North/South Cooperation now has a budget…

This week the Irish government unveiled their budget with an emphasis on housing and all of the social issues with flow from that most basic social need. What peeked my own interest was a commitment to providing €500 million to cross-border projects.

The ‘Shared Island Initiative’ is a much publicised personal project of the Taoiseach Michael Martin. RTE are reporting that the new unit within his department will be overseeing this expenditure. In terms of the overall Irish budget this is not a drop in the ocean but it still isn’t what David McWilliams calls “showing Europe you are ready for reunification” where the economist mooted flagship projects such as a new port between Dublin and Belfast.

RTE have also reported that among the list of specific projects this funding is expected to support, that Magee in Derry will be a recipient. Exactly what this will be has not yet been detailed but it will inevitably involve co-operation with the Stormont executive. Specifically the Minister for the Economy Diane Dodds. Although the much disrupted A5 project is also mentioned (“Monaghan to Derry Motorway”) it is hard to see how a friendlier face to Dublin in the guise of Nichola Mallon could get this off the ground any time soon as it is riddled with legal challenges and currying favour with campaigners Jim Allister voiced his disgust at supposed “raping of the countryside” that this would bring.

Whether Mr Allister has suddenly found a love for the environment is for others to ponder, but its fascinating that in an effort to win votes in the western borderlands that unionist politicians play the old card of hardcore NIMBYism in a place without any rail services or dual carriageways. It would be foolish for anyone in a border area to ever oppose cross border co-operation and hence the TUV do extremely poorly in these areas. Diane Dodds is unlikely to leap at the opportunity to secure funding in a bid to link up Letterkenny Institute of Technology with the Ulster University Magee campus.

Her department officials announced early on in the formation of the executive that Ulster had not renewed a business case for the nearly 20 years in the planning post graduate entry medical school. Michelle O’Neill used the Covid podium to announce that the competence for the project was suddenly within the executive office. This project will start next year with 70 places and a plan to phase this up. Minister Swann was able to quickly secure 80 extra places at the QUB medical school without delay. The funding was not part of any cross border initiative, it was £18m taken from the NI budget and served no long term strategic purpose other than training more doctors in Belfast.

The politics of just scaling up numbers at the QUB MBC and moving around figures on Conor Murphy’s spreadsheet are not what devolution is about. Devolution is supposed to be about finding creative policy solutions to the problems of local areas. They are about bringing some subsidiary to the administration of vital public services.

The long running failure to get creative on cross border projects and access cross border funding is shameful. Communities on both sides of the frontier could benefit from better joined up thinking. I have followed the Magee story with intensity because it is emblematic of a stagnant, structurally failing and opportunity missing complex within NI politics. Perhaps it is time for the executive to have a cross border unit within one of its own ministries?

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