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The travails of the North/South Ministerial Council
Is it six or one hundred and forty-six? That is the question regarding the number of areas of cross-border activity and cooperation on the island of Ireland. Supporters of the 1998 Agreement and its ‘Strand Two: North/South Ministerial Council’ tend to opt for the maximal figure. Detractors of the Agreement invariably opt for the minimal one.
So which is closest to the real figure? That depends on how ‘area’ is interpreted. The Agreement identified twelve areas for North/South cooperation including: agriculture; education; transport; environment; waterways; social security/social welfare; tourism; EU programmes; inland fisheries; aquaculture and marine matters; health; and urban and rural development. Other possible areas were to be considered by the North/South Ministerial Council.
Underneath broad areas like agriculture, health and education are specific areas such as milk production, cancer treatment, and cultural activities for young people. In the specific area context, it has been reported that a confidential study on cross-border activity, conducted by the European Commission and the UK Government, concluded that one hundred and forty-two such activities would be disrupted by the failure to reach agreement on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
The North/South Ministerial Council is the institutional custodian of North/South, cross-border activities and cooperation on the island of Ireland. Comprising of members of the Irish government and Northern Ireland Executive it has been hailed as the most significant institutional development in North/South relations since partition in 1921.
Meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council have been conducted in plenary, sectoral and institutional form. Plenary meetings have involved the Irish Taoiseach, the Northern Ireland First and Deputy First Ministers, and other ministers from North and South. They are broad brush political events that animate the North/South dimension of the Agreement and the peace process. The sectoral meetings have involved ministers from North and South responsible for specific sectors to discuss cross-border cooperation under their remits. Institutional meetings have overseen the work undertaken by the North/South Implementation Bodies which are charged with cross-border implementation in the specific areas of food safety, minority languages (Gaelic and Ulster-Scots), trade and business development, aquaculture, waterways, EU programmes, and tourism promotion.
Despite its institutional manifestation - with imposing headquarters for its Joint Secretariat in Armagh - and the considerable breadth of its remit, the North/South Ministerial Council has not enjoyed plain sailing. Three particular challenges have arisen. Firstly, it has had to endure prolonged periods of suspension because of political disputes surrounding the implementation of the Agreement and the governance of Northern Ireland. For example, there was a prolonged period of suspension from 2002 to 2007. During these periods Joint Secretariat staff members have been redeployed elsewhere in the Irish Civil Service and Northern Ireland Civil Service, with disruptive consequences for continuity and momentum. Secondly, the Joint Secretariat has been responsible for the generation and coordination of cross-border policies. However, there has been an imbalance in North/South leadership in that context because Northern Ireland government departments have demonstrated a lack of commitment to cross-border development that could inform the work of the Joint Secretariat. Thirdly, and crucially, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) remains ideologically opposed to North/South institutionalised cooperation.
In the past, DUP leaders have questioned the need for the existence of the North/South Ministerial Council and called for its suspension citing ‘value for money’ concerns. While not automatically opposed to localised cross-border initiatives in the Irish border region, the DUP remains hostile to any public institution that they perceive to be ‘all-Ireland’ in remit and operation. The North/South Ministerial Council is foremost among such institutions. Current DUP Leader, Arlene Foster, has voiced the DUP’s concern that such North/South institutionalisation contributes to a feeling of threat in the unionist community.
Individual DUP ministers have attempted to frustrate the work of the North/South Ministerial Council. For example, in the sectoral context, a DUP minister questioned the need for face-to-face meetings with his Irish government counterpart, this time citing a concern for the environment. The use of technologies was suggested as a way of circumventing contact.
Technology is also the DUP’s magic wand for maintaining an open, free flowing Irish border after the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. However, border technology experts reject such a proposition as nonsense. The European Commission’s alternative - that Northern Ireland remains within the European Union Customs Union after the rest of the UK’s withdrawal - is anathema to the party. Yet, remaining in the Customs Union, and the Single Market, is the best chance for protecting the wealth of cross-border economic, social and cultural activity and cooperation that has developed over the past two decades.
Another period of suspension for the Northern Ireland Assembly – since January 2017 – has meant that the North/South Ministerial Council is also suspended. With Brexit presenting a critical juncture in North/South and British-Irish relations it has been left to others to chart the course for cross-border cooperation on the island of Ireland.
Professor Cathal McCall is Professor of European Politics and Borders School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics and Fellow of The Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, Queen's University.