June 19, 2001

The director, Andy Pollak, participates in a Team Europe training seminar in Brussels

A practical example of cross-border co-operation: the Irish Border Region

19 June 2001
Andy Pollak, Director, Centre for Cross Border Studies

The following address was given by the director, Andy Pollak, at a Team Europe training seminar in Brussels on 19 June 2001. Team Europe is a network of expert speakers on European issues – from the private and public sector and academia – which is managed by the European Commission’s Press and Communications Service.


The Irish border region is unusual in the existing European Union – although not in a future European Union involving the countries of central and eastern Europe – in that it is a constitutionally and ethnically contested area which has experienced considerable political violence over the past 30 years (and to a lesser extent over the past 90 years).

The state boundary which it straddles was the result of a balance of coercion rather than a democratic plebiscite. It was imposed on, rather than agreed by, the majority of the inhabitants of the region. It was the result of the British government’s decision in 1920 to partition Ireland, then in the middle of a guerrilla war of independence, into two states: an independent Free State (later a republic) in the South (reflecting the large nationalist majority there), and an autonomous province of the United Kingdom in the North (reflecting the two to one unionist majority there – a majority which is much smaller now).

A Boundary Commission set up by the British government and the new Irish government failed to agree on a more rational division of the island, so the arbitrary local government boundaries which had placed six Irish counties in Northern Ireland and 26 counties in the then Irish Free State continued. A city like Derry was cut off from its natural hinterland in Donegal; largely Protestant, unionist areas such as parts of North Monaghan and East Donegal which properly belonged in Northern Ireland ended up in the nationalist South; large swathes of the Catholic, nationalist population of Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Armagh and Down ended up in the unionist-dominated North. It was a recipe for the kind of instability which was to dog Northern Ireland – and the border region of Northern Ireland in particular – for much of the next 80 years. The mutual hostility between the government in Dublin and the regional administration in Belfast also meant that there was very little institutional co-operation between the two jurisdictions, and this further damaged the economic prospects of the newly-formed border region.

The distinctiveness of the Irish border region is thus twofold: it is rooted in the mutually reinforcing nature of economic marginalisation and political division in an area on the very edge of what were until recently two of the most centralised states in western Europe: the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.


As you can see from these figures, the border region, North and South, is one of the more sparsely populated on the island of Ireland, particularly in comparison to the more heavily populated and urbanised Northern Ireland.


When compared to other parts of Ireland, North and South, the two parts of the border region traditionally had higher levels of overall and long-term unemployment; a greater proportion of the population in dependent age groups (14 or under and 65 plus), lower proportions in service sector jobs and higher proportions in agriculture and manufacturing, much of the latter in low value added local industry. Its few major towns – Derry, Dundalk and Newry – lie at the extreme ends of the region. Its dispersed rural settlement structure inhibits the development of growth centres or the clustering of economic activities. Between 1971 and 1991 – broadly the period of the worst political and communal violence in Northern Ireland – there was an increase in population and a decline in overall employment levels in the region as a whole.

A 1984 report from the European Economic and Social Committee detailed the region’s economic peripherality in terms that will be familiar to people from other remote, rural parts of Europe: small farms, poor soil, established patterns of inheritance and marriage, little industrial employment, low incomes, high unemployment, significant outward migration. The report argued that the area should be “given priority for Community assistance.”

The regional picture on both sides of the border was not uniformly bleak, even in the largely bleak 1980s. There were some notable examples of job creation: world leaders in the manufacture of veterinary medicines and small electric appliances were to be found in Newry and Dundalk; nearly 3,000 people were employed in Derry in one of the main clothing suppliers to the British chain Marks and Spencers; another 3,000 worked for an American clothing manufacturer on both sides of the border in the north-west; Monaghan has one of the Republic’s highest proportions of workers employed in Irish-owned firms which are involved in furniture, mushrooms and poultry

This background suggested some grounds for optimism about future job creation through entrepreneurial activity in the region. However there were clearly influences inimical to such an entrepreurial take-off, and again, they are influences that are familiar in similar areas elsewhere in Europe: the many communities with traditions of high unemployment; the dominant dependency culture; the lack of successful role models for young people in remote areas; the pressures on bright children to move elsewhere to obtain qualifications in professions that offer no local employment.


The region’s economic peripherality was exacerbated by its political marginalisation from both Irish states. In the Republic the region was affected, like other remote areas, by the progressive centralisation of government and the removal of the powers of local government. In Northern Ireland, what was effectively Unionist one party government until 1972, the abolition of proportional representation and the discriminatory drawing (gerrymandering) of electoral boundaries at local government level negated local nationalist majorities in the border region. With the reform of local government in 1973 – the year after the British suspended the unionist-dominated regional parliament in Belfast – nationalist influence on border councils started to grow, but by then local government had lost most of its powers.

More importantly the region was now in the grip of a violent guerrilla/terrorist campaign by the IRA, many of whose strongholds were in the strongly nationalist areas along the border, and (in Northern Ireland) a counter-terrorist campaign by the British security forces and loyalist – i.e. unionist – paramilitary groups. Scores of roads were closed by the security forces along the border to prevent guerrilla/terrorist infiltration, further cutting off towns from their natural hinterlands and making crossing the border for work and family visits a lengthy and often hazardous occupation. Armagh, the county where my Centre for Cross Border Studies is based, suffered proportionately more deaths from political, sectarian and terrorist violence than any county of Northern Ireland.

For the Irish border not only delineates a boundary between two sovereign jurisdictions, but also represents a deep divide inside Northern Ireland, and particularly inside the conservative, rural parts of Northern Ireland close to the border. In her 1972 study,Prejudice and Tolerance in Ulster, anthropologist Rosemary Harris described how the border “crystallised the opposition to each other of Catholic and Protestant, for in general Catholic and nationalist opinion refused to recognise the border’s validity, whilst Protestants regarded its maintenance as essential to their freedom. The border, close physically and omnipresent psychologically, brought into sharp contrast not only those actually separated by it but those separated because their opinions about it were opposed.”

These were the political and economic circumstances which in the seventies and eighties seemed to make the Irish border region, despite its common language and culture, one of the least promising areas of Europe for cross-border co-operation. However there were political developments on the wider Anglo-Irish stage, stimulated by the Northern Ireland conflict and the two nations’ joint membership of the European Community, which pointed in just this direction.

A new Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 – which for the first time gave the Dublin government a consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland – the beginning of international funding for cross-border co-operation, and the ending of trade barriers through the Single European Market, all marked a significant break with the past. In the border region, all these developments were creating the circumstances for increased cross-border co-operation. However they were developments that emphasised the primacy of politics over economics in the Irish situation, and to which the inhabitants of the border region had little or no input. They were part of moves towards the joint management of Northern Ireland’s problems by the British and Irish governments.

Of course the residents of the Irish border region – as in border regions worldwide – had never been merely passive victims of structures and decisions imposed from above. They have responded to marginalisation by turning the border into an economic resource through the black economy, smuggling and, more recently, the widespread accessing of international funding programmes. The extraordinary level of smuggling of farm animals, and the double claiming of EU agricultural payments on both sides of the border, was revealed during the foot and mouth crisis in Britain and Ireland earlier this year. However none of these activities proved to be serious antidotes to the dual burden of political violence and economic disadvantage which were endemic to the region.


It was not until 1991 that the European Community started to play any kind of significant role in the Irish border region. In the run-up to the Single European Act, there had been a debate about the particular requirements of border regions and concern that their peripheral location and underdevelopment relative to less remote regions might mean they would suffer rather than benefit from the Single European Market. Out of this concern a new Community Initiative for border areas, INTERREG, was born, which aimed to improve the competitiveness of these regions in the context of the internal market. In pursuit of this aim, the European Commission emphasised two priorities: the need for genuine cross-border partnerships, preferably with joint administrative structures, and the need for a ‘bottom up’ approach which would include regional and local authorities, private organisations and voluntary bodies.

The first round of INTERREG programmes in the Irish border region in the early 1990s was criticised by the European Court of Auditors for being insufficiently trans-frontier in nature. Effectively the Irish government in Dublin and the British civil servants in Belfast used this extra money for their own jurisdictional projects with little reference to, let alone co-operation with, the other jurisdiction. However Structural Funds were used for one major cross-border ‘flagship’ project: the development of a cross-border waterway to link two of the island’s major river and lake systems, the River Shannon and the Lough Erne lakes in Co Fermanagh, thus creating one of Europe’s longest navigable leisure waterways, with very beneficial ‘knock on’ effects for tourism in this peripheral north-western area.

However, by now – with the outbreak of relative peace in Northern Ireland – there was another major European player in the game. The new 500 million Euro Peace and Reconciliation Programme for Northern Ireland and the Border Counties, brought in by Jacques Delors as the EU’s contribution to the peace process in Ireland – and with a far more explicitly ‘bottom up’ emphasis than INTERREG – included a cross-border element of 90 million Euros (the explicitly border region and cross-border INTERREG received 157 million Euros over roughly the same period). Major infrastructural projects funded by the Structural Funds during this period included the upgrading of the Belfast-Dublin railway.

The political stage the mid-late 1990s saw some dramatic developments which would also have an impact on cross-border co-operation, and thus the potential development of the Irish border region. In August 1994 the IRA declared a ceasefire, followed shortly by a ceasefire by the loyalist (unionist) paramilitaries. A painstaking four years of negotiations followed, leading in April 1998 to the so-called Good Friday Agreement between the political parties in Northern Ireland and the British and Irish governments.

6. North/South STRUCTURES

This included a complex institutional structure of North/South co-operation as one of its central elements. A new North/South Ministerial Council “to develop consultation, co-operation and action within the island of Ireland on matters of mutual interest” was set up between the Irish Government and the new, very broad coalition regional administration in Belfast (which included the political representatives of the IRA). Modelled along EU lines, the North/South Ministerial Council meets in three formats: plenary (involving the Irish prime minister or Taoiseach, and the first minister of Northern Ireland, and their cabinets), sectoral (involving sectoral ministers) and cross-sectoral.

The sectoral meetings bring together the Ministers in charge of agriculture, education, health, transport, environment and tourism to discuss issues of mutual interest; decisions are implemented through existing jurisdictional bodies in Northern Ireland and the Republic.

The North/South Ministerial Council also oversees the activites of six more focussed ‘implementation bodies’ which carry out their work on a cross-border and all-island basis. These cover waterways, food safety, acquaculture and lighthouses, minority languages, EU programmes and trade and business development. Like the North/South Ministerial Council itself (which is based next door to my Centre’s offices in Armagh), many of the offices of these six bodies are situated in towns in the border region: Derry, Enniskillen, Omagh, Monaghan and Newry.

This is the highly innovative and complex North/South architecture in which Irish cross-border co-operation will be housed in the future. Because of the unstable political situation of the past three years, the new bodies have experienced an uncertain start: they are now just 18 months old, although for four of those months they were suspended after disagreements over paramilitary arms decommissioning led to the suspension of all Northern Ireland’s political institutions. The results of the British general and local elections earlier this month – which saw the more extreme unionist and nationalist parties gain at the expense of the moderates – will have done little to stabilise the new institutions.

If they do last, however, those in charge of cross-border co-operation in Ireland – having been described as “slow learners” by one senior Commission official – will now have the chance to provide a working example of ‘top down’ cross-border institutions for the rest of Europe, and particularly the new democracies of central and eastern Europe.


For the new North/South and cross-border institutions in Ireland are ‘top down’, in contrast to the Commission’s preference for ‘bottom up’ local and regional administrative arrangements for cross-border co-operation. The Special EU Programmes Body, for example, the cross-border body which will henceforth administer the transfrontier elements of all EU programmes in Ireland, has no democratically accountable structure. It is accountable to the North/South Ministerial Council and the two administrations in Dublin and Belfast, and particularly their Departments of Finance. It has none of the democratic structures – representing regional authorities, local communities and chambers of commerce – of Europe’s most advanced cross-border organisations: the Euregios of the Dutch-German border. But it is a genuinely cross-border structure, and therefore a dramatically new animal on the Irish landscape.

The North/South Ministerial Council, the Special EU Programmes Body and the other ‘implementation bodies’ were set up and are driven by politicians, so they have the kind of policy autonomy that the purely administrative structures which ran cross-border co-operation in the past never had. Just what comes from this new situation will depend on the stability of the new political dispensation in Northern Ireland, the commitment and energy of the politicians and officials involved, and a willingness to experiment.

There is still a lack of clarity about how much the roles of these new bodies are to serve the border region and how much to serve the whole island of Ireland. Inevitably, such constitutional and political agendas are a feature of much cross-border co-operative activity in Ireland. Politicians in Dublin and London wrestling with the problems of Northern Ireland tend to see cross-border co-operation as part of the nationalist agenda and therefore to see the whole island of Ireland as the primary unit for integration and co-operation. Unionist politicians in Northern Ireland, on the other hand, tend to fear cross-border co-operation as a stalking horse moving them gradually towards a united Ireland. In recent years – with the coming of relative peace and the spectacular economic boom in the Republic – they have begun to see the advantages of practical co-operation across the border, but remain wary of any suggestion that it might be part of a long-term Irish unity agenda (which is exactly why the political wing of the IRA, Sinn Fein, is so in favour of it).

In contrast, the Centre for Cross Border Studies – in common with other interested voluntary and ‘civil society’ bodies in the border region – sees cross-border co-operation as a question of neighbourly self-interest in an underdeveloped region. We argue that it is not the terrible stalking horse leading to a united Ireland feared by unionists, but a sensible, practical element in the complex handiwork of the Good Friday Agreement which can be of benefit to everyone in the border region and a threat to no-one.


I want to finish with a quick look at one of the most hopeful signs of increased cross-border co-operation and border region development in Ireland. 25 years ago, in the middle of the most violent and economically depressed period of what we in Ireland euphemistically call “the Troubles”, two groups of local councils on both sides of the border came together to form cross-border co-operation networks. They were the Northern West Region Cross Border Group, grouping local authorities at the north-western end of the border, and the East Border Region Committee, bringing together councils at its eastern end. Six years ago the gap between them was filled by the councils of the Irish Central Border Area Network. It was no coincidence that this latter network – ICBAN – took so much longer to get going: it contains a much higher proportion of councils with strong unionist memberships.

Until 1996 the work of these three networks – which are now collectively known as the Border Corridor Groups – was essentially separate. This meant that the projects they were involved in were small-scale, under-resourced and often done in isolation from similar projects in other areas.

This changed with the arrival of Commission officials charged with overseeing the INTERREG 2 programme. They saw the Border Corridor Groups as a real opportunity to add the missing element to their Irish cross-border programme: genuinely cross-border bodies to administer EU programmes on the ground, in the way that this happens on the German-Dutch, German-French and German-Danish borders. They saw the chance to push the implementation of INTERREG towards a delegated and decentralised model rather than the civil service dominated model of the past.

They encouraged the Border Corridor Groups to think more ambitiously, and to develop a strategy for the whole Border Corridor as a distinctive region of Ireland, together with integrated plans for their own sub-regions. Their Border Corridor Strategy document was welcomed by the Commission, but civil servants in Belfast and Dublin expressed doubts about the groups’ capacity to deliver on it. The dynamic new finance minister in the new Northern Ireland regional administration then stepped in, set up an action team to consider an appropriate role for the Border Corridor Groups, and approved a bid for a substantial allocation of funds to the groups under the 2000-2006 INTERREG programme. The main change demanded of them was that they reform themselves to include a 50 per cent membership from business, trade union and voluntary bodies in the border areas.

If the Border Corridor Groups are given a role, it would mean a real break from the past when it comes to distributing EU funds for co-operation across the Irish border in the future. For the first time there will be both a genuinely cross-border body at inter-government level – the Special EU Programmes Body – and a genuine ‘bottom up’ body to administer it at local level – the Border Corridor Groups.

The role of the European Union in helping to bring about this situation has been a vital one. From the mid-1990s the Commission played a role as advocate, facilitator negotiator and of course funder of new forms of cross-border co-operation in Ireland. By meeting with and advising local government and community groups in the border region, the Commission provided an external source of legitimacy to their demands. That legitimacy was enhanced by the Commission’s distance from the unionist-nationalist political quarrel in Ireland. However it was only after the Good Friday Agreement, with its establishment of dedicated North/South, cross-border bodies, that the optimum situation was reached: one where the political and institutional dynamic in the Irish border region was in tune with the Commission’s own preferences.


I would like to finish by summarising the three processes which have led the Irish border region from being one of the most depressed and marginalised in western Europe to the point where I believe it could be on the threshold of a genuine partnership leading to a real economic take off.

Firstly there was the Good Friday Agreement, a ‘peace agreement’ which has been hailed as a model for resolving conflict in deeply divided societies in other parts of the world. Second was the Commission’s persistent emphasis on the need for cross-border co-operation as a means to economic and social development in border regions. Third was the emergence of the local authority cross-border networks – the Border Corridor Groups – to provide the ‘bottom up’ and social partnership elements the European Commission believes are essential to the development of any region.

These three processes have led the Irish border region to a position where hopes for its development are higher than any time since it was sundered by history 80 years ago. It is very early days yet: the impact of neither the INTERREG nor the Peace and Reconciliation programmes on the Irish border region has yet been evaluated. As the Commission found when they examined the latest Irish INTERREG programme proposal, there are not even adequate cross-border statistical data available yet.


But the new mood in the region can be encapsulated in the final, ringing sentence of the Border Corridor Strategy document: “We are confident that the Border Corridor Strategy and the Border Corridor Groups offer opportunities for social, economic and organisational development along the Irish Border Corridor which will enable the Border Corridor to become a competitive, inclusive, sustainable, outward-looking and integrated border region by 2006, and thus to become an exemplar for other European border region