On 13th December 1999 a long line of black Mercedes snaked across the border into Armagh for the first meeting of the new North/South Ministerial Council set up by the Good Friday Agreement the previous year to oversee the new cross-border ‘Strand Two’ institutions established by that Agreement.
There to meet them was the first group of civil servants from Belfast and Dublin who were going to staff this extraordinary experiment in inter-jurisdictional cooperation on the island of Ireland. 10 years on it is generally accepted – even occasionally by DUP politicians – that this new era of good relations between North and South has been, along with the reform of policing, one of the real success stories of the Northern Ireland peace process.
Around 730 officials now work in the North/South Ministerial Council Joint Secretariat and the seven North/South bodies and companies it oversees. These are people who are usually invisible, and sometimes maligned (mainly by unionists). But they have achieved an enormous amount of unglamorous and painstaking relationship and trust building over the past decade. I know because I have worked with many of them during that time.
On the eve of their big anniversary I am going to mention and thank some of these officials for their work for mutual understanding across the Irish border. I will start with the Joint Secretaries of the North/South Ministerial Council Secretariat in Armagh, Mary Bunting and Tom Hanney, whose quiet, diligent diplomatic work to bring official Ireland on both sides of the border together is truly remarkable. The Centre for Cross Border Studies owes them a particular debt of gratitude for their support, friendship and generosity to us in recent years. Their predecessors – Tim O’Connor (the man who started it all back in 1999), Dick Mackenzie, Joe Hayes and Peter Smyth – were equally hardworking and sensitive to the requirements of this mould-breaking new world of practical North-South cooperation. Their staff also deserve our gratitude.
Then there are the six North/South bodies and Tourism Ireland. The Centre has had a lot to do with two of these in particular, the Special EU Programmes Body and the cross-border trade and business development body, InterTradeIreland.
The SEUPB has made a huge and largely unsung contribution to cross-border cooperation and peacebuilding on this island. For a body which has distributed more taxpayers’ largesse – in this case European taxpayers’ largesse – to Northern Ireland than any other agency outside the British Government, it sometimes attracts unfair criticism and cynicism. This begrudging little society needs to understand what an extraordinary exercise in solidarity the SEUPB’s work represents. It has given out an astonishing amount of money to a vast range of groups and initiatives in Northern Ireland and the Southern Border counties since the mid-1990s: over €2.5 billion (£2.26 billion) to around 23,000 projects under the PEACE and INTERREG programmes.
These include the Centre for Cross Border Studies, which quite simply would never have come into existence or been able maintain its heavy workload of research, information and training activities without this EU support. We have learnt that if you put in a carefully prepared, well-costed funding application, do the work that you promise to do, and account for the money spent in a full and convincing way, the SEUPB will back an idealistic small organization like ours to the hilt. During the past decade and a half, I can find no evidence that a single penny or cent was lost to the region as a result of projects not being approved or money not being spent – that’s not a bad record for an arm of the often maligned EU bureaucracy. Chief Executive Pat Colgan, in particular, deserves considerable credit for having brought stability and a strategic vision to an organization that experienced significant teething troubles in its early years.
InterTradeIreland is another body that quietly gets on with its work of promoting cross-border trade and bringing business together. Under Chief Executive Liam Nellis and Director of Strategy Aidan Gough, it has demonstrated that business cooperation is not merely good in theory, but makes economic sense to the tune of around €3 billion in trade every year.
It is fashionable for unionists, in particular, to bash the North/South bodies. Yet even an outspoken critic of “North/Southery nonsense” like DUP Finance Minister Sammy Wilson admits that “sensible north-south cooperation can be beneficial to Northern Ireland”. You don’t hear a practical man like Sammy criticizing the EU for giving Northern Ireland over two billion pounds or attacking the Irish Government for giving Northern Ireland £400 million for its roads. These are the kind of ‘pinch me in case I’m not hearing right’ statements from unionist leaders that we can largely thank the quiet work of public servants for. So the next time you feel like voicing a facile criticism of a civil servant or an EU funder, remember that they too have played a very significant if unheralded role in our continuing peace process.