Northern Ireland news

Shared Island Unit 'more important than ever' to keep open debate on the future of Ireland

Traffic signs remain the only indication that motorists are crossing from one jurisdiction to another.

GIVEN the recent lack of meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council, the Shared Island Unit of the Irish government is arguably more important than ever as a tool to preserve open and honest discussion on the island.

Almost a year after its formation, the unit has engaged with more than 650 people on the island, discussing topics from equality to climate change with the most recent discussion centring around the north/south economy.

The importance of these discussions cannot be understated; political relationships on our island are at a critical juncture, with a lack of engagement from unionism in particular. That the people of this island continue to engage on discussions on their future when many representatives are reluctant is telling as to the future that many aspire to.

Recent discussions on the shared economy of the island paint a very hopeful picture on its future. As we begin to rebound from the impact of the Covid-19 crisis, we are in a perfect position to reassess our economic relationship on the island and prioritise the shared elements of our economies. We also should seek to use the Northern Ireland Protocol to our fullest advantage to benefit businesses on the island. Though there are issues with the protocol, which the Irish government is committed to resolving, this does not prevent us from maximising its benefits.

The opportunity for businesses in Northern Ireland to have full access to both the UK Internal Market as well as the EU Single Market affords them huge advantage which must be availed of. Rather than nit-pick and focus on the negatives, why not look to the positives of the protocol and how it can bring benefits to businesses and consumers across this island. The fact is that many international businesses see the protocol as a huge advantage, and this has to be recognised. Coca Cola, for example, described it as the ‘best present' they could get.

The Dublin-Belfast economic corridor, for example, encapsulates more than two million people, eight universities and Institutes of Technology with prime international connectivity. The Shared Island dialogue discussed how to grow this connection by attracting foreign investment into the corridor and then spreading this growth further into the island. If this economic model was replicated across the island, tightening and formalising more economic links on the island the benefits would be huge.

The fact of the matter is that Covid-19 has changed our economy for good, but also for the better. We now have the opportunity to build a more inclusive economy, a greener economy, driven by small businesses and entrepreneurs. Remote working allows for people to live in towns and villages across the island while working as opposed to moving to cities if this is not their choice.

To promote these economic links, we of course need public buy-in, but also political. The North-South Ministerial Council can act as a complement to the discussions of the Shared Island Unit, putting plans into action. The days of political groups viewing increased north-south cooperation as a threat or a plot have to be put in the past. It is clear that increased economic links on the island are in everyone's interests – from business owners to workers, farmers to wholesalers.

There is also a role for groups such as Inter Trade Ireland who are vital in helping businesses across the island grow their trading links and navigate the post-Brexit trading environment. Local authorities also are hugely important, as seen in their crucial role in the Dublin-Belfast economic corridor. Similar relationships between border counties could have hugely positive effects on our economies.

At the end of the day, cooperation is not a dirty word. It should not be controversial to advocate for common sense proposals such as increased north-south cooperation. Though Brexit and Covid-19 posed huge obstacles, we are now in a position where we can use them to make our island a better, more prosperous place. To do so is common sense, to not would be foolish.

:: Neale Richmond is a Fine Gael TD for Dublin Rathdown.

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