An important initiative for Northern Ireland on the part of the Commission has taken the form of the creation of Northern Ireland Task Force (NITF).
Its origins lie in the agreement to re-establish power sharing arrangements in Northern Ireland in May 2007 involving the two major political parties.
Commission President Barroso was the first senior international political figure to visit the then incoming First Minister, Mr Ian Paisley and his Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness.
He offered to set up a Task Force within the Commission in order to examine how Northern Ireland could benefit more from EU policies, and how it could participate more actively in the EU policy process in order to generate more prosperity.
Writing in the European Parliament magazine a year later, President Barroso said that, "…the region bears the imprint of a period of conflict: a high dependence on the public sector, an inclination against risk-taking, a low level of entrepreneurship with low investment in research and innovation, a persistent negative image of the region to international investors although this is clearly now changing and a high proportion of the population seemingly detached from the world of work". Accordingly, he said that the Task Force would put the emphasis "on helping the region to generate more growth and jobs, and in that way to create more economic opportunities for its people in order to underpin the peace process".
The NITF has operated within the Commission under the authority of the Commissioner for Regional Policy and in close cooperation with NI authorities. It has expanded over the years and today is composed of representatives of 17 European Commission Directorates General (DGs) that have a role in fostering socio-economic development in the broadest sense (Agriculture, Climate Action, Competition Policy, Communications Networks and Communications Technologies, Education and Culture, Energy, Enterprise, Environment, Health and Consumers, Home Affairs, Justice, Research and Development, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Taxation and Customs Union, Transport together with Regional and Urban Policy and the Secretariat General). It is managed on a day-to-day basis by the DG for Regional Policy. The European Investment Bank also participates in meetings of the Task Force. The NITF is chaired and managed by Ronnie HALL, Principal Advisor, REGIO.
The existence of the Task Force represents a first for the Commission in terms of the formation of a close partnership specifically with one region covering several key policy fields. Informal contacts, exchange of information and joint meetings have contributed to the establishment of a relationship of confidence between the Commission services and the NI administration.
The Report of the Northern Ireland Task Force
In April 2008, the Commission published a report on its work under the NITF, which set out a number of ideas and leads to be explored by Northern Ireland in the different policy fields.
The report was received very favourably in Northern Ireland which reacted by drawing up its own action plan to implement the suggestions offered. The actions have covered a diversity of areas including transnational and cross-border cooperation, networking (including a PEACE network and innovation networks with other regions in Europe), energy efficiency and dealing with climate change, the creation and maintenance of employment opportunities and developing skills, on investment in research and support for enterprises.
Over the years, the NITF has worked steadily often behind the scenes to the broader political story in the region, as the new institutions and the political representatives bedded down and established working relationships. When he met the new First Minister, Peter Robinson, and the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, in Brussels on 9 December 2010 President Barroso re-affirmed the European Commission's commitment to Northern Ireland. Read the statement issued following the meeting.
PEACE Conference January 2013
A major event organized at the initiative of Commissioner Hahn was the Peace Conference in Brussels, 31 January 2013. Having undertaken an official visit to the region, on the occasion of the opening of the Peace Bridge in Derry/Londonderry, funded by the PEACE programme, Commissioner Hahn said that he "wanted to bring their experience to Brussels. I want the widest possible audience for their achievements -first because they deserve our recognition and our thanks, but also because I believe other parts of the world may be able to learn from their work".
He said that he was "overwhelmed by the people" he met on that trip. "People from both communities who had lost loved ones, and who bear the physical and mental scars of the troubles. Their stories are breath-taking. The same people who a few years back wished each other only harm, are now working hand-in-hand to build a new shared future. Their passionate commitment and sheer determination are truly laudable".
He continued, "It is a tribute to those who have worked on the PEACE programmes that there has already been interest from all around the world in its achievements: from Russia, Palestine, the Balkans, Colombia, South Korea. This is something to be proud of".
New Peace Building and Conflict Resolution Centre?
Northern Ireland now helps other parts of the world emerging from conflict situations by exporting the know-how that has been gained in the field of peace building and conflict resolution. Under the PEACE programme, 2007-2013, preparations were made for a purpose-built Peace Building and Conflict Resolution Centre (PbCRC). The Centre would have provided facilities in a single location open to the world at large for: international exchange, , exporting experience in the field to regions emerging from conflict; education and research, supporting studies and research and providing conferences, workshops and summer schools; exhibition space and archive with permanent and temporary exhibitions relevant to the experience of all sections of the population; shared facilities and space for organisations working in community relations and peace-building.
The idea of the PbCRC was originally included in the Commission's report of the NITF of 2008. At that time, President Barroso said that he was "impressed by the desire of the regions political leaders to give something back to Europe, for example, by developing a facility for conflict resolution which would provide a source of advice for other parts of Europe, and the rest of the world, enduring community divisions".
The design team for the PbCRC were appointed in June 2012 and included Studio Daniel Libeskind (SDL) New York. Daniel Libeskind was to oversee the development of the design, a highly significant move in establishing the international status of the proposed new Centre. SDL have completed projects across the globe and gained a worldwide reputation for delivering powerful buildings of significance. The PbCRC project has not gone ahead as originally planned and was withdrawn from the PEACE programme in 2013. Its future is bound up with developments in the broader political situation in Northern Ireland and it is not to be excluded that it could be supported by the European Union under the 2014-2020 PEACE programme.
UK Smart Specialisation (S3) conference held in Belfast
The Titanic Quarter, a redevelopment area on the site of the world-famous Harland and Wolff shipyard which includes the Titanic Museum, a major international attraction (photo), was the prestigious venue for the UK's Smart Specialisation (S3) conference of 17 October 2013. The event was organized jointly by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (NI), the S3 Platform of the Joint Research Centre (Seville) and REGIO. S3 strategies are central to the new generation of European regional and urban development programmes for 2014-2020 and will seek to prioritize investment in national and regional innovation and to ensure that implementation is tightly monitored and results-orientated. A key element is that of partnership between government, knowledge providers and the business community. A similar approach to the EU's S3 strategies has been explored in other parts of the world, for example, in Norway, South Korea, Australia and Latin America, and the programme in Belfast included an interesting presentation on actions currently being implemented in Chile with EU support. The idea to hold the UK conference in Belfast originated in the Commission's Northern Ireland Task Force and fits with its ambition to help the region to become more closely involved in key EU policy initiatives. The highly successful conference, which was opened by Arlene Foster, Minister responsible for DETI, included independent experts, representatives of several UK regions, as well as from Ireland and Sweden, and Commission specialists.
New Task Force report (October 2104): Northern Ireland in Europe: Report of the European Commission's Northern Ireland Task Force 2007-2014
At the request of President Barroso, a new report of the NITF has been published. It presents the results of the partnership between the Commission and the authorities in the region in the promoton of new opportunities for growth and jobs. The report attests to a process of progressive integration over the past 7 years on the part of Northern Ireland into the European Union's main policies, programmes and projects. In his introduction to the Report, the President said: "Over the past sixty years, the European project has shown that it is possible for peoples and nations to come together across communities and across borders. There is no more striking modern example of this in Europe than that which has occurred both within Northern Ireland, and in its relations with its neighbours to the south. Northern Ireland can count on the European Commission in its efforts to ensure lasting peace and prosperity".
The PEACE III Programme (2007-2013) is a distinctive EU structural funds programme. It aims at reinforcing progress towards a peaceful and stable society, and promoting reconciliation in Northern Ireland and the Border Region of Ireland.
The Programme falls under the European Territorial Cooperation objective. It has a total budget of € 333 million out of which € 225 million come from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). It covers Northern Ireland and the Border Region of Ireland (comprising counties Cavan, Donegal Leitrim, Louth, Monaghan and Sligo).
The PEACE III programme is managed by the Special EU Programming Body.
The Programme has the two priorities:
Priority 1: Reconciling communities
This aims to challenge attitudes towards sectarianism and racism and to support conflict resolution and mediation at the local community level. It supports the implementation of strategic models of collaboration between the public, private and community sectors that focus on reconciliation, cultural diversity and equality. It aims to establish meaningful cross-community and cross-border initiatives that improve trust and tolerance, and reduce levels of sectarianism and racism.
Priority 2: Contributing to a shared society
This targets the regeneration of urban, rural and border areas that appear derelict, segregated, underused, threatening and/or unwelcoming and transform them into shared spaces. The intervention seeks to tackle the problems of separation of communities within society and address the underlying problems of sectarianism, racism and prejudice by encouraging the development of physical environments that are not 'marked out' with symbols that define it as a territory of one side of a community