The historic city of Armagh, the religious capital of Ireland, was a fitting site for this week’s first convening of the North-South Ministerial Council — the body that, nationalists hope, will help to bridge the border created by the partition of the island. Almost the entire cabinet of the Irish government arrived driving across the border to meet with the new power-sharing executive, including its four Unionist ministers.
The Irish came in a fleet of 12 limousines. The taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, descended from the skies in an Irish army helicopter.
There was a time not so long ago when such an influx of Irish government ministers into the North would have been seen as a veritable invasion and greeted with Unionist outrage.
However, this time it provoked almost no reaction from the Unionist Party or the community that it represents. Two die-hard members of the Rev. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodd, who are also ministers in the new power-sharing executive, went off on a silly publicity jaunt to South Armagh to highlight past IRA killings there, but had to call it off when the security forces refused to provide them with the helicopter transportation they demanded. Compare this pathetic display with the massive Unionist turn-out protesting the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 and it will be realized how some things have changed North of the border.
The meeting of the North-South council marks the third time in 79 years that an attempt has been made to set up some sort of cross-border institution that will satisfy nationalist aspirations without arousing Unionist fears. The first took place 79 years ago in the form of the Government of Ireland Act, with its provisions for a Council of Ireland. The second was embodied in the Sunningdale Agreement, in 1973, which also contained legislation for an all-Ireland Council.
These earlier efforts met with no success. Indeed, neither the council envisioned in the 1920 act nor that which was part of the Sunningdale Agreement 53 years later even had a chance to meet. Will the new body succeed where those others so blatantly failed?
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It has, to a certain extent, already succeeded by the very fact of meeting. However, there are other reasons to hope that this border-bridging exercise will work. For a start, it is far more modest in scope than its predecessors. The Council of Ireland as envisioned in 1920 was to be set up "with a view to the establishment of a parliament for the whole of Ireland." The Sunningdale Council of Ireland was to accrue to itself broad powers, including tourism, roads and transport, power supplies, culture, trade and industry; even security was at one time mooted as falling under its remit.
In 1920 and in 1973 such ambitions only hardened Unionist determination to resist them.
The new North-South body will oversee the creation of six implementation bodies with responsibility for coordinating cooperation on areas such as inland waterways, fisheries, EU development projects, language and trade and development. Modest, yes, but their goal is not to aggrandize authority. It is to prove that Unionist and nationalists and republicans can work together to the benefit for all the Irish people. If that goal is achieved it will have far greater consequences in the long term than any misguided assertion of sovereign rights that only serves to deepen already existing suspicions and fears.