Complacency about the peace, about power-sharing, about cross-border cooperation, about, even, EU membership has allowed the unthinkable to happen. Such things that we have cherished and, indeed, brandished around the world as a sign of success have become playthings, tossed lightly up in the air in acts of outrageous political hubris. One after the other is falling to the ground and suddenly not only the future but the very present is characterised by uncertainty and instability.
How can it be, now, that we find ourselves expected to take some solace from Prime Minister May’s assurance that there should be ‘No return to the borders of the past’?
I would argue that the biggest question we should be asking now is not how to preserve the integration and cooperation achieved, but rather: why is it that we do not have more? Similar regions in the EU would have far greater comparative levels of integration, cross-border movement, workers, and trade. It is clear, here, that the legacy of the hard border lives on. This is a legacy not only of the conflict but of decades of ‘back to back’ development that forged the dominant and divergent trajectories of policymaking north and south.
There is, thus, a striking paradox in the experience of the contemporary border which makes it difficult to explain to the array of outsiders now curious about this case. In a way, the border doesn’t exist, most people don’t think about crossing it. Yet at the same time the border is ever present; it is a lingering strain.
In order to avoid provoking resentment or unrest in other parts of the EU (or even the UK), the ‘flexible and imaginative solutions’ that are being sought for the Irish border will have to be premised, first and foremost, on their connection to peace. A focus on such ‘unique circumstances’ for Northern Ireland means that we are propelled towards the Good Friday Agreement, as providing a more solid rationale for ‘special’ treatment than talk of psychological barriers or paramilitary threats.
But the formal structures of the Agreement do not, in and of themselves, hold enough for securing deep cooperation. Instead, the most steady and innovative progress has depended on the capacity of (usually) individuals and small organisations to identify areas of mutual interest, and on their courage to build upon them.
The stark reality facing us now is that we have shown far too little interest, far too little capacity and far too little courage to forge initiatives in such number and strength as would be needed to navigate the unknown waters of Brexit intact. The archives of the Centre for Cross Border Studies (CCBS) are full of fantastic reports about opportunities just waiting to be developed.
Michael D’Arcy’s 2012 report Opportunities in North/South Public Service Provision is an excellent example of this. It identified ten key opportunities to begin cooperative public service projects that would be likely to deliver positive results for citizens of the whole island within 10 years. These included:
• a joint plan to support employment and economic growth, particularly targeting marginalised communities in both jurisdictions.
• an all-island Single Energy Market (taking full advantage of renewable sources)
• all-island tourism infrastructure
• and combining resources of third level institutions for high quality courses and knowledge centres.
If these had been taken up at the time, we would already be half way through to reaping benefits across the island. Instead, we continued to rely on EU funding, which itself is on occasion vulnerable to the willingness of either government to dedicate the necessary contributions.
Undeterred, CCBS is still presenting fresh ideas for stimulating and supporting cooperation. One such model is the North-South Social Innovation Network. This Network centres on a common understanding of the need to develop the potential of cross-border cooperation in various sectors (e.g. health, education, justice, culture and the economy), finding collaborative solutions for common social needs. Could we imagine a more positive model for planning future north-south relations?
Now is the time for such imagination, and for choices. Do we set out the bottom line and trust that the tug of war between Sinn Féin and the DUP, pulling in opposite directions, will create some sort of equilibrium? Tension can be productive after all. But what if the rope of devolution, or subsidies, or ceasefires became precariously frayed and both parties end up sprawled on the floor?
Alternatively, is it possible to use the spectre of Brexit to focus minds on our mutual interests, and to set out what we would like to see in the future. This has to be more than avoiding a hard border, or even preserving what we already have. We can easily lay our hands on a wishlist of missed opportunities, untapped connections, under-developed ideas. It could be the only means of trying to formalise a fabric of cooperation that has otherwise largely depended on the types of contacts and networks that are all too vulnerable to disruptive forces, be they in the guise of customs controls or resurgent paramilitarism.
These omissions and aversions have occurred along all three strands of the Agreement. Our imaginative solutions must be equally complex and multi-layered. They must also entail a renewed commitment to the Agreement by all parties and both governments, as a vital foundation.
Ultimately, all our visions of the future must converge on our common commitment to peace. Not because we are frightened of what paramilitaries may do, but because we recognise that – regardless of what we think of them – we are stuck with our next door neighbours. Cooperation among us is the foundation for peace; necessary peace, ordinary peace. This is a peace that can be destroyed – we know now – not just by violence but by our own complacency.
A version of this paper was delivered at the MacGill Summer School, Glenties, on 19 July 2017, in a panel on ‘Planning for the Future’.