The Challenge of Turning Goodwill into Cooperation

Regular readers of this ‘note’ will know that I have certain obsessions which keep re-surfacing: the need to upgrade the Belfast-Dublin rail line; the exhortation to Northern Irish people to fully enjoy both their identities, Irish and British; the need for more people-to-people cooperation across the border; and the imperative for the public sectors in the two Irish jurisdictions to work more closely together to provide joint services for the benefit of both their peoples.

It is to this last subject that I am returning this month. In June the Centre for Cross Border Studies published a report by Dublin business consultant Michael D’Arcy called Delivering a Prosperity Process: Opportunities in North/South Public Service Provision. This consisted of an initial analysis of the potential benefits of North-South cooperation in 10 areas of public service delivery, based on conversations with senior civil servants and business leaders in Belfast and Dublin.

It is notable, in the words of one senior Dublin official, that ‘there is now a record amount of goodwill, knowledge of each other and positive relationships in place’. Another noted that the next phase of Northern Ireland’s development is ‘now generally perceived to be a bureaucratic and administrative task.’ The challenge is to turn the vague and unfocussed goodwill towards North-South cooperation between the two administrative systems into concrete public sector projects for mutual benefit and value for money.

And it is a big challenge. As a third Dublin official put it: ‘80 years of separation have created innumerable individual difficulties and differences between the two systems, many of which are sufficiently profound to present enormous obstacles.’ A senior Belfast official said that the practical results from 13 years of North-South cooperation through the architecture of the Belfast Agreement had been ‘less than the time and effort put into making them fly’.

However Michael D’Arcy’s conversations have thrown up numerous suggestions for sensible, mutually beneficial public sector cooperation. They include a joint plan to support employment and economic growth that will particularly target marginalised communities in both jurisdictions; a cross-border health service plan in areas such as ‘grouping’ some border region hospitals and the joint provision of certain specialist services (e.g.  in cancer treatment); creating a Single Energy Market to take full advantage of Ireland’s very significant wind, wave and biomass opportunities (and thus building on the proven success of the all-island Single Electricity Market);  cross-border cooperation in the difficult area of public water supply; an all-island tourism research project to make sure that the successes of Tourism Ireland in overseas marketing are transferred into real ‘on the ground’ gains in the two jurisdictions; the use of Ireland’s 2013 EU presidency to showcase the island’s ‘single market’ business achievements; and the provision of a jointly commissioned operational ‘tool box’ to help civil service managers overcome the myriad problems that arise when they try to work with their cross-border colleagues.

It seems to me that there are some excellent opportunities here that at the very least senior officials in Belfast and Dublin should be discussing. To take one example: the Single Electricity Market (SEM) – a ‘single pool market’ into which all electricity generated on or imported into the island must be sold, and from which all wholesale electricity for consumption on or export from the island must be purchased – is a huge success story, much admired by electricity providers elsewhere in Europe. It has led, for example, to Ballylumford power station in County Antrim – once notorious as the fulcrum of the 1974 Ulster Workers Council strike – now providing 17% of the island’s capacity. The SEM is successful because it delivers lower prices to consumers, increases the attractiveness of the sector to investors and enhances the island’s energy security.

D’Arcy argues that the opportunities to expand this Single Electricity Market into a wider and more innovative Single Energy Market include coordinated planning for energy emergencies (of which there are likely to be more than a few in the future given our dependence for over 90% of our energy supply on imported fossil fuels); economies brought about by an all-island wind generated electricity system as an alternative to those fossil fuels, with the potential to become an energy exporter; and new high-skilled jobs in the engineering and ICT sectors.

This month’s opening of the first East-West electricity interconnector from County Meath to North Wales, built by EirGrid, the state owned company which also operates the Single Electricity Market, means that the all-Ireland network is also linked to the all-European network. Moves towards significant all-island wind and other renewable energy provision could not be more timely. As a senior Belfast business person told D’Arcy: ‘Enhanced energy security and sustainability for the island is a shared strategic goal.’

Andy Pollak

P.S. Turning to another of my obsessions, I noticed from a recent article entitled ‘Train Network has Key Role in Development of Economy’ in the glossy magazine that is provided on the Belfast-Dublin Enterprise that a new strategic study by AECOM/Goodbody proposes investment in new track – giving ‘journey time improvements of up to 30 minutes’ – on key routes from Dublin to Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Galway, Mayo and Waterford. Only Belfast is missing. A source in Irish Rail tells me that there will be no major investment in the Belfast line for the foreseeable future – the message seems to be that we should all be taking busses on the spanking new road between the island’s two largest cities!

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.