Despite the recent sectarian violence that saw dozens of policemen injured in Northern Ireland, the EU programme for peace and reconciliation could be in jeopardy, senior Irish representatives have told EurActiv.
The EU's Regional Policy Commissioner, Johannes Hahn, held the conference on Thursday (31 January) to exhibit the work EU funds had done to facilitate the peace process and how it could serve as an example to other conflict zones.
But funds for regional support, the second largest area of EU spending, are being targeted by member states wishing to reduce the multi-annual financial framework (MFF), the EU's long-term budget for 2014-2020.
The commissioner said much of the EU funds would go towards the working-class youth caught up in the rioting who felt they had lost out in the government’s power-sharing deal.
EU heads of states are meeting in Brussels this week to hammer out an agreement on the bloc's funding until 2020 after a first attempt failed in November, with Cameron leading a group of countries pressing for more cuts to EU spending.
Northern Irish First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness have been looking for an increase in funding for PEACE 4, Northern Ireland’s latest proposed funding programme, Sinn Féin MEP Martina Anderson told EurActiv on the margins of the conference attended by the heads of government.
Despite the recent flare up of tensions, an increase in the proposed amount seems impossible, with European governments tightening their purse-strings during the economic crisis. Furthermore, European finance ministers will be acutely aware of the irony of donating EU regional funds to a UK government-backed initiative.
“There is no guarantee,” Pat Colgan, the chief executive of the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB), told EurActiv at the conference. “The negotiations are ongoing. There is a strong willingness on the part of the [European] Commission that there should be a peace programme.”
Colgan, who is responsible for the management of the EU peace funds, said the support of the British and Irish governments and the EU executive had “built a head of steam,” and that plans were PEACE 4 were gathering momentum ahead of EU budget negotiations.
“But you can never be certain,” he said. “We’ll have to wait and see.”
Anderson said Robinson and McGuinness were "very mindful about everything going on with the [EU budget] negotiations and all those difficulties."
Hahn echoed concerns over the future of the peace process funds in the EU budget.
“Everyone here knows that current budget negotiations are tough and the pressure on the EU finances is intense… Hopefully we’ll have a reasonable budget so we will be able to continue the work. I am not happy with the cuts," he said.
Under PEACE 4, the SEUPB is expecting contributions of some €200 million. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy earmarked €150 million for PEACE 4 in his draft EU budget, following a request from the Irish government, EurActiv understands. No such fund was in the European Commission's original budget proposal.
The remaining €50 million is expected to come from the British and Irish governments.
The Northern Ireland government received almost €2 billion between 1995 and 2013. The SEUPB, which was set up under the Good Friday Agreement with the responsibility of allocating the peace funds, secured €992 million for PEACE 2 and €333 million for PEACE 3.
Despite the progress made by initiatives funded under the successive peace plans, Anderson said the recent riots in the capital Belfast showed that Northern Ireland still had “a long way to go” to achieve lasting peace.
“It is the most successful peace process in the world but we are not at the point whereby you could say it is complete,” she said.
A wide gulf still separates much of the country, with only 6% of children going to mixed schools. The separation is literal, with 53 so-called ‘peace walls’ dividing protestant and catholic neighbourhoods.
“We need to secure PEACE 4,” said Anderson, who previously served 13 years in prison for conspiring to cause explosions in England.
Senior Northern Irish politicians thanked the EU for the work it had done in the country over the past 18 years, as well as for its continued funding.
“The EU contribution in Northern Ireland has been extraordinary. Number one about funding. But number two it brings discipline to the whole thing. And it brings you a seven year window in which you can plan with some certainty,” Colgan said.
“It also brings a neutrality. It’s not part of any side of the conflict. It’s independent of all that.”
The conference audience included delegates from other divided regions looking for solutions - including the Balkans; Libya; the Basque region; Cyprus; and Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Dr Rami Nasrallah, the chairman of the International Peace Cooperation Centre, a Palestinian co-operative, told EurActiv he was seeking ways in which the EU could contribute towards the peace process in his country. This would include funding for an ‘Open City’ project in Jerusalem, co-designed with Shlomo Hasson, a professor at the Hebrew University who he has worked with for 17 years.
The aim of the project is to build cooperation between the two communities in the contested spaces.
“We are here to learn about the bottom-up initiative in Northern Ireland,” Hasson said.