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North-South integration in Ireland

An official view

John Fee

Recently I had cause to travel to Dublin with a group of Newry businessmen. On the way down we were trying to remember the name of one of the TDs in Co Donegal whom none of us could recall. A voice from the seat behind said: "Surely it’s Cecilia Keaveney." I turned around and the voice was that of Danny McNeill of the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture. He was sitting with five or six colleagues, on their way to meet counterparts in Dublin to put the finishing touches to some of the proposals for the north-south body on agriculture and the areas for co-operation.

On the way back, the first person I saw when I got into the carriage was Deborah Agnew, a Northern Ireland official in the Department of Finance and Personnel. She had been to see the equivalent Dáil department to look at accounting procedures for the new Assembly. And when I arrived in Belfast, the first person I saw when I walked through the door of Parliament Buildings at Stormont was Wally Kirwan from the taoiseach’s department.

This gives some indication of the level of contact between the northern and southern administrations, and the complete change in attitude within both civil services when they consult on an hourly basis. In the north we are thus benefiting from the experience of two sets of civil servants — plus, indeed, those working on the arrangements for Scotland, Wales and, potentially, some of the regions in England.

The structures being put in place are at a very advanced stage. It may appear from the outside that there has been a very long hiatus but in fact quite a lot of work has been done. Most of it is domestic, but all is absolutely essential to the new institutions.

At the heart of these is the new assembly. We have been able in the last number of months to put in place all the support services a legislative assembly would require. We have recruited some 140 members of staff. We have put in place the people who will run the committee system for the scrutiny of government departments and legislative purposes. We have put in place all the library and research services and a communications system which will allow the public to access our parliament by internet and e-mail.

We are essentially creating a 21st-century, modern, professional assembly We will probably end up with a more accessible and accountable parliament than Westminster or the Dáil — and, indeed, they have been sending their officials to Stormont to take a look at the procedures we are putting in place. So even at that level there is quite intensive co-operation.

Obviously, a number of these institutions cannot come into existence until immediately after devolution takes effect but they are already posing enormous political questions. The British-Irish Council is being created to allow the devolved parliaments within Britain and Northern Ireland, the Dáil, Westminster, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands to co-ordinate their efforts, and perhaps to sing from one hymn-sheet on European issues. But who will represent Northern Ireland at the Council of Ministers? Who will represent Scotland? Who will represent Wales?

And how, in European terms, will that council be able to co-ordinate the jurisdictions which are within the EU, alongside the Isle of Man and Guernsey which are not? These questions are obviously very fraught and potentially introduce the idea that England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the republic would be going to Europe ... all with different agenda.

Let me turn to the issue of changing attitudes, to the question of community relations. One of the ideas behind the Civic Forum was to try to give a direct role to the non-political players, in influencing the direction of social and economic policy — all those issues that are properly the domain of the civic partners and civic society. In writing the Good Friday Agreement, and latterly in writing the Northern Ireland Act and in determining what precisely would be the practical effects of some of its clauses, it rapidly became clear that there was no clear definition of what community relations is about.

Take education, for example. The primary school in Crossmaglen has never been able to find a Protestant school which would co-operate under the ‘education for mutual understanding’ programme. There would be children at Protestant primary schools whose mummies or daddies would be in the ‘security forces’ and to link that primary school with a Catholic primary school in a ‘republican area’ would be seen as a security risk. So there are certain schools excluded from EMU.

An enormous amount of thought has been given to this but the sum total is that, because this was not resolved, in the determination by the first and deputy first minister reported to the assembly in February community relations is specifically withheld to their office. They will jointly have an executive role in implementing community-relations programmes and supporting community-relations bodies — and, indeed, in trying to encourage a much more proactive relationship between the two (or more) communities.

They will also have responsibility for the administration and funding of the Civic Forum and within the agreement there is a reference to a potential future forum associated with the North-South Ministerial Council. A similar initiative is conceivable in conjunction with the British-Irish Council. So, potentially, there is a mechanism for bringing a much wider representation of society into these new structures.

On the north-south agenda, in addition to the implementation bodies six areas have been designated for policy co-operation under the aegis of the NSMC but utilising existing arrangements in each jurisdiction. These are in the domains of transport, agriculture, education, health, environment and tourism.

We should be expanding the areas of co-operation into every discipline where collaborative action between the northern and southern administrations can bring benefit to all sections of the community and tangible improvements in quality of life to both sides. So we would not view the list as being complete, but rather as a logical starting point. We would hope that the necessary trust between the two administrations and between the non-government organisations can be built and that we will be able to see real benefits in the short term — encouraging, perhaps, a broadening of those areas for co-operation.

That is where we stand at the minute. All the main parties are absolutely committed to making sure these structures work. Everything that can be done to make sure they are put in place is being done. It is being done with the greatest amount of co-ordination with the Scottish civil service, the Welsh Office, Westminster and the Dáil and I am convinced it is going to work. The unfortunate reality, however, is that it will all work and come into place, literally overnight or the whole thing will collapse, literally overnight.

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