On 24th November, the day of the macabre farce at Stormont starring Michael Stone – with Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness in cameo roles – I was attending a conference of European cross-border co-operators in Pamplona in northern Spain. 300 local and regional politicians and officials from all over Europe – from Portugal to Russia, from Lapland to Greece – had gathered under the umbrella of the Association of European Border Regions (AEBR) to explore how the economic, social and cultural barriers represented by national frontiers might be further lowered for the benefit of the citizens of their peripheral regions.
There was a good Irish and Northern Irish representation, including a Sinn Fein councillor from Monaghan, a Fine Gaeler from Leitrim, an SDLP man from Newry, Ulster Unionists from Banbridge and Cookstown, and DUP councillors from Craigavon, Banbridge and Newtownards. After the conference dinner German, Dutch and Finnish delegates gathered round one of the Irish tables for a multi-national sing-song which featured everything from ‘Only our rivers run free’ to ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kitbag.’
There were moving tributes to the retiring Secretary General of the AEBR, Jens Gabbe, a genial German who first started working to bring the people of the region straddling the north-west German and Dutch border together nearly 50 years ago, when the memories of two World Wars within a generation were still very recent and deeply traumatic. The phrase of one of the founding fathers of the European Union, the French politician Robert Schuman, that national borders were the “scars of history” – and the EU was needed to assist in the healing of those scars – was frequently evoked.
There are now 197 cross-border regions financially supported by the European Union. These don’t include the valiant experiments being attempted by cross-border pioneers with little or no funding beyond its eastern perimeter. Delegates heard, for example, about a visionary scheme for co-operation between those often less than friendly neighbours, Russia and Ukraine, involving a cross-border international airport and a cross-border university.
The humbling thing is that most of the people at this conference thought that what is happening on the island of Ireland, between North and South, was a model of cross-border co-operation which they should emulate. The Irish border is seen as an inspiring example of erstwhile enemies coming together to work for mutual benefit in practical areas like infrastructure, the environment, economic and community development, health and education.
Whether we in Ireland deserve this accolade is another matter. I think that in our insular, begrudging way we don’t even begin to appreciate just how privileged we are to have received the massive injection of EU funds that has come our way over the past decade. Here is one graphic illustration of this. The large region containing Lithuania, Latvia, and north-eastern Poland, together with their immediate cross-border neighbours in the Russian salient of Kaliningrad and eastern Belarus – a region with a population of over 10 million people – received just €57 million from the EU INTERREG and TACIS programmes in the period 2004-2006. In stark comparison tiny Northern Ireland, along with the Southern Irish border region, with a combined population of a little over two million, received a colossal €1160 million during the years 2000-2006 from Peace II and INTERREG. Assuming a third of this for 2004-2006 makes a figure of €386 million – nearly seven times the amount received by our impoverished fellow-Europeans in the Baltic region. You can work out the per capita allocation for yourselves!
What did we do to merit such good fortune? Whatever the answer to that question, one thing is certain: our political leaders owe it not only to the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland to put in place the final pieces of our tortuous journey towards a shared province and a shared island – they also owe it to the politicians and citizens of the European Union who have unselfishly supported that process politically and financially every step of the way. We should be thanking our common Christian God for Europe and its extraordinarily generous solidarity with us.