With the European elections looming ever closer as every day passes it has struck me that in Northern Ireland, there doesn’t ever seem to be much of a conversation about how Europe actually affects us.
I suppose one reason for this could be that Europe is perceived to be a distant entity in which we only really hear much about come election time. Another possible reason is that if we’re honest with ourselves we will probably recognise that European elections tend to be not a lot more than a simple sectarian headcount.
Perhaps it is then timely then that as Alex Attwood has now been officially selected to stand as the SDLP candidate in the European election, and as he happened to be at an event several weeks ago in QUB which sought to highlight what 40 years of EU membership has meant for Northern Ireland that I outline some of his arguments.
I got the impression that Alex Attwood was not afraid to emphasise the failings of our attitudes towards Europe, although I imagine that this stems from the fact that he is also unashamedly pro-Europe. Alex outlined how in the North we are not doing near enough in Europe, especially in the area of drawing funds. Alex, focused his attention on how, in relation to FP7, the drawdown from the North is around £50 million which contrasts to the South who attract much more funding as a result of the southern government placing ministers in the right areas to probe and get the funding which is available. So if this is the case, why are we not placing the right people in the right areas to draw funds for us in Northern Ireland? Alex then went on to outline that OFMDFM do not spend enough time in Europe and that we need to look to the South and how they exploit opportunities.
Getting down to the real detail of how Europe affects Northern Ireland. Alex told of how the EU is much more than just being about grants. He outlined his aspiration that he would like to see more nations joining Europe so that better relations could be built. I would find it hard to disagree with Alex on this point that the EU is indeed more than just about grants. There does seem to be a perception in Northern Ireland when we think about Europe that all we think about is peace monies and farmers.
In reality, as Dr Cathal, a Senior Research Fellow at the ISCTSJ at QUB outlined, the EEC offered a neutral space to build relationships between the British and Irish in order to help deal with conflict transformation. Further, he went on to outline that the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement was a product of this neutral space. Of course the context of the past is important in understanding the future, however, we maybe should feel obliged to ask ourselves that – although the successes of Europe in the past may have been plentiful towards bringing peace to Northern Ireland – now that we have a stable peace, how effective is Europe for us?
As Alex went on to talk about the roles of both the Dublin and London governments towards Northern Ireland it is maybe not surprising that Alex would not hesitate to champion Dublin’s efforts over London’s, but he went on to say that there would not be new Peace monies – namely Peace Four, were it not for the Dublin government as he claimed that London had sat on the sidelines. This poses a series of questions for us. If Alex’s claim is indeed true, why did London sit on the sidelines? Why should it effect us if London did sit on the sidelines, are our MEP’s incapable of securing peace money themselves?
I thought it was also very interesting that Alex rejected the notion of Europe being a peace project and noted that this idea of Europe being a peace project is a myth. Instead he highlighted the importance of being part of a large market as he went on to say that due to the rise of China as a global market, we will lose out if we remove ourselves from Europe as our island as a trading centre would be squeezed. Is this the key reason for us to stay in Europe? The fact that as far as trading goes, if we were to remove ourselves from Europe we may find that we as an economy slowly sink in terms of being a relevant trading power.
If one thing is clear it is that the debate on Europe needs to be kick-started into a wider debate in Northern Ireland and part of that is up to our politicians to lay all of the facts onto the table for us so that proper, mature debate can be had.