the European Commission, Catherine Day, the latest in a line of Irish officials who have risen to the highest ranks of the EU civil service, said in an extraordinarily blunt comment on Ireland’s engagement with the EU: ‘The perception is that the more prosperous Ireland became, the more arrogant it became, and the less it engaged.’ The result was that the Irish were no longer seen as ‘good Europeans.’

Pat Cox confirmed this impression. He talked about the ‘real swagger’ of Irish government ministers in Europe and their poor attendance at key meetings. Everything has changed utterly since those deluded and duplicitous years.  ‘We so mismanaged our own affairs that we have now lost our sovereignty for the immediate period,’ Cox went on. ‘We’re now confronted with the unhappy reality that much as we might want to do some things ourselves, we’re very constrained because we blew our sovereignty when we had it.’ It’s little wonder that when the European Central Bank came calling with their harsh medicine, we had little choice but to take it.

So what’s all this got to do with North-South cooperation? Maybe, just maybe, the South might be humble enough now to learn something from the North in its present calamitous circumstances. That fine journalist Fergal Keane wrote in the Irish Times recently that when he left Belfast for South Africa in 1990, the idea of a DUP-Sinn Fein power-sharing government was unimaginable in the extreme and the dirty little conflict in the North showed few signs of ending. Yet a combination of circumstances – and above all the courage of local politicians in overcoming their mutual loathing to learn to work together – ‘moved Northern Ireland from an age of murder to one of co-operation…the culture that tolerated political murder on this island is steadily eroding. This is an achievement of revolutionary significance.’(2)

We saw that again this month in the united community response, led by Martin McGuinness, Gerry Adams, Peter Robinson and the GAA, to the killing of the young Tyrone policeman, Ronan Kerr. [The transformation of the Northern police force is an example of change management in the most testing of circumstances that any police service in the world could learn from, starting with the Garda Siochana.]

Keane went on: ‘For the Republic the challenge is to harness the same courage that changed Northern Ireland. We might be on the verge of a new revolution in which the idea of the universal good might triumph over the politics of the parish.’ Some coming together for the common good of the country – rather than for the sectoral good of bankers, business leaders, senior civil servants, the professional and propertied classes, rural ‘chieftains’, trade union leaders and other well-heeled vested interests – is exactly what is needed if the Republic of Ireland is to emerge safely from the worst crisis in its 90 year history.

Here is one humble practical suggestion to end (and begin) with. The Republic’s new leaders might listen to the advice of those who suggest that senior civil servants North and South should sit down together and discuss seriously what they might do to start to provide some public services on a cross-border basis, and in doing so, perhaps even save money. In my last ‘Note’ I suggested possible areas of cooperation in environment, transport, local government, higher education and health.

Health, with its inflated budgets  – which both administrations on the island are extremely anxious to reduce – needs to be particularly imaginatively explored. On 12 May the Centre for Cross Border Studies will be holding a conference in Dundalk at which existing and potential cooperation in ENT, radiotherapy, cystic fibrosis and other hospital services, plus the important work of the Cooperation and Working Together health network, will be discussed. Senior officials in the Departments of Health in Belfast and Dublin could do worse than come along to meet each other and listen.

Andy Pollak

P.S. A Bulgarian reader, Tony Antonova, has pointed out that in my list of ‘firsts’ for the Centre for Cross Border Studies in last month’s ‘Note’, I should also have mentioned that the Centre was the first North/South body to be set up. We opened our office in Armagh in mid-September 1999, two months before the first civil servants arrived from Belfast and Dublin to set up the North South Ministerial Council Joint Secretariat next door, and to start the implementation process which led to the establishment of the six inter-governmental North/South bodies and Tourism Ireland. In fairness, it was something the first NSMC Southern Joint Secretary, Tim O’Connor, generously and frequently made a point of mentioning.

1 Google ‘Marian Finucane’ to hear Pat Cox giving the best and clearest explanation of Ireland’s current predicament you’re likely to hear in many a long month, albeit from a rather Europhile viewpoint.

2 The Irish Times, 5 February