This article is part of our special report Voices from the regions: Brexit impact along the Irish border.
Peter used to be a policeman during ‘the Troubles’, while Tom served 13 years in prison because of his activities in the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a paramilitary group. Now, both help former combatants reintegrate into Northern Irish society. A project like this would have been almost impossible without the EU’s support.
Peter Sheridan worked 34 years as a police officer in counter-terrorism, crimes, in the borders. He spent 34 years trying to stop the violence that blighted the province for decades. When he retired, he joined Co-operation Ireland, a charity for peace-building.
Co-operation coordinates the EU funded project ‘Open Doors’ and works with four organizations representing former Republican and Loyalist combatants and ex-prisoners: Charter NI, Teach Na Failte, EPIC and The Plough.
The initiative aims to build relationships between the former combatants themselves and with the community as a whole.
“The Open Doors project is looking at people who were former ex-prisoners from all of the communities in Northern Ireland and who have a useful contribution to make to rebuilding the society,” Sheridan explained to EURACTIV.com.
Although the conflict has been almost completely inactive for almost 20 years, more than 30,000 people were imprisoned for crimes related to their involvement in the ‘Troubles’ and many are still serving. Integrating them in the reconciliation process is key to preserving peace in the region.
“Some of the most valuable assessments that we get are from people who were what we call former combatants or former prisoners, who want to see Northern Ireland progress,” he said.
Tom Roberts is the director of the Ex-Prisoners Interpretative Centre (EPIC). Roberts, a former member of the UVF, spent 13 years in prison himself. From EPIC, he helps others to find their place in society.
The EPIC office is located only a few steps away from Shankill Road, in west Belfast.
During the ‘Troubles’, ‘Shankill’ was a centre for paramilitary activity. Today, those days are present in the murals that decorate the streets of the neighbourhood, honouring the UVF and the Red Hand Commando, but the violence is long gone.
EPIC was originally established to help former prisoners to deal with practical issues such as housing or unemployment, but also to support reintegration and reconciliation.
“There have been significant changes in Northern Ireland over the past twenty years. The peace process has worked pretty well,” Roberts said to EURACTIV.
“Unfortunately the politics have not worked too well,” he said, referring to the inability of the political forces in Northern Ireland to form a government after the last assembly elections almost two years ago.
The decision of the UK to leave the EU has only increased the tension. Brexit, Roberts said, was “an unwelcome layer of complexity on the top of the complexities we already have.”
The Open Doors project was established thanks to the support of the EU through the PEACE programme. The programme was designed in the ’90s to accompany the dialogue that eventually led to the peace agreement in 1998.
Its main aim was to help to build peace between the two communities.
“The EU funding was seen as neutral and that was very important particularly post-conflict,” Gina McIntyre, CEO of the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB), told EURACTIV.
Projects such as Open Doors, which bring together former combatants from both sides of the conflict, would have been impossible otherwise. “It might have been hard politically for some people to get involved with,” McIntyre insisted.
EU funds for PEACE
Since 1995, the EU has provided more than €1.3 billion for peacebuilding and reconciliation within the two communities in Northern Ireland and the border counties of the Republic of Ireland.
Through the European Regional Development Fund, the Union has promoted social and economic cohesion between Northern Ireland and the border counties of the Republic to further ease the tension in the area too.
During the last twenty years, Northern Ireland has moved forward in building positive relations between the two communities. However, society remains largely divided and a lot of issues still remain to be solved.
The current PEACE programme has a total budget of almost €270 million and will run until 2021, when the transition period of the withdrawal agreement if there is one, would have already expired. Whether there is a deal or not, the EU has decided to keep the funding flowing.
“The European Union was instrumental in helping us achieve what we did in the Good Friday Agreement and has been with us the whole time in the European PEACE programme,” Jane Morrice, member of the European Economic and Social Committee and former representative in the Assembly of Northern Ireland told EURACTIV.
Although the peace process and the peace programme are two separate things, the second “underpins” the first, Gina McIntyre explained, “because it gives communities the resources to develop work that they would like to do in relation to peacebuilding and bringing communities together.”
The programme follows a bottom-up approach, leaving the organisations involved to decide how they want to contribute to a more peaceful society. Projects range from sports to education, housing, support for the victims and survivors to art and reappropriation of the public space.
“Northern Ireland, as you might have realised, is a very segregated community, both in housing, in schooling and in communities themselves. The PEACE programme has played a significant role in being able to bring people together,” McIntyre said.
“During the conflict, people could see what the rule was because they could see it in the television: bombs and bullets. But post the conflict, it is about building relationships with people who, in some ways, saw themselves as enemies during the conflict,” Peter Sheridan explained.
The European Commission is aware of the importance of EU funds in supporting peace in Northern Ireland and is committed to preserving the programme, even in case of no-deal and even beyond Brexit.
A new PEACE+ program has been included in the next long-term EU budget for 2021-2027.
“The PEACE+ programme is going to be a very important vehicle, and I sometimes like to refer to it as a bridge on Brexit, because it will allow those links to continue in a safe space,” said McIntyre.
However, Brexit is still a threat to the work hundreds of organizations benefiting from EU resources have carried out over the past twenty years in building peace in the region.
“The European Union provided a space for Irish and British to meet, whether it would be Brussels or elsewhere, and again, to get to know each other better, learn from each other,” Morrice, who was involved in the peace process, explained.
“Now, that is being removed and it is more than unfortunate. It is painful. I can’t even find the words to describe how bad it is.”