Thursday 19 April 2018

Brexit likely to threaten cross border funding

Cross border co-operation has been vital in opening up the border region after decades of conflict, according to Louth Council's CEO Joan Martin.

In a lengthy address to a Seanad committee hearing on the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the EU, just ahead of the first anniversary of the shock 'Brexit vote' Ms. Martin said;

'The Border corridor suffered more than any other part of Ireland and Northern Ireland during the long political conflict which left us with a weaker economy and infrastructure, skills deficits, higher unemployment. We do not want to go back to having Border checkpoints and all of what they entailed.

The peace process and the Good Friday Agreement enabled us to address these issues. It is essential that all strands of the Agreement be maintained and protected post-Brexit.'

She highlighted how over the last 20 years, EU funding has enabled modernisation along the Border corridor, both economically and in terms of community development.

Cross-Border co-operation has never been easy. I have been involved in it since the early 1990s, ahead of the Good Friday Agreement. It was not easy then and it is still not easy.

Without the INTERREG and PEACE programmes, it is unthinkable that we could have sustained interest and engagement in this very important work.'

She highlighted some of the high profile projects which have been completed since the peace process took hold, including the new cross border M1.

'I was responsible on the Southern side for the Newry- Dundalk road project. Prior to being open ten years ago, crossing the Border from Dundalk to Newry, as I did very often, was difficult. Given the condition of the road, checkpoints and the security situation, I could have left my office an hour previously and still have been worrying about whether I would make it on time for a meeting in Newry. I can now cover the distance in ten or 15 minutes.

In a very short space of time one will be able to travel on a greenway or a canal pathway from Carlingford to Lough Neagh. This is a project which would have been unthinkable without cross-Border funding and co-operation from local authorities and communities.

She added that in terms of health care, access across the Border has become critical.

'The emergency department in Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry serves a huge part of north Louth, with the alternative being the hospital in Drogheda which would simply not be able to cope with the extra work.

She explained how the 'CAWT' project funded under the INTERREG programme which facilitates cross-Border health service links, but it is under threat.

'If these programmes are removed, the future will look very bleak,' said the council CEO.

She highlighted how a total of 708 patients from the Republic were treated in the Daisy Hill Hospital emergency department in one year between 2016 and 2017.

'In my office in Louth County Council there are staff members who live in Belfast and Dublin. Those who live in the North, of whom there are many, are very worried about travel times and reciprocal tax arrangements and what the future will hold for them post-Brexit.'

And the impact of Brexit on the tourism industry along the border was also raised at the Seanad session.

'Tourism is still very much a fledgling industry in Border areas because of our peripherality,' added Ms. Martin.

'We have been building the industry in recent years. In County Louth tourism is the industry with the greatest potential for economic development. However, freedom of movement is critical. Tourists will not be as anxious to travel to a Border area or cross the Border when they are unsure about what will happen or how long the journey will take. They are very uncertain about where exactly the Border is. Very often they do not know whether County Louth is in the Republic or Northern Ireland. We do not want to go back to the difficulty we experienced in the past.'

She highlighted fears in border communities where people 'face the threat of their whole way of life changing yet again. They have worked seamlessly across the Border for many years.

We are still recovering from many decades of political turmoil. Families and relatives live on both sides of the Border. Farms are literally divided by the Border, as are businesses. There can be a church in Northern Ireland and a graveyard in the Republic. It is an invisible Border for us. This impact will not be felt anywhere else in Ireland. The Border is part of us. It is part of who we are and is part of our lives every day.

Another impact could be the loss of PEACE funding. We depend on that to foster cross-community co-operation. It is only those of us who have lived and worked in the region over the decades who can see the impact PEACE money has had on cross-Border co-operation. I have been working in Louth for 40 years and I have spent the last 25 years of that doing a lot of cross-Border work. Only we can see the opportunities it has offered communities on both sides of the Border to come closer together, to work together, to have more social inclusion, to break down barriers and to address the negative impacts. We have seen that. We know how important it is.

'We need the political will of Dublin, Stormont, London and Brussels to make the financial commitment required to continue the work of those programmes.'

There is a lot more work to be done. Regarding the common travel area, we have touched over and over again on people travelling over the Border and back. I have also mentioned things like tourism. The free movement of people is essential to maintain the way of life for those who live in the Border region. It is essential for access to cross-Border education and health. It is particularly important for residents in my county, and the other Border counties in the Republic of Ireland, who did not vote to leave the EU, who did not have a vote on Brexit and who now face being affected by it.'

The Argus