Being a newspaper opinion columnist must be one of the easiest jobs in the world. You write a thousand words on a subject of your choice – often one on which you have done little research and are full of bias and half-formed opinions – send it off to the editor, see it headlined under your name and photograph a few days later, and get a sizeable cheque in your bank account at the end of the month.
This is classic power without responsibility. As that bilious opposer for the sake of opposition, Eamon Dunphy, said in a recent interview: “I was always a columnist, so I didn’t have to answer to anyone other than the readers and editors of the papers. I didn’t care about anybody else.”
Brian Feeney is no Eamon Dunphy. He was once a courageous and hard-working SDLP councillor. Now he is a columnist in the Irish News. He was writing last month about Irish ministers having lost interest in North-South co-operation. He claims that no Southern party except the Labour Party “has lifted a finger to enhance north-south links.”
He is just plain wrong. The Centre for Cross Border Studies holds no brief for the Irish Government, nor for Fianna Fail or the Progressive Democrats. But few informed commentators would dispute the assertion that there has never been a time since the foundation of the independent Irish state when the leading members of the Dublin government have been more committed to solving the problems of Northern Ireland and to the role of North-South co-operation as part of that solution. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Tánaiste Michael McDowell, Finance Minister Brian Cowen and Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern are all energetically committed to looking for peaceful, practical ways to get us out of the Northern impasse.
The Taoiseach, even in the middle of his current domestic difficulties, has been working on new Northern Ireland proposals and continuing to pressure his Ministers and senior civil servants to make sure that North-South co-operation is kept high on their departmental agendas. Michael McDowell makes passionate speeches to assure Northern unionists that he – a peaceful democrat – is a more genuine spokesman for the Irish republican tradition than Sinn Fein. Brian Cowen hammers home the message that it makes practical common sense to plan the infrastructure of Ireland on an all-island basis. And Dermot Ahern, from his base in a border county, shows more commitment to Northern Ireland than any foreign affairs minister since Dick Spring in the 1990s and Garret Fitzgerald in the 1970s.
At civil service level, too, there is movement, despite Feeney’s claims to the contrary (although obviously civil servants tend to do little without political direction). The six North-South bodies have continued to operate effectively despite the heavy constraints placed on them by the suspension of the Northern Ireland institutions; dynamic new North-South links have been forged in areas like energy, spatial planning and higher education; senior officials from both jurisdictions work together on important ventures like the North West Gateway Initiative in Derry-Donegal and the influential business-led ‘think tank’, the North/South Roundtable Group; and the Centre for Cross Border Studies is currently planning the fourth in a highly successful and over-subscribed series of public service training courses in North-South co-operation.