Northern Lens: What has the EU done for us?

Twelve months ago, in a Brexit briefing paper entitled After the EU referendum: Establishing the best for Northern Ireland, Queen’s University Belfast academics Professor David Phinnemore and Dr Lee McGowan highlighted two “immediate” challenges then facing the Northern Ireland Executive:

  1. Identifying options and agreeing a NI position on what ‘Brexit means’;
  2. Ensuring that it can have its opinions voiced by the UK government.

That was in August 2016. In January the Executive collapsed. As August 2017 nears an end and Brexit negotiations between the EU and UK continue we’re no closer to seeing the institutions at Stormont resurrected.

This week UUP MEP Jim Nicholson called for the establishment of a Northern Ireland Brexit advisory council to fill the void; in a tweet, DUP MP Ian Paisley called this the “worst idea ever”. Isn’t being without an agreement as to what ‘Brexit means’ and without a voice at the negotiation table the worst scenario ever?

Essentially hamstrung, all we can do is reflect on how life has been within the EU, and speculate as to what it might be like outside.

What did the EU ever do for us anyway?

In April of last year, journalist Siobhan Fenton warned in The New Statesman “the EU debate must not ignore Northern Ireland”. Key reasons for Northern Ireland’s strong support for EU membership ahead of the vote, she wrote, were:

  1. Special funding which NI has received from the EU as part of the peace process;
  2. How the region’s economy relies more heavily on agriculture than elsewhere in the UK;
  3. How NI shares a deeply contentious land border with the Republic of Ireland.

Former prime ministers John Major and Tony Blair walk side-by-side on Derry-Londonderry’s Peace Bridge ahead of the EU referendum.

Since 1989 the EU has invested £1.3billion into Northern Ireland. I’m sure you’ll remember more recent projects in which funding played a role:

  • Derry-Londonderry’s Peace Bridge;
  • The Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre;
  • Shared space at Girdwood Community Hub in north Belfast;
  • The Skainos Centre on the lower Newtownards Road — host to Irish language classes run by former UVF man David Ervine’s sister-in-law, Linda Ervine.

All these projects benefited from EU regional policy funding to Northern Ireland between 2007–2013 and the current round of funding for 2014–2020. The EU Commission’s overview can be found here.

The state-of-the-art EU-funded community and leisure hub at Girdwood Park, north Belfast was officially unveiled in January 2016.

In 2010, the Special European Union Programmes Body (Peace III programme) and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board provided funding for the first major phase of the physical restoration of the SS Nomadic, found in Belfast. (Source: Nico Kaiser, Flickr)

The refurbished Enterprise train service between Belfast and Dublin (Source: Geograph.ie)

The new Giants Causeway visitor centre (Source: Geograph.ie)

What about the EU’s role in improving Anglo-Irish relations?

Northern Ireland’s Troubles broke out just four years before both the UK and Republic of Ireland joined; relations between London and Dublin were fragile.

Writing in Time magazine days before the Brexit referendum, former Irish ambassador to the UK Daniel Mulhall (now ambassador to the USA) claimed: “The experience of working together on European issues over such a protracted period has helped Ireland and the U.K. to understand each other better. We have come to realise how much we have in common.”

A year earlier, on a visit to Queen’s University Belfast this month Taoiseach Leo Varadkar described Brexit as “the challenge of this generation”, calling for “unique solutions” to preserve the relationship between the UK and the EU.

What are our politicians doing now?

As Brexit negotiations continue this week, the EU has accused the UK of “magical thinking” on the future of the Irish border. In Northern Ireland, our hopes of seeing Stormont back up and running are more modest.

What did the EU ever do for us, we ask, as we edge towards the exit door? Quite a lot, actually. What are our politicians doing in the face of “the challenge of this generation?” I’ll leave that to you to decide.


Originally published at Northern Slant.