DEVELOPMENTS in the relationship between the Dublin and London governments over the past year “give a great cause for concern” the Opposition leader Michael Martin stated as he opened this year’s Merriman Summer School in Lisdoonvarna last week.
Deputy Martin was addressing the theme, Are Ireland and Northern Ireland growing apart?
“While relations between Dublin and London remain good, how they have developed in the last year, in particular, gives a great cause for concern. In fact, I believe it demonstrates a dangerous complacency, which is undermining progress in all three strands of the process,” he said.
Illustrating this, the Fianna Fáil leader pointed to “the recent announcement of what was titled the New Economic Pact for Northern Ireland. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister travelled to London, where they announced the initiative with Prime Minister Cameron in Downing Street. It was presented as the definitive strategy for the development of Northern Ireland’s economy. The pact is welcome and includes many important commitments – but what it also does is exclude any North/South dimension whatsoever.”
“The only mention of the South comes in a point saying that efforts are to be made to get tourists to go North,” he added.
Deputy Martin was also critical of the Republic’s media, politicians and wider public who “pay attention only when things are going wrong”.
“Fundamentally, a public discourse once solely focused on conflict has not evolved a new approach. There are only a handful of journalists who pay any attention to the wider cultural, social and economic dimensions of relations within Northern Ireland and between North and South.
“It is as if issues relating to the North have been put away in a file marked ‘history’ – to be dusted off only when communal tensions flare up again.”
The former Minister for Foreign Affairs said in the South there is a “widespread acceptance of the idea that closer economic, social and cultural cooperation would be to the benefit of both sides” and that in Northern Ireland “a majority also accepts the idea that the Dublin Government has a legitimate interest in Northern affairs”.
The Cork TD called for better North-South transport and energy infrastructure, coordinated health provision, an economic border area, an all-Ireland food safety authority and greater cooperation in the area of education.
Deputy Martin is a former minister for education and science. He believes changes to the pupil-teacher ratio under the current Government will have a devastating impact on border schools.
“In the Department of Education, I put in place a programme to secure the viability of small schools by giving them extra teachers. A very high proportion of the schools which have benefitted from this were Protestant schools in the border region – which also benefitted from additional capital investment.
“The recent decision to refer to smaller schools as inefficient and to seek to move schools to a minimum size meriting four teachers is wrong on every level and it could do profound damage to the long-term goal of valuing diversity in our border counties and throughout our country,” he said.
Other participants in the school over the weekend were former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Sir Ken Bloomfield; Marian Harkin MEP; Church of Ireland primate Archbishop Richard Clarke; Alliance East Belfast MP, Naomi Long; director of the Irish School of Ecumenics, Geraldine Smyth and journalists Fintan O’Toole and Dan O’Brien, as well as Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney and poet, Michael Longley.
Hundreds attended events as part of the five-day summer school.
“The theme inspired people and there was a strong participation at all events and a lot of people commented on the engagement from the floor,” said Máire Ni Neachtain, leas cathaoirleach of Cumann Merriman.
“The title was Ireland North and South: two societies growing apart? and the message might be that we are but the response showed that people are concerned about that all the same,” she commented.
According to Ms Ni Neachtain, a particular highlight of the summer school was the poetry evening with Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley held in Glór.
“The Heaney-Longley event was a magical night in Clare. It really was extraordinary. There was a unique atmosphere in the hall. People were just spellbound and at the end of the night, the Armagh Rhymers came out and the whole audience sang Will Ye Go Lassie Go together. This was a highlight, not just for this year’s school but for all of the Merriman schools,” Ms Ni Neachtain said.
She added that the panel discussion between politicians from Northern Ireland and the Republic was another high point.