Barroso Task Force and EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science
Northern Ireland Assembly
2:45 pm

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Joanne Dobson (UUP)

3. asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for an update on the recent progress made by the Barroso task force.      (AQO 1448/11-15)

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7. asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister when they last met with Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the Irish European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, who oversees an EU Commission budget of £80 billion.              (AQO 1452/11-15)

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Peter Robinson (DUP)

Mr Speaker, with your permission, I will ask junior Minister Jonathan Bell, whose birthday it is today, to answer the question.

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Jonathan Bell (DUP)

Thank you very much. With your permission, I would like to take questions 3 and 7 together.

The First Minister and the deputy First Minister last met with Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn on 9 December 2010 in Brussels when they committed to a renewal of the Barroso task force. Since the presentation of the Executive’s European priorities to Commissioner Hahn at the opening of the Peace Bridge in Londonderry, the cross-departmental Barroso task force working group has made significant progress. I will quote some of that progress. About £3 million has been secured in EU non-structural funds, and applications have been made for a further £33 million of assistance. The Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) has applied for joint funding of €460,000 from the Progress programme for a skills and jobs project. A DEL fund worth some £80,000 supports universities in applying for the seventh framework programme. DETI/Invest Northern Ireland have identified ways of improving Northern Ireland’s business access to its successor programme, Horizon 2020. A central budget for EU secondment has delivered four new desk officers in our Brussels office. As a result of the contact with Commissioner Hahn, an official in DG regional policy is working on urban development. A full report will be provided to the Executive following the end of the financial year.

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Joanne Dobson (UUP)

I thank the junior Minister for his answer. I also wish him a very happy birthday. Have the UK and Republic of Ireland Governments yet made a request to the European Commission for a Peace IV programme?

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Jonathan Bell (DUP)

We have been active in progressing Peace IV. We would clearly welcome a further round of EU Peace funding. All of us are of the view that the work of peace building is not yet complete. The recession has created further challenges, particularly among young people, where unemployment is increasing, and there may be fewer opportunities for education and training. In all the meetings that the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, and also that Martina Anderson and I, have taken part in, we raised the issue of Peace IV. In pursuing the issue, we will seek to ensure that Peace IV provides additional funding to the region and does not merely replace other European Union funding sources. We have raised the issue at the joint ministerial council in Europe and also directly when we met the relevant commissioners in Europe.

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Given that it is the junior Minister’s birthday, and it is customary to give out pressies on such occasions, will he perhaps tell the House a bit more about the benefits that might accrue from the appointments of the four desk officers in Brussels?

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Jonathan Bell (DUP)

I appreciate the Member’s good wishes. His question refers to a potential €80 billion under negotiation. As I understand it, that figure will now be €87•9 or €88 billion of a total fund. The key areas will be competitiveness and employment and social inclusion, and work has already been undertaken. Europe is already profiling some of our work, particularly with our elderly people, innovation and technology and climate and energy. Three of the four desk officers are in post, and the fourth will arrive imminently. The Executive have set proposals for an additional 20% drawdown, so it will be in the region of an additional €64 million because we will go outside established funds to track that extra money down. Now that we have people in place in the European office, we will seek progress on those four key areas.

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Raymond McCartney (Sinn Féin)

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a chuid freagraí. Breithlá sona duit freisin. I thank the junior Minister for his answers, and join in with the happy birthdays to him.

There is an impression that, sometimes, perhaps we are not optimising the opportunities for funding from the European Union. Indeed, that can vary even from council to council. Will the junior Minister outline the comparative figure between the Executive and the Dublin Government?

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Jonathan Bell (DUP)

I thank him for the birthday wishes. Nobody has put them to me quite like that before, so thank you very much.

We must always be careful about comparing European Union funding allocations to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Anybody looking at the detail would realise that that should be approached with caution. Obviously, Northern Ireland is a region of a member state — the UK — and its allocation of European Union funds is determined directly by internal negotiations, whereas the Republic of Ireland receives its direct allocation as an EU member state. The Republic of Ireland’s economy is also structured differently to ours, and the numbers of large companies and organisations able to take part in European networking are different. Therefore, it is a comparison that needs to be approached with extreme caution.

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Sammy Douglas (DUP)

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for giving me an opportunity to ask a question. Will the junior Minister, as I wish him a happy birthday, inform the House of any additional work that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister has carried out to maximise the benefits of European engagement?

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Jonathan Bell (DUP)

The key area is looking at where there are additional opportunities to benefit Northern Ireland, particularly in relation to new funding partnerships. In October 2011, the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels hosted a seminar on regional partnership on smart specialisation. As a direct result, DETI is in active discussions with several potential research partners, particularly looking at innovation strategy and our research and development strengths in Northern Ireland.

DEL participated in a contact seminar in Estonia in September on matching labour market and demands, which explored potential project ideas and future partnerships. DEL also established an EU framework support fund of £80,000 per annum to encourage universities to apply for funding from the framework 7 programme for research and innovation. Junior Minister Anderson and I met the European Commission in Brussels to discuss how we could contribute to and benefit from the European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations 2012, particularly given the leading role of our own new Commissioner for Older People. Our social cohesion thematic group, led by OFMDFM, will also be taking forward that work.