Sir George Quigley died on 3 March after a long and full life of service to Northern Ireland and Ireland. He was as near as a small place like Northern Ireland gets to a Renaissance man: head of four government departments; chairman of Ulster Bank and Bombardier; the tireless chair of numerous public bodies in both parts of Ireland; leader of the campaign for lower corporation tax; author of a mould-breaking report on contentious parades; overseer of loyalist arms decommissioning – one could go on and on.
Those of us who work in the field of practical cross-border cooperation as part of the Northern Irish peace process will particularly miss him. He was effectively the ‘father’ of such cooperation. In 1992, as chair of the Confederation of British Industry (NI), he urged policy-makers to work for a Belfast-Dublin ‘economic corridor’ and an ‘island of Ireland’ economy. In this he was away ahead of his time – and suffered unionist hostility as a consequence – but his thinking informed both the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and the establishment of probably the most successful of its North/South bodies, InterTradeIreland. He continued to preach the virtues of practical cross-border cooperation as an essential tool for peace and reconciliation in Ireland right up to the end.
In an interview for The Journal of Cross Border Studies in Ireland shortly before his death, Sir George outlined his continuing vision of North-South cooperation: the so-called ‘Strand Two’ of the Belfast Agreement. [i]
‘I believe that Strand Two has been a resounding success – contrary, probably, to what many people expected. The North-South relationship has been transformed. Someone, indeed, has referred to its unprecedented ordinariness and normality today. We seem to have been able to resolve North-South tensions in a way which still too often escapes us so far as the traditional divisions within the Northern Ireland community itself are concerned,’ he said.
He gave three examples of North-South success stories: the fact that Northern Ireland’s exports to the Republic are now worth the same as its sales to all the other EU countries combined; the continuing close cooperation on infrastructure development, and the success of the Single Electricity Market on the island.
However he also noted ‘how vastly enriched is the discourse these days about North-South possibilities.’ He pointed to a range of examples: the Irish Academy of Engineers’ 2010 study, Infrastructure for an island population of 8 million; the 2012 Centre for Cross Border Studies report by John Bradley and Michael Best, Cross-Border Economic Renewal; Dublin business consultant Michael D’Arcy’s 2012 survey of Opportunities in North/South Public Service Provision (also published by the Centre); the Journal of Cross Border Studies in Ireland (again from CCBS), the journal Borderlands and other research publications from our ‘sister’ organisation, the International Centre for Local and Regional Development (ICLRD).
‘This ICLRD material deals with an impressive range of issues from river basin management to the mapping of functional territories throughout the island, with much else of significance in between. This last is a potentially exciting concept since, put at its simplest, it could hopefully be developed to provide guidance, in an island context, on what services should be put where, having regard to optimum catchment areas, thereby enhancing accessibility and ensuring that services are affordable, economically operated and effectively configured and managed to sustain high quality.
‘The richness of this discourse takes us into an entirely different world. What is now vital is to get it positioned within the mainstream of government thinking, North and South, and to have governments that are determined not to let a single idea that merits follow-up fall on stony ground.’
He particularly urged the North South Ministerial Council to set up a ‘small joint planning function’ to take forward some of the ‘significant possibilities for North-South synergy in such areas as health, higher education and research, energy, tourism and water’ identified in Michael D’Arcy’s study. ‘There are enough ideas here to fuel a North-South public sector agenda for at least a decade ahead and it would be a shame if the report were simply to gather dust somewhere… It can never make sense – but especially not when there is going to be such an ongoing tight constraint on resources – to duplicate capacity unnecessarily or to meet needs in other than the most cost-effective, value for money way.’
Sir George’s call for more to be done to sensibly align, and not duplicate, some key public services on this island is one that is repeatedly echoed by the Centre for Cross Border Studies in its meetings with politicians and civil servants. To date these calls appear to have fallen largely on deaf ears. North-South cooperation is very low down the policy agendas in Dublin and Belfast these days.
Twice in the past six months Fianna Fail leader (and former Minister for Foreign Affairs), Micheál Martin, has pointed to the dangers of this. In powerful – if under-reported – speeches he warned that ‘the enormous potential of developing an all-island approach to many issues has barely begun to be realised by the political establishment.’ He said that ‘the British and Irish governments have significantly disengaged’ and in recent years ‘we have seen no ambitious initiatives, no new agenda, no sense of urgency’ in the North-South field. He listed economic cooperation, integration of energy markets, and more cooperation in education and health services, agriculture and transport as areas crying out for joint action for mutual benefit at a time of scarce resources.
He warned about ‘the sense of drift and disillusionment which are undeniably now a growing factor’ and stressed the ‘compelling need and opportunity to reinvigorate the all-island dimensions of the [Belfast] Agreement.’ [ii]
i) The 2013 Journal of Cross Border Studies in Ireland will be published on 9 April.
ii) Micheál Martin in Belfast: “There is nothing inevitable about peace and progress”: Slugger O’Toole [27 February 2013]
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.