Irish gifts - sales benefit the Newshound

The Executive, not the cross border bodies, is where the real test lies

(by Stephen King, Sunday Tribune)

Some have expressed surprise at the civility surrounding the first meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council. Sitting down with nationalism to discuss all-Ireland co-operation is, however, long been a cherished goal for unionists. It is regrettable that it has taken 80 years to create the right context.

At the core of the new arrangements are the six cross-Border implementation bodies. Even if viewed only from a purely fiscal viewpoint, the bodies formally inaugurated in Armagh on Monday represent a startlingly good deal for unionism. In 1999/2000 the total cost of the bodies is estimated to be Stg£36.4m; the Republic will pay £27.9m and Northern Ireland £8.5m. The Republic will be bearing a disproportionate share of the cost, therefore. The Northern contribution represents just 0.1% of total annual government spending in Northern Ireland.

A third of the total spending on cross-Border bodies is devoted to Waterways Ireland, surely one of the most innocuous schemes imaginable. In fact Waterways Ireland epitomises the unionist vision of cross-Border co-operation. It is unquestionably practical in its ambit; its worth arises directly and naturally from the existence of two political entities on the island sharing a 200 mile land border; and it is mutually beneficial.

The notion that Waterways Ireland is in any danger of wheedling, trundling, inveigling or otherwise seducing unionism into Irish unity - as is claimed by republicans and some unionists alike - is fanciful, nay fantastical.

Likewise, the Ulster housewife might raise an eyebrow should she receive a leaflet about handling cold meat from the Food Safety Promotion Board with an address in Cork but she is unlikely to lose sleep over it. That particular board will be spending about 75 pence on every man, woman and child in Ireland next year.

Nationalism has high hopes for the Trade and Business Development Body and it has a highly qualified board membership including the Duke of Abercorn and Kieran McGowan, the former head of the IDA. However, the Northern contribution of £3.1m represents just a tenth of annual spending by LEDU on small firm research and development in Northern Ireland.

Unionists and nationalists hope that the body will succeed in increasing cross-Border trade but since the Republic already exports three times as much per head to Northern Ireland as to Great Britain, the real barriers to trade would seem to be East-West, not North-South. The Border's detrimental impact on commerce has been exaggerated and the Northern market could already be saturated with Southern goods.

The establishment on Friday at Lancaster House of the British-Irish Council, the Council of the Isles, has undoubtedly helped ease unionists over any shivers they might have had about Monday's symbolism. The phalanx of glossy black Mercedes bearing Fianna Fail ministers into Orangeism's home county might have looked imposing but even the Taoiseach was forced to concede that the raison d'être of the operation was "to work for the common good of all our people", nothing more, nothing less.

Contrary to the Taoiseach's other claim, however, Monday's proceedings represented not the first but the third attempt at a formalised intra-island structure for co-operation. The first, the Council of Ireland legislated for in the Government of Ireland Act, was conceived, "With a view to the eventual establishment of a Parliament for the whole of Ireland and to bring about harmonious action between the parliaments and governments of Southern Ireland and Northern Ireland."

Its initial remit was all-Ireland co-operation on railways, animal disease and fisheries. Its grandiose objective notwithstanding, the Unionist government selected it 20-strong delegation. The Southern authorities resiled, refusing to recognise the Northern government or at least not the extent of its territory, pending the report of the Boundary Commission. The Council never met.

The second Council of Ireland agreed in the Sunningdale Communiqué of December 1973 was similarly ill-starred. "It would comprise a council of ministers with executive and harmonising functions and a harmonising role and a consultative assembly with advisory and review functions." Its fields of work were the environment, agriculture, trade and industry, tourism, transport, public health, sport, culture and the arts: a much more extensive and contentious list than that contained in the Good Friday Agreement.

Although the Irish Government accepted the principle of consent it was not prepared to amend Articles 2 and 3 accordingly and, in its response to a challenge by Kevin Boland, it was forced to argue in court that the territorial claim stood. Unsurprisingly, that Council was stillborn.

The North-South Ministerial Council has none of the grandiosity of 1920 nor the shaky constitutional basis of 1973. Critically, unlike its two distant cousins, the NSMC is shorn of anything that might look like, or conceivably become, a parliament for the whole of Ireland. Furthermore, it operates in the context of an Irish Constitution which now embodies the principle of consent.

Some unionists are more than a little sceptical about the economic rationale for cross-Borderism, or at least the necessity for formal structures. Whether the - marginal - expenditure on the bodies will be recouped through a lack of duplication and increased cross-Border activity remains an open question. At last, though, unionists and nationalists have a scheme which both can buy into. All can embrace the new opportunities which face us.

Previous attempts at such arrangements have foundered principally on the rock of nationalist over-optimism. Without seeking to diminish the North-South Ministerial Council, however, the really new and significant development is being acted out at Stormont, not in Armagh. Whether or not the implementation bodies become truly significant pales into insignificance besides the sight of unionists, loyalists, nationalists and republicans working for the common good in Northern Ireland.

Monday's was a propitious new beginning but the real test for the Agreement will be whether the Executive can last. Unionism has done its bit and with good grace. Now it is the IRA's turn.

Steven King is an advisor to Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble.