Address by Minister of State Liz O'Donnell TD at the launch of "Creating Living Institutions"
I am delighted to launch this research report, conducted under the auspices of the Institute for British-Irish Studies, on "EU cross-border cooperation after the Good Friday Agreement".
The authors, Professors Brigid Laffan and Dr. Diane Payne, the Institute for British-Irish Studies and the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh which commissioned the research, are all to be congratulated on this focused, relevant and astute analysis.
Today we celebrate Europe Day. On 9 May 1950, the French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman made the first creative moves towards what was to lead to the establishment of the European Union. Since 1985, this day has been rightly marked as a symbol of all that we can celebrate about our identity as citizens of Europe and the expression of that identity in common institutions.
Just as support from our friends and Partners in the Union has been of particular importance for Ireland, membership of the European Union is seen as the key to economic and political development by the countries of eastern and central Europe currently in accession negotiations. This enlargement of the Union, which may see the Union grow to encompass 27 or more countries, is an historic process, offering the prospect of uniting the continent of Europe, for the first time in history, on the basis of democracy, respect for fundamental rights, and the rule of law.
For this enlargement to proceed on schedule, the changes agreed in the Treaty of Nice for the Institutions and decision-making procedures of the Union must, of course, be ratified in all the Member States. The Irish people will be given the opportunity next month to affirm their support for enlargement, and for Ireland continuing to play its role at the heart of Europe. I am confident that we will not turn our backs on the people of Poland, the Czech Republic and the other candidate countries. I am sure that we will say ‘Yes' to enlargement and yes to an agreement that is good for Europe, and good for Ireland.
The Treaty makes the changes necessary to ensure an enlarged Union can continue to function effectively. Ireland has nothing to fear from these developments. As a small country in Europe we have always managed to punch above our weight, and have benefitted greatly from access to the single market. This market will grow in time to perhaps over 500 million people, providing unprecedented trading opportunities. Europe has provided the environment for Ireland to develop economically and politically, and the Union is ready to provide that same opportunity to a new set of countries.
As you all know, the post-war European project was motivated by a deep yearning to create and sustain the basis for peaceful relations in Europe and, in the process, to assist the economic regeneration of Western Europe. Consequently, the fundamental values of the project were - and remain - those of peace, political stability, economic solidarity and total respect for the freedom and identity of the constituent parts of the Union. Not surprisingly, therefore, the EU has been a natural, consistent and valued supporter of the peace process on the island, both in financial and in moral terms.
In financial terms, the EU's support through the various PEACE and INTERREG programmes, specifically targeted at cross-border cooperation, economic development and reconciliation in the twelve Northern counties of the island, now amounts to well over a billion euro, including the 500 million euro approved for PEACE II. My Ministerial colleague, Dermot Ahern, recently participated in the signing of the PEACE II programme at a ceremony in Stormont and the roll-out of this Programme has now effectively begun. In addition, the INTERREG III programme is currently the subject of ongoing negotiations with the European Commission.
In addition, the European Union has, over the last decade, contributed almost 200 million euro through its support to the International Fund for Ireland. The IFI has been in operation now for some 15 years and, through the generous financial support of its international donors, it has very effectively pursued its twin objectives of promoting economic regeneration and encouraging contact, dialogue and reconciliation. An assessment of the Fund's impact between 1987 and 1997 showed that it had contributed to the creation of over 31,000 jobs and that it had facilitated the involvement of approximately 12,000 people in projects of either a cross-community or cross-border character. At a time when North/South co-operation was not without controversy, the IFI was also a pioneer in developing structures which allowed both administrations on the island to work together in the delivery of its programmes and in targeting the Fund's programmes on the most disadvantaged areas in Northern Ireland.
All of this EU support has been a crucial enabling feature of the post-Agreement landscape providing, not just the generous financial resources, but also administrative mechanisms through which cross community and cross border cooperation could grow and develop. As the report we are launching today makes clear, the European Union's INTERREG and PEACE programmes have been very effective catalysts for the new dynamism in this area of relationship building. As well as supporting and enhancing pre-existing cross-border and cross-community groups, these initiatives have encouraged many new groups and activities to emerge and develop. The Programme guidelines and technical requirements laid down by the Commission have also ensured that the necessary qualities of discipline, cohesion and focus have been brought to bear. Similarly, the monitoring and evaluation processes have been a valuable learning experience in terms of ensuring the sustainibility of the projects being promoted.
But beyond these immediate and practical benefits, the role of the European Union has also been to provide a neutral and wider context in which to explore and examine our own historical situation. While acknowledging the unique qualities of our own particular experience, the European dimension has perhaps challenged us to see that there can also be a commonality of difficulty and, indeed, opportunity around shared borders. For this very reason, in its current study into Obstacles to Cross-Border Mobility, the North/South Ministerial Council wants to ensure that the wider European insights into the practical difficulties of cross-frontier movement are fully analysed and reflected in the final recommendations of the report, which the Council will receive later this summer.
The border regions of Europe have more in common than in contrast with each other. In seeing ourselves in this wider context, we have the opportunity to learn and benefit from the experiences of other regions which have successfully overcome the inhibiting constraints of political borders. As today's report eloquently documents, the wider experience of the process of European integration has shown that borders can be transformed from barriers to bridges. Accordingly, I very much welcome the report's recommendation that technical assistance should be provided to assist short study and exchange visits both to the Commission in Brussels and with other European regional border networks.
As one would expect, the report is not an entirely uncritical analysis of the INTERREG Programme. In recognising the fact that the Programme has evolved, and will continue to do so in its third phase now being negotiated, the authors have noted that the original INTERREG initiative was, in some respects, quite centralised and sometimes operated on a "back to back" fashion rather than being genuinely cross-border in nature. These limitations were, perhaps, understandable given the fact that the Programme administrators were operating in unchartered territory.
What is more significant, I believe, is that the Programme and its mechanisms have evolved, in the light of experience, to address these identified constraints so that the initiative has progressively become more transparent, inclusive and genuinely cross-border in its operations. Like the authors of the report, I welcome the fact that the Local Authority cross-border networks will be actively involved in the implementation of INTERREG III and that their composition will be broadened to engage wider civic society in the respective regions.
I began by referring to the birthday of Europe. Coincidently, just last month we marked the third anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. It is, therefore, an apt time to reflect both on our experiences of cross-border cooperation and the impact of the European dimension, in this post-Agreement landscape.
The title of this research report is a perceptive one since the outworking of the Agreement has, above all, to be about creating living institutions. Ideas and theories that appear good on paper have to survive the test of practicality, delivery and relevance in the real world. I believe that the institutions created under the Good Friday Agreement are capable of meeting those tests in full measure.
In terms of all-island cooperation, we now have a vibrant and pro-active North/South Ministerial Council which has met thirty times in the last year in diverse locations throughout the island. The Council addresses 12 sectoral areas in its initial programme of work; six of these come within the remit of new, dedicated, all-island Implementation Bodies, located North and South and staffed from both jurisdictions. Four of these Bodies have Boards, with Directors from both parts of the island working closely and enthusiastically together. The Bodies have responsibility for key issues like Trade and Business Development, Food Safety Promotion and, of course, the Special EU Programmes Body, which has a key role in the negotiation and delivery of current EU programmes like PEACE and INTERREG.
I very much share the report's analysis of the centrality and importance of the role of the Special European Programmes Body. The performance of this Body, which is still in the process of putting its staffing structures in place, will be essential both to ensuring that we optimise the use of the new cycle of EU funding and that North/South co-operation becomes a truly dynamic and sustainable process. I particularly endorse the report's recognition of the importance of the Body's role in monitoring and implementing the Common Chapter of the National Development Plans in both jurisdictions.
In addition to the six Implementation Bodies, we have also recently established Tourism Ireland Limited, which will for the first time market the island of Ireland as a single destination in all of our overseas markets, incorporating the international promotional roles of Bord Fáilte and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.
All of us who have been directly involved in the operation of the North/South Ministerial Council and its associated Implementation Bodies have been very impressed by the professionalism and commitment of our Northern Ireland colleagues who, irrespective of political affiliation, have discharged their duties within the NSMC with great distinction. It is, therefore, all the more regrettable that, as a result of the action endorsed by the Ulster Unionist Council last October, the operation of 3 of the 12 sectors of the NSMC has been adversely affected for the last 6 months.
Strand 2 of the Good Friday Agreement was, of course, a compromise between different negotiating positions. For that reason, the initial programme of work of the NSMC has competence in 12 specific sectors. There are other areas, beyond these sectors, in respect of which valuable co-operation of mutual benefit is taking place in parallel to the work of the NSMC. For instance, Sir Reg Empey and Mary O'Rourke and their Departments are working very closely together in exploring the potential for an integrated energy market on the island.
All of these North/South endeavours have one thing in common; they succeed because they are based on agreement between equal partners; are grounded on a sound practical basis; and deliver mutual benefits.
Michael Kennedy's recent study on cross-border relations in Ireland prior to 1969 showed that, however sensible and pragmatic, cross-border co-operation was never able to entirely break free from the shackles of the divisive politics of partition. However, by addressing the constitutional issues in a comprehensive and inclusive manner, the Good Friday Agreement has helped to neutralise the political sensitivities which had stymied cross-border cooperation in the past. With the Agreement in place, including all of the checks and balances in the operation of the North/South institutions, cross-border cooperation cannot be represented as a stalking horse for some covert political purpose. Its value can now be assessed on its own merits, namely, whether it delivers tangible benefits to all.
And those merits are clear to see. As a small island of some 5 million people, it is not surprising that we share so many common problems and concerns and that limited resources can go far if pooled appropriately and properly targeted and planned .
North/South co-operation allows us to redress the dysfunctional relationship between both parts of the island bequeathed to us by history. It also allows us to recognise and act upon the imperatives related to our finite space and resources. Our environment is a shared resource and a shared responsibility. The great natural beauty of this island is a common asset which we can market all the more successfully in a coordinated way. And, as we have learned through the painful and difficult experiences of recent weeks, issues like animal health and ensuring a quality food image for our agricultural produce can most effectively be dealt with on an island-wide basis.
In terms of infrastructure planning and service provision, areas of vital public interest such as transport, health and education should, where ever possible, now be taken forward in a truly joined-up way.
The mundane realities of managing the island's shared problems and opportunities may not, at first appearance, be seen as the exciting new dispensation which was signalled by the Good Friday Agreement. The Northern poet John Montague once asked:
Who today asks for more
- Smoke of battle blown aside -
Than the struggle with casual
Graceless unheroic things?
After 30 years of conflict, most of us on the island rejoice in the smoke of battle being blown aside and are more than happy to struggle together with casual things which impact upon our daily lives. Building institutions and creating policies which improve the lives of our people are both graceful and heroic.
Against the stable backdrop of the Good Friday Agreement and a secure constitutional position, I believe there is no reason why our political border should not now be transformed from a barrier to a bridge.
The institutions of the Good Friday Agreement have now been in place for some 18 months. From direct experience, we now know that they can work and that they are living institutions. With continued EU support and the type of constructive cross-border cooperation considered in this very helpful report, I am convinced that we will continue to underpin the peace process through working the common ground of economic development, social advancement and building new relationships at all levels between both parts of the island.