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26 October 2006 Edition

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Irish unity - Need for more strategic thinking at EU level

The EU and Irish unity

Last week saw a major one-day conference at the European Parliament to discuss how the EU can assist the process of Irish unity. The conference, which brought together academics, MEPs and an all Ireland delegation of Sinn Féin activists and elected representatives, looked at lessons from other countries. There were contributions from German academics and Cypriot MEPs on their experiences of unification and prospects for unity respectively.

Here Sinn Féin MEP BAIRBRE de BRUN argues that the EU has a responsibility to assist the process of Irish reunification and put forward some practical measures that it could take to encourage all-Ireland integration.

The single greatest impediment to balanced and coherent economic development across the island of Ireland is partition. The European Union can play an active and positive role in assisting Irish reunification. The EU is based on peace and reconciliation and its own terms of reference include the removal of borders. The EU has also contributed greatly to the peace process in Ireland through its contributions to the International Fund for Ireland and Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation. However, there is room for greater strategic thinking about the peace process in EU circles.

The historic decision by the IRA in September 2005 to end its armed campaign has liberated the peace process and altered the Irish political landscape. The peace process has brought significant benefits, opportunities and challenges.

Real peace needs to be built on social, economic, cultural and political rights. The partition of Ireland has been based on the denial of rights. One effect of this has been the distortion of the economy. Partition has left communities, particularly along the border and in the North West severely disadvantaged socially, economically and politically.

At a time of unprecedented economic growth in the South of Ireland, the North has deepened its public sector dependency and reliance on the British Treasury. The subordinate relationship of the North to British policy has denied it the flexibility or autonomy necessary to renovate its economic base. The North has not developed dynamically in recent years or attracted significant industrial investment either from the vibrant Southern economy or elsewhere.

The border has constrained economic activity, exacerbated problems of economic disadvantage, distorted and disrupted infrastructural development, and held back the growth of new firms. Partition has meant that opportunities for economic development have been squandered and led to a lack of integration in agriculture, tourism, energy and telecommunications. It has also led to lost potential in terms of the possibility of joint working in R&D, markets, education and training.

Nearly 70% of economic activity in the North revolves around the public sector with four times as many people engaged in entrepreneurial activity in the 26 Counties as in the six Counties.

In November 2005 British Direct ruler in the Six Counties, Peter Hain accepted that the economy in the North is "not sustainable in the long-term", and that in future decades, "it is going to be increasingly difficult to look at the economy of Ireland North and South except as a sort of island of Ireland economy."

Full market completion, with the increase in trade and other economic activity, would spur economic growth, employment, creativity and innovation across the island. The sharing of services and infrastructure would provide savings, as well as improving the quality and quantity of services in border regions.

A unified currency through the adoption by the North of the Euro (or of a "Green-Pound", at a fixed rate of exchange to the Euro), would be an essential element of market completion and make it much easier to co-ordinate issues such as social security for cross-frontier workers, cross-frontier access to services and utilities, and the sharing of tax revenues.

Economic convergence will undoubtedly be complex and time-consuming. However, the next round of EU Structural Funding (2007-2013) provides a good time-scale to highlight the benefits of all-island initiatives. The two administrations, north and south should work together not only where this is mandatory in order to receive EU funding, but across the range of EU programmes.

The injection by both the British and Irish governments of a peace dividend would generate an irresistible momentum for progress. It would open the door to the immediate advancement of the equality agenda which is central to the realisation of the Good Friday Agreement.

EU programmes and policies should encourage all-Ireland development and should be among the fields in which divided, and sometimes contradictory policies and strategies are replaced by a coherent all-Ireland approach.

The British "opt-out" of certain Directives, such as the Working Time Directive have added to economic distortions on the island. In such cases provision should be made for a north of Ireland "opt-in".

Ministers in a revived Six County Executive should have a greater opportunity to participate in the EU legislative process for the benefit of all. They should be present as observers and speak on issues directly affecting their remit. One way in which this could be advanced would be for the 26 County Minister to share her/his seat at the table with the Six County Minister.

There are a number of other steps which the EU can take in order to encourage greater integration and to ensure the successful conclusion of the Peace Process, including:

  • As the peace process moves forward, exempting state aid to support reunification from EU competition regulations (as was the case with German unification)
  • Recognising the Cross-Border Corridor Groups as a good model of practice and encouraging the British and Irish governments to give such partnerships a more strategic role in the allocation and distribution of funds.
  • Supporting the development of all-Ireland public sector and civil society institutions
  • Developing and maintaining a PEACE III Programme.

The Good Friday Agreement remains the key to addressing these issues, stating that all agents in the peace process should, "use best endeavours to reach agreement on the adoption of common policies, in areas where there is a mutual cross-border and all-island benefit."

Constitutional considerations aside, a consensus is emerging that the co-operation specified in the Agreement should be intensified and expanded to cover an increasing number of areas, and that moves towards an all-Ireland economy are inevitable.

The level of external support needed for Ireland, and particularly in the North will depend on the speed of progress towards reunification. The economic prospects for a united Ireland look very promising. It is in the interest of the EU to do what it can to encourage this development.

A strategic approach to reunification will ensure that the costs involved will diminish as Irish society and the Irish economy integrate. Such costs are far outweighed by the costs of a continually divided Ireland, with is policy mismatches, back-to-back infrastructural development, partitionist planning, ongoing economic distortions, discrimination against and marginalisation of people and communities, and a range of other problems.

When analysing the modest political and economic investment required to integrate the island, added to the potential of the all-Ireland economy, the question we should be asking is: "What is the cost of not reunifying Ireland?"

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