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Amid the chaos of Brexit, community groups are trying to improve Irish-UK cooperation

The Good Friday Agreement called for North-South and West-East cooperation, but some people may have forgotten this.

COMMUNITY GROUPS FROM across the island of Ireland and the United Kingdom are devising an agreement that aims to improve cooperation between grassroots organisations.

The plan, entitled Towards a New Common Chapter (NCC), is the culmination of more than four years of work.

Community organisations from the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales have been involved in developing the agreement. 

The project started in late 2014 and, as such, predates Brexit and the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly by some time.

One of the driving forces behind the initiative is the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh.

Dr Anthony Soares, the centre’s deputy director, said the chapter was not created in response to the political situation in the North or Britain leaving the European Union but obviously has to take both into consideration.

“Extensive work had been done before Brexit became a thing. This is not a reaction to Brexit, but we do refer to it in the chapter.

Whether you value cooperation or not, Brexit will affect how we go about that … What we do with it we will have to tackle in a post-Brexit context.

Soares said Brexit and the Stormont collapse have highlighted the importance of “maintaining relations between communities on a North-South and East-West basis” and repairing “any damage to relations” that has been done.

Another issue highlighted by Brexit is the lack of knowledge many politicians, some in high-ranking posts, appear to have in relation to Northern Ireland and its history.

Soares said comments made during the long-running Brexit debate have shown that certain politicians have “a lack of knowledge of what we consider to be some really basic aspects of life here and how the Good Friday Agreement is structured”.

He added that some people in the Republic also fall into this category, stating:

The further you move away from Northern Ireland, even the further you go down south, the level of knowledge on the Good Friday Agreement and related issues is reduced.

Soares noted that Strand Three of the GFA sets out how governments in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales should work together to promote cooperation for the benefit of all citizens.

Brexit People take part in a rally at the border near Carrickcarnan, Co Louth, in January. Source: Brian Lawless/PA Wire/PA Images

Soares stressed that the NCC project is not political – the chapter’s wording clearly sets out that it “must not be used for party-political purposes” – but noted that representatives will enage with politicians in a bid to ensure policies don’t obstruct the type of cooperation they’re trying to create.

The organisations involved include several women’s groups such as the Northern Ireland Rural Women’s Network and Women’s Manifesto as well as community organisations including Irish in Britain (England), the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, Irish Community Care Merseyside (England) and Engender (Scotland).

An evaluation seminar was held in Belfast on Thursday and the final wording of the agreement is set to published in the coming weeks. 

“At the end of really intense discussions among representatives of community groups from England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, who showed huge commitment to the New Common Chapter, it was agreed that the final version was almost ready,” Soares told TheJournal.ie.

He said certain elements of the agreement are being redrafted “to ensure they are applicable beyond the island of Ireland context”.

Some things that we may take for granted or as readily understood here are not necessarily so in Great Britain.

Soares added that the notion of cooperating across borders “may sometimes be seen in Great Britain as something of importance to communities on the island of Ireland and not something of relevance to those in Great Britain”.

He said this approach fails to take maritime borders into consideration.

Good Friday Agreement

An original Common Chapter was devised following the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The initiative was included in the Northern Ireland Structural Funds Plan 2000-2006 and the Republic of Ireland’s National Development Plan 2000-2006.

It set out the two governments’ priorities for cooperation and how funds, particularly EU funds, would be used to support it.

Within the 2000-2006 period for which these plans were designed devolution in Northern Ireland was suspended, and following the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2007 the Common Chapter was not revived.

The NCC, more than a decade later, aims to rectify this.

“It was problematic that it kind of disappeared. We thought, ‘What about creating a new version?’ Instead of between the two governments, we decided to try it from a bottom-up approach,” Soares said.

He added that a North-South consultative forum was proposed in the GFA but never came about, stating: “There is the British-Irish Council but no equivalent for civil interests.”

Fear about North-South cooperation 

Soares said one of the first things organisers of the NCC had to do was look into whether or not grassroots groups “had the same desire to cooperate”.

“Do community groups believe in the idea of cooperation? Do they actually think it is a good thing?”

Soares said these were basic but essential questions, noting there are “differing approaches towards the idea of cooperation”.

Some communities are more relaxed about cooperation regarding trade matters but, once you go beyond that, some are more reluctant. There are fears from some communities regarding North-South cooperation in particular.

The chapter notes that the organisations taking part in the project must acknowledge and respect “the differences that make these islands what they are, while also recognising and cherishing the relations between the communities that live in its different nations and regions”.

Its wording states that the initiative aims to promote social justice and equality, but do so:

  • In the knowledge that we speak and treasure indigenous languages whose roots cross the borders within and between our islands
  • Recognising that faith traditions are organised and followed by communities within and across these islands
  • Valuing the musical, literary and other artistic traditions that have spread across the world and whose development has been assisted through relations within and between these islands

‘Forgetting there is a border’ 

Soares said the next stage of the process “will be harder”; community groups in every jurisdiction will engage with political representatives in a bid to impact relevant policy.

We’re not just looking for a nod and a pat on back. We’re looking for politicians to legislate to ensure that going forward structure is in place to continue cooperation in the post-Brexit context, and not put obstacles in front of groups.

Soares said the issue may not be a priority for some politicians, giving the UK Shared Prosperity Fund as an example. The British government aims to use this fund to replace EU Structural and Investment Funds.

“As it’s designed, there is no space for cross-border cooperation between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

“The border is mentioned every five seconds whenever Brexit is being discussed, the backstop is mentioned every two seconds. Despite this it’s as though when designing this new policy they’re forgetting that there is a border,” he said, noting that the NCC aims to change this.

More information on the project can be read here.

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Órla Ryan

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