Gary McIntyre is a solicitor who works as an advice worker with Citizens Advice Northern Ireland in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh. For the past six years he has been employed by Borderwise, a cross-border partnership between Citizens Advice NI and the Citizens Information Board (Republic of Ireland) which was set up with EU PEACE funding in 2003 to provide advice to the thousands of people crossing the border regularly to live, work, study and retire.
Can I take my pension with me when I retire across the border? What can I do if my employer makes me redundant and refuses me the redundancy payment I am entitled to because my home is across the border? Where can I claim childrens allowance if my child has been born in one jurisdiction and I live in the other one? These are the kind of questions Gary has been dealing with every day for the past six years: queries about taxes, social welfare payments such as child, disability and unemployment benefits, debt referral, employment law, student finance, health services, car registration, immigration rights and so on the kind of practical obstacles and headaches and injustices that ordinary, not particularly well-informed people face when they move to work and live in another jurisdiction. And inevitably, since richer people have lawyers and tax experts to advise on such things, it was usually poorer and more underprivileged people he was helping. He frequently represented such people at sickness and disability tribunals in both jurisdictions.
When Borderwise started, three cross-border advice workers were trained: one in the Derry-Donegal area, one in the Newry-Dundalk area and Gary in the Fermanagh-Monaghan area. He remembers his training in citizens information in the Republic of Ireland as being a steep learning curve. And it never really stopped, since during his two days a week in Monaghan and three days a week in Enniskillen he was having to cope with a constantly changing picture of social benefits and the rules governing them being amended by annual budgets and periodic legislation thought up by two sovereign governments, who rarely, if ever, considered consulting each other about how their immensely complex laws and budgets might affect people crossing between the two countries.
After a few years, Gary McIntyre was the only person left working in this area of cross-border citizens information. He also contributed to a new information website: Border People (www.borderpeople.info), which the Centre for Cross Border Studies was commissioned by the North/South Ministerial Council to create in 2007. But a website can only list information, a very large amount of it, which is often hard to fathom. It needs a real, live, thinking human being to explain how that information can be used to help ordinary people in specific, and often very complicated, circumstances arising from their need to cross the border to live and work.
The European Union was also some help. Gary often found himself citing EU regulations aimed at facilitating cross-border mobility when it came to claiming unemployment benefit on behalf of a worker made redundant from a firm across the border, or child benefit on behalf of a family moving to the other Irish jurisdiction. His caseload was a highly diverse one. He remembers in particular cases about whether a childcare voucher from the UK Revenue could be used in a Republic of Ireland crèche (the eventual answer was ‘yes’); whether a student from the South could get a UK maintenance grant in Belfast (he’d have to be a migrant worker first); how someone moving to the Republic could register his Northern car without paying RoI Vehicle Registration Tax; and whether an asylum seeker living in the Republic could work in the North (the answer in this case was ‘no’).
But Gary isn’t giving out any of this vital cross-border information any more. Earlier this year Borderwise’s EU PEACE funding ran out. Citizens Advice NI had applied to the EU’s cross-border programme INTERREG last autumn for three years more funding. But European bureaucracy moves slowly, and in the summer he applied for and was appointed to a post in a new project in Fermanagh Citizens Advice Bureau.
So Gary McIntyre, the man with a unique store of knowledge and expertise of huge value to people crossing the Irish border, is lost to cross-border cooperation. For those of us also involved in such cooperation, it defies belief that such a thing could be allowed to happen. On other EU borders – from the bridges over the Rhine to the mountains between Sweden and Norway – they have dozens of such advice workers: we have just let our only one go. Even at this late stage, maybe a funder somewhere in Belfast or Dublin or Brussels could help us to get this man back to doing what he does better than any other person on this earth: providing the kind of useful, practical, mutually beneficial information that makes crossing the border as easy and painless as possible for the ordinary citizens of this island.