I am very pleased to be here today to discuss with you the implications of Brexit for the Good Friday Agreement.
I am aware of the important work the Committee has undertaken in recent months. And I appreciate the interest of members in the PEACE and INTERREG programmes for which I am responsible, a responsibility I share with my Northern Ireland counterpart, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir. I know Máirtín has already appeared before the Committee and I also know you have had an opportunity to be briefed by the Chief Executive of the Special EU Programmes Body, Gina McIntyre, with whom my officials work closely.
In December I travelled to Derry where, along with Máirtín and Gina, I saw some of the excellent work being undertaken by PEACE and INTERREG. I had an opportunity to visit projects funded by both programmes, to meet with programme beneficiaries and to assure them of the Irish Government’s continuing commitment to PEACE and INTERREG.
The visit brought home to me in a way that no official briefing could the importance of the programmes and why they are worth fighting for.
And that is what I intend to do.
OUR COMMITMENT TO CROSS-BORDER PROGRAMMES
So let me start by being clear about this Government’s commitment to the current programmes and to successor programmes post-2020.
The Irish Government is justifiably proud of its role in securing EU funding for a fourth PEACE programme.
Between them, PEACE and INTERREG have seen nearly €3.5 billion of investment in Northern Ireland and the Border region of Ireland over the last quarter of a century, with more than half a billion Euro to be invested over the period 2014-2020.
The programmes have made an enormous contribution to cross-border cooperation and remain important drivers of regional development in a cross-border context.
More than that, the programmes have been a key element of the European Union’s continuing commitment to the process of peace building and reconciliation and support for the Good Friday Agreement.
As part of the contingency planning undertaken by the Government prior to the UK referendum, my Department identified the risks to these EU-funded programmes in the event that the UK voted to leave.
As soon as the referendum result was known work started on securing the programmes.
Early on the morning of the referendum result I had my first conversation with my officials about the steps that needed to be taken.
That afternoon they had their first discussions with their counterparts in the European Commission, the Department of Finance in Northern Ireland and the SEUPB.
A week later the North South Ministerial Council, meeting in Dublin Castle, reiterated the joint commitment of the Government and the Executive to the successful implementation of the programmes and agreed that the two sponsor Ministers should consider how to secure ERDF funding for the two programmes, including through engagement with the Commission.
Later that week I hosted a Sectoral meeting of the NSMC in Iveagh House where I proposed that Máirtín and I would write to the Regional Policy Commissioner, Corina Crețu, to highlight the importance of the programmes.
So began a process of patiently working through the issues facing the programmes to ensure that beneficiaries could continue to receive funding, regardless of Brexit.
And I am delighted that on 28 October 2016 – just four months and four days after the referendum result – and against a background of enormous uncertainty over Brexit – Máirtín and I were able to announce that we had agreed a safeguard clause that would Brexit-proof letters of offer to programme beneficiaries.
In the short-term my objective was to secure the programmes and give programme beneficiaries the confidence they need to proceed with projects. That has been achieved.
And it has been achieved through a process of working quietly behind the scenes to address the challenges posed by Brexit.
This is the approach being taken by the Government across a range of headings to emphasise Ireland’s concerns and to ensure that they are fully reflected in the EU position once negotiations commence.
In the medium term my objective is to see these programmes successfully implemented out to 2020, through a period during which the UK is likely to leave the EU. The safeguard clause should ensure that this can happen.
My hope is that the current political situation in Northern Ireland will not jeopardise that.
The Government has strongly emphasised the need for the swift resumption of the power-sharing institutions after the election and will remain closely engaged with the political parties and the British Government in the weeks ahead.
I also need to be clear that the North South programmes can only be implemented successfully with the full cooperation of everyone concerned. These are EU-funded, cross-border programmes.
That needs to be understood by everyone involved in the programmes and we all need to respect not just the letter but also the spirit of the programmes.
My long term objective is to see successor programmes beyond 2020.
PEACE and INTERREG are well regarded in Ireland – North and South – in the UK and throughout the EU, so I believe the necessary goodwill is there for successor programmes.
Moreover, the regulatory framework for programmes with Third Countries already exists. My officials are already working with the SEUPB to examine such programmes and see how they might form a model for North South programmes post-2020.
Of course PEACE and INTERREG are not the only cross-border programmes funded by the EU.
For more than 20 years we have had a very successful Ireland Wales INTERREG programme. The current programme for the period 2014-2020 is worth almost €100 million.
Last October I met my Welsh counterpart, Mark Drakeford to discuss the Ireland Wales programme which supports a range of important investments across our maritime border.
And there are also a range of cross-border programmes supported by Horizon 2020, Leader, Erasmus+ and other EU funds that we want to see continue.
Next week I will be travelling to Strasbourg for the Plenary session of the European Parliament where I will have the opportunity to meet Members of the Parliament and the Commission and emphasise Ireland’s concerns about the impact of Brexit.
I will be highlighting to them the importance of the peace process and the contribution that EU funding has made, as well as the necessity of protecting the Good Friday Agreement and ensuring that the vital work of the programmes continues.
As I said at the outset, these are programmes worth fighting for.
That is an overview of where we are on the various programmes, and I look forward to engaging with members now.
Contact: Deborah Sweeney
Press Adviser to Minister Donohoe 0868586878