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Commissioner for Regional Policy
Building trust in divided communities - sharing the experience of the EU PEACE Programme
Opening Speech at the EU PEACE Programme event/Brussels
31 January 2013
Dear First Minister and deputy First Minister,
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a pleasure to welcome you today to this meeting here in Brussels. The aim is to celebrate the contribution of the PEACE programme to peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland and the border regions of Ireland – and to ask how far this experience might serve as an inspiration for other divided communities.
The PEACE programme has been a long standing partnership between the people and political leaders of Northern Ireland and the European Commission, supported by the governments of the UK and Ireland. Like the peace process itself, it has been through some difficult times.
Recent events have shown that the threat of violence persists, even as we work for a lasting peace. But, I believe the people of Northern Ireland have shown their will to put an end to the violence – and that this determination will prevail.
The leadership, courage and persistence shown by political leaders in Northern Ireland have been crucial. Here today, I would like to thank the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, for their efforts to open a new chapter for Northern Ireland.
But, peace could never have taken root in Northern Ireland, were it not for the work of committed people in both communities who worked tirelessly, often at their own risk.
I had the opportunity to meet some of these individuals when I visited Northern Ireland in June 2011. I was there for the opening of the Peace Bridge in Derry/Londonderry, a fantastic project funded by the PEACE programme. That bridge is a great symbol for what we are trying to achieve and I want you to know that I keep a replica of it prominently displayed in my office.
I was overwhelmed by the people I met on that trip. People from both communities who had lost loved ones, and who bear the physical and mental scars of the troubles. Their stories are breath-taking. The same people who a few years back wished each other only harm, are now working hand-in-hand to build a new shared future. Their passionate commitment and sheer determination are truly laudable.
This is why I wanted to bring their experience to Brussels. I want the widest possible audience for their achievements –first because they deserve our recognition and our thanks, but also because I believe other parts of the world may be able to learn from their work.
Every divided community has its own story and will have to find its own way to reconciliation. But the experience of the PEACE programme may be a source of ideas for others, or, just as important, a source of confidence that rifts can heal.
Ladies and gentlemen,
This event comes just as the EU has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in recognition of our contribution to peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights over six decades. It is easy to forget that not so long ago Europe was regularly devastated by major wars. Today a war on our continent is unthinkable. This has not happened by accident: through a process of cooperation, old adversaries have become close partners.
The ties that bind us together do not consist purely of treaties signed between governments. Our Europe, our peace, is guaranteed by a dense network of co-operative relationships between regions. These links bring the people of Europe together in joint efforts to solve common problems.
If you want to see peace at work in the EU, go to any cross border region. There you will see how today, not only transport and trade, but jobs, the environment and health services are benefitting from cross border co-operation under EU regional policy. The PEACE programme, let us not forget, is also a cross border co-operations programme.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The European Union grew out of a determination to replace war with stability and prosperity. It is therefore natural that the EU supports financially and otherwise, the peace process in Northern Ireland and the border regions of Ireland.
The PEACE programme is a fine example of the Union’s longstanding commitment to peace and reconciliation – and rather typical of the European approach.
The programme is not about quick-fixes. It is a strategic package designed to promote long-term partnerships in cross-community and cross-border co-operation. Since it began in 1994, the emphasis has been on strengthening cohesion through practical projects and developing a more inclusive society.
The PEACE programme has been only one element of the peace process in Northern Ireland. But it has played an important part in maintaining the conditions in which other work could continue. In difficult times when one side was not talking to the other, representatives of the two communities were nevertheless working together implementing the PEACE programme. And, the PEACE programme has helped to give the people of Northern Ireland a sense of ownership of the peace process. This is because it is built on a bottom-up approach encouraging people to come up with their own solutions to their problems.
Some may be surprised to discover that the PEACE programme is covered by the Structural Funds. But they should not be. Today's regional policy is an instrument to deliver the EU's ambitions – contributing to the creation of jobs, growth, and yes, peace.
EU Regional Policy is a tool for investing in people and the regional economies. This has often meant investments in infrastructure projects. But increasingly it means support to small businesses, for innovation and other measures that can help the Union achieve the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth and lift it out of the crisis.
In Northern Ireland, projects aiming to change attitudes and help people to gain the necessary job skills contribute to social cohesion. Capital investment projects, such as community and business centres have a clear economic value. Through these investments in human and physical capital, the PEACE programme is helping to turn Northern Ireland away from conflict and towards the path of peace and prosperity, creating growth and jobs along the way.
Creating new opportunities for the young people of Northern Ireland is essential, as the troubles of the last few weeks have illustrated. Here, as elsewhere, it is the young that we must teach to see their communities with new eyes, sowing the seeds of a more tolerant society that will leave hatred behind.
The PEACE programme has projects operating in some very difficult and deprived areas. They aim to engage with young people to provide them with the skills and confidence to deal with and avoid sectarian violence. These projects are often accompanied by measures to provide the necessary skills to get a job. They also use sport, digital media and a variety of other tools to reach the young, to help build awareness of how to live in a diverse community, and reduce the risk of youngsters getting involved in dissident groups.
Here I would also like to mention that alongside the PEACE programme, the Commission works with the Northern Ireland Executive in a Task Force set up by President Barroso in 2007 to build opportunities across the policy spectrum.
So, what's next? Consolidating peace is something that will take generations. The needs will change, but as recent events remind us, there is still plenty of work to do.
Everyone here knows that current budget negotiations are tough and the pressure on the EU finances is intense. I am sure we were all pleased to see the recent proposal from the President of the European Council for an allocation of € 150 million for the PEACE programme for the next financial period.
Whatever the final outcome of the budget negotiations, it is clear that cross-community and cross-border work should continue, with the support of the EU funds available.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Northern Ireland has a wealth of experience in peace building that can be of use to others. I am pleased that the authorities in Northern Ireland are going ahead with plans to build a Peace Building and Conflict Resolution Centre on the former Maze/Long Kesh site. The centre will help spread the lessons learned in Northern Ireland and ensure the memory of peace process is recorded for future generations.
It is a tribute to those who have worked on the PEACE programmes that there has already been interest from all around the world in its achievements: from Russia, Palestine, the Balkans, Colombia, South Korea. This is something to be proud of.
I am looking forward to hearing the project testimonies and to discussing with you ways in which experience of the peace and reconciliation process in Northern Ireland and the border regions of Ireland could be of use to other regions in Europe and beyond.