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Column: What is it about North-South relations that leaves us cold?

Dialogue between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic seems limited to transport and tourism, writes David McCann, and the general public is disinterested. So what to do to bring us closer together?

Dr David McCann Lecturer, Ulster University

WHAT IS IT about co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic that inspires such little interest from the media and the general public? The Friday of last week saw a meeting between Taoiseach, Enda Kenny and First Minister, Peter Robinson, in Dublin with important issues like NAMA and the economic crisis being discussed. Yet strangely this meeting went almost uncovered by the media and without much interest from the general public.

In years gone by, meetings between Northern and Southern leaders received wide coverage and interest on both the symbolism of the two heads of government coming together and the issues they discussed.

So my question is: what’s changed over the past decade?

The lack of interest could possibly stem from the general ‘normalisation’ of relations between Northern and Southern Ireland. Gone are days when Northern Prime Minister, James Craig, met the Irish leader, WT Cosgrave, in 1926 to discuss the Boundary Commission which was set up to redraw the border. Also gone is the symbolism of such meetings, the day when Seán Lemass made a shock visit to Stormont to meet Terence O’Neill in 1965 after forty years of political hostilities between both states shocked not only the general public but also senior political figures.

Of course, more recently in 2007 we saw Ian Paisley publicly embrace Bertie Ahern in Dublin as not just his counterpart but as his friend. It should be remembered that this is the same Ian Paisley who threw snowballs at Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, as he met with Terence O’Neill in Stormont in 1967 and was a driving force in opposing the establishment of a Council of Ireland in 1974.

Clearly co-operation is not the political hot potato it once was as Paisley’s successor Peter Robinson has continued with this approach, advocating recently in his Carson lecture for a better relationship with the Irish Republic. Is this because when the Taoiseach and First Minister meet that they stay away from controversial issues? Well, I don’t think so as previous meetings like the O’Neill/Lemass summit went to great lengths to highlight the fact that their discussions were exclusively focused on economic issues like tourism and trade.

“Have we really just lost interest in one another both politically and socially?”

Could it be something more fundamental? Have we really just lost interest in one another both politically and socially?

A case in point is the recent referendum on the Fiscal Compact Treaty. A vote of immense economic importance to Northern Ireland as 75 per cent of exports from small and medium-sized businesses and 10 per cent of exports overall go to the Republic. Yet the average citizen in Northern Ireland could be forgiven for thinking that the referendum never happened at all with the minor levels of coverage that it received.

The lack of interest is also apparent in the Republic too as Enda Kenny reneged on a commitment he gave to provide funds for a cross-border road project with minimal political fallout and little interest from the public. Despite the economic downturn, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic are coming closer economically as NAMA is now the biggest owner of property in Northern Ireland and businesses along the border are now enjoying an economic boom as an estimated one in six households in the Republic shop in the North.

So has North-South co-operation failed to move with the times? Is it too focused on old issues such as transport and tourism? Should we adopt a new narrative for relations between North and South as being one of shopping bags and property ladders?

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“Relations between our two states should not be limited to day trips to Newry and ghost estates off the M1″

I hope not. Cross-border co-operation certainly does need a makeover – that means that in 2012 we should not limit important relations between our two states to day trips to Newry and ghost estates off the M1. Why is North-South co-operation not relevant to the general public anymore? Because the process surrounding it is distant and disengaged from the people, instead of holding ministerial summits both Enda Kenny and Peter Robinson could do well to invite important stake holders in our society to see where co-operation between the two governments could improve conditions on the island.

Neither Northern Ireland nor the Irish Republic should seek to live in isolation from one another. We should never forget that while both states take pride in their distinctive identities, a great strength is the international affiliations of which we are members namely the European Union and United Nations. If the financial crisis has taught us anything it’s that we are not isolated from one another as an election in Greece can have far-reaching consequences on life here in Ireland.

We should always take an active interest in the affairs of Northern and Southern Ireland and hope that our political leaders can co-operate effectively in mitigating the impact of the economic crisis.

David McCann is a PhD researcher in Irish politics at the University of Ulster.

About the author:

Dr David McCann  / Lecturer, Ulster University

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