Giada Lagana, NUI Galway
For over 20 years, the EU has provided dedicated funding for cross-border programmes which support peace and reconciliation on the island of Ireland. Following publication of the EU’s draft budget for 2021-2027, this support may continue after Brexit. The draft budget proposes to fund cross-border and cross-community projects in Northern Ireland after the UK departs the EU.
EU financial support to Northern Ireland was intended to normalize cross-border activity on the island of Ireland, with conflict transformation progressing in parallel with economic and social development activities. De facto EU cross-border cooperation sponsored initiatives played the crucial role of mediating the European ideal of dialogue, cooperation and peace in the region. Brexit, however, threatens the dividends of the EU’s peace-building initiative in Northern Ireland.
Firstly, despite the Commission’s proposal to continue PEACE funding in Northern Ireland, the British government’s insistence that the UK must leave the jurisdiction of the European court of justice (ECJ) may see Northern Ireland lose tens of millions of pounds in funding for its PEACE programmes.
Secondly, and most importantly, the loss of dedicated financial support for peace initiatives in Northern Ireland potentially undermines the progress made in improving cross-community relations in the context of the ‘peaceful co-existence’ envisaged by the EU for Northern Ireland. Peacebuilding however, appears to be a second-order issue for the UK. Little consideration has been given to the ramifications of Brexit for Northern Ireland, where PEACE funded initiatives andtheir impacts are concerned.
Successive EU PEACE programmes invested in initiatives to support cross border relationships, including economic, social, cultural, sporting and community elements. They represent a sustained and sophisticated example of what the peace theorist John Paul Lederach (1997) called the ‘peacebuilding from below’ approach, with cross-border cooperation as a key priority. PEACE funded initiatives supported a range of practical conflict transformation projects
with both a cross-border and cross-community focus. Projects involve, among others, community groups, the Victims and Survivors Service, former paramilitaries, former Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers and former British Army personnel. Participants take part in a variety of initiatives.
For example: discussions on Irish histories; storytelling in English, Irish and Ulster-Scots; art in public spaces; and filmmaking projects based on the life stories of former prisoners. These projects are aimed at increasing contact and mutual understanding with a view to challenging identity configurations, which are embedded into Northern Ireland society through conflict and typically define community boundaries with reference to the past. Many of these initiatives were successful in producing understanding, awareness, friendliness and mutual respect between communities. The process may not be strictly labelled as ‘reconciliation’ (but what does ‘reconciliation’ mean? Are we to believe that former enemies will suddenly embrace one another as the cloud of false recognition is lifted?), but still contributed to a form of civility and peaceful coexistence.
Building networks of interdependence and common action across the Irish border and between actors at all levels, with cross-border programmes providing a connective societal impact, is considered a broadly positive influence on the Northern Ireland conflict and on community relations. The funding given by the EU to community groups in Northern Ireland (and within the border counties) also enjoys popular recognition, due to its strong focus on civil society. Challenging stereotypes, discussing history, and recognising diversity and commonality between Irish nationalist and British unionist ethno-national groups have all been important EU conflict transformation outputs in Northern Ireland.
The management of the PEACE programmes have nevertheless been subject to criticism for their excessive bureaucracy; the control exerted by national governments over the expenditure; and public sector dominance. A key criticism has been the ability of the PEACE programmes to address
cross-border cooperation, community development, community relations and economic development all at the same time. The links between these outputs were not clear from the start, and this ambiguity has consequences for the practical implementation and success of EU programmes.
If conflict amelioration, as an original objective of the European integration project, remains on the radar of EU policy innovators and decision-makers, then one would expect that intercultural dialogue projects and intercommunity relations would be mainstreamed in existing economic development cross-border programmes. Instead, such dialogue is suggested as an agreeable by-
product of cross-border contact, in the more general pursuit of economic development. Scholars and policy-makers accept that improvements are required in order to produce more emphatic tangible effects for civil society.
Northern Ireland's relationship with the EU nevertheless provides an important lesson. The EU supported moves towards peace in Northern Ireland, and progressively learned from its experience in the region. It adapted its political approach, financial instruments and the exercise of power based on the evolving context and circumstances within which it was acting. The EU studiously respected the critical role of the British and Irish governments in Northern Ireland, and through its funding mechanisms sought to support Northern Ireland from the bottom-up. The EU thus played an important role in Northern Ireland by practically supporting a move from conflict to peace and from a divided society to a shared society.
Regrettably, Brexit has the potential to undermine the EU’s long standing commitment to Northern Ireland. The prospect of PEACE programme ending means that the further refinement of the EU’s approach to peacebuilding in the region may be lost. This endangers the institutional- learning process, which saw the EU learn from Northern Ireland and later put those lessons into
practice in terms of its broader role as an international conflict resolution actor.
Uncertainty over crucial issues always poses risks in societies where division is deeply rooted. Brexit entails implications for identity, borders, equality, parity of esteem and cross-border relationships in Ireland, and hence for the political, economic and security well-being of Ireland and Northern Ireland. EU budgetary support is a welcome (and essential) contribution to peacebuilding,
political stability and in maintaining the ‘ecological balance’ of the whole Northern Ireland peace process. The potential loss of this support poses troubling risks for a society in transition. The EU draft budget recognises this. The future of PEACE funding in Northern Ireland however, is dependent on the British government doing likewise.