For the second month running I am unashamedly going to blow the Centre for Cross Border Studies’ trumpet. Because the Centre does not only write about cross-border cooperation in Ireland; it not only researches such cross-border cooperation – it also does practical cooperation between the two parts of this island.
Last month I wrote about the cooperation and exchanges it manages between teacher educators and student teachers. This month I am going to write about another unique and innovative cross-border project it runs: the Border People cross-border mobility information website (www.borderpeople.info) and service.
This started in 2007 as a partnership with the North South Ministerial Council Joint Secretariat, and was jointly launched by Rev Ian Paisley, Martin McGuinness and the then Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern October of that year. The aim was to provide an online information service for people crossing the Irish border to live, work, study and retire. It provides information on a very wide range of practical subjects in both jurisdictions: tax, social security, healthcare, job seeking, employee rights, qualifications, education, housing, banking, telecoms and so on. It has been largely funded by the EU PEACE and INTERREG programmes.
After five years Border People is going stronger than ever, with 17,000 page views per month and around 60 monthly email and phone queries to its hardworking manager, Annmarie O’Kane. It provides a ‘signposting’ service to authoritative sources of public information on both sides of the border, notably NI Direct (Northern Ireland government information); government departments in the Republic; the Citizens Advice Bureaux in the North and Citizens Information Board in the South. When you download the website, it looks at first like a North South Ministerial Council product, but if you look carefully in the bottom right hand corner on the front page you will see the logo of the engine behind it: the CCBS in Armagh.
The website is highly regarded by those who use it. A user survey carried out in 2010 by the Centre’s independent evaluators, Indecon Economic Consultants, founded that 92% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that Border People was ‘an important and valuable resource for people working and living in the border region of Ireland.’
A leading expert on EU labour mobility, Dublin lawyer John Handoll, has said: ‘In my practice and research into free movement issues, the Border People website has become an essential tool. Its clear and user-friendly design allows citizens on both sides of the border to access up-to-date information on key topics. It has evolved over time in response to citizens’ needs and has become a first port of call for those seeking to understand their rights.’
The Border People project is a real example of cross-border cooperation at its most pragmatic and sensible: a means of making government departments and information providers, as well as the general public, more knowledgeable and thus more effective in dealing with the kind of practical obstacles to the cross-border movement of people that should be a thing of the past in post-Belfast Agreement Ireland and post-Maastricht Europe. However a 2010 study by the Centre for the cross-border labour market organisation EURES found that cross-border employees frequently ‘fall between two stools’ when it comes to labour regulation and welfare provision: very often they can’t get their employment rights respected, their unemployment benefits paid, their children recognised for health and education purposes. There are also major mismatches between official data in the two parts of Ireland, and officials in government offices are more often than not completely ignorant of what so-called ‘frontier workers’ are entitled to.
The Centre is currently planning a new 2013-2015 phase of the project which will aim precisely to increase the capacity of officials responsible for citizens information in both jurisdictions – whether in government offices or citizens advice and information services – to provide such information on a cross-border basis. This will involve training such officials and advisers in how the information systems of the other Irish jurisdiction work, with the objective of creating a network of specialists who can provide information for the estimated 20,000 citizens whose employment, studies or other ‘life events’ bring them across the border for extended periods. At time of writing, we are waiting for a response to an EU INTERREG funding application of which the new phase of Border People is a key part.
Meanwhile Annmarie O’Kane continues to take daily queries from people who are often close to the end of their tether in their efforts to prise information out of officials who know little or nothing about the often complicated business of living and working in two separate jurisdictions. In a few short years she has become one of the very few acknowledged experts on this island dealing with complex cross-border queries in areas such as social security, healthcare and older people’s benefits. In this she is performing a vital public function that – like so many vital functions in the cross-border area – happens almost totally under the radar as far as most politicians and journalists are concerned.
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.