EU Updates

Oral Answers to Questions — Finance – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 22nd November 2016.

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Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 2:45 pm, 22nd November 2016

1. Mr Beggs asked the Minister of Finance whether the funding guarantee from the Chancellor of the Exchequer on structural and investment fund projects signed before the United Kingdom leaves the European Union applies to all such projects. (AQO 730/16-21)

Photo of Michaela Boyle Michaela Boyle Sinn Féin

3. Ms Boyle asked the Minister of Finance for an update on his engagement with the European Union. (AQO 732/16-21)

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will answer questions 1 and 3 together.

The guarantee for structural and investment fund projects signed prior to any change of relations with the EU applies to all projects approved under those funds. I have already placed a copy of the correspondence in that regard from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury in the Assembly Library. I visited Brussels last week, where I continued to press the importance of EU funding and continued full engagement with the EU. As the Member knows, I have taken and will continue to take all opportunities available to me to vigorously promote the interests of this jurisdiction within the EU.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

It is important that there is clarity, so can the Minister say definitively, once and for all, whether the commitment by the Treasury that it would guarantee funding for structural and investment fund projects signed before the UK leaves the EU, even where projects continue after we have left, applies to the York Street interchange? There has been a lot of discussion about that. Does he accept there is a divergence between what he and the Infrastructure Minister have been saying and what the Treasury has said? Can he explain?

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

Yes, but the Member has to listen this time, so we will try again. You are right: absolutely, as I said in my answer, any letters of offer signed off before relations with the EU change will be honoured in full. Any letters of offer signed off after that, if such a thing could happen, will not be honoured in full. There are programmes, including infrastructure programmes, that we believe will not even open until 2018, and it is possible that letters of offer will not be signed or issued until after an exit from the EU. I am very clear on that, I think Mr Hammond is very clear on it as well and I think Ministers are.

Photo of Michaela Boyle Michaela Boyle Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his answer. What specific measures is he putting in place, as he alluded to, to protect funding streams for the North?

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

As the Minister responsible for Peace funding and INTERREG funding in particular — other Ministers have responsibility for other packages and other streams of funding — I have made it my priority, as the House would expect, to try to protect those funding streams. I have tried to expedite the issuing of letters of offer, taking due cognisance of the need to not rush into arrangements that are less than the excellence we expect in our letters of offer and our projects. Last week, as part of this work, I was pleased to be able to report to our colleagues in the European Union that letters of offer for €120 million had been issued in relation to INTERREG and that the first letters of offer in relation to Peace had been issued.

There is a little way to go. Some programmes have opened just recently.

I am reasonably confident that we will have issued all our letters of offer under INTERREG and Peace by the spring of next year. On anyone's timeline, that is well within the period guaranteed by the Chancellor. I should also say that I had the opportunity in Brussels last week to address the 27 other states at a lunch as part of the general affairs council meeting of the regions. I managed to address the 27 other Ministers for Europe. I thought that we had a sympathetic listen. Sympathy is not really what we want, but I think that actions will follow. There is an awareness that the peace process is the crowning achievement of the European Union, and it will take additional steps to make sure that the peace process is protected and that we get a special deal or special recognition in the time ahead.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Has the Minister now reached the logical position that, when we exit the EU, he cannot — nor can anyone — reasonably expect more from the Treasury than what the Chancellor has said it will do: until we exit the EU, it will underwrite approved schemes but that, after that watershed, no such assurance can be given because there will be nothing to assure?

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

I disagree with the Member. When we first said to the Chancellor, "Will you guarantee Peace and INTERREG funding?", some people thought that that could not happen, because why would he guarantee funding after September, as it was at that stage. We secured that. We then had a much more important victory when the Chancellor said that he would guarantee all funding as long as it was signed off before an exit or our relations with the EU changed. Our friend Theresa May said yesterday that there could be a transitional parting of the ways. It could be not two years but 15 years, for all anyone knows. Let us put our best foot forward in relation to CAP payments after 2020, ERASMUS and the other wonderful programmes that allow our young people to enjoy the bounty of Europe. Let us make the case for those programmes and for funding for them to continue. I would be surprised if any Member would like the Minister of Finance to say to the British Government, "Don't go any further to guarantee EU revenue streams". I expect that everyone here would be disappointed if I did not go the extra mile to ensure that funding from Europe continues or is replaced in full.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

I thank the Minister for his answers so far. I will return to the York Street interchange, if I may. I know that the Minister, as a Belfast representative like me, will have an interest in that. Given that the public inquiry has progressed, the proprietary work has started and procurement is well advanced, does he agree that work has essentially begun on what is a crucial infrastructure project for this city and region, connecting airports, ports and the two motorways in Belfast with the west of Northern Ireland?

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

As the Member knows, I am not the Minister for Infrastructure, but we find common ground in that we both believe that this is a priority project that could transform the road infrastructure of Belfast. It is my view that we should speak to everyone who has influence over these matters, including the European infrastructure fund, which will not come on stream until 2018, and the British Government. It remains a priority. I think that the Member and I are agreed on this: we need to and will deliver the York Street interchange.