CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: Politics: Continentally Challenged (Report No. 5)

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Continentally Challenged


Where does Northern Ireland fit into this broader canvas? We need to start from a sober assessment.

A former commission official, originally from Northern Ireland, summarised its future in Europe as "rather bleak". Enlargement and fiscal tightening across the union, he believed, would indeed end Northern Ireland's privileged position in terms of fiscal transfers; it could no longer be a "cosseted region". In a world where economic success depended on the interplay of human capital and geography, meanwhile, it would be those regions and city-states that could best secure that interplay which would succeed. Yet Northern Ireland had no institutions for working out where it wanted to go, he said.

The former Stormont premier Terence O'Neill once claimed that Northern Ireland was 'at the crossroads'. Updating his assertion we might say it lies on a slip road to a trans-European network. It can, in theory, remain in the relative tranquillity of a lay-by, but only at the cost of the mainstream European traffic-including to and from Dublin - accelerating past. Worse still would be to choose to enter the cul-de-sac signposted Little England.

What Northern Ireland can not expect is an indefinite tow. Broader European opinion has its expectations, as well as competing demands. It expects that the road to Dublin will be open and widely travelled in both directions (even if, ironically, renewed IRA activity requires a visible border); it expects that it will not be asked indefinitely to fund an instead-of-peace package; and it faces the budgetary constraints associated with the domestic burdens on its biggest paymaster (Germany), alongside the prospect of more European mouths from the east to feed in the next decade.

Nor can Europe provide political deliverance: some of the more wistful accounts of the 'peace process' have implied that the 'internationalisation' of the conflict would somehow spirit Northern Ireland's glaring internal divisions away On the contrary, Europe can no more deliver a political than an economic salvation for Northern Ireland. Rather, all the evidence indicates that in an ever-more competitive global environment it is only those regions which have got their political act together which will flourish.

In a sense, then, it is time to reverse the telescope. Instead of endlessly asking what Europe can do for Northern Ireland, all those concerned with the future of the region should be asking what they and it can do to maximise the opportunities the evolving EU architecture provides.

In establishing just where Northern Ireland does want to go, a three-dimensional approach is required. The first is a pragmatic focus on establishing a democratic and egalitarian regional administration, which can act dynamically in a European context rather than see Northern Ireland left in the slipstream. Retreating into a Eurosceptic, integrationist (in a British context) bunker offers no alternative. For the regionalisation of Europe, as against a Euro-regionalism,[1] remains an unavoidable reality.

The goal would have to be for such an administration to follow the model of Marks et al by articulating "an autonomous voice at the European level" and seeking "to exploit the multiplicity of cracks for potential influence in a fragmented multi-level polity".[2] As a senior commission official pointed out, Northern Ireland is perceived by the EU as "a distinctive European region", and there is a case for it enjoying "self-governance" (by which he didn't mean independence), rather than, as had been the case since the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the EU looking to the two governments in London and Dublin. Were such an administration to be established, a beefed-up Northern Ireland Centre in Europe could then become its official representative before the institutions of the European Union.

This need not require agreement on the elaborate trappings of the framework document; what is required is a collective, cross-sectarian commitment to making it happen and building the trust to make it work. It needs to be a highly autonomous administration, if it is to achieve the concertation of social forces, the engagement with the EU institutions, and, in that context, the collaboration with the republic that is necessary if the region is not to remain an uncompetitive laggard.

The second dimension is a further, deeper level of democratisation, needed for as long as the first is absent and as one guarantor against undemocratic abuse as and when it is secured. A Blair administration at Westminster will certainly not be Euro-sceptic, but all indications are that it will indeed be Euro-wary. While an agreement in the IGC, if it is limited, seems possible, and eventual participation in EMU unavoidable, Labour is so terrified of being painted as recreating 70s 'corporatism' that it has already ruled out European-style social-partnership arrangements for Britain. Yet in Northern Ireland, such arrangements do exist in embryo.

Firstly, there is the official context of the Northern Ireland Economic Council; secondly, there are voluntary coming-togethers in the Social Partners Forum, as well as the 'G7' group of business and union organisations. The Social Partners Forum, drawing together employers', workers', farmers' and voluntary-sector representatives, and delicately described as an "informal grouping" by the European Commission - mindful of UK government sensitivities - has offered a sounding board for commissioners visiting Belfast, and last October the group spent two days in Brussels, meeting the social affairs commissioner, Padraig Flynn, at his invitation, as well as relevant commission officials.[3]

Moreover, as the Northern Ireland Economic Council commented on the Dunford and Hudson study it commissioned, successful European regions have managed to create environments "conducive to widely accepted and mutually-supportive choices ... across the regional economy". And, frankly any new regional administration for Northern Ireland would - or, at least, should - be desperate after such prolonged political atrophy for concerted input from those who had, in effect, been running the socio-economic show in their absence.

The third dimension, related to both the previous two, is the north-south aspect. As Elizabeth Meehan and Paul Bew argue, while 'top-down' proposals for EU political involvement in Northern Ireland have met resistance,

the EC has features which might ameliorate NT'S conflict from the 'bottom up': the lessons of its peace-making origins and the Continental tradition of coalitions and alliances, the idea that interdependence is more significant than impregnable borders, and new legal and administrative frameworks for development programmes, particularly cross-border ones.[4]
The former president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, once confided to this writer - conscious as he was of the sensitivities involved - that he wanted particularly to see this aspect developed. The senior commission official who referred to a Euro-view of Northern Ireland as a distinctive region equally indicated that Ireland tended to be viewed as an entity. And it is here that the socio-economic focus of meaningful north-south co-operation and the British-Irish disjunction on attitudes to the European social model dovetail interestingly.

For all these arguments point not only to the desirability of an autonomous political voice for Northern Ireland but also to a strong association with the republic, to develop the socio-economic agenda on an island-wide basis. Institutions are needed, because there has been an evident 'market failure' to exploit the potential of the island economy in the context of partition; the history of the EU demonstrates how achieving a single market can not be done across national boundaries without institutional encouragement.[5]

Here, indeed, the recent literature on European integration, as Paul Teague has shown, offers us a way through-ultimately unsatisfactory for unionist or nationalist ideologues but surely acceptable for pragmatists of either hue (or neither). The politically controlled north-south body envisaged in the framework document may again not represent the answer, as the experience of other transfrontier arrangements in the union suggests.[6] It implies a belief in an omnicompetent central apparatus no longer accepted anywhere as appropriate for domestic governance.

More frightening for unionists, however, may be that the answer may well lie in more north-south institutions, rather than fewer. What is important is to develop an ever-thickening fabric of institutional links, undoing the negative effects of partition, through trial and error in an iterative 'social learning' process. Underpinning this should be the trust that can only be built through the direct participation of the various social interests concerned, as well as political representatives.

Unionists can only resist this scenario in terms of cutting off their noses to spite their faces. Given the material disbenefits involved - not to mention its churlishness towards reconciliation - this is simply not a sustainable stance. Equally, nationalists cannot expect to secure a supranational, 'dynamic' north-south body which has an implied teleological future as a proto-government of a united Ireland; but surely they can recognise half a loaf when they see one.

Northern Ireland's political class must thus take its collective head out of the sand and realise that indefinite prosecution of its diverse subjective constitutional aspirations is a luxury its citizens can no longer afford. Even if unionists were to achieve the 'victory' over nationalism of integration with a Euro-sceptic Britain, they would thus be condemning Northern Ireland to a dependent relationship with a theoretically independent state which was in reality languishing in Europe's backwater. And if nationalists were to sit back to await their only hope of displacing unionism - that Irish unity will somehow fall into their lap in a supranationalist Europe - their day would never come.

Part of the problem is that there has hitherto been no punishment for Northern Ireland's politicians, or paramilitaries, for failure: Stormont Castle keeps governing; Westminster keeps paying the cheques. Its citizens do suffer, however. Just take the comparative economic performances of the two parts of the island: while there can be argument as to quite how big a factor it has been, no one in the republic doubts that the ability of the state to engage effectively with the European Union, and of its major social sectors to act concertedly in that context, has been a significant force in the emergence of the 'Celtic Tiger'.

Of course, the republic is a member state and therefore is well placed to take advantage of the union's opportunities. But much of the thrust of this report has been to say that modern globalising economic trends, domestic pressures for political decentralisation and regional lobbying in Europe have established a world where 'sub-national authorities' can potentially punch their full economic and political weight in a regime of 'multilevel governance'. It is really up to them.

The hope must be that such a focus on the external challenges Northern Ire land faces, rather than its internal demands, will spur a trend away from ideology towards pragmatism. This is already clearly the drift of much business criticism of the political class, especially its unionist members. (It is also, usually sotto voce, present in some southern political comment on the leadership of northern nationalism).

In addition to that external motor of change, however, internally the citizens of Northern Ireland need not wait for political accommodation to avail of European opportunities. Thus, Mark Brennock of the Irish Times writes about the IGC that "as the debate on the future shape of Europe continues, the absence of democratic structures in Northern Ireland, and the absence of a forum for debate on these issues, will minimise any effect Northern Ireland can have on decisions made".[7] Or, rather, soberingly, he wrote that about the IGC - the 1991 treaty negotiations.

Yet this report has also emphasised how social movements have increasingly sought to become a force on the European stage, often developing transnational links - the voluntary sector in Northern Ireland having been particular wise to these opportunities. Similarly, while the Northern Ireland Centre in Europe differs from the German Länder offices, for example, in not representing a democratic administration, that didn't stop it being set up and securing cross-party endorsement.

What is needed in the region is to develop a much thicker web of relationships between the various interests engaging in Northern Ireland with the European context, and with the intellectuals involved, the union institutions and other cognate interests - especially in the republic. This is part and parcel of the need to shift the European debate in the region from a focus on funding to a focus on policy The challenge must be to create a mechanism for key actors in the wider society in Northern Ireland to be actively engaged in a debate about regional and social policy in preparation for the new millennial context, in a manner which people in Brussels (if not always in London) can understand.

Here, the round-table which has provided so much intelligence for this publication provided an embryonic instance of what is required. What is needed is a more regular and formal forum, widely 'owned' by all those with a stake in the argument, with input from all the social sectors and elected representatives in Europe, assisted by the European Commission, with access to intellectual and governmental support (including in Dublin), and with an open hand to involvement by interested players in the republic.

Such a standing Northern Ireland Forum on Europe could be a valuable complement to the work of the Northern Ireland Centre in Europe and provide a point of engagement with and for the many institutions in the republic involved in the Euro-debate. It could be a hot-house for the rapid cultivation of informed policy, a clearing-house for the sharing of experiences and ideas, and an open-house for dialogue with the region's representatives in the European Parliament and the Committee of the Regions, as well as representatives of the institutions themselves. The consultative forum established under the 'peace package' was a useful innovation, but its life will come to an end with the package itself.

The impact of the republic's engagement with the EU, as a member state, has not merely been about the moneys thereby secured. What has been acquired, more fundamentally, is a familiarity with the policy portfolio and the institutional architecture of the EU. Perhaps even more important still, though least tangible, has been the rubbing off of a certain policy style - consensual and (at best) intellectually driven, rather than adversarial and ideological. All this is reflected in a highly Europhile public opinion at home and a reservoir of goodwill towards the republic in the wider EU.

It is here that a Northern Ireland Forum on Europe could make real strides. The aim should be to ensure the debate in the region about its place in the EU aims at the high level evident, and hopefully to be sustained, in the republic-rather than the low level which has been plumbed, hopefully reversibly in the rest of the UK.

That this report should conclude thus may surprise some. Where are the demands for more Euro-funding? Where are the calls for assistance for this or that interest group?

In fact, what is being suggested here is something wholly more radical than this or that ameliorative (and unrealistic) demand. That is precisely the traditional stuff of the culture of complaint that passes for politics in Northern Ireland.

What is advocated here instead under the searching spotlight of the irresistible demands of a dramatically changing Europe, would amount to nothing less than a cultural and institutional transformation of the internal governance of Northern Ireland and its relationships with the rest of these islands.

Some years ago a Belfast critic, reviewing a season at the city's Lyric Theatre, excoriatingly concluded that the Lyric Players had set themselves a standard of mediocrity and mostly they had achieved it. If 'Europe' tells us anything, it is that-in political as much as in artistic culture-Northern Ireland can no longer risk setting its sights so low.


1a distinction made by John Loughlin in his presentation to the Institute of European Studies on the Committee of the Regions in November 1995
2Gary Marks et al, 'Competencies, cracks and conflicts: regional mobilisation in the European Union', in C Marks, F W Sharpf, P C Schmitter and W Streeck, Governonce in the European Union, Sage, London, 1996, pp 42-3
3Colin Wolfe (DG V v), 'Social partnership at work', Europe in Northern Ireland, no 97, European Commission office in Northern Ireland, October 1996
4Elizabeth Meehan and Paul Bew, 'Regions and borders: controversies in Northern Ireland about the European Union', European Journal of Public Policy, vol 1, no 1, 1994, p96
5This observation was made by Paul Teague at a DD seminar, The Economic Backdrop to the Constitutional Argument, in Derry in March 1996.
6 A very senior former civil servant in the republic once confided to this writer that the then taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, would have been prepared to accept the plea by the chair of the power-sharing executive, Brian Faulkner, that the Council of Ireland be sacrificed to save the power-sharing executive in the crisis of 1974, had it not been too late to do so. Asked why this should have been so, given the ideological investment by the republic's government in the council plan, he said that a calculation had been made, based on the numbers of civil servants in the two jurisdictions and the functions which the council could have, of how many officials might be required to staff it: it worked out at 44,000. This may have been a tendentious calculation-the point is that the mandarin mind had balked. As it happens, in any event each jurisdiction was so jealous of its 'sovereignty' that Dr Maurice Hayes, then the official working for the executive responsible for collating bids from north and south for matters to transfer to the council, frustratingly found that only a régime for protection of wild birds was volunteered by both sides-an ironic reprise of the fact that an act governing wild birds was the only legislation ever passed in the old Stormont parliament at nationalist initiative. See his Minority Verdict: Memoirs of a Catholic Public Servant, Blackstaff, 1995, p174.
7'No sovereignty, nothing to surrender', Irish Times, December 9th 1991

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As with every other issue in Northern Ireland, the European agenda cannot be prosecuted adequately in the absence of progress in the wider political arena. And perhaps the most challenging issue raised by this report is that the debate as to how Northern Ireland should be governed usually takes place entirely outwith the wider debate on governance in Europe: it remains trapped in the language of 1920-2.

It thus not only fatally ignores the fast-changing competitive environment, within which, it should be remembered, Northern Ireland only stays afloat courtesy of the mighty Westminster subvention. It also misses out on a whole style of politics, which could not only help Northern Ireland raise itself from the bottom end of the regional league table but also assist in the resolution of its own governance crisis - and the two are interrelated. Here, the Northern Ireland Economic Council has opened up a crucial debate with its valuable work on decentralised governance and successful European regions.

The fundamental lesson of this report is that Northern Ireland's future in Europe is at best a challenging and at worst a very difficult one. The benign scenario can only be elaborated through conscious action, cognisant of the changing European environment, as part of an emerging 'culture of commitment' and backed by the necessary political will. As a result, the recommendations which follow are directed to a range of actors and require a raising of horizons beyond sectional or sectoral concerns:

1. A Northern Ireland Forum on Europe
To begin to cohere an autonomous regional voice in Europe, a Northern Ireland Forum on Europe is required, drawing together the employers, farmers, trade unions and voluntary sector, along with the MEPs and delegates to the Committee of the Regions, the Northern Ireland Centre in Europe, intellectual support and representation from the European Commission. This could be initiated by the NICE as a neutral broker but it would be desirable that 'ownership' be shared. The forum should establish an agreed statement of broad goals of Northern Ireland's engagement with the EU. Its ongoing work should air in the public domain topical European concerns, with an emphasis on collaboration and pragmatism in how they should be addressed. It would give the MEPs and representatives on the Committee of the Regions more public recognition and raise broader awareness of the issues at stake. And by including representatives from the border counties in the republic-in line with the 'peace package' forum-it could add a cross-border dimension.

2. Governance seminars
The government should initiate a series of seminars for the parties in Northern Ireland, chaired and facilitated by the NIEC, on the theme of governance, teasing out the parameters of successful regional régimes in Europe. Utilising invited political practitioners from across the continent, as well as academics, and bringing in Northern Ireland social actors as appropriate, these should also freely involve Irish government representatives and other players in the republic. Themes to highlight would be the significance of political concertation and trust, the role of non-governmental organisations and the potential of inter-regional co-ordination. The aim would be to explore the application of these ideas to Northern Ireland, and to north-south co-ordination, in a collaborative fashion.

With, at the time of writing, the political talks at Stormont threatening to go into cold storage, until the Westminster election at least, this could provide a means, perhaps for a new government, to inject fresh energy and ideas into an otherwise stale debate, while building on the way the Northern Ireland 'G7' group of business and union organisations has already engaged with the talks parties. It might provide a simultaneously more stimulating and less threatening avenue through which that debate could be approached, as well as orienting it towards leading-edge practice in Europe and to practical outcomes.

3. Party spokespersons
Each of the Northern Ireland parties, in so far as they have not already done so, should designate a spokesperson on European affairs and ensure they enjoy adequate research back-up and proper liaison with any representatives in the European Parliament or on the Committee of the Regions. Such spokespersons should familiarise themselves with the perspectives of social interests outside the party-political world and with the wider European debate as it applies to Northern Ireland. There should be considerable scope for informal cross-party dialogue in this regard.

4. Policy community
The quality of European debate in the republic highlights the need for a policy community in the north of adequate understanding and critical mass. The establishment of the Institute of European Studies at Queen's University is a welcome initiative in this regard. It is crucial that it receives the support required-especially financial-from government and other interests if it is to develop its role to the full, like the Institute of European Affairs in Dublin. The two institutes should themselves do all they can-through joint conferences, publications and exchanges - to maximise cross-fertilisation of ideas and experiences and to throw up ideas for north-south co-ordination.

5. Government unit
Within government, the Department of Finance and Personnel tends to have the lead role on matters European, driven as these have been in the past by issues of funding. But as this report has argued that the focus should shift from funding to policy, what is really needed is a strategic policy unit at the heart of government, in the Central Secretariat, covering the broad gamut of matters European. It should be sufficiently high-powered to develop an intelligent and strategic dialogue with senior officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and other departmental officials in Dublin, and with the European Commission and other EU structures-this report makes clear that on many issues, notably the framework document proposals, thinking is disturbingly woolly and requires considerable fleshing out. There should be a willingness to abjure traditional civil service hierarchies in recruitment to this unit to bring in talent from outside-including the voluntary sector, for example, or individuals with experience working in or for EU institutions.

6. Funds evaluation
A particular task for such a unit should be to supervise an evaluation of the experience of the structural funds and the 'peace package' to date, with a view to determining how the associated programmes and practices could supersede, amend or inform programmes already funded by government. This would accept that the current fiscal climate allows little or no scope for additional commitments; rather the aim would be to use the lessons of experiment at the margins to innovate in the mainstream.

7. NICVA unit
The Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action already has its own excellent European affairs unit. It would be highly desirable if the other social sectors could 'buy into'-including a financial contribution and an associated managerial stake-this unit, so that it could provide an extended resource for all the social partners. It would make considerable sense if part of its role was then to act as a secretariat for the Social Partners' Forum, which could thereby be put on a more robust footing.

8. North-south agenda
There could also be a more concerted exploration of the north-south agenda in this context, and in the light of experience of inter-regional co-ordination elsewhere in the EU. The focus should be on how, reinventing itself as a highly autonomous but egalitarian region, Northern Ireland could exploit that autonomy to the full in optimising north-south synergies-and how the various existing actors already working in the field might prefigure such arrangements.

9. Belfast-Brussels direct
If Northern Ireland's semi-detachment from the EU is to end, direct links must at some point be established between Belfast and Brussels. Existing travel arrangements via London, Dublin or Schiphol are unsatisfactory and the Department of Economic Development should commission a feasibility study into existing and potential demand for a Belfast-Brussels air link. The business community, through the Confederation of British Industry and the Institute of Directors, should engage in a concerted search for an airline willing to take on the service. Were this research to indicate that there would be a need to loss-lead for a time, then there should be investigation of whether a combination of public and private finance could be assembled as a bridge. The approach must be that what is a long-term inevitability must not be endlessly postponed by considerations of short-term viability.

Broadcast and newspaper editors in Northern Ireland should similarly consider, assisted by the Northern Ireland Centre in Europe, whether they could in tandem establish a common Brussels facility This would clearly not be a commercial decision but would be of overarching public service. Normal considerations of competition need hardly apply in this area. A collectively funded Brussels office could achieve a high standard of coverage not otherwise affordable individually A step towards that would be for the newspapers commonly to pay a stringer. At home, specialist journalists should be developed through sabbaticals, either spending a period working in Brussels or taking the masters in European integration at Queen's.

This report began with the problem of the impenetrability of Euro-speak. It has concluded with a series of recommendations which, were they all to be effected, would mean Northern Ireland would acquire a coherent, autonomous institutionalised voice in the European Union. It would speak a language Europe understands and be heard where it matters.

While it would be a voice with a distinctive Northern Ireland accent, it would be in concord with other voices on this island. Perhaps above all, it would represent not a cacophony but the harmonious output of an orchestra of diverse players.

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