The Irish Times view on the new cross-border funding: investing jointly on a small island

Pitched as a common-sense initiative, rather than a project with wider political aims, this is nonetheless delicate territory politically

The recent return to Stormont followed the agreement of a deal in which the British government promised the DUP that it would repeal “all statutory duties relating to the all-island economy”. The Brexit agreement had involved a commitment to take account of this being written into some legislation, to the chagrin of some unionists.

It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that a couple of weeks later the Irish Government has promised more than €800 million to a series of projects related to cross-border development , including long-awaited improvements to the A5 road, an important route in the North-West, and the redevelopment of Casement Park. Earlier this week, Minister for Finance Michael McGrath visited Belfast, specifically referring to discussions on the " all-island economy.”

The message from Dublin is clear enough. Whatever cosmetic legislative changes may be happening in London, the work of the Shared Island programme – Dublin’s programme on the all-island economy – will continue. Pitched as a common-sense initiative, rather than a project with wider political aims, it is nonetheless delicate territory politically.

This was shown by the reaction of DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson to this week’s announcement. The funding for the A5 was set in the context of an old commitment from Dublin, ditched during the financial crisis and now revived. He also underlined that the British government was responsible for the ordinary funding of services and investment in Northern Ireland. However, there was no suggestion of sending the money back.

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The announcement from the Government – as with the entire Shared Island initiative – appears well-judged, aimed at critical projects that will make a difference to people’s lives. Given the period over which the investments will occur, it is also clearly affordable for the exchequer, though control and oversight of projects will be important and not uncomplicated. The Taoiseach is correct, for example, to point out that the redevelopment of Casement Park is of value to the GAA beyond the confines of Northern Ireland, but the Government will recognise the dangers of having little operational control if projects like this overrun their budgets.

The Shared Island programme can help – in a limited but important way – to address the infrastructure deficits which hamper the all-island economy and, in the case of the A5, costs lives. The backdrop is that North and South, major investment in infrastructure and social capital – people’s education and skills – is vital to future progress. Many of these projects could benefit from an all-island focus, notably in energy and transport but also more widely. Paying for this and delivering it, in whatever constitutional arrangements emerges, will be a major task.