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No Frontiers

North-South integration in Ireland

Robin Wilson

No one should underestimate the difficulty, any more than the desirability, of closer integration between the two parts of Ireland.

At the outset of his monumental A History of Ulster, (Bardon, 1992: 11), Jonathan Bardon describes the "defensive wall" which marked off Ulster fully two millennia ago: "Described on maps as the Dane’s Cast, it begins in the east near Scarva on the Down-Armagh border; the next section, known as the Dorsey, stands at Drummill Bridge in south Armagh; it continues into Monaghan near Muckno Lake, where it is known either as the Worm Ditch or as the Black Pig’s Dyke; and further short stretches extend through Cavan and Fermanagh to Donegal Bay. A tradition survives that it was ploughed up by the tusks of an enchanted black boar; archaeologists, however, have proved this great linear earthwork to have been a series of massive defences, not continuous, but guarding the routeways into Ulster between the bogs, loughs and drumlins."

Similarly, reflecting on nearly four centuries of modern Irish history, Roy Foster focused on what he called the "special nature of Ulster society, and the imprint of Ulster’s peculiar history of partial settlement, evangelical commitment and uneven industrialization". His period ended with the demise of the power-sharing executive of 1974 over the ill-fated Council of Ireland, and he concluded (Foster, 1988: 592): "This proved that populist opposition to closer involvement with the Republic was not manipulated by an elite in Stormont but had its own dynamism.

The question appears afresh in the wake of the Belfast agreement. Can advocates of north-south integration — not the same thing as advocates of a united Ireland — overcome the practical and political challenges they face? Can the ‘Sunningdale syndrome’ be laid to rest?

The answer this report gives is a realistic but confident yes. Twenty-five years on, the two parts of the island have an opportunity to remedy the failure of 1974 and to issue in a period of economic co-ordination, social inclusion and political reconciliation. The vision, in every meaning of that phrase, is of an Ireland at peace with itself.

Like the construction of Europe, it will take decades, it will realise no utopian political schemes, and deep-seated concerns about new concentrations of power will have to be patiently addressed. The biggest enemies of the process, after unionists harbouring paranoid fears, would be (as in 1974) nationalists who confirmed them.

The republic and the UK became members of the (then) EEC at the same time, exactly one year before the ill-fated power-sharing executive was established If the latter only lasted five months, the (now) EU has recovered from its ‘sclerosis’ of the 70s towards further integrationist steps in subsequent decades, notably towards economic and monetary union.

Undoubtedly, in the interim, co-operative initiatives have greatly developed in Ireland, and EU schemes have been to the fore in supporting them — principally INTERREG and the Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation. But as Colin Stutt comments (Stutt, 1997: 138), "While particular initiatives have moved forward effectively, little of the co-operation has been strategic in nature — rather, it has been opportunistic and funding-driven."

This report sets out a strategic agenda for north-south integration — in terms of the substance of what is involved and the processes required — in the broader EU context. And it makes clear that a range of actors — not just governments — have a critical role to play.

It begins with the scene-setting. John Fee sketches out the post-agreement political architecture and highlights the already-extensive administrative co-operation between the two parts of the island, there to be built upon.

Dominic Murray charts the different levels — variously inter-governmental and non-governmental — at which cooperation takes place. He emphasises the need to avoid political domination of new structures.

Thomas Christiansen explains the evolution of thinking within the wider EU, from cross-border co-operation to transnational spatial planning. An irony both these last chapters raise is that new borders can be created by efforts to transcend them — Christiansen aptly represents the resulting map of bafflingly complex arrangements as ‘Maze Europe’.

Moray Gilland, representing the European Commission, helpfully writes of the rationalisation of the alphabet soup of programme acronyms, in a manner suggestive of how the new North South Ministerial Council and the implementation body for special EU programmes could engage with the European institutions.

Rob Meijer, representing EUREGIO, brings us back down to earth with an account of the diverse ways in which as many as 150,000 Dutch and German citizens are engaged every year by this co-operative venture.

Moving back on to the Irish canvas, Geoff McEnroe and Harriet Kinahan explain, in similar practical vein, the contribution of business and voluntary organisations, respectively, to co-operation hitherto. They both stress the need for new institutions to add to, rather than supplant, this work within civil society.

Looking into the future, Rory O’Donnell writes about what we can learn from the institutional evolution of the EU, as to how best to make the institutions work so that north-south integration becomes a reality. He indicates the need for a problem-solving approach, rather than mere bargaining, and the involvement of external expertise.

Hugh Frazer develops the scanty reference in the Belfast agreement to a possible north-south consultative forum, detailing the rationale for such a body and how it might be composed. He suggests it should be a totally new structure with a flexible modus operandi.

The concluding chapter places the evolution of north-south integration in a (non-threatening) political context, anticipating a political formation of a new type that may transcend the age-old polarisation between United Kingdom and United Ireland. It links the process to the changing nature of governance and discusses a wide range of areas in which real progress might be envisaged.


Bardon, J (1992), A History of Ulster, Belfast: Blackstaff Press

Foster, R F (1988), Modern Ireland 1600-1972, London: Allen Lane

Stutt, C (1997), ‘Cross-border and north-south co-operation’, in Bloomfield, K and Carter, C, People and Government: Questions for Northern Ireland, Joseph Rowntree Foundation/Chief Executives’ Forum

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