Honourable members of the European Parliament,
It gives me great pleasure to respond on behalf of the Commission to the request of the European Parliament for a statement on the peace process in Northern Ireland.
This is a process which in the first instance concerns the two governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland who have worked closely over many years and who effectively began the peace process when they signed a Joint Declaration in December 1993. The European Union immediately welcomed the signing of the Declaration and committed itself to social and economic progress in the region including under programmes financed by the European Structural Funds.
Over the period since then, the European Union, its institutions and consultative bodies, has taken a special interest in the peace process. For me this is perfectly normal, since the Union itself is a successful example of peaceful reconciliation based on economic integration. The European Union is a project founded on the idea of peace among nations, which was formally recognised when it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. We are a community of values with a clear vision of freedom and justice.
In 1994, immediately after the announcement by paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland of a complete cessation of violence, our then President of the Commission, Jacques Delors, declared the Commission's full commitment to the peace and reconciliation process.
Strongly supported by the European Parliament, the Commission decided to propose a new support package in order to address directly the process of reconciliation and social and economic reconstruction. This took the form of a special and innovative support programme, the PEACE programme, which was approved by Parliament and Member States in 1995, covering Northern Ireland and the border counties of Ireland, an area today of 2.3 million people.
Between 1995 and 2013, the European Union contributed some 1.3 billion euros to three rounds of PEACE programmes or almost 2 billion euros after match funding by the two Member States. It has been used in a distinct manner, supporting cross-community projects in the social and economic fields and promoting shared spaces, while seeking to deal with the legacy of the past.
In recognition of the long-term nature of the peace process, for the new period 2014-2020, the Parliament and the Member States agreed a new EU PEACE programme. The new programme will have an EU contribution of some 230 million euros which will be matched by some 40 million euros in Member State contributions.
The PEACE programmes are regarded as having achieved many positive outcomes, as one, very important, element in the wider 'peace process' which, as I have said, involves the two Member States in the first instance. We believe that the programmes have been key to maintaining momentum in the peace process from the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 through to the securing of devolved institutions from 2007 to the present. We have always recognised that the programme is not about quick fixes. It is a strategically-focused package designed to promote long-term partnerships as well as cross-community and cross-border co-operation.
Evaluations of the PEACE programmes have shown a very positive impact on the ground, both in Northern Ireland and the Border counties of Ireland. The programmes have touched the lives of over one million people, bringing divided communities together, helping to rebuild trust, and lay the ground work for a shared future.
The evidence suggests that the projects have helped to change peoples’ attitudes, to encourage them to reflect on their own prejudices, to recognise the need to respect diversity and to work together to build a new society. The PEACE III programme for example focused on building positive relationships at the local level and on helping people to acknowledge and deal with the past. So far over 25,000 people in the region have participated in conflict resolution workshops. Over 7,000 people have received trauma counselling and over 40,000 participated in events assisting victims and survivors.
We have naturally put an emphasis on support for the next generation through projects that seek to engage to provide young people with the skills and confidence needed to avoid sectarian violence.
Importantly, the programmes have helped to give the people in the region a sense of ownership of the peace process, by fostering a bottom-up approach and encouraging people to devise their own solutions to problems.
Yet, as we know, unrest and persistent disputes have produced setbacks in the ongoing peace process. The European Union, in taking the decision for a further round of Peace support for 2014-2020, has recognised that there is more work to be done.
As we all know, the Multi-Annual Financial Framework 2014-2020, and the regulatory framework for the programmes, were agreed later than we would all have wished. The Commission has been working hard to recoup lost ground. The draft PEACE programme 2014-2020 was submitted by the Member States on 22 September and the Commission is currently preparing observations.
Under the new programme, among other things, creating opportunities for the young people of Northern Ireland will be essential. It is the young that we must help if we are to sow the seeds of a more tolerant society, capable of abandoning the hatreds of the past. And we in the Commission will not shy away from tackling sensitive issues and will seek to ensure that all political parties buy into, and remain supportive of the new programme.
It is important to recall that the PEACE programme, while financially the most important, has not been the only expression of EU support to the peace process. The EU has contributed almost 350 million euros over more than two decades to peace and reconciliation under the International Fund for Ireland (IFI). The IFI, an independent international organisation, was established by the British and Irish Governments in 1986. Along with the US, the EU has been the main international donor, in a group which has also included Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
An additional contribution was made from 2007 at the moment when the devolved institutions were restored in Northern Ireland, when the outgoing President of the Commission José Manuel Barroso established an inter-disciplinary Task Force within our institution to pursue opportunities for the region across the EU policy spectrum.
The NITF operates within the Commission under my responsibility as Commissioner for Regional Policy. It has expanded over the years and today is composed of representatives of 18 European Commission Directorates General that can play a role in fostering socio-economic development in the broadest sense. Many of you will have seen the Report which was launched at the beginning of this month outlining the activities under the Task Force over the seven years of existence. I was pleased to see the positive reaction to the Report, and the recognition of the role of the Commission, from both the First Minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson and the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness. I propose to speak to President Juncker about the continuation of the Task Force in the new Commission.