Dublin-Belfast corridor initiative gathers momentum

Slieve League, Ireland's highest sea cliffs, located in south west Donegal, is one of the most popular stops on the Wild Atlantic Way
Andrew Webb

I HAVE had an interest in the ‘all-island economy' for as long as I can remember. My reading on the issue tracks back to the early 1990s and Sir George Quigley's championing of the idea. His ideas were not universally popular when first aired but, since then, examples of successful collaboration are easier to find.

Despite a frankly illogical lack of coordination around Covid responses, there are many fantastic examples of significant all-island cooperation such as the all-island energy market, the work that IntertradeIreland does on an all-island basis and various other initiatives around health and infrastructure.

I have been spending a decent amount of time lately working on reports for clients in the north-west. The scale of integration in the Derry-Donegal economy is striking, with a heavily integrated labour market and the two councils cooperating in marketing the area to international investors.

The integration of the economy in the north-west is supported by both governments through the North West Strategic Growth Partnership which is working to improve regional growth, physical development and community well-being.

The model of cross border cooperation is well proven via the north-west arrangements so it was pleasing to see the recent launch of the Dublin-Belfast Economic Corridor initiative. Not a new idea by any stretch, I can even recall the excitedly announced initiative by Peter Robinson and Brian Cowen just as the credit crunch hit in 2008 where Belfast was set to become the back office for Dublin's International Financial Services Centre.

This latest initiative feels different. It has been a while in the making and is the first time that all eight councils (four northern and four southern) that make up the corridor have formally joined forces to collaborate.

The corridor contains almost a third of the total population on the island and almost four in 10 businesses are located in the eight local authorities that make up the corridor. It is a significant entity. So what might this greater level of cooperation mean in practice, and why now?

Taking the ‘why now?' first. A joint report from Dublin City University (DCU) and Ulster University (UU), ‘The Dublin-Belfast Economic Corridor: Current Profile, Potential for Recovery & Opportunities for Cooperation', states that this is an appropriate time to create a North-South Economic Corridor to look at opportunities such as clustering, infrastructure and innovation and that the national policy direction north and south is more explicit in the opportunities to be gained along an eastern corridor.

Both the Ireland 2040, National Planning Framework and the New Deal reference the potential of the Dublin-Belfast corridor and that there will be ‘serious and detailed consideration' of the feasibility of high-speed rail connections between Belfast, Dublin and Cork.

The DCU-UU report also suggests that the ‘why now?' lies in the challenges brought about from the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit and a desire to mitigate any negative impacts from those events.

So what could the corridor initiative mean in practice? While a high-speed and more frequent rail service between the two anchor cities in the corridor is an obvious gap, and the prospect of one causes the most excitement, the corridor concept has to be more than this. Nor can it solely benefit Belfast and Dublin.

This is where areas such as skills development, sector development and joint marketing into international marketplaces can be key to ensuring all eight local authorities win. From an investment attraction perspective, the Dublin-Belfast corridor already conjures an image of greater scale in the mind of investors and, marketed well, can act as a strong lure for new international businesses to establish.

Drawing from a tourism context, we only need to look to the Wild Atlantic Way to see how collaboration, increased scale and great marketing can reap dividends.

Linked to the idea of attracting more inward investment, and indeed more local business starts, is the need to ‘create a scene'. This means building clusters and specialisation that others want to be part of.

Tools in the kit to achieve this will likely be centres of excellence or special finance or business support initiatives. Whatever it is, it will need to be bold and innovative to make sure we don't end up with more of the same economic development ideas just with a different logo.

All in all, it seems entirely logical that an all-island economy increases economic opportunity. The north-west has shown through their strategic growth partnership that there are practical benefits to be gained from working collaboratively when logic and opportunity present themselves.

The Dublin-Belfast corridor can do likewise, and sure, if we only end up with a faster train, I'll take it.

:: Andrew Webb is chief economist at Grant Thornton

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