Why the Shared Island Initiative matters…

Nobody would ever accuse the former Taoiseach, Micheál Martin (now Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs), of being an inspirational public speaker. But listening to his speech at the big Shared Island event in Dublin Castle earlier this month, I realised he was outlining an inspiring vision of Irish people, North and South, genuinely coming together around vital shared goals and aspirations, practical and achievable and mutually beneficial. Not political unity – that remains the dangerously risky issue that continues to divide the people of this island, as it has done for more than a century, and will continue to do so for some considerable time to come. But common goals around climate change, healthcare, education, a successful economy – what could be more important and desirable than these?

Martin urged Irish people not to “shy away from, or obscure what still has to be done to achieve a truly reconciled island, for people of all traditions and communities who call it home, and bring people North and South together in real terms….The Good Friday Agreement has enabled us to undertake a journey of reconciliation of our different, equally legitimate aspirations; of the nationalist, unionist and other political traditions on this island…the immense potential of the Good Friday Agreement to bring people on this island together has not yet been delivered.”

“People generally are far ahead of the politics of the Peace Process,” he went on. “They know well that we can transform how we work in every single sector on this island, without in any way compromising our different beliefs and aspirations. The message came through from people time and time again this year, at Shared Island events in Monaghan, Derry, Belfast, Dublin, Cork, Cavan and Meath:

  • focus on the issues that matter most – for people, communities, regions and the planet;
  • support us in taking civic relationships on this island to a higher level;
  • recognise that community identities aren’t one-dimensional; they evolve and are changing, slowly and steadily for the better.”

The former Taoiseach concluded: “To recall Martin Luther King – the arc of change on this island bends towards reconciliation. The fact is nobody knows how our shared island will be configured in 25 or 50 years time…The question is will we take the next step as people together on this island? Will we sustain the journey of the Good Friday Agreement, especially when it is tough; acknowledge and heal the wounds of the recent past; deepen the common cause of our diverse political traditions; and pass on a thriving, peaceful island of Ireland to our children? I have no doubt that the people’s answer is a resounding Yes.”

He took aim (without mentioning the party by name) at Sinn Fein, deploring “the concerted attempts to glorify, justify or minimise the disastrous bloodshed of the Troubles.” He had similarly strong words for those parties, North and South, which adopted “unnecessary, unwinnable identity politics, which ignores and obstructs the full pursuit of our common interests.”

The Irish Times devoted just 120 words to this major speech, in an article which was largely about Martin’s response to its Ipsos opinion poll finding that only 26% of people in Northern Ireland would vote for unity in a Border Poll and 50% of people there would opt for a continuation of the union with Britain.1

That doesn’t mean that the people of the North – including the unionists – do not want to cooperate with and work alongside the people of the Republic in combatting climate change, bettering our inadequate health systems, and improving the economic well-being of the people on this island. I met many people in Dublin Castle who could be categorised as unionists with a small ‘u’: community workers from Belfast and Derry, trade unionists, and spokespeople for business, farming, tourism and the environment. Similarly I had come across plenty of unionist business people, health workers and farmers, in particular, who were in favour of cooperating with the dynamic Southern economy, when I was director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh between 1999 and 2013. In the 2017 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey 84% of those polled said they were “in favour of Northern Ireland entering a political and economic alliance with the Republic of Ireland if it would help jobs and the economy.”

“Shared Island is part of the broader framing espoused by the Taoiseach,” said one Irish government source. “It is meant to be an open and inclusive process, having quiet conversations with civic and community groups, with no pre-determined outcomes. Political unionism may not have participated, but they did not criticise it. That gave more space for civic unionism to engage. For example, when you get people engaging in sectoral dialogues in everything from biodiversity to sport, it becomes a much easier place to come together to build connections, engagement and ultimately reconciliation.” Unionists should take heed of Martin’s phrase – ‘equally legitimate aspirations’ – and the senior official’s phrase -‘no pre-determined outcomes’: this is very far from a Trojan Horse leading inevitably towards political unity; this is about building relationships and practical cooperation and reconciliation between divided peoples.

In the past two years around €190 million of the one billion euros in the Shared Island Fund (until 2030) has been allocated. It has gone to a wide range of projects: everything from a further extension of the Ulster Canal from Cavan into Fermanagh, Monaghan and Armagh (€47 million) and a North-South higher education research programme (€37 million), which previously apathetic university researchers are now queuing up to apply for; to an ultra-sensible €7.4 million collaboration to market the marvellous Wild Atlantic Way (in the Republic) and the similarly wonderful Causeway Coastal Route (in the North) – something which should have happened years ago if it hadn’t been for foot-dragging by the NI Tourist Board.

There are also a number of climate change and biodiversity projects. A National Economic and Social Council research report last spring found that there were shared agendas and legislative and regulatory coherence in these areas between the two jurisdictions, and concluded that “climate change and biodiversity loss provide a clear and urgent platform for ambitious all-island action”. €20 million has been allocated to set up virtual cross-border Centres for Research and Innovation in climate and sustainable food systems (led by Science Foundation Ireland with matching funding from the NI Department of Agriculture and the UK Government’s Research and Innovation Agency). Among the other projects are a cross-border Peatland Restoration project and all-island Invasive Species and Biosecurity initiative (€11 million), and an all-island Electric Vehicle charging scheme, using 90 EV charging points at sports facilities (€15 million). Why should there not also be an all-island Renewable Energy Market to build on the success of the all-island Electricity Market (both jurisdictions have the same 80% target for electricity from renewables by 2030) ?

There are dozens of smaller projects covering such things as community-based climate action; investment in the arts; the Narrow Water Bridge in Carlingford Lough; a new all-island Women’s Forum and an all-island iCommunity Hub between the two ‘umbrella’ bodies for the community and voluntary sectors, The Wheel in the Republic and the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (who have been noticeably slow in undertaking any significant cross-border work till now); and a wide range of research projects covering areas like culture, science, enterprise, healthcare, education, energy, migration, emergency planning, law, equality and community relations.

Space allows me to give only a small flavour of the extraordinary range of North-South work going on, much of it for the first time. This is different from the EU Peace and Interreg programmes, which have funded much cross-border cooperation since the 1990s, in that this time it is the Irish Government which is proactively identifying gaps and needs, and then (along with the Northern Ireland Executive – when it is functioning – and occasionally the British Government) allocating the necessary funding. Now it is the Irish Government that is taking the lead in developing practical North-South cooperation and, through that, pushing forward the vital process of reconciliation between the people living on this island.

And this is only the beginning. Less than a fifth of the funding for the decade-long Shared Island programme has been allocated so far. Some big all-island infrastructure projects are on the cards. The report of an all-island Strategic Rail Review is only waiting for the reformation of the Executive to be published. It is expected that this will recommend a much faster, more regular service between Dublin and Belfast (along the lines of the highly successful hourly Dublin-Cork service). The hope is that this major project will start in three years and be completed in ten; high-speed rail projects like this have transformed regional economies in France and Spain. Maybe it will also bring more southern Irish people to the North: the most startling statistic at the Shared Island event was the revelation by Belfast hotelier Howard Hastings that a recent tourism survey had shown that two-and-half million southerners had never visited Northern Ireland.

There are also hopes that the huge potential of more efficient cross-border and all-island public services in crucial areas like healthcare can be kick-started once the NI Executive is up and running again. Altnagelvin hospital’s north-west radiotherapy and emergency cardiology centres in Derry (also serving Donegal), the all-island paediatric cardiac surgery centre in Dublin’s Crumlin hospital and a number of Cooperation and Working Together health and social care projects in the border region are successful trail-blazing initiatives here.

Education will be a more sensitive area for unionists. The British Government may have to become persuaders here to overcome DUP reluctance to engage. But the Republic has seriously good practice to share on tackling educational under-attainment: through the Deis disadvantaged school support programme and wider access to further and higher education through the Republic’s technological universities, the South has brought about much higher school completion rates than the North and raised the educational level of its young people enormously. The Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South (SCoTENS) has been running successful cross-border student teacher exchanges for 20 years. “With the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement coming up, why don’t we look to what we can do for young Irish people, North and South, over the next 25 years?” asked one Irish official.

The significance of all this important North-South work appears to have been almost completely lost on the Southern Irish media, and therefore the public it is meant to inform. It is not only the most practical and sensible way to bring the island together in areas of key concern to ordinary people; it is also a potentially transformative new emphasis based on developing fruitful relationships through joint working, rather than on old-style irredentist nationalism; in this it borrows from the efforts of previous Taoisigh like Sean Lemass, Garret Fitzgerald, Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen.

Sinn Fein’s approach, in contrast, is not only not transformative, but will set back the cause of unity of the Irish people by deepening the divisions on this island. 70 years ago Eamon de Valera toured the English speaking world preaching the evils of partition in front of adoring Irish diaspora audiences and into the indifferent ears of foreign governments. Mary Lou McDonald is currently doing the same thing. Will that convert more than a tiny handful of unionists to the cause of reconciliation between the unionist and nationalist people of this island? Similarly Ireland’s Future’s mass rallies are preaching to the converted in cities and towns up and down the country. Such old-fashioned anti-partitionist campaigns – by turning off unionists to all-Ireland solutions to our many practical problems – will only hinder the slow, painstaking task of building relationships by working together through innovative and mutually beneficial projects like those undertaken as part of the Shared Island initiative.

Many things have changed since the 1940s and 1950s. In the North we have had a bloody 30-year civil conflict. The Republic has been transformed from a poor into a wealthy country and seen the dramatic decline of the previously all-powerful Catholic Church. The Good Friday Agreement has pledged a Border Poll if and when the British Government deems it likely that such a referendum would result in a vote for unity (which, judging from this month’s Irish Times opinion poll, is not going to be any time soon). Sinn Fein, while remaining utterly unapologetic about the atrocities of the Provisional IRA, has grown into a democratic party which seems likely to lead governments in both jurisdictions in the next few years. And demographic change in the North, increasing the proportion of Catholics, might eventually – although not inevitably, given the rapid growth of non-sectarian ‘others’ – lead to a nationalist majority there.

But one thing has not changed: the 100-year-old demand for constitutional unity ASAP. As former Irish Times political editor Stephen Collins wrote last week: “The incessant speculation about the prospect of a united Ireland is not simply a distraction from the real issues facing the country, but a dangerous cul-de-sac that is provoking an escalation of tension in the North, hampering efforts to find a solution to the Protocol impasse, and undermining the chances of power-sharing being restored.”2 He could have added that is also hindering the vital cause of North-South cooperation and reconciliation, which in my humble (although in this area rather well-informed) opinion is the only way that real unity of the people of this island is ever going to come about.

What will happen to the Shared Island initiative now that Micheál Martin has stepped down as Taoiseach? All the indications are that it will stay in the Department of the Taoiseach. Let us hope that Leo Varadkar will continue with his predecessor’s distinctive vision of genuine reconciliation between people through building relationships between North and South, unionist and nationalist – rather than some version of Sinn Fein’s core aim: a politically ‘united’ Ireland when demographic change in the North brings it about by the narrowest of narrow margins.

1’Taoiseach ‘not surprised’ by poll findings, 6th December

2 ‘Irish unity is a dangerous and distracting mirage’, 16th December

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