Dublin looking for partners as #SharedIsland Fund doubles and all island investment rises to €3.5billion…

“The past holds us captive. Even when we succeed in giving up slights, grudges, feuds and pride, we cannot easily give up knowledge, memories and experience.” – David Amerland

At the weekend, Colm Tóibín wrote scathingly of some southern politicians that “their talk of a united Ireland ‘in my lifetime’ is mystical blather; another example of politicians saying something they don’t mean”.

Ouch. Yet, there are some political leaders in the ‘anglosphere’ who seem to be trying to reconnect to an old idea of doing in government, ie, planning, in a world that is not (at first sight at least) that amenable to future thinking.

Intentionality is a quality that’s largely been missing from government for a generation or two, partly because the dominant narrative in the west is that the essential Reaganite doctrine that market solutions are the only real ones.

Words that come without actions lie in Tóibín’s blather category. But the Dublin government’s 2021-2030 plan, published yesterday is a real test of its intention, particularly with regard to the chapter on Shared Island Initiative.

In terms of cash, all-island investment via Shared Island Fund, Project Ireland 2040 funds, Dublin’s annual funding for North/South cooperation and PEACE PLUS (with the EU, UK and NI Executive), is now more than €3.5billion.

The Shared Island Fund, announced only last year, will take up nearly a third of the total with its budget doubled to €1 billion. Government insiders argue that the ambition is to continue to grow this figure over time.

Officials say that having ring-fenced a cross departmental commitment of €3.5 billion, delivery is a key measure of success. Projects lost in the early 2010s like Narrow Water Bridge and the Ulster Canal have been made viable again.

As well as such legacy projects, it sets out a strategic framework on three themes (prosperity, sustainability and connectivity) for co-operation but only where it makes sense. It seeks partnerships at UK, NI and local authority levels.

In line with the wider plan holding to a 2:1 split between public and active transport and roads, the Dept of Transport in Dublin will co-ordinate with the Dept of Infrastructure in Belfast with regard to an all island strategic rail review.

One potential early win is the introduction of an hourly Dublin Belfast train service, indeed increased frequency is a precondition for procuring new, faster rolling stock. An earlier 2007 plan was shelved on foot of drastic budget cuts.

Although Dublin has some concrete ideas of its own (like an island wide apprenticeship scheme, development of a cross border HE hub between Derry and Letterkenny), the largest single chunk of cash (€40m) so far is for new ideas.

The new North/South research programme has already some 500 applications. The plan’s approach also identifies Northern Irish initiatives like the two City regions as a potential areas of collaboration to draw in overseas investment.

It’s not a comprehensive list of all the public investment projects that will take place over the next ten years. There is scope for plans to develop and how much depends on a continuing reliable supply of revenue to make things happen.

It’s an important signal of intent to other actors and players in the field. If it is currently short on east west ideas, that’s more to do with where (and from whom) the ideas are currently coming from: an invitation to play if you will?

Indeed, idea generation may be the biggest challenge (and limiting factor) facing the initiative. According to Sam Altman, to do it successfully, you need…

…people who have a good feel for the future, will entertain improbable plans, are optimistic, are smart in a creative way, and have a very high idea flux. These sorts of people tend to think without the constraints most people have, not have a lot of filters, and not care too much what other people think.

A tall order you might think, just now. The ongoing political instability since Brexit won’t help, but officials are keen to point out that willingness to co-operate in the past has depended on the quality and sustainability of the ideas.

The top line items are necessarily modest (and likely to draw few major headlines) since they comprise projects have been talked about for 30 years but never acted upon. It also allows room for new ideas and new funding streams.

Yet the commitment is substantial, long term and embedded in the Republic’s nine year business plan. Future administrations could undo it, but what would go in its place? It has smart government (not just PPP) at its heart.

Northern Ireland’s peace dividend has been slow to arrive. Government investment has had poor returns in the number and quality of new jobs. According to Paul Nolan three in every five jobs Invest NI has attracted are in call centres.

As Coulter et al argue, this dividend ‘so central to the optimism of the early peace process has never quite come to pass’ so that multigenerational poverty survives to the present day in communities most affected by the troubles.

This unusually well funded initiative is not a gift horse that requires pondering for too long. The strategy looks for engagement (the shared island unit has held a 190 meetings up to yesterday) rather than pretend it knows everything.

If successful it ought to expand the scope of collective knowledge by encouraging all participants to shape the future in ways that suit their own needs and aspirations. Of necessity that needs input from beyond those just wanting a UI.

By 2030 it is estimated that 40% of young people in the UK will have had a near ancestor born in Africa. Churchill said, “The human mind is incapable of rest, what it needs is change.” So I don’t believe change (per se) is the problem.

How we manage necessary change whilst avoiding tearing each other apart is far more important than is generally appreciated at the moment, whether in the context of the furtherance of the Union or in a prospective United Ireland.

“Trust is won, not by what leaders’ say, but what they do’ say Collier and Kay. Contrary to the views of the loudest and most opinionated who dominate the present discourse, all societies have the potential to realise common purpose.

Research shows that Northern Ireland, as a society, is moving on without asking permission, leaving the two community model of “separate development” for something more communitarian, plural and ambitious.

In this regard, the Taoiseach may yet do the island some small service…

“Act always so as to increase the number of choices.”
— Heinz von Foerster