Four years ago I wrote a ‘Note from the Next Door Neighbours’ called ‘Can we become the best border region in Europe?’ in which I listed some of the distinguished people from the Irish border region over the past 20-30 years and appealed to some of them to come together to promote, develop and celebrate this peripheral and often forgotten region.
I am now renewing that call, spurred on by a piece of research, a speech in Cavan, and a new website. The research is a study – commissioned by the Centre for Cross Border Studies and nearly complete – by two eminent economists, Dr John Bradley and Professor Michael Best, on ways to revive the border region’s economy. The speech was given at a November 2011 conference to discuss the findings of this study by Padraic White, the Leitrim man who was the highly successful Managing Director of IDA Ireland in the eighties and early 1990s when many of the major multinationals who now provide much of Ireland’s growth were attracted to the country. He is now, among many other things, chair of the Louth Economic Forum.
Bradley, Best and White agree on one thing: the time has come for the cross-border region to forget about waiting for the development agencies in Dublin and Belfast to attract in big multinational firms and to look to their own entrepreneurial companies and local authorities to take a lead in providing and promoting jobs and prosperity in the region. As Bradley and Best say in the conclusion to their study:
‘If regions such as the Irish border region are to prosper, other than by depending on transfers from more developed regions, then they must build on and strengthen their productive base. And the existing productive base – good, bad or indifferent – is where you must start.’
In their study they provide case studies of some outstanding border region firms: Walter Watson (cranes and steel fabrication) in Co Down; Castlecool (food cold storage and logistics) and Bose (wooden cabinets for sound systems) in Co Monaghan; and Hunter Apparel Solutions (uniforms) in Derry. I can think of many others, beginning with Silver Hill Foods (poultry) and Combilift (forklift trucks) in Co Monaghan; the cluster of engineering and food processing firms around Dungannon, Co Tyrone; Norbrook (pharmaceuticals) and First Derivatives (financial services) in Newry; Open Hydro (tidal energy) in Co Louth; Glen Dimplex (electric heating appliances) in Louth and Newry, and SF Engineering (conveyor systems) in Co Sligo. Everyone will have their own list.
Padraic White gave five reasons why the Irish border region will have to learn to stand on its own feet in the foreseeable future:
- central governments will be focusing on national economic revival in the present dire circumstances and peripheral border regions will be well down their agenda;
- public spending cutbacks will mean little or no capital investment in border regions;
- multinational company investment will be concentrated on cities and metropolitan areas as such firms become more research-based;
- Enterprise Ireland, IDA and Invest NI are not geared to respond to the particular challenges of the border region; and
- (in the Republic) the current higher level of incentives to border regions permitted to government under EU rules may not be renewed after 2013.
He proposed that current cross-border initiatives such as the 2011 Newry and Mourne/Louth Memorandum of Understanding, the North West Partnership Board and the three cross-border local authority partnerships could form the basis of a ‘Strategic Development Plan along the entire border area from Derry/Donegal to Newry and Mourne/Louth. The number of key players on both sides – elected chairs/mayors and county managers/district council chief executives – is small enough to facilitate an effective momentum.’
He said this Strategic Development Plan should focus on four key sources of indigenous growth and enterprise: SME enterprise in goods and services with an export potential; tourism and recreation; agriculture, food and fish processing; and low carbon initiatives, energy saving and renewable energy. Funding support for such an initiative could come from the EU INTERREG programme and technical support from the Centre for Cross Border Studies and the International Centre for Local and Regional Development.
But are there the dynamic people in the Irish border region to make this visionary initiative begin to happen? We believe there are. The border region is famous for dynamic business leaders, even if occasionally some of them – such as Sean Quinn and Larry Goodman – ‘lose the run of themselves’ and crash and burn in spectacular circumstances (Mr Goodman has, of course, since risen from the ashes). Dundalk and Newry have a particularly impressive cluster of entrepreneurs, with men like Martin Naughton, the McCanns, Feargal McCormack and Gerard O’Hare. There are also some excellent county managers and local authority chief executives, people like Con Murray in Louth, Jack Keyes in Cavan, Jackie Maguire in Leitrim, Seamus Neely in Donegal, Tom McCall in Newry, Danny McSorley in Omagh and Sharon O’Connor in Derry. There are idealistic senior educationalists like the heads of the three Institutes of Technology: Denis Cummins in Dundalk, Terri Scott in Sligo and Paul Hannigan in Letterkenny, and Richard Barnett, vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster. There is the hugely committed head of the Ilex urban regeneration company in Derry, Aideen McGinley. Again, everyone will have their own list.
Another dynamic leader in a smaller place, Brian Morgan, a Clones solicitor, has recently started to put many of these people in contact with each other in order to discuss new ideas for the future of the region. He has started an online Linkedin group called The Border Counties Forum (http://bordercountiesforum.com/) which has very quickly grown to over 200 members, most of them business people. Go on line and discuss Padraic White’s and other people’s ideas for how we should revive the Irish cross-border region at this very difficult but also opportunity-rich time in the island’s economic history.
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.