IBIS Seminar: North-South Business Relations

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Institute for British-Irish Studies (IBIS) and the British Embassy Dublin seminar: “North-South Business Relations: What Does and Doesn’t Work”, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, Ireland

Tim O’Connor (Office of the President) welcomed delegates to the conference. He referenced Sir George Quigley’s 1991 speech, which made the case for an all-island economy (also “Ireland: An Island Economy”, paper presented to the Annual Conference of the Confederation of Irish Industry, 28 February 1992), as well as the formation of the IBEC-CBI Joint Business Council.

O’Connor described the significance of the actions of Sir George and other business leaders, in pointing out to decision makers about lost economic opportunities due to lack of North-South cooperation. Furthermore, the Good Friday Agreement was “the catalyst for a sea change in North-South relations”, introducing a new framework of relations that have lasted to this day.

Yet the barriers to further cooperation “are still formidable”, because of the legacy of 70 years of back-to-back economic development. For example, the level of trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic are still well down from comparable regions in the rest of Europe.

O’Connor argues that the bigger global picture presents an even more compelling reason for North-South economic cooperation. The challenge is to get more people into the North-South space. He gave an example of a renewable energy company with North-South links.

He concluded by highlighting particular competitive strengths: Ireland as “a global tribe in a global world”, which includes the Ulster-Scots dimension; being brokers for bringing diverse people and processes together to make things happen; serving as a lab; and the wealth of heritage and culture.

O’Connor final remark looked back 100 years ago to the building of the Titanic, perhaps the largest infrastructure project at the time, when Belfast was a global economic centre. And as Dublin was also a global economic centre in the past 10 years, “success is in the DNA” of both parts of the island. The challenge is to get both parts to realise success at the same time:

John Coakley (University College Dublin) provided summary of recent academic research. He concluded by saying the institutional architecture may facilitate contact but not guarantee cooperation. “For this, we have to turn to the level of individual and cooperative experiences of collaboration across the border,” for which he welcomed the panellists’ forthcoming presentations.

Coakley mooted the irony of how the explicit recognition of the border in the Good Friday Agreement may do more to undermine its significance, than “decades of angry Nationalist denunciations of partition”.

Finally, “As in so many aspects of business life, political stability and mutual respect are important preconditions for progress.”:

Stephen Kingon (Invest Northern Ireland) described how, in his role, he meets up with other economic organisations to see where there is scope for cross-border collaboration. He gave examples of cross-border bodies, such as InterTradeIreland and Tourism Ireland“:

Denis Rooney (International Fund for Ireland) at roundtable discussion:

Feargal Quinn (Seanad Eireann) at roundtable discussion:

Sean O’Driscoll (Glen Dimplex Group) at roundtable discussion:

Lord (Ken) Maginnis of Drumglass (Ulster Unionist Party) declared that Northern Ireland is public sector heavy, where there is not the accountability as you would have on a factory floor. He said that he was surprised at the extent of the inability by government of running efficient services for people.

Using the case of special education needs, Lord Maginnis described how this deficiency demonstrated a lack of North-South cooperation.

More specifically, he used the case of the Autistic Centre of Excellence, deploring it being situated 50 miles from any teacher training college or university.

He also described what he described as gesture politics, dealing with the 20% on the sides at the expense of the middle 40%. He had particular criticism of the Hillsborough Agreement (on the devolution of policing and justice), a document without agreement or signatures.

Lord Maginnis said that this mattered because, “If you want to hinder the development of economic development and cooperation in public services, you’ll put the power into the hands of political people who know nothing about the economy.”

“If we are going to resolve our problems we have to get rid of this stratification society.” He argued that you can’t have a situation where businesses say “we can do it on our own”, while we let others “mess about with politics”, which includes vital services such as health and education.

He concluded by saying, “We must make the public sector accountable for delivering those services (that are to benefit the people)”:

Julian King (British Embassy) said he was surprised at the scale of the links between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The two-way trade links between UK and Ireland is the same value as with China (euro 22 billion), demonstrating how vital and crucial this UK-Ireland trade link is and will remain. Furthermore, the all-island trade link within Ireland is worth euro 4 billion.

He also highlighted the “concrete links” of cross-border and cross-island companies and their employment, historically and emerging (“a moving feature”).

He described the work of the British Embassy in Ireland as including the offer of a service to help companies based in Northern Ireland into the Republic, and those from the Republic into Northern Ireland or elsewhere in the UK:

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Tim O’Connor

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John Coakley

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Stephen Kingon

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Denis Rooney

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Feargal Quinn

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Sean O’Driscoll

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Lord Maginnis

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Julian King

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