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Wednesday, May 20, 1998 Published at 17:05 GMT 18:05 UK


Cross-border fears for many unionists



Cooperation between two jurisdictions which share a land frontier might seem like common sense, but in Ireland it is hugely sensitive issue. The Good Friday Agreement tries to overcome the fear and suspicions between unionists and nationalists ... and proposes a range of new cross border bodies. Gary Duffy reports from Belfast.

Relations between the north and south of Ireland go to the heart of the divisions and hatreds that have created so much tragedy over the last 30 years. For many in the nationalist - or Catholic - community in Northern Ireland, creating strong links with the Irish Republic is a straightforward and reasonable way of expressing their Irish identity. From this point of view it makes common sense that within the geographical entity of Ireland there should be the closest possible cooperation over issues such as the environment, transport and tourism.

Nationalists

Many nationalists would not deny that they also hope that close links between the north and south of Ireland might eventually persuade the unionist - or Protestant - community in Northern Ireland that their best interests lie in accepting a united Ireland. Nationalists also believe there is no point in establishing these links between the north and south of Ireland unless the organisation set up to deal with these issues has strong executive powers.

Unionist fears

But as so often with Irish issues, nearly every aspiration in one community raises fears in the other. Moderate unionist opinion is willing to contemplate friendly relations with the Irish Republic where it is of mutual benefit to both sides. But they are deeply suspicious that nationalist plans for strong cross border links are simply a way of creating a stepping stone to a united Ireland. The less powers any cross border body has, the happier unionists will be.

The agreement

Under the Good Friday Agreement a new north-south council will be set up to bring together ministers from the north and south of Ireland. Its purpose will be to encourage discussion and cooperation on areas of mutual interest. The agreement says the north-south ministerial council and the assembly in Northern Ireland are mutually interdependent and that "one cannot successfully function without the other." A number of "implementation bodies" will also be set up to help facilitate cross border cooperation, in areas like agriculture and education.

Accountability

Unionists who support the deal have been keen to emphasise that these cross border bodies should be accountable to the Northern Ireland assembly and the Irish parliament. Nationalists are quick to point out that the implementation bodies will work on an all-island basis, while the council will coordinate "executive functions" within each jurisdiction. It will probably only be clear, if and when the council and implementation bodies get up and running, just how powerful and effective they will be.

Opposition

Unionists like Reverend Ian Paisley who oppose the agreement see the cross border bodies as a betrayal of unionism which give the Irish Republic too much say in affairs relating to Northern Ireland.

To help ease unionist concern, the Irish Government agreed to ask voters in its referendum to alter the claim in the Irish constitution to the whole island of Ireland, including Northern Ireland. The changes stress the importance of uniting people instead of territory.

Contentious

But cross border bodies remain a contentious issue for many unionists. If unionists opposed to the deal do well in the elections to the new assembly, it is likely they will use whatever influence they have to try to make these institutions as ineffective as possible.

Even unionists in favour of the agreement can be expected to approach these new cross border bodies with caution.

It is certain to be the subject of much debate in the weeks and months ahead.



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