The Centre for Cross Border Studies recently hosted the latest in a series of border visits by the FRONTEM project. Supported by the ERASMUS+ programme of the European Union, FRONTEM is a Jean Monnet network that brings together three Centres of Excellence and seven Jean Monnet Chairs from both Europe and Canada, and its focus is on border regions. The delegation that were able to make the visit in person came from France, Belgium, Germany and Canada. The visit was an opportunity for our guests to learn more about life at the border which has been front and centre in the Brexit negotiations.
The first day’s proceedings took the form of a research seminar held at Queen’s University Belfast entitled ‘The Northern Ireland – Ireland border region: Policies and practices’. Our morning began with Dr Anthony Soares, Director of CCBS, welcoming those present and Prof. Birte Wassemberg, who leads the FRONTEM project, giving an introduction. Prof. Katy Hayward of Queen’s then gave a plenary address providing an overview of the Protocol, which is dominating much of the cross-border conversation. We then had a panel featuring Dr Billy Melo Araújo talking about the impact of the Protocol on Northern Ireland’s trade, Prof. Deidre Heenan on healthcare policy across the island of Ireland, and Dr Jonathan Evershed on the sea border between Ireland and Wales.
After lunch, we were joined by Tim Losty and Mark Hanniffy, Joint Secretaries of the North South Ministerial Council, who gave an address on the work of the Council, one of the institutions established by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. The afternoon’s panel featured Dr Milena Komarova (QUB) presenting the findings of research done into mobility in the central border region, Prof. Jennifer Todd (UCD) discussed the change in social and symbolic boundaries in the border region, and Prof. Kathy Hall (UCC) explained the work that SCoTENS does in promoting North-South exchange in ideas by those in education.
We were delighted at such a broad range of experts being able to join us and provide such detail on a wide range of cross-border issues. A very professional setup also enabled those members of the network who weren’t able to travel in person to play an active role in the day’s events.
The second day was spent on a study visit to the border region itself. After a brief stop at the Centre for Cross Border Studies, our first meeting was at the North South Ministerial Council in Armagh for a focus group discussion with key stakeholders, including the Deputy Joint Secretaries of the Council’s Joint Secretariat, groups representing local authorities in the border region, as well as health and trade bodies. This discussion highlighted many of the issues impacting cross-border mobility and the importance placed on ensuring cross-border cooperation continued.
We then travelled to Creative Spark in Dundalk for a second focus group discussion with representatives of civic society organisations, many of whom work alongside the Centre as part of the Ad-Hoc Group for North-South and East-West Cooperation. The groups involved work on a diverse range of issues from supporting families and cross-border workers, to women’s issues, human rights and the arts.
The two sessions gave our guests a brilliant overview of the importance of cross-border mobility and cooperation in the public, private and civil society sectors, as well as an insight into the daily lives of those who live and work in the border region.
Our bus journey back to Belfast allowed our guests to spot the moment they crossed the border and to stop off at Narrow Water to see across from the North to the South. The group’s last activity was to celebrate St Patrick’s Day at a special reception hosted by the British-Irish Secretariat in Belfast.
We hope that the experience of this unique border region will be of great benefit to the network and are very grateful for all who gave up their time to share their knowledge and experience.