Leaving the EU: Funding for Northern Ireland

Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 4:08 pm on 24th January 2017.

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Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down 4:08 pm, 24th January 2017

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the effect of the UK exiting the EU on EU funding for Northern Ireland.

I am very pleased to have secured this debate, Mr Hollobone. I welcome the fact that the Minister is here to respond on behalf of the Northern Ireland Office and that the shadow spokesperson, Stephen Pound, is here. This is a momentous day in the history of the European Union; the declaration made—I am very glad to say—by the Supreme Court will enable parliamentary sovereignty to reign on this issue. That shows how important Parliament is in this matter.

I am here today to represent the majority of voters in South Down—67%—who voted to remain within the European Union, and the majority of voters in Northern Ireland—56%—who voted to remain. They do not want to see our local economy sacrificed to appease the anti-EU agendas of those with no connection to or no interest in Northern Ireland. I also rise to correct the glib “it’ll be all right on the night” hand-waving that some Ministers have offered when asked about the plan for Northern Ireland post-Brexit.

I mean no disrespect to the Minister responding to this debate when I say that some other Ministers, particularly from the Treasury, seem to have been so excited by the prospect of leaving the EU that they have neglected to familiarise themselves with the complex realities now facing the island of Ireland as a result of Brexit. I hope that highlighting the unique importance of EU funding to Northern Ireland will sharpen the Government’s thinking about precisely what their negotiating goals for Northern Ireland should be. I believe it to be of particular importance following the failure of Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist party to maintain an Executive who can represent Northern Ireland’s needs to the Prime Minister directly.

The European Union has been responsible for billions in investment in Northern Ireland over the past two decades—well in excess of what it would have received from ordinary Barnett formula consequentials. In the spirit of not re-fighting the referendum, I will not inundate those here with statistics on how much money the EU has provided over the years, although there are many. However, in the east border region alone, where my constituency is located, through Interreg VA, the EU is currently sponsoring projects to the value of €43.4 million, including €9.7 million for protected habitats and €15.9 million for a project intended to increase the proportion of small and medium-sized businesses working in cross-border research and reconciliation. In total, Northern Ireland was expected to draw down €3.5 billion in the period 2014 to 2020, including PEACE funding, Interreg funding and agricultural subsidies.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Education)

I hope that I have not stopped the hon. Lady in mid-flow. Does she accept that, according to all the analyses, by 2020 Northern Ireland would have become a net contributor to the EU and that the Westminster Government have already committed to ensuring that any EU-funded project will be honoured by them?

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

I do not agree with that contention. The hon. Gentleman should take on board that there was considerable cross-border funding, which is what I was referring to when speaking about PEACE funding and Interreg funding. As the name implies, PEACE funding comes from a special fund established at the European level to assist Northern Ireland with the legacy of the troubles. In fact, if I cast my memory back, the former Member for Foyle, John Hume, along with Dr Paisley and Mr Nicholson, a current MEP for Northern Ireland, came together with Jacques Delors to establish the PEACE funds for Northern Ireland.

Photo of Danny Kinahan Danny Kinahan UUP, South Antrim

It is good to hear the hon. Lady raising this debate, but does she agree that a lot of funding from Europe that will stop in 2020 helps us on cross-border issues that bring communities together, whether they involve Donegal working with Londonderry or Newry down on the border? It is absolutely vital to the peace process.

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. I have mentioned the work of the east border region, of which South Down and its constituency council are part. Like other cross-border bodies, such as the Irish Central Border Area Network, those bodies bring people from north and south to work together effectively according to the issues that unite them rather than those that divide them. EU funding has been vital to that work.

I will make a little progress. I know that Ian Paisley, who is sitting beside me, is anxious to intervene, but I will let him do so by and by. PEACE funding has helped support 6,000 victims and survivors through the Victims and Survivors Service. It has helped involve 350 schools in integrating education, meaning that 144,000 students and 2,100 teachers have participated in classrooms that mix children from nationalist and Unionist backgrounds. It helps fund work essential to building a truly shared society in Northern Ireland.

As an MP for a primarily rural constituency, I cannot fail to mention the £283 million a year that the EU has provided to our agricultural sector, which the Ulster Farmers Union has described as essential. Within Northern Ireland, EU rural development programmes have allocated €194 million to agri-environment-climate measures and €79 million to support areas facing natural constraints. All that has been put at risk by Brexit and those who supported it.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Will the hon. Lady confirm for the House that she fully understands that all the largesse being spoken about—I welcome that investment in Northern Ireland—is UK taxpayer money anyway?

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

I do not necessarily agree. Money is pooled. It is about the pooling of sovereignty and moneys in the European Union, so it involves money from other European Union countries. I caution Members that there is absolutely no guarantee that we will get equivalent funding from the Treasury post-2020. Unfortunately, the Chancellor’s assurance that all EU funding will be guaranteed during the Brexit process is of little reassurance to the people of Northern Ireland.

First, we must remember that that assurance is merely political and could be reversed with a simple press release from No. 10. Nor would it be the first financial promise broken in the wake of Brexit. We all remember those red buses that said “£350 million for the NHS”, which disappeared like snow off the ditches before the final votes were even tallied. The fundamental issue for Northern Ireland is that the promise to match EU funding is grounded in the premise that we can break away from our important trading partners without hurting our already fragile economy.

Photo of Jack Lopresti Jack Lopresti Conservative, Filton and Bradley Stoke

Does the hon. Lady not also recognise that a fundamental economic issue for Northern Ireland is rebalancing the economy away from the public sector? Brexit provides an opportunity for a more outward-looking export-based economy and will help rebalance it.

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

Although I agree that we need to rebalance the economy in Northern Ireland, I do not think that it is valid to argue that we should do so by denying our access to 27 European countries’ important export markets, particularly at a time when it is difficult to secure export markets in south-east Asia.

I will not mince words or shy away from predicting the obvious: post-Brexit, the British Government will simply not be able to carry on as if it were business as usual. Despite the promises of the leave campaign, the only certainty that I foresee in the years post-Brexit is more and greater austerity as exporters, importers and employers take the hit of new tariffs and restrictions. The Chancellor indicated as much in a recent interview with the German media in which he made it clear that outside the single market, Britain will have to move away from the European social model to become something entirely different.

Are we really expected to believe that in the new social model that the Government are preparing, Northern Ireland’s structural and infrastructural funding will not be cut further? That is one absurdity too many, and the public in Northern Ireland will never buy it. The only way to protect PEACE and Interreg funding is to retain Northern Ireland’s eligibility for EU funding, whether in the north’s own right or by virtue of our relationship with the Irish Government. Even if funding could be guaranteed, I still want to impress on the Minister the importance of funding coming not only from the Irish or British Governments, but from the EU.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle

My hon. Friend is right to emphasise that EU funding for Northern Ireland is significant not only in terms of the quantum but in terms of the priorities and purposes that it is used for, because it has been able to reach parts and sectors that otherwise might not have been supported.

On the north-south issues, does my hon. Friend recognise that the north-south bodies established after the Good Friday agreement by and large discharge and dispense much of European funding, and that post-Brexit they will have to be considered for replacement? That will open up a significant element in the negotiations that are likely after the election.

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

I thank my hon. Friend for that very helpful and erudite intervention. He is absolutely right, because—as a result of Brexit—the Good Friday agreement was high-wired not only into human rights provisions but into membership and continued membership of the European Union. North-south bodies—I can think of Tourism Ireland, which is a special EU programme body, or Interrail Ireland—could be hollowed out as a result of Brexit, thereby dismantling not only those very bodies but the processes through which funding can be dispersed.

That funding comes directly from the EU. It has brought much wealth, much income and much upgrade to our local community sector and our local infrastructure; indeed, it has been vital in regard to infrastructure. The important point is that everybody works together, right across the community, for the benefit of all. That has been one of the compelling imperatives of the European Union’s involvement in the north of Ireland.

All these issues must be stabilised and joined up into a wider strategy that has buy-in from the Executive and society. Also, and again I say this with no disrespect to the capability of Front-Bench Ministers, no British Government—regardless of the size of their majority—will be able to provide Northern Ireland with the same level of political dependability as the EU can. Policy can change quickly here and commitments made by one Chancellor today can be scrapped by another Chancellor.

We need only observe how quickly British Government orthodoxy on the benefits of the EU has transformed into British Government orthodoxy on the UK’s need to enter the global market alone. We heard some of that today, in the statement by the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and we have heard it for the last seven or eight months in this House. That kind of weathervane politics might be sustainable for a wealthy region such as the south-east, where a resilient private sector is well established and there is less difficulty in securing overseas investment, but in Northern Ireland, alas, both local businesses and international investors need to know that when a programme says it will run until 2020, in reality it will run until 2020.

In the last decade, foreign direct investment has been a great success story for Northern Ireland and our economy is beginning to reap the benefits. The Government should be under no illusions: that has been possible because of EU funding, its role in supporting many communities, and in many cases by the EU financially underwriting the process of regeneration. I have first-hand knowledge of that as a former Minister for Social Development with direct responsibility for urban regeneration, which relied on a complement of European funding. An example of that regeneration was the Peace bridge in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mark Durkan.

A vote of confidence in Northern Ireland from the EU has led to votes of confidence from businesses across the world; be in no doubt about that. However, even if funding from the Treasury could match EU funding, both in scale and in reliability, there would still be questions about how the character of the projects being supported would change post-Brexit, because one of the stated aims of Interreg funding is to minimise the impact of economic and social borders within the European community. That is of huge importance to border areas such as South Down, which is in the county of Down, where decades of neglect by policy makers locked communities out of their fair share of economic progress.

I just need to look at what is happening with the southern relief road in Newry, which carries a lot of cross-border vehicular traffic from Warrenpoint port. That port is the fifth largest on the island of Ireland, one of the biggest ports in the UK and a prominent member of the British Ports Association. Warrenpoint exports and imports, and 46% of what it does comes from the south of Ireland and goes there. That process relies on European funding and so will the southern relief road, which is essential to get round the bottleneck of Newry, because that relief road is a Trans-European Transport Network.

A similar tourist project that will rely on European funding—indeed, it had already received European funding through Interreg—is the Narrow Water bridge project, an infrastructural project that brought communities in South Down and in County Louth together, as part of the peace dividend.

Outside the EU and with a British Government potentially relying on the votes of my Unionist colleagues to the right for support in the Commons, can we really be assured that future investment in the north will have the same ethos of cross-border integration? How will the increasing number of cross-border trade organisations continue to function? Does it mean the end for effective examples of co-operation, such as Tourism Ireland? That is why the European Union is important, because it is a “non-aligned” source of funding in Northern Ireland.

EU funding weakens those who would further divide the people of the north and strengthens those working towards integration and reconciliation. That has clearly been the value of Interreg and peace funding. Perhaps it also explains why the political parties of Northern Ireland took the positions they did ahead of the referendum. Ultimately, given that none of the Government’s 12 stated Brexit goals are incompatible with retaining the EU’s funding for Northern Ireland, why risk jeopardising the north’s economic regeneration by shifting the tectonic plates that it is founded on?

Recognising Northern Ireland’s unique constitutional settlement and the importance of the EU to that settlement would not require the British Government to compromise any commitments on either Brexit or the Union. Rather, recognition of the north’s unique constitutional position would serve as fulfilment of the principle of consent—a principle that the British Government accepted, along with the Irish Government, when all the parties in the north, except the Democratic Unionist party, signed up to the Good Friday agreement.

I am an Irish nationalist and I make no apologies for that. However, even as an Irish nationalist, I do not wish to see questions of identity in the north being further clouded and troubled by the injection of a new European dimension. Indeed, if the Prime Minister really is as committed to the Union as she claims, one must question why her Government would make the Unionist community in the north choose between their link with Britain and their membership of the world’s largest economic bloc.

The British Government must engage urgently with the Irish Government on establishing an arrangement whereby the north can maintain some form of that associate special status membership of the European Union. Ideally, trilateral work would occur, involving both Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive—if we had one—before article 50 is triggered, so that we could go to the rest of the EU with a concrete plan to preserve Northern Ireland’s special status. Given the EU’s historic support for the peace process, and the pride that Brussels rightly takes in its role in helping to bring about peace, I can only predict that such a measured plan would be well received.

The arbitrary timetable imposed by the British Prime Minister may not allow enough time for such a plan to be developed before article 50 is triggered, especially in light of the DUP and Sinn Féin collapsing the Assembly. Nevertheless, that is no excuse for the trilateral work to be put off for any longer.

I do not expect the Minister who is here today to be able to give me extensive reassurances on this issue, and I am well aware of the “omertà through clichés” that has been imposed on Government Ministers as we approach negotiations with the EU. However, I hope that he can feed back to his colleagues within Government the concerns that I have expressed, answer some of my questions, and provide me with further details in writing.

I also hope that the Northern Ireland Office will be fully included in the internal discussions that the Government are conducting, both in the Joint Ministerial Council and at other levels, so that the institutional memory and experience of that Department is heard in the somewhat more gung-ho meeting rooms of other Departments.

Photo of Kris Hopkins Kris Hopkins Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 4:29 pm, 24th January 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate Ms Ritchie on securing this opportunity to discuss a really important issue. I have to say that I approach the debate in a slightly more positive tone that she has. As a remain campaigner, I understand much of the passion in what has been articulated, but the people of the United Kingdom have spoken, the Prime Minister has clearly articulated where we are going as far as Brexit is concerned, and it is for us to make the best of that opportunity.

I agree with many of the sentiments expressed today. European funding in Northern Ireland, particularly of the PEACE programmes, has played a vital part in creating a more cohesive society and prosperous economy—

Photo of Kris Hopkins Kris Hopkins Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I nearly got to the end of the second paragraph, but there you go.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights)

Because the peace process was mentioned regularly in the contributions of Ms Ritchie and others, I ask the Minister to reflect in his remarks, given this week’s experience and the scandalous events in north Belfast with the shooting of a police officer, that we should be responsible in the fears we portray, and that we should be careful and mindful about creating such a drastic circumstance and saying that leaving the European Union will have a fundamental impact on the peace process. That would be detrimental. It would be fearful and scaremongering and would not be in any of our interests if we wanted to make the best stab of leaving the EU.

Photo of Kris Hopkins Kris Hopkins Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I think we all agree that what happened the other day was absolutely outrageous and hope that the police officer recovers quickly and fully. I do not want to get into some of the rhetoric involved in the comments of the hon. Member for South Down, but I will say that there are a small number of idiots out there who seek to damage both our democracy and the peace that has been built. We all, I think, are resolved to pursue them and ensure that justice deals with them appropriately. I believe that the path of peace is embedded in the good people of Northern Ireland and the politicians. I have not met anyone who does not want to see a different path, and peace, and it is for us, as leaders, to ensure that we continue that path.

I nearly got to the end of the first page of my brief. It is right to say that Northern Ireland has benefited from the European structural and investment funds. The European regional development fund, which includes PEACE IV and the Interreg VA moneys, and the European social fund represent a significant financial commitment to Northern Ireland’s prosperity. As has already been mentioned, the Chancellor’s guarantee, which I will come to later, provides comfort to organisations in Northern Ireland and allows time for us to prepare and to consider what the future looks like in terms of the use of similar moneys to deliver similar outcomes.

I want to comment on the hon. Lady’s constituency, which encompasses the fishing ports of Ardglass and Kilkeel. From conversations I have had with her, I understand her particular concerns about EU funding in relation to the fishing community. The European maritime and fisheries fund is worth some €23.5 million to Northern Ireland in the period 2014-20, and it seeks to promote growth in that area. As part of our negotiations, it is important that we think about our relationship with our European partners and friends and about how we ensure that we support the some 800 people who are employed in that sector.

I want briefly to touch on the engagement that is going on and to try to give some reassurance to Members about the process, which enables not only Members of Parliament but Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the leadership there to engage, through the Joint Ministerial Committee, with other devolved bodies, to ensure that the Secretaries of State in each of the areas can articulate their concerns, in particular regarding the funding for PEACE and for securing community cohesion. That cross-border engagement and continued participation in the process is really important. As a conduit in that process, individual Members of Parliament are welcome to use that opportunity to ensure that they are transmitting messages, whether from business, the voluntary sector or academia.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Does the Minister accept that the debate is all a little bit yesterday, when we consider the comments by Ray Bassett, a former Republic of Ireland ambassador and official in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the report by Dr Brian Murphy, Ralf Lissek and Dr Volker Treier to the German-Irish Chamber of Industry and Commerce, that Brexit means that Ireland’s two major trading partners will be outside the EU and that Ireland needs to get ahead of the game and leave along with the UK?

Photo of Kris Hopkins Kris Hopkins Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but the point of this space—of parliamentary debate—is that individual parties can express their concerns and Ministers can understand them and respond appropriately. We are on a momentous journey, and concerns on both sides of the debate still need to be addressed and people need to be comforted. I said earlier that I was a remain campaigner, and there will be constituents who want to understand, whether they have a particular interest or it is about that passion for Europe in the past. So we create this space and it is important that people have the opportunity.

To pick up the theme already mentioned, we have to seize this as a positive opportunity. In the United Kingdom we have a border with the European Union that is against the place of Northern Ireland and that is a massive opportunity for us to seize. Despite all the challenges of understanding—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Jack Lopresti Jack Lopresti Conservative, Filton and Bradley Stoke

Just briefly. I appreciate the Minister giving way. On the point about our attitude and the optimism that we need, we all recognise that people have genuine concerns about the process, yet we must not talk down the Northern Ireland economy. We are trying to attract inward investment and to create some energy, enthusiasm and optimism for the opportunities of Brexit, which are what we must focus on.

Photo of Kris Hopkins Kris Hopkins Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is right that we should be optimistic; we have lots of grounds to be so. At this moment in time, the economy has been completely transformed, and we can build on that. Whether in the tourism economy, manufacturing or agriculture, there is huge opportunity. Our highly skilled populace can add to that further growth.

To touch on the Chancellor’s guarantee, applications for funding secured before the autumn statement will continue through the negotiations period and afterwards. In particular, we guarantee CAP funding until 2020, which I know will be an important element for the constituency of the hon. Member for South Down, which includes a big rural community that is dependent on the farming industry.

A difficult election campaign is about to start and its tone is important. It will be set against the context of our decision to leave the European Union. There is huge opportunity to grow the economy of Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. It is for us as leaders, whether here in Westminster or in the Assembly, to seize that opportunity. I reassure the hon. Lady that the Government’s intention is to ensure that we make the best of the decision we have made for the economy and the people of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

I thank the Minister for his forbearance and all Members for returning. We are running 18 minutes later than scheduled and will move on to the next important debate.

Question put and agreed to.