European Union Programmes: North/South Ministerial Council Sectoral Meeting

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:00 pm on 26th June 2000.

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Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:00 pm, 26th June 2000

The council underlined the important contribution to peace, reconciliation, regional development and cross-border co-operation made by European Union programmes and looked forward to the significant new role of the special EU programmes body (SEUPB) in the negotiation, management, monitoring and delivery of the programmes. The council expressed the firm desire that the new political context and the role of the SEUPB should ensure a higher level of expenditure on co-operative actions co-funded by the European Union, especially Peace II. The council agreed that the establishment of the SEUPB served as a tangible, further reflection of the support and solidarity that has been shown by the European Union in seeking to advance reconciliation and peace and of its commitment to the new dispensation heralded by the Good Friday Agreement.

The council received a verbal progress report from Mr Philip Angus, interim chief executive of the SEUPB, on the work of the body. The body currently has 19 staff drawn from central government Departments, North and South. It has its headquarters in Belfast, an office in Monaghan, and a further office will be opened in Omagh.

The council endorsed proposals for taking forward the responsibilities of the body, which will be implemented under the direction of the interim chief executive. The council also endorsed the initial staffing structure for the body and approved the formal procedure for the appointment of a permanent chief executive to the body.

The council noted a position paper on the Peace II programme and agreed that officials of the SEUPB would contribute, in accordance with its mandate, as appropriate, to the forthcoming negotiations on Peace II with the European Commission. The council noted a common text on North/South co-operation, which will be included in the respective community support frameworks for Northern Ireland and Ireland. The council approved a guidance framework for the SEUPB, which had been prepared by the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Department of Finance. It also noted that further guidance on the role and functions of SEUPB and the Finance Departments was being prepared by the Finance Departments in consultation with the body.

The council agreed it would meet on a quarterly basis in this sectoral format and that the next meeting would take place in October in Northern Ireland.

The council agreed the text of a joint communiqué which was issued following the meeting. A copy of the communiqué has been placed in the Assembly Library.

Photo of Esmond Birnie Esmond Birnie UUP

The Minister refers to the Peace II programme. To what extent are the plans relating to Peace II soundly based on ex post evaluations of what happened previously under the Peace I programme?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

We are trying to ensure that we take forward all the positive lessons of Peace I and that we drop any negative aspects. Obviously more evaluations are available in relation to some aspects than to others. Plans were being developed whilst there were still further evaluations to come in. The broad framework we have been taking forward at this stage has concentrated on the community support framework, which is a broad-band strategy and rational. We believe this takes forward positive aspects of Peace I whilst also trying to identify, and address, new opportunities afforded by the improved context we now have, especially the new political arrangements.

Photo of Mr Eamonn ONeill Mr Eamonn ONeill Social Democratic and Labour Party

Does the Minister agree that in the light of the need for open, public and transparent accountability, and given the problem of additionality in the past, we need to be particularly vigilant as to how we administer the funding from Europe. Would he consider the establishment of an all-party sub-committee to oversee the administration of these funds, especially Peace II?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Mr ONeill rightly identifies the importance of transparency and due scrutiny with these funds, as with any funds managed in the public interest. Regarding monitoring, we already have the Interim Community Support Framework Monitoring Committee, and when we have the community support framework agreed, that will no longer be in shadow format. There will also be monitoring committees for the operational programmes under the peace programme and the transition programme. Those monitoring committees will involve a range of interests, including the social partners, local government, relative departments, etcetera.

The interim monitoring committee for the community support framework includes representatives of all parties in the Assembly. Mr ONeill may have touched on a useful idea when he said that the Assembly might want to consider setting up a monitoring Committee of its own, not least in relation to Peace II. This would enable the Assembly to underline the importance of the additionality requirements of the peace programme, as distinct from the other European moneys. It is a proposal that the Department of Finance and Personnel would not be averse to. We have touched on it in some exchanges with the Finance and Personnel Committee and I further discussed the possibilities with the chairman of that Committee. Clearly, it would be very important that anything set up by the Assembly did not in any way conflict with the role and responsibility of the Statutory Committee.

Photo of Séan Neeson Séan Neeson Alliance 4:15 pm, 26th June 2000

The Minister referred to the Peace II programme, but I would like to raise the matter of INTERREG III. At present there is a consultation process being carried out. Would he accept that one of the key issues for INTERREG III would be the development of integrated infrastructure in roads, other transport and energy to support economic growth? Also, bearing in mind where the Minister comes from, will he give his personal support to seeking EU funding for an extension of the natural gas pipeline to the north-west?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. With regard to INTERREG III, we are required to submit forward programme proposals to Brussels by November 2000. Funding under that programme will not be available until next year. SEUPB has issued a consultation paper to some 800 organisations and individuals, and a consultation conference was held in Monaghan last week. Structures will be put in place to continue the consultation process as it develops and the particular characteristics, which Mr Neeson suggests should be evident in INTERREG III, would be welcome as an appropriate graduation in the nature and quality of the co-operation that the INTERREG programme should be developing and engendering. We are aware of particular interests from the various cross-border networks including the council groups.

With regard to EU monies for the natural gas pipeline, I would make the point that the transition programme, as it is currently drafted, would give a basis for using such EU funds to support energy projects both in the gas and electricity fields. For this to happen, the Executive Committee would have to decide that public expenditure would cover these projects. In relation to the natural gas project as indicated by the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, we are awaiting the outcome of the proposals from the private sector before decisions can be made.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Will the Minister indicate if discussions took place about the mechanism to be employed in the analysis of need, and will he confirm that the Robson index will not be used in distributing the Peace II money as it is now nine years old, completely outdated and has no relevance to the current situation?

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair)

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

The discussions in relation to the future use or non-use of the Robson index were not a direct part of the North/South Ministerial Council meeting. The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, which is part of my Department, is trying to address the shortcomings of the Robson index and to see what alternatives there might be. Consultations are starting very shortly to see if we can agree a new basis for identifying and, in turn, targeting social need. That work is under way. I hope that the development of that work will inform decisions and effective performance in all the EU programmes and, indeed, in all public expenditure programmes.

Photo of Mr James Leslie Mr James Leslie UUP

I want to ask the Minister some questions about the identity of some of the money referred to in this programme. There is a tendency, particularly with EU money, for a lot of double counting to go on. We must be careful that we are identifying different pools of money. Equally, we need to be clear when we are talking about the same pool of money. Where EU money is concerned, the technique is rather like writing a history essay when you do not have much information: say what you are going to say, then say it, then say what you have said.

If I may, I will link the Minister’s statement to the one made this morning by the Deputy First Minister, which dealt with the overarching programme for EU money. If I remember correctly, he said that the Peace II money would be worth an average of £75 million per annum for the next six years. I note that the cross-border sub-programme will have a minimum budget of 75 million euro, which I think is slightly less than £50 million at current exchange rates. Will the Minister confirm whether that money is part of the peace money mentioned this morning, or whether it is a further amount?

If it is part of the same money, does that mean that instead of being spent exclusively in Northern Ireland, which is the impression one would have gained this morning, in fact it may be the case that some of the money will be spent on the other side of the border? It seems to me that our money should be spent on our side of the border and their money should be spent on their side. I would be grateful for the Minister’s clarification on that point.

I could not help noticing that the meeting was chaired by Mr McCreevy. I believe his nickname is "champagne Charlie". I wondered if he brought some champagne with him, before they changed around the exchange rates and issued the communiqué. Will the Minister also confirm that the chairmanship goes with the host, that is, that it will rotate according to the country in which the meeting is being held?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

On the last point, chairing is the responsibility of the host Administration. That was why Mr McCreevy chaired the meeting on 16 June.

To clarify the question of the peace money and the cross-border priority, I refer to a point I made earlier. As well as having the distinct cross-border priority, which is there to ensure that at least that amount of money is made available for cross-border co-operation, and indeed wider east-west co-operation, we also set out to ensure that all Departments, when considering those aspects of the peace programme that fall to them, put a due premium on the need to ensure social inclusion and to use and support local delivery mechanisms and on cross-border co-operation itself. That is a cross-cutting theme as well as a single identifiable priority. In a sense, it is both. To use the jargon, it involves both a vertical and a horizontal approach. The cross-border money that I am talking about is clearly within the peace programme. All of the Northern Ireland moneys in the peace programme will be spent in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Joe Byrne Joe Byrne Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the Minister’s statement. In relation to the role of the SEUP what is the timetable for putting together operational programmes, and how does the Minister envisage the cross-border dimension working in reality on the ground? I noted his earlier reference to the role of cross-border local authorities. Many such authorities are interested in helping to facilitate the outworkings of this new body.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister visited Brussels last week and, from the point of view of our Administration, the development of the community support framework is now complete. The Commission will publish the framework next month. The next phase will be the development of the operational programmes, and these have to be in place by October. SEUPB — the body with the role of managing and monitoring Peace II — clearly has a key role in that regard. We will be developing the operational programme framework in conjunction with the interim monitoring committee. There will also be a monitoring committee for each of the operational programmes — the peace programme and the transition programme.

Once the operational programmes are in place we have to produce programme complements which will bring forward the measures in specific and detailed terms. The deadline for this is no later than three months after the operational programmes have been agreed. We do not want to be in a situation where we run out of time at the end, so we have added on time at the beginning. We have been working on the programme complements in parallel with the work on the operational programmes. We want as much input as possible from all relevant interests and from all localities, be they at the border or elsewhere. We want to ensure that everybody, including local government, has sufficient input into the process. To implement all the various suggestions and ambitions would cost a lot more than the total sum available. Therefore we need to use the consultation exercises, not only to weed out particular ideas or projects, but also to see how a more positive synergy and complementarity can be developed between the many different ideas and proposals.

Photo of Derek Hussey Derek Hussey UUP

There may appear to be a bit of telepathy between Mr Byrne and myself — I am raising the same issue. In point nine of the joint communiqué the council noted that the sub-programme would provide opportunities for the funding of cross-border co-operative action across the full range of economic areas. Point four states that the new programmes have the capacity to have a real impact on the lives of people in Northern Ireland and the border area. What role does the Minister see for the three cross-border bodies — the north-west body, the Irish Central Border Area Network and the eastern border counties body? I am a member of the north-west regional cross-border committee, and I am sure the Minister will agree that these bodies, via their secretariats, have built up a tremendous expertise. A vast local knowledge exists within each body which stems from the local council input. I want further clarification that these bodies will be respected in their input and that when the time comes they will be considered as very good vehicles for the implementation of the programme.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

In the development of these programmes we want to apply positive lessons from other EU programmes such as Peace I. In response to a similar question from Éamonn ONeill a couple of weeks ago, I made it clear that in INTERREG III we would be looking at how local delivery mechanisms, particularly through representative partnership networks, could be used as a means of making sure that we had the best impact as far as that programme was concerned.

The three cross-border networks represent 18 councils along the entire border corridor with some 100 elected representatives serving on the various cross-border networks. Obviously there is significant political support in the border regions, both North and South. I am aware that there is widespread support for their integrated area plans, and for the combined border corridor strategy, which consultants have been drafting on their behalf. We want to make sure that those networks can have as full an input as possible to the developing work on INTERREG III and, indeed, on some of the wider cross-border issues. As Mr Hussey rightly identified, there is a common chapter under the community support framework that will underline the importance of optimising the rate and nature of cross-border co-operation across the full range of social, economic and environmental programmes. Any contribution that representative networks, such as the three cross-border ones, can make would be very welcome.

We will fully respect, and ask for, that input. That of itself cannot constitute a promise that what the networks bid for themselves, as to what they would directly administer, will automatically be granted. The Member will be aware that we have to proceed on an open basis, and I am sure that the three networks will be satisfied with the quality of that openness.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC 4:30 pm, 26th June 2000

I have three questions for the Minister of Finance and Personnel. First, I was asked this morning about intermediary funding bodies. Will the Minister clarify what use will be made of the intermediary funding bodies in the new round of Peace II? Secondly, can he give a commitment that non-Government parties will be included in the monitoring process? Finally, what specific budget has he made available in Peace II for victims?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

First, intermediary funding bodies are clearly going to be involved in the delivery of Peace II. However, I cannot speculate about, or anticipate, the precise bodies and areas of involvement. Those matters will be decided in conjunction with the Peace II monitoring committee. I appreciate that there has been concern in some quarters that local delivery mechanisms and partnership boards may somehow be relegated in relation to Peace II. That is not the case.

I understand that people were also concerned that intermediary funding bodies were going to be squeezed; that is not the case either. We are trying to learn and apply all the positive lessons of Peace II and develop them in ways that will be effective, so as to sustain these measures, not just for the life of the Peace II programme, but beyond that.

We want these benefits to continue into the future. Our European Colleagues, who gave this money, do not just want to see us spend it over a five year period — they want us to invest it and secure returns on it in positive peace-building terms, involving regeneration and reconciliation over a longer period.

I indicated that decisions about the precise bodies that would be used, and the areas of their responsibility, would be something that would be developed and worked on with the monitoring committee. Currently the Interim community support framework monitoring committee has places for all parties in the Assembly. Unfortunately, it is a pretty unwieldy body, and I am not sure that the added presence of the various political parties, and the rotating attendance that that tends to give rise to, necessarily helps the focus of the Committee as far as some of its other members are concerned.

I refer the Member to the point that Éamonn ONeill made when earlier he suggested that the Assembly should have a separate monitoring committee of its own, particularly in relation to Peace II. That would be one of the ways in which the Assembly could underline the importance and distinctiveness of the additionality principle, and it is certainly something that I would not be averse to. If it happened, it might ease the overcrowding problem that can occur on the wider interim monitoring committee.