I hope that the DUP and Sinn Fein will learn from what they heard on the doorsteps during canvassing that the things people are really interested in seeing their politicians tackle are what voters everywhere are interested in: local taxes (e.g. water charges), health, education and the economy.I hope that they will realise that the last of these can be enhanced by more North-South co-operation. The fragility of the Northern Ireland economy – with 67% of its GDP accounted for by public spending – is well-known. The South’s economy, where the comparable figure is a mere 31%, is still booming. As a consequence, it has a problem of shortages of skilled labour in sectors ranging from construction to financial services. Here is a real opportunity for Belfast to provide a “reserve bench” – in the words of one leading Northern businessman – to both support and benefit from the South’s rampaging economic performance.
I hope the DUP will feel secure enough to agree with the British and Irish Governments (Peter Hain is particularly keen on this) that there are some public services, particularly in health and education in the border region, that can be more efficiently provided on a cross-border basis. This was highlighted in the recent Comprehensive Study on the All-Island Economy PDF (191Kb)1. Why, for example, should people from Monaghan not use the excellent facilities of Craigavon hospital, or people from Fermanagh not go to Sligo hospital (once the Enniskillen-Sligo road has improved)?
I hope too that there will be the odd visionary who will see the value of pooling some of our efforts in higher education. For example, there is a proposal before the two governments for a new technological university in a dynamic cross-border region like Newry-Dundalk or Londonderry-Letterkenny. This would help to solve a number of problems, including the outflow of bright young people to English and Scottish universities caused, in part, by the British Government’s ‘cap’ on the numbers allowed into Queen’s and the University of Ulster; and the need to raise the level of R and D in both Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is a vital pre-requisite for moving both parts of the island towards the knowledge economy.
I hope that in such ways we can begin the long, painstaking journey of making Northern Ireland a prosperous and harmonious place with the help and goodwill of our neighbours, friends or cousins – whatever you want to call them – on the other side of the border. This is a propitious moment for the province. But the present opportunity must be seized. There is no guarantee that the huge personal commitment by Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern will last into their successors’ terms of office. For example, is there anything in Gordon Brown’s record that makes one believe that he will do anything other than reflect the British electorate’s utter boredom with the ancient squabble that is Northern Ireland politics?
I hope that the small miracle of a power-sharing government at Stormont containing a Sinn Fein party which recognises and supports the Police Service of Northern Ireland is imminent. Equally miraculous is the fact that all but the most extreme splinters of unionism now recognise that co-operation with the spectacularly successful small state that is the Republic of Ireland is now part of any deal – and one which, if worked properly, can bring real benefits to the people of Northern Ireland.
Finally, I hope that people will begin to listen to the words of that wise old owl Maurice Hayes. He urges that the constitutional issue should be put on hold for a period to allow people to learn to accommodate and trust each other by “getting on with the ordinary business of living and managing the place together.” He goes on: “What the Northern Ireland conflict needs is to be taken out of the pressure cooker of immediacy, which puts stress on everyone. It might take a generation or two – a short time in historical perspective. But if by taking the pressure off people either to rush to the consummation of their constitutional dreams, or to frustrate them, a sounder and more lasting arrangement based on consensus could emerge, then it would be time well spent. In the meantime the energy which could be then diverted into building up the economy and social structures in the North would be well spent too.”2
1Available from Border Ireland
2Lecture at St Columb’s College, Derry, 11 December 2006