Newry-Dundalk: the cross-border bipolar city

The British and Irish Governments have launched an important study designed to stimulate the creation of an ‘all-island economy’. A variety of North/South collaborative initiatives are proposed. The study is important in its own right. But it is also a significant marker: it signals the ending of the long years of tortuous political interaction since the Good Friday Agreement and the strong wish of both communities to collaborate and win the peace dividend.

The study calls for ‘joined-up’ North/South planning in delivering key infrastructure at a cost of over €100billion during the next ten years. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain MP speaks of ‘an economy with island wide clusters whose strength and development is not impaired by the existence of a political border’.

Examples of border towns and communities whose economic and social development have been impaired are not in short supply.

Dundalk and Newry are perhaps the most vivid examples and might be singled out for special attention, not just for some remedial work to tidy things up and heal the wounds, but for some grand initiative of scale and consequence worthy of international interest. North and South would benefit from some high profile project that spectacularly demonstrates how the peace process is succeeding and how both communities are collaborating in transforming the twilight border-zone.

There are many examples of regional cross-border partnerships that work. The most relevant are found in Scandinavia.  The Danish town of Helsingor and the Swedish town of Helsingborg, look at each other across the Oresund waterway and have in effect established a bi-polar city. They have adopted the slogan ‘Two countries – one destination’. Nearby Copenhagen and Malmo are weaving a strong cross-border partnership following the construction of the interlinking Oresund bridge.

The feasibility of bringing Newry and Dundalk together in a similar way to form a strong partnership, leading eventually to the formation of a bi-polar city, has been explored by Buchanan in a report published earlier this year. It found that there is ‘a strong strategic case for a twin-city region at the centre of the Belfast/Dublin corridor…and the collaboration can deliver balanced regional development and assist the international competitiveness of the eastern seaboard.’ A good case can be made by Newry-Dundalk for establishing enterprise niches in both bio-pharma and financial services. A partnership between the Dundalk Institute of Technology and the Newry Institute, with support from the University of Ulster and perhaps Dublin City University, would provide the essential advanced applied research and graduate output.

While years of conflict have built tension and distrust in the border region business leadership has risen above this in many cases: close links have been maintained between the Chambers of Commerce of Dundalk and Newry. The business communities know that in the knowledge economy scale is all important.  They realise that sophisticated knowledge-driven enterprise tends to by-pass smaller communities. With a combined population of some 60,000 Newry-Dundalk would compare in size to other regional cities: the prospects of competing for investment would be greatly enhanced.  Currency and corporate tax differences represent challenges.  One of these may be addressed shortly: a strong case is now being made by Northern Ireland for introduction of the12.5 percent corporate tax that applies in the Republic. In the short term it is unlikely that the currency difference will disappear; but it will eventually.

While the years of conflict have inhibited the development of Newry and Dundalk the splendid hills, mountains and shoreline of the adjacent Carlingford region have not been despoiled. Quality of life and attractive places in which to live become increasingly important catalysts for mobile investment in the knowledge economy.

Ireland has been singled out recently by the European Environmental Agency as providing worst examples of urban sprawl in the EU. Just as the desolate no-man’s land at the heart of the once-divided Berlin has now been transformed into Germany’s urban showplace Newry-Dundalk and the beautiful Carlingford region could demonstrate how urban development and rural living can be accommodated without detracting from the beauty of the countryside. The opportunity exists to create a carefully planned urban area at the heart of the Newry-Dundalk corridor and establish new towns and villages in the adjoining countryside that provide examples for the island: no ribbon development, but new villages limited in size, tucked away in the hills, a few miles away from the motorway and offering the prospect of enjoying rural living within easy reach of urban areas.  Indeed one-off houses could be permitted so long as they were on large sites of several acres and concealed from public view by extensive deciduous forestry plantations.

The business community, in partnership with suitably flexible local authorities, has a vital role to play in driving the project and securing support from Belfast, Dublin, London and Brussels.  Old planning guidelines that have produced such bad results must be set aside and replaced, perhaps on a pilot basis, with ones more suited to the post-agricultural era. An international architectural competition calling for proposals for the development of the bi-polar city, together with concepts for new towns and villages suited to the countryside could form the first collaborative step.

Dundalk and Newry in a special partnership could become an important symbol of reconciliation on the island of Ireland. For success the plan needs sufficient scale and panache to attract international attention. With this it would have reason to expect generous Government and EU encouragement and support and the €multibillion private and public investment involved.

Ezra Cornell’s dictum applies:  ‘Undertake no small projects, they are so difficult to accomplish.’

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