Northern Ireland peace fund faces EU budget uncertainty

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Despite the recent sectarian violence that saw dozens of policemen injured in Northern Ireland, the EU programme for peace and reconciliation in the region 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.”

>> Read: Positions ‘still far apart’ at EU budget summit

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.

Incomplete

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.

Honest broker

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.

Northern Irish First Minister Peter Robinson (UDP) said: "Recent events have shown that reconciliation and peace are very much still work in progress.

"Active politics and rational dialogue offer the only way forward. This is the view shared by all of the political parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is only through dialogue in the absence of violence that situations can be worked out."

Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness, the deputy first minister, said PEACE had played a significant role on the road to reconciliation in the north.

"Recent events at home signal there is still work to be done," he said.

"We have come too far to lose momentum and the progress that we have made. We are committed to the rule of law and the primacy of the political process. We deplore violence on our streets and are determined that communication and reconciliation are central to our shared future."

Genc Goranci, peace and education project coordinator at the Nansen Dialogue Centre Sarajevo, said: "Hearing about Northern Ireland is very helpful. The way to achieve sustainable peace is to do it from the grass-roots level up." He said he could learn from the region's "experience from working in the field."

"There are no structural differences between any divided communities in the world. Our story is different but we share a lot with the process you have", he said.

Tomas Baum, director of the Flemish Peace Institute, called for a "needs-based approach".

Gorka Espiau Idoiaga, senior associate to the Centre for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University in New York, said: "You need to see what works in different countries." The former senior adviser for peace building in the Basque executive said his region had "learned a lot" and committed to the "normalisation processes". "What is happening in Northern Ireland is of interest to the whole world", he said.

Regional Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn said: "You need the political framework", adding the "European contribution is an important first step".

Northern Ireland and the European Commission have cooperated for the PEACE programme since 1995, supported by the UK and Ireland.

The programmes are covered by EU regional and structural funds, eligible for funding under the category of “cross-border cooperation.”

The Northern Ireland peace process is generally considered to cover the events leading up to the 1994 Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) cease-fire, the end of most of the violence of the Troubles - the ethnic-political conflict -, the Good Friday Agreement, and the political developments that have followed up to the present day.

  • 7-8 Feb.: EU leaders meet in Brussels to hammer out a deal on the EU's long-term budget (2014-2020).

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