I thank the Cathaoirleach and the committee for the opportunity to appear before it. I am very pleased to be here to discuss, as the Chairman indicated, the implications of Brexit for the Good Friday Agreement. I will be focusing my remarks mainly on an area that I know is of interest to the committee, which is the status of European Union funding for Northern Ireland, how I see it at the moment and my expectation for its future evolution.
I am very much aware of the important work the committee has undertaken in recent months in this area. I appreciate the interest of members in the PEACE and INTERREG programmes for which I am responsible. It is a responsibility that I share with my colleague in the Northern Ireland Executive, Mr. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir. I know Mr. Ó Muilleoir has already appeared before the committee and I also know it has had the opportunity to be briefed by the chief executive of the Special EU Programmes Body, SEUPB, Ms Gina McIntyre, with whom my officials and Department work closely.
In December I travelled to Derry where, along with Mr. Ó Muilleoir and Ms McIntyre, I saw some of the excellent work being undertaken by PEACE and INTERREG. I have had an opportunity to visit programmes and projects funded by both programmes, to meet with programme beneficiaries and to assure them of the Irish Government’s continuing commitment to PEACE and INTERREG. I have had the opportunity over a number of years to meet those who are involved in organising PEACE projects that are funded by PEACE and INTERREG but I made a point at the end of last year of spending two days in Derry and going to visit a selection of the projects. No papers or meetings with those organising the projects compare to the opportunity to visit them, to see the work that is under way and to see the importance of that work from an economic perspective and the very important role that it plays in sustaining the peace process.
With both those perspectives in mind, let me be very clear about this Government’s commitment and my commitment to the current programmes and to successor programmes post-2020. The Irish Government is justifiably very proud of its role in securing EU funding for a fourth PEACE programme. Between them, PEACE and INTERREG have seen nearly €3.5 billion of investment in Northern Ireland and the Border region of Ireland over the last quarter of a century, with more than €0.5 billion to be invested over the period beginning in 2014 and ending in 2020. These programmes have made an enormous contribution to cross-Border co-operation and remain important drivers of regional, economic and social development in a cross-Border context. More than that, the programmes have been a key element of the European Union's continuing commitment to the process of peace building, reconciliation and support for the Good Friday Agreement.
As part of the contingency planning undertaken by the Government prior to the UK referendum, my Department identified the risks to these EU-funded programmes in the event that the UK voted to leave. As soon as the result was known work started on securing the programmes. Early on the morning of the referendum result I had my first conversation with my officials about the steps that needed to be taken. That afternoon they had their first discussions with their counterparts in the European Commission, the Department of Finance in Northern Ireland and the SEUPB. A week later, the North-South Ministerial Council, NSMC, meeting in Dublin Castle, reiterated the joint commitment of the Government and the Executive to the successful implementation of the programmes and agreed that the two sponsor Ministers should consider how to secure European Regional Development Fund, ERDF, funding for the two programmes, including through engagement with the Commission. Later that week I hosted a sectoral meeting of the NSMC in Iveagh House where I proposed that Mr. Ó Muilleoir and I would write to the European Commissioner for Regional Policy, Ms Corina Creu, to highlight the importance of the programmes.
So began a process of patiently working through a very significant number of issues facing the programmes. I was delighted that on 28 October 2016, that is, four months and four days after the referendum result, and against a background of enormous uncertainty over Brexit, Mr. Ó Muilleoir and I were able to announce that we had agreed a safeguard clause that would Brexit-proof letters of offer to programme beneficiaries. That was a very significant development in light of the challenges that we then faced. I want to recognise the work that went into achieving that recognition from officials in the Northern Ireland Executive and from officials in my Department. Mr. Ó Muilleoir and I were really pleased to be able to communicate that development to projects which were dependent on certainty about future funding.
With that in mind, I will outline the three objectives I have with regard to such funding. In the short term, my objective was to secure the programmes and give programme beneficiaries the confidence they need to proceed with projects. That has now been achieved through a process of working quietly behind the scenes to address this particular challenge. This is the approach being taken by the Government across a range of headings to emphasise our concerns and to ensure that they are fully reflected in the EU position once negotiations commence. I would also like to acknowledge the collaboration and frequent contact that took place between myself and Mr. Ó Muilleoir across that period that played a key role in allowing everybody to get to that point.
In the medium term, my objective now is to see implementation of these programmes out to 2020. This will take place during a period in which it will be likely that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. We should not underestimate the challenge that will be involved here. We will look to maintain these programmes that receive EU funding across a period in which the UK leaves the EU. This is the importance of the safeguard clause that we secured and that was communicated to the project beneficiaries. I hope that the current political situation in Northern Ireland will not jeopardise that.
This is why the Government has very strongly emphasised the need for the swift resumption of the power-sharing institutions after the election when we will play our part with the political parties and the British Government in the years ahead. I must also be very clear that the North-South programmes can only be implemented successfully with the co-operation of everyone concerned. These are EU-funded cross-Border programmes which is one of the many reasons it is so important to see a resumption of the political institutions. This needs to be understood by everybody involved in the programmes. We must all respect not just the letter but also the spirit of the programmes.
The long-term objective is to see the success of programmes beyond 2020. These programmes are very well regarded in the North, South, UK and throughout the EU. The necessary goodwill is there for successor programmes. Moreover, the regulatory framework for programmes with third countries already exists. My officials are already working with the SEUPB to examine such programmes to see how they might form a model for North-South programmes post 2020. Next week, I will be meeting colleagues within the European Commission and European Parliament on Wednesday and using that as a further opportunity to discuss a very important area. Of course, these programmes are not the only such programmes funded by the EU. For more than 20 years, we have had the very successful Ireland-Wales INTERREG programme. The current programme for the period 2014 to 2020 is worth almost €100 million. Last October, I had a very fruitful meeting with my Welsh counterpart, Mark Drakeford, to discuss the Ireland-Wales programme which supports an range of important investments across our maritime border. There are also a range of cross-Border programmes supported by Horizon 2020, Leader, Erasmus+ and other EU funds that we want to see continue.
As I said, next week I will travel to Strasbourg for the plenary session of the European Parliament. In that session, I will meet members of the Parliament and Commission to emphasise our concerns about the impact of Brexit. I will highlight to them the importance of the peace process and the contribution EU funding has made as well as the necessity to protect the Good Friday Agreement and ensuring that the vital work of the programme continues. These are programmes that are worth fighting for. In the most recent visit I made, which was to Derry, I had the opportunity to walk across the peace bridge with a DUP mayor and a Minister of the Northern Ireland Government from Sinn Féin. This is a project that was enabled by the European Union through a funding stream we have fought to maintain and which we want to see deployed successfully up to 2020. I am absolutely committed to us doing everything we can to negotiate a structure and funding for these programmes for the future of Northern Ireland and those parts of the Border which have seen them make a huge difference to the economic and social development of their communities. That is an overview of where we are and of the various programmes. I look forward to responding to any questions or points the committee has.