September 24, 2007

A cross-border kerfuffle in the north-west

In recent weeks local radio stations in the North West have been inundated with calls from listeners about people from Derry who have moved across the border to live in Donegal but now use accommodation addresses to send their children to Derry’s schools and to access Northern health services.

One irate father has threatened that he will go to jail to secure his daughter a place at a Derry school, claiming that she is losing out to children living in Donegal but using northern addresses. This school had previously been advised by the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools to take pupils’ addresses at face value. The case is being heard in the High Court in Belfast this month1. Northern Education Minister Caitriona Ruane, herself a cross-border parent, has called on the North/South Ministerial Council to examine the issue.

Also this month the secretary of a group representing GPs in the Western Health Board area has called for better provision for the estimated 45,000 people living across the border in the Republic who are having to use Northern addresses to access GP services. A particular grievance is that although many of these people work and pay tax in the North, and thus are entitled under EU rules to avail of Northern health services, their spouses and children are not. Another group with a grievance are those Northerners who retire to the South after paying taxes all their working lives, but then lose the right to use the National Health Service.

These debates are happening at precisely the time when the administrations in Belfast and Dublin are busy building cross-border roads and announcing new cross-border business and skills initiatives. In early September Northern and Southern Ministers launched a business park in Derry designed to promote cross-border enterprise, and announced the first all-Ireland skills summit aimed in particular at providing jobs for marginalised border communities2, 3. The private sector is similarly minded. A recent survey by BT and InterTradeIreland showed that 65% of all businesses in Ireland, north and south, believe that cross-border trade will grow, and 41% are currently engaged in some form of cross-border activity4.

In these ways the ‘island of Ireland’ economy may be starting to become a reality. However there is now a parallel need to deliver flexible public services to the increasingly mobile cross-border working population which will underpin this economic strategy. Last October a seminal report on the island’s economy, endorsed by the British and Irish governments, recommended exploring opportunities for the provision of all-island health and education services5. Addressing the Irish Congress of Trade Unions conference in July, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern promised better public services for those living along the border.

We have a long way to go. A forthcoming report from the Centre for Cross Border Studies concludes: “It is most unlikely that resources available for health care on the island are being used to maximum benefit for the population concerned, particularly in the border region”. In the Republic’s north-east, in apparent disregard of an explicit requirement to take account of adjacent regions, the current hospital rationalisation exercise has effectively ignored the existence of Northern Ireland despite a longstanding pattern of patient flows from Louth into Newry for maternity services and renal dialysis.

The situation in Ireland contrasts markedly with some other parts of Europe. The French and Catalan governments are jointly planning, funding and managing the construction of a cross-border hospital which will serve the entire population of an isolated region in the eastern Pyrenees. The authorities in regions along the French-Belgian and French-Swiss borders have put in place bilateral agreements to allow access to health services for families of cross-border ‘frontier workers’.

However there is also the beginning of some movement in Ireland. The North/South Ministerial Council and the Centre for Cross Border Studies are currently working on a prototype online cross-border ‘mobility information system’ aimed at making it easier for people living and working on both sides of the border to get information about services in the other jurisdiction. At the same time Citizens Advice (Northern Ireland) and its Southern equivalent, the Citizens Information Board, are using EU money to train public advisors in their centres near the border to answer cross-border queries.

We must do more. In the future we should plan and adapt our public services to serve the needs of the increasing number of people who are crossing the border to work, live, study and retire. We need more people who are specialists in cross-border ‘citizens information’ at a time when contact with public services increasingly involves faceless call centres and lo-call numbers which are doubly confusing when there is a border to deal with. We should even start thinking innovatively about allowing people who cross the border regularly to opt in or out of public services through providing packages of cross-border services which suit their individual needs.

Patricia Clarke

1 Derry families win ‘Grannying’ case, 21 Sep 2007
2 New business zone open in Derry, 12 Sep 2007
3 First all-Ireland job skills summit planned, 5 Sep 2007
4 Survey shows 41% of businesses engaged in cross-border activities, 26 Aug 2007
5 Comprehensive Study on the All-Island Economy, October 2006