Newton Emerson: North-south cooperation is the key to getting rid of the border

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Irish News and is a regular commentator on current affairs on radio and television.

Former Secretary of State Julian Smith
Former Secretary of State Julian Smith Former Secretary of State Julian Smith

Former secretary of state Julian Smith has been somewhat misrepresented after his Radio Ulster interview this Monday.

“Focus on governing, not border, urges former NI secretary”, was the BBC website’s headline.

Unionists will have quietly approved; Sinn Féin made its displeasure known.

A party statement said: “It is the legitimate and democratic right of the people of Ireland to seek and work towards Irish unity. That right is enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. Comments from a former Tory minister calling on nationalists and republicans to set aside that legitimate aspiration is a further indication of the bad faith of the British government.”

A less excitable summary came from Sinn Féin MP Martina Anderson, of all people, who tweeted: “It’s not a choice between either/or - we can and will do both.”

That is a valid understanding of the agreement and concurs with the SDLP’s occasional slogan of “making Northern Ireland work”.

It is also what Smith actually said. He was arguing for priorities and methods, not for an abandonment of nationalist aspiration, or making Northern Ireland work before addressing constitutional issues - an approach republicans tend to view as soft unionism or a unionist trap.

“Focus on governing now,” Smith said. “Have a debate on constitutional issues” but work on them through “the north-south bodies, climate change, infrastructure”.

Working the agreement to make the border melt away was the specific aim of its SDLP and Irish government architects. How many people on the British side hoped for the same can only be guessed at - more than zero, certainly.

North-South cooperation was to be the evolving instrument of this, with the North-South Ministerial Council initially tasked with creating six implementation bodies before creating more without limit, alongside a joint forum of the Oireachtas and the Assembly.

Two decades on there is still no forum and only six bodies, yet the provisions remain on the books and in Stormont’s hands. The 2006 St Andrews Agreement restated all these objectives and tidied up important loopholes: nationalist ministers could no longer go on ‘solo runs’ by introducing greater north-south cooperation themselves, but nor could unionists veto cooperation by boycotting the North-South Ministerial Council. In short, cooperation has to be cooperative.

January’s New Decade, New Approach deal to restore devolution, which Smith is widely credited with delivering, added more direct north-south pragmatism: “greater connectivity on this island - by road, rail and air.”

Six projects were cited, including cross-border greenways, the Narrow Water bridge and a feasibility study into a high-speed all-Ireland train service. Hence Smith’s reference to infrastructure and climate change.

The deal also mentioned cross-border regional development and city deals, in the north west in particular. The Irish government pledged to help fund all of it, operate any such cooperation via the North-South Ministerial Council and again pursue a joint parliamentary forum.

While everyone can see that Boris Johnson’s proposed bridge to Scotland is a joke, there is something almost equally laughable about the lack of interest in realistic, transformative all-Ireland infrastructure projects.

Cross-border cooperation as a whole has long been the Cinderella strand of the peace process. At first, unionists took it seriously enough to fear it and try to frustrate it but they soon realised nationalist apathy was doing their job for them.

January’s deal is a meaningful chance to restart the north-south agenda.

The Irish government’s new ‘shared island’ unit adopts that agenda instead of planning for a border poll, discrediting it among some republicans. However, Sinn Féin’s position is much the same. During Stormont’s three-year collapse, it toyed with the idea of giving up on the agreement’s institutions and jumping straight to a border poll. Any notion of this was ditched and devolution was promptly restored after December’s general election showed Sinn Féin that walking away from Stormont is a vote loser. The party then dropped its demand for a border poll in coalition talks ahead of February’s Irish general election, having decided it was a vote loser as well.

Like Japanese soldiers marooned on Pacific islands, a few figures from the civic nationalist movement continue to argue for a border poll as a priority. They have missed the signal that this was not necessarily developing to Sinn Féin’s advantage, to paraphrase Emperor Hirohito.

But the signal is clear enough. The key to erasing the border is north-south cooperation, through all the institutions and opportunities available.

If nationalists and republicans do not take that seriously, nobody else will.