Special EU Programmes: North/South Ministerial Council Sectoral Meeting

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:00 am on 27th November 2000.

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Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:00 am, 27th November 2000

The Council agreed that the various programmes in the remit of the Special European Union Programmes Body (SEUPB) had a major role to play in the development of peace and reconciliation and in economic and social progress on the island as a whole, particularly in the border areas. The Council looks forward to working closely with the SEUPB in implementing those important tasks.

The Council received a report on progress made towards recruiting a permanent chief executive. The post has been advertised and interviews are now being held. The Council noted the progress made and hoped that the permanent chief executive would be appointed as soon as possible to drive forward the important work of the body.

The Council received a report on actions taken to further the development of the SEUPB and was pleased to note that a second regional office of the body had opened temporary premises in Omagh and that permanent premises have been identified. The Omagh office will have lead responsibility for monitoring and promoting the implementation of the common chapter and particular responsibility for the cross-border priority of Peace II.

The Council highlighted the need for clarity on the roles and responsibilities of the body as it takes forward its developing work programme. The Council noted and endorsed the pace and nature of the developments of the SEUPB’s internal structures and mechanisms and its range of developing partnerships.

The Council noted that the negotiations on the Peace II operational programme were nearing conclusion and that the SEUPB had begun work on the programme complement. The Council attaches urgency to the completion of that work and hopes that negotiations with the European Commission on the operational programmes will be finalised as soon as possible.

The membership of the Peace II monitoring committee was announced at the meeting. The committee will be established in shadow format, pending the formal adoption of the Peace II programme by the European Commission. The Council expressed a desire for an early meeting of the committee to enable it to have an input to the development of the Peace II programme complement.

The Council approved the community initiative proposals for INTERREG III, Leader+ and EQUAL in Northern Ireland and Ireland, and the proposals for the URBAN II programme in Ireland for submission to the European Commission as a basis for negotiation.

The Council recalled the important responsibilities of the SEUPB for grant making and other managerial functions in respect of the North/South elements of all the community initiatives in Northern Ireland and Ireland. It also recalled the ongoing role that the SEUPB will have in implementing and monitoring community initiatives throughout their lifetimes.

The Council stressed the immediate need for the body to be directly involved in the forthcoming negotiations with the European Commission on the community initiative programme proposals provided for in the North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) (Northern Ireland) Order 1999. The Council requested that it be kept informed of progress on those negotiations.

The Council noted the progress made by the SEUPB in developing its responsibilities for monitoring and promoting implementation of the common chapter on cross- border co-operation contained in both Northern Ireland’s structural funds plan and Ireland’s national development plan. The Council agreed that delivery of the common chapter requires a consistent, coherent, co-ordinated approach to identification and implementation of cross- border co-operation on a North/South and east-west basis. The Council looks forward to a further progress report at the next sectoral meeting on EU programmes.

The Council approved the SEUPB’s draft corporate plan for 2000-03 and the draft business plan for 2000. A new corporate plan will be presented to the council early in the new year. The Council approved and welcomed the code of conduct for the staff of the body and is confident that staff will apply all aspects of the code in discharging its duties.

The Council considered a paper outlining the progress of spending on the Peace I programme and the INTERREG II programme. The Council noted the position on commitments of funds under both programmes and that overall expenditure at 30 June 2000 stood at 66% of the Peace I allocation and 79% of the INTERREG II allocation. The Council agreed that this was an important area of work and that further sustained effort will be required to ensure that full expenditure is achieved by 31 December 2001. The Council also noted that the body will provide a further progress report on the implementation of both programmes at the next sectoral meeting on the special EU programmes. 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.

I would also like to cover two items that fall within my responsibilities and which were dealt with at the North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting on 17 November. Ms Rodgers will be making a full statement on that meeting in due course. Following approval by the Executive Committee, the Council agreed final recommendations on the budgets for the six North/South implementation bodies. Details are set out in the table attached to my statement. The contributions from the North and South will go forward for approval by the Assembly and the Dáil respectively, as part of the Budgets and Estimates, North and South. Thus, the Executive have agreed the Northern contributions that will be recommended to the Assembly as part of the revised Budget that I will introduce next month.

The second item is the URBAN II community initiative. The Executive Committee agreed on 16 November that the URBAN II programme proposals for Northern Ireland be submitted to the North/South Ministerial Council. This happened at the sectoral meeting on 17 November, and the Council agreed to those proposals being submitted to the European Commission as a basis for negotiation over the next five months.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

A LeasCheann Comhairle, go raibh maith agat. I welcome the Minister’s statement on European funding. It is an important stepping stone, and we hope to make continued progress on it. Can the Minister tell us when Peace II money will be available, so that groups with a gap in funding will be able to ensure the continuity of their projects? What problems are being encountered? Do they relate to match funding from other Departments and organisations to allow some of these groups to draw down the extra money for the completion of payments in those schemes?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Chairperson of the Finance and Personnel Committee for his Committee’s interest in these areas.

First, we had hoped to be further forward with the proposals for the Peace II programme. There has been some delay in finalising the community support framework. Although it is the Commission’s document, the Administration has been working with the Commission on the operational programmes. That is the next stage. When operational programmes for Peace II and transitional Objective 1 are agreed, we will bring forward the more detailed proposals, within a few months, at the programme complement stage.

We are working on the operational programmes and the programme complements, but under EU regulations the monitoring committees have to be able to make an input to those. Our work would be assisted if we had everything we needed from all the Northern Ireland Government Departments. We are still awaiting some contributions on the operational programme. We are determined to try to proceed as quickly as possible because we recognise the expectations, the needs and the gaps. However, in all likelihood we will not be in a position to call for applications for Peace II until the new year.

In relation to Peace I, the most up to date figure that I have is for the end of September. It shows that 70% of Peace I funds have now been drawn down. We have only until 31 December 2001 to complete that work. There are a range of issues and problems involved, and we are trying to identify the problems of particular sectors and groups to see whether we can come up with specific solutions.

Photo of Mr Eamonn ONeill Mr Eamonn ONeill Social Democratic and Labour Party 10:45 am, 27th November 2000

I welcome the Minister’s statement, which shows that considerable advance in this area has been made. Can he tell us about the role of local government in the administration of INTERREG III funding? It has been envisaged for some time that it would be done through the three cross-border committees that exist in Northern Ireland?

In reply to an earlier question of mine, the Minister indicated some favour towards the idea of an Assembly oversight committee for the administration of the EU programmes. Does he still see merit in such a suggestion and, if so, how could it be done?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

First, in respect of INTERREG III, further details will have to be worked on. Proposals for the basis of negotiation, approved by the Executive and the North/South Ministerial Council, have been submitted. We will give further consideration to precisely how local delivery, and area-based, mechanisms can facilitate that programme.

Mr ONeill mentioned cross-border networks. I have previously recognised how they have contributed to our understanding in this area. It would be wrong for me to say that those groups will be directly engaged as delivery mechanisms for INTERREG III. It would simply be inappropriate to make any promise at this stage, but clearly the cross-border network groups are particularly well placed to make proposals regarding INTERREG III. Obviously, they have submitted some critical comments about the present proposals, and they are well placed to make a further contribution to our thinking and to the life of the programme itself.

I am open to dealing with any Committee of the Assembly. I seem to be picking up Assembly Committees to work with; it is certainly a growth sector in my area of activity, and we can take another one if that is needed.

The issue is whether the Finance and Personnel Committee believes that there is a further, distinct role to be discharged regarding the Assembly’s interest in the community support framework and the various EU programmes, and whether it believes that anything distinctive could be done by another Committee. I recognise that other Members also have an interest in the question.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Does the Minister acknowledge that the £1·2 million being allocated from the Executive’s Budget would be better spent in actual programmes within Northern Ireland? Does he recognise that the cross-border element reduces the ability of areas not along the border to tap into that money? Is there not, therefore, an element of discrimination against areas such as Lagan Valley?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I repeat the point that the allocations being made to the six implementation bodies are not huge allocations when taken against the budget as a whole.

They are significant, but they go towards supporting some significant services and work by the bodies. Some of the work was already being undertaken in other forms and, as it has to continue, we feel that it will be performed and discharged better in the particular context of the North/South implementation bodies. There can be economies of scale and performance efficiencies through co-operating in that regard.

I refute any suggestion of discrimination against any part of Northern Ireland regarding EU programmes. Obviously, some EU programmes apply to specific areas, rather than to Northern Ireland as a whole. For example, URBAN II proposals apply particularly to north Belfast, but that does not mean that the rest of Northern Ireland is discriminated against because it is not benefiting directly from URBAN II. Mr Poots may not have noticed that the whole of Northern Ireland will be eligible under INTERREG III as opposed to previous INTERREG programmes. I am at a loss to understand why there should be any suggestion of discrimination against any part of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s statement. However, I have a specific concern about the presence of Mr Dermot Nesbitt, given his recent comments in the press, where he claimed to be quoting from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) report. Subsequently we were told that it is not a report but simply a briefing for the various Ministers.

Given that Mr Nesbitt has responsibility, in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, for matters including equality, his remarks, which were quoted in the local press, are of great concern to all of us. He suggested that NISRA said — I do not know whether they are saying it, because I have not seen the briefing — that there was no discrimination between the communities. What input did Mr Nesbitt have at the sectoral meeting, given the major role that EU programmes have in ending discrimination and given that Mr Nesbitt is on public record as saying that it did not exist?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Mr Nesbitt was one of two Ministers from the Northern side who were present at the meeting. I was the other Minister. I am making the report because these matters are within the responsibility of my Department. We participated in the meeting on the basis of the papers and positions approved by the Executive Committee, which is the proper way to do business at the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC).

I note Mr Maskey’s concerns about the comments made by Mr Nesbitt on a previous occasion about another issue, but I hope that Mr Maskey is not suggesting that more parties should engage in vetting tactics as far as other Ministers’ participation in the NSMC is concerned. I am happy to participate with any Minster from any other party in NSMC business on behalf of the Executive on proper, approved and agreed terms. I hope that everybody else would do the same. I do not think that anything would be gained by saying that we will not go to certain meetings with certain Ministers because of other issues that may arise.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

I welcome the details of what is happening in the European structural fund programmes. However, I would be grateful for further clarification on a number of points. I would like to focus on the funding mechanisms under Peace I and Peace II. First, is it the definition of funding bodies that is holding up the negotiations on Peace II? Secondly, will the Minister make it clear that the intermediary funding bodies that existed under Peace I and the district councils will have a role to play under Peace II. What role will that be?

Finally, will the six North/South implementation bodies carry out a funding function similar to that of the intermediary funding bodies, and will their funding come from European programmes, particularly Peace?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

First, the negotiations on Peace II are ongoing. As I said, the community support framework — the Commission’s paper, which we had expected would be formalised in the summer — has taken longer than expected. Nevertheless, negotiations are proceeding in respect of the operational programme and the programme complements. There are a number of issues that need to be explored by ourselves and the European Commission. It would help our officials if we had the necessary material from all the Northern Ireland Government Departments.

The intermediary funding bodies have made a useful, distinctive and helpful contribution to Peace I. We see the importance of such a role continuing with Peace II, but we must put that work out to tender. That would be consistent with the European Commission’s own requirements. The European Court of Auditors’ report was somewhat critical of the fact that it had not happened in Peace I. It would also be appropriate with regard to public procurement policy.

We are continuing to engage with a range of interests — local partnerships and local government, as well as staying in touch with others such as the intermediary funding bodies on how best to develop local delivery mechanisms and local funding arrangements during the Peace II programme. A working group involving representatives from district partnerships, local government and intermediary funding bodies will shortly be making proposals to me in that regard.

Photo of Joe Byrne Joe Byrne Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the Minister’s progress report on the workings of the special EU programmes body. I am delighted that the Omagh office is now open and that it will monitor and promote the implementation of the common chapter and have responsibility for the cross- border priority of Peace II.

How will the North/South Ministerial Council endeavour to make the common chapter a more meaningful, practical and relevant exercise in the next round of structural funds? Unfortunately, in the 1994-99 round, the common chapter became an illusion rather than a meaningful exercise. That was particularly disappointing for those of us who live in the border zone. There is a need for real North/South co-operation on transport infrastructure.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Mr Charlie McCreevy, Mr Dermot Nesbitt and I were glad to have the meeting — the first Northern meeting in sectoral format — in Omagh, not least to mark the fact that there will be an office of the special EU programmes body in the town. As Mr Byrne said, that office will have a particular focus on the cross- border activities of Peace I and on the implementation of the common chapter.

He is also right in pointing out that it is not the first time that there has been a common chapter. I have said elsewhere that the previous common chapter was a great book but the movie never got made. This time we at least have a production system for the special EU programmes body and a North/South Ministerial Council with a dedicated sectoral format that can consider those issues. I welcome particularly the commitment of Mr McCreevy and his colleagues in the Irish Government to pursue the common chapter actively and effectively. We need to make sure that we are not just making commitments that are notionally on a cross-border basis but that do not mesh on a North/South basis. It is not just the quantity of cross-border activity that counts, it is the quality, and the body and the North/South Ministerial Council both wish to see it developed effectively.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds DUP 11:00 am, 27th November 2000

How do the budget figures for the implementation bodies set out in the annex to the Minister’s statement compare with the figures in his recent Budget statement? On what basis was it calculated that the projected budget provisions for 2002 would increase by 9·6%, compared to this year’s figure, and for 2003 by 16·13%, compared to this year’s figure? Can the Minister explain in detail how he arrived at those figures?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

The figures for 2001 and 2002 in the draft Northern Ireland Budget were based on financial years. Those figures do not, therefore, correspond precisely with the budgets for the bodies, which are expressed on the basis of calendar years. This is not the first time that I have made that point.

Any further revisions are subject to confirmation by the relevant sector of the North/South Ministerial Council. Some adjustments will be made in respect of the trade body. There will probably be a reduction of £200,000 in the amount proposed in the draft Budget. That will ensure consistency with the decisions taken at NSMC level. Similarly, there will be an increase of probably £400,000 in the allocation to the languages body to reflect that body’s activities.

The future projections are based on the plans brought forward by the bodies and approved by the North/South Ministerial Council, both in its relevant sectoral format and in plenary session. The plans were discussed in plenary forum at Dublin Castle in September and again in the various sectoral formats, and have been approved by the Northern Ireland Executive on that basis.