All-island approach needs push from politics

Civic society is doing much to break down the Border but our politicians could do an awful lot more, writes ELAINE BYRNE in the IRISH TIMES June 1 2010

MARTIN MCGUINNESS was not what I expected at last week’s North/South consultative conference in Farmleigh.

The Deputy First Minister for Northern Ireland spoke at length about the rosemary plant that Gerry Adams had given him after a recent trip to the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. Apparently, it is “flourishing” and he tends to it every morning. He also told the North/South civic society representatives about his love of fishing and how it took time to build personal friendships with Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson.

For a man who has just turned 60, his analogies mirrored themes of patience and grafted mellowness. Some civil servants even took to privately describing him as “being very adult” in the complex political relationships that dominate Northern Ireland.

In the same breath as his call to commemorate the centenary of the Easter Rising, McGuinness noted that “it is equally right to recognise the sacrifice of those who fought in the first World War” because, he believed, “the experiences of republicans, nationalists, unionists and all others form part of our collective memory. They are part of who we are, as a nation, and as a community.”

The tone and language used by McGuinness is reflective of attempts to reach across to the Unionist community who have growing concerns about the prospect of him becoming first minister in the near future.

The Westminster elections marked a turning point for unionism with the defeat of Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice and Sir Reg Empey’s Ulster Conservative and unionist alliance.

Instead of looking to the United Kingdom for political direction, a majority of unionists now seek to determine their own future within the context of a Northern Assembly that is beginning to bed down.

This is an immense period of uncertainty for a community whose morale is low. Deeper cultural questions of identity are influencing the nature of the split within unionism, which no longer has the luxury of time it once had to determine the nuances of such matters.

The ethos of the new British government is at odds with the philosophy of Northern politics. The agreed Liberal Conservative programme for government has committed to a first draft of cutbacks which will ultimately cost Northern Ireland £128 million. Britain’s deficit crisis is not financially compatible with the North’s public sector, which accounts for up to two-thirds of the Northern economy.

But more than that, the underlying theme of the new coalition is sharply characterised by David Cameron’s much misunderstood “big society” philosophy. The Conservatives want government to retreat from the state. This core policy of devolving power to local government and civic society is at odds with the profoundly centralised structure of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the very mindset of Northern politicians. The adjustment will be more severe in the North than for any of the other devolved regions.

In the absence of formal political recognition of a North/South consultative forum, as envisaged under the St Andrews Agreement and Good Friday agreement, last week’s civil society conference was a step in the right direction.

The language of the conference was dominated by the vocabulary of economies of scale, an all-island economy, collaboration and innovation. Words hardly imaginable even five years ago.

John Treacy of the Irish Sports Council and Eamonn McCartan of Sport Northern Ireland, for instance, gave presentations on their organisations’ joint initiatives on coaching development and drugs policy. Although they “tend not to shout about it”, their strategic collaboration has resulted in the increased participation of disadvantaged athletes throughout the island of Ireland.

But there is only so much that civic society can do on its own. Many voices expressed frustration that politicians North and South were not doing enough. Aidan Gough of Intertrade Ireland, a body established to further North/South economic co-operation, called for more strategic and connected policy making between governments.

Cross-Border co-operation between Justice Ministers Dermot Ahern and David Ford have been particularly successful in tackling the dissident republican paramilitary threat with the discovery of a suspected bomb factory in Louth last month.

This all-island, rather than all-Ireland approach, is one recognised by the DUP Minister for Finance Sammy Wilson. At the All Island Infrastructure Investment Conference in Dundalk in March, Wilson acknowledged that infrastructure investment and economic growth were intrinsically linked between North and South.

Where to next?

McGuinness also spoke about how the “biggest borders sometimes are the ones in our heads. We all have hang-ups about one another but it’s how we go about it” that will make the difference.

The psychological distance that we have about Northern Ireland is reflected in the assumption that peace is a political process without any obligations from communities in the South to get to know their Northern neighbours.

Perhaps too, it is timely for a maturing Sinn Féin to reassess their abstentionism from Westminster.

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