Shared island or shared illusions?

Notes from the Western Periphery

ONE-WAY STREET The lack of engagement from official Northern Ireland and UK government to the strategy has been bemoaned.

Assessing the Government’s ‘Shared Island Shared Opportunity’ strategy

John Bradley

On April 12, I went to Dublin Castle for the launch of a report by The National Economic and Social Council (NESC) entitled ‘Shared Island Shared Opportunity’. This is a major statement of the objectives of the Government’s ‘Shared Island’ initiative, focused on deepening mutually beneficial co-operation on the island. It has a dedicated budget of €1 billion.
Against the background of an enduring peace, the NESC report jumps straight into an earnest list of admirable North-South cooperative initiatives. I am all for cooperation between nations and regions. I have worked on economic development and cooperation throughout my professional life as an economist. I am also cursed with a critical mindset. I need to understand the role of cooperation and how it interacts with the internal policymaking of the potentially cooperating parties.
The NESC report sets out the case for benefits claimed to derive from cross-border cooperation. In effect, it projects domestic regional policy into an island-wide context. So, I ask myself three questions. First, who will be doing the cooperating? Second, how does cooperation with Northern Ireland relate to internal regional development policy in Ireland? Third, if cooperation were embraced by both parties, how tangible are the claimed benefits likely to be?

Turning to the first question, Shared Island is an Irish Government initiative but there is not even a spectral presence of official Northern Ireland and UK government contribution to the process.
In something of an understatement, Minister Michael McGrath recently mused that Unionist lack of engagement with Shared Island projects was ‘disappointing’. There are, of course, the institutions of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, but these are weak and minimalist. When the NI Assembly shuts itself down, these institutions become moribund.
So, the message I get is that ‘we’ want to cooperate but many of ‘them’ are not wild about the idea. Unfortunately, cooperation must be voluntary: it can be encouraged, but it cannot be imposed.

Turning to the second question – interfacing national regional policy with cross-border cooperation – a problem with the ‘Shared Island’ initiative is that it effectively stands aloof from internal regional development strategy and institutions that are supposed to operate within this state. The initiative, however worthy, isolates the cross-border issue from very serious internal Irish regional development challenges.
When NESC talks about the North-West region, it means (effectively) Derry and Donegal. There is no mention of the Northern and Western Regional Assembly, a body tasked under Project Ireland 2040 to handle development challenges in this oft-neglected part of the land. There is no understanding of how people on the Atlantic seaboard will contrast Government enthusiasm for cross-border cooperation with its indifference to cooperative internal regional development.
Northern Ireland has an elected Assembly and strong regional powers, even if it struggles to use them wisely and effectively. The Northern and Western region, consisting of eight counties, has a Potemkin (illusory) Assembly, but is actually governed under direct rule from Dublin.

What benefits?
Turning lastly to the third question – asserted benefits – here the issues are complicated. NESC identifies four areas of cooperation: social policy, wellbeing frameworks, economy, and climate and biodiversity.
Of these, the benefits from easing inter-community tensions within Northern Ireland, improving the quality of life, and sharing social services in communities directly affected by the border are clear and unambiguous. Pursuing them pragmatically is in the interests of north and south.
However, economic benefits from a shared island are more difficult to evaluate.
Some of these grow automatically over time as North-South trade deepens in an era of peace. Some arrive through enterprises forming mutually beneficial partnerships, but the structure of the Northern economy is less favourable to such linkages now than it was back in 1998, as a result of slow growth and Brexit.
Beneficial enterprise clustering is more likely to occur within Ireland than across the border. Cross-border infrastructure development could happen, addressing the isolation of Donegal. But in the absence of Northern willingness, it has been a long and painfully dragged out process.
Finally, environmental and biodiversity cooperation across the border would be best pursued after these challenges have been properly addressed internally. There may be added value to cooperation, but it is likely to be marginal compared to benefits of dealing with these issues first on a national basis.

Skewed history
The partition of our island was a disaster socially and economically. It mirrors similar disasters throughout the world, ranging from Cyprus to Korea.
The cessation of violence was the magnificent achievement of the Good Friday Agreement. In a purely rational world, the benefits of sharing our island would be so compelling that they would overcome the fear and paranoia that still stalks Northern Ireland. But divisions once created are very difficult to mend.
Perhaps the best approach would be to acknowledge that the economy of the island, north and south, was cruelly skewed by history and left peripheral communities in its train locked out of development opportunities.
Addressing these internal problems is a necessary first step prior to addressing cross-border problems. Wouldn’t €1 billion euro be a great help there? It could build six Western Rail Corridors. A thriving North and South could eventually cooperate as naturally as do members of the EU. That is why we have a ‘Shared Europe’ but only shared illusions on our island.

John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.