Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson) 
Ms Martina Anderson 
Mr Tom Elliott 
Mrs Dolores Kelly 
Mr Ian McCrea 
Mr Barry McElduff 
Mr Francie Molloy 
Mr Stephen Moutray 
Mr Jim Shannon 
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Mr Ronnie Hall ) European Commission

The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):

We will take evidence from the representative of the Directorate General for Regional Policy in the European Commission. I welcome Ronnie Hall.

Mr Shannon:

Who is the second representative, Chairperson? I want to hear you say his name.

The Chairperson:

The second representative has not turned up by prior arrangement. [Laughter.]

Mr Shannon:

Who was that second representative?

The Chairperson:

Do you mean Mr Hall’s colleague? [Laughter.]

Mr Hall, you are very welcome. Thank you for your attendance. I advise you that the session is being recorded by Hansard. We look forward to your presentation. Please make yourself available for questions afterward.

I remind members that mobile telephones should be switched off.

Mr Ronnie Hall (European Commission):

I have had the opportunity to speak to you, or bore you, with the details of the Northern Ireland task force in the past. Some Committee members were in Brussels some time ago.

By way of introduction, I come from a Directorate General for Regional Policy, which comprises around 700 people in a European Commission of 25,000. We are responsible for about 25% to 30% of the EU’s budget. We are beaten into second place only by the common agricultural policy.

Most of my directorate’s activity concerns the management of development programmes. We have around 320 programmes to manage across the European Union between 2007 and 2013. Like most public services these days, our resources are spread pretty thinly.

Against that background, and as many of you are aware, the President of the European Commission stopped off in Belfast in May 2007. At that time, you were on the verge of putting the institutions back in place. President Barroso agreed that he would seek to accompany the institutions in Northern Ireland by setting up a task force inside the European Commission. Basically, the idea was to draw Northern Ireland into the mainstream of European policy and programmes.

On his return to Brussels, President Barroso allocated the day-to-day responsibility to my boss, Commissioner Danute Hübner, who has responsibility for regional policy, because she is the individual in the Commission who has the most day-to-day contact with the region’s authorities, as she manages regional policy. Possibly that is of most relevance to the agenda that President Barroso agreed with the First Minister and deputy First Minister in May 2007, which involved drawing Northern Ireland into policy and programmes with a view to enhancing economic performance and competitiveness in the region.

It was by happy coincidence, from my point of view, that I was the director for co-ordination in the Directorate General for Regional Policy at that time, so I was allocated the day-to-day job of establishing and running a Northern Ireland task force.

It is a unique task force in the life of the European Commission, because we have never really brought together different departments in a form of joined-up thinking in the service of one geographically specific area. Accordingly, I work with the other Directorates General that have major budgetary responsibilities, such as Agriculture and Rural Development, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, and Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, with its substantial European social fund involvement in the region.

Other departments have smaller financial resources but a great deal of importance and influence, such as the Directorate General for Research, which runs the research framework programmes; the Directorate General for Enterprise and Industry, which runs the competitiveness and innovation programme; the Directorate General for Environment, in view of the importance of the sustainability agenda; and the Directorate General for Education and Culture, which is also very important from the point of view of the development of the labour force through education.

Our working method has been one of very close partnership with the authorities in the region, particularly with the formal authorities, such as the Department of Finance and Personnel and others. We have reached out to civil society, met with people and taken contributions from farmers and representatives of business, for example.

When we got back to Brussels with President Barroso’s original idea, we started to design what we would seek to achieve in that partnership. We agreed that we would do a stocktaking across the key policy areas in an attempt to gauge just how far Northern Ireland was involved in European policy and programmes. We drew up an inventory of the region’s involvement in the key policy areas. For example, we considered the number of projects and amount of money that Northern Ireland has drawn down under the research framework programme and matters of that nature.

We then proceeded to a diagnostic stage, where we examined areas that we felt could be further developed. We put all of that together in a report, which subsequently became what the European Commission calls a “Communication”. A Communication is one of our set-pieces that has considerable significance. When a Communication is adopted by the Commission, it means that it does not belong to Danuta Hübner: it belongs to all 27 European Commissioners. Therefore, the implementation of a Communication — if it implies implementation, and this one does — involves all the concerned departments of the European Commission.

I return to the partnership between the Commission and the Administration in Northern Ireland. The idea that was born that the reaction to the Commission’s Northern Ireland Task Force report would take the form of an action plan that would have targets and be time bound. As members probably know, a draft action plan has existed for a considerable time. You probably understand the reasons why it was finally approved only in March 2009. We now move to a new phase in implementation. I do not say that we are now moving to implementation because, even before it was formally approved and existed in draft form, the contacts continued daily between the European Commission and the Departments here in order to advance as far as possible in the areas identified in the Commission’s report.

From Northern Ireland’s point of view, the process has been a considerable success. We have not done that kind of work with any other region. It has yielded interesting results, and it comes with a commitment on the part of the European Commission that there will be full accompaniment in the realisation of the action plan.

Contacts between Northern Ireland and Brussels will undoubtedly intensify over the coming period, and we will help the Administration to realise its ambitions sector-by-sector, be it through increasing its involvement in the research framework programme; greater involvement with Invest NI in the competitiveness and innovation framework programme; or in other areas of interest, such as the possibility that there will be a Northern Ireland conflict resolution centre. That centre may be called the European conflict resolution centre, if some of those involved have their plans realised.

We had a very productive meeting in Brussels on 31 March. That was the last political act in the process between the new First Minister — if I can still use the term “new” — and the deputy First Minister with President Barroso. That is interesting because, even though the process has had a very long gestation, Northern Ireland’s Administration still has the attention of the President of the European Commission. He met with its representatives and had a longish meeting that permitted a number of very important issues to be discussed. Those issues included the conflict resolution centre; the proposed investment by Bombardier, which is of major consequence not only to Northern Ireland, but — in my view and in that of many others — to the European aviation industry; exchanges of officials between the European Commission and the Administration in Northern Ireland; and matters of that nature.

That is the current position. We will continue to implement the action plan in Northern Ireland, and the Administrations here and in Brussels will hold regular monitoring meetings — if that is the best terminology — to gauge progress and to examine problems and obstacles that have arisen. If necessary, they will propose new ideas, particularly in the context of economic crisis, which had not set in when the Northern Ireland task force was launched, and try to achieve outcomes that are as useful and concrete as possible. I am happy to take questions.

The Chairperson:

That was a helpful presentation. Thank you, Ronnie.

Mr Spratt:

Thank you for the presentation, Ronnie; it is good to see you again. Our visit to Brussels was worthwhile and in no way boring. Not much time was wasted during the programme.

I want to ask about research and the importance of building alliances. We have talked to other Parliaments in Scotland and the South of Ireland about that matter to try to obtain funding, because there are indications that we need to have other regions on board. I, and others, were slightly concerned at the lack of joined-up conversations or direct contact with some other regions, particularly in the United Kingdom and the South of Ireland. We must do that to maximise research. Funding seemed to be available but needed to be joined up with another area. Has any work been done on that issue? What is the current situation?

Mr Hall:

To date, the new framework programme runs from 2007 to 2013, which is the same duration as your regional programme. Although it is now 2009, it is relatively early days, because such programmes tend to take off relatively slowly and accelerate towards the end of the period. That is the typical implementation profile. So far, the situation in Northern Ireland is progressing well. At the beginning of the month, approximately 60 participants from Northern Ireland were involved in 50 projects in the seventh framework programme for 2007 to 2013. The allocated funding is approximately €8·5 million, which is about £8 million. For the entire previous seven years, the allocation was £31 million. Therefore, one third of that sum has been allocated after the first third of the period has elapsed. The rate of implementation has probably been better than that the previous period, given that programmes tend to accelerate later on.

The framework programme is a European programme, and is different from a national programme in the sense that we want as much cross-national co-operation as possible in order to create synergies and achieve a better outcome. That is a difficult trick to pull off, not only in Northern Ireland but across the European Union. That is one reason why the report emphasises the importance of the possibility of an all-island approach to developing research projects. Northern Ireland would probably not have the necessary critical mass for most research projects; it is too small, and, therefore, partnership is absolutely essential. In fact, in some ways, the situation is even more testing in this new period because the average size of a project has substantially increased. The challenge of obtaining partners is greater than ever.

One contribution — whether it is big or small — that would improve the way that Northern Ireland operates in the context of the framework programme is to have more exchanges of officials in both directions, if possible, between the Directorate General for Research and the Northern Ireland Administration. At the moment, I think that one person is detached to that Directorate. I also understand that the Commission’s Directorate General for Research will hold roadshows in Northern Ireland to improve the knowledge that is required to mount a successful project.

Mr Spratt:

Just one person? How many do you think would be a decent number? One seems to be a bit of a token.

Mr Hall:

There is one person at the moment. There could be regular changes. Through working with different people in different parts of the Directorate responsible for research and technological development, a fund of experience could be built back here in Northern Ireland. That is the objective. It is not just a programme for one person for a year, or whatever, and then it finishes. The following year, someone else will come and work in another part.

Mr Spratt:

Is there only one position?

Mr Hall:

It is flexible. In each Directorate General of the Commission, there is a reasonably large number of posts for secondees. Although there is some notion of national balance across the 27 member states, there are no hard and fast rules. There is no quota for Northern Ireland. In that kind of process, the race winner can be the region that reacts quickest or is the most enthusiastic, or the one that provides the person with the right qualifications for the area in the Directorate General.

Mr Elliott:

Thank you very much for the presentation, Mr Hall. In your opening comments, I noticed that you said that the EU President had “stopped off” in Belfast. That made it seem as though he had half an hour to spare and dropped in on us, rather than making a dedicated visit as we all had assumed.

Given that the European Union is expanding, how big a part of it is Northern Ireland, politically and in a lobbyist regime? Are we a very small fish in a big pond, or do we carry much more than our weight suggests?

Mr Hall:

The phrase “stopped off” was not intended to imply that his visit was of secondary importance, otherwise, there would not have been a Northern Ireland task force. You have to allow a little bit of latitude for the way that we speak in County Tyrone.

Mr Elliott:

Well, I am from Fermanagh.

Mr McElduff:

You have to go through Tyrone on your way home though.

Mr Hall:

He could stop off in Dungannon.

The impact of lobbying is very difficult to measure because there are no known indicators. The results can be very long term. Most regions of the European Union have concluded that they need a regional office on the doorstep of the European institutions. Northern Ireland has a regional office, and it has been extremely useful. Over time, is the impact of Northern Ireland’s lobbying improving? I think that the only real measure of that is the existence of the Northern Ireland task force, which is unique. No other area of the European Union has a task force of that nature. However, I do not know whether its existence can be attributed to lobbying. I imagine that President Barroso was lobbied, in some sense of the term, when he visited in 2007 — at least by senior politicians. Globally speaking, because of the Northern Ireland task force, I cannot honestly say that Northern Ireland is losing out in the race.

That is one of the principle objectives of the task force report. We do not call it lobbying; we call it networking. In the modern economy in particular, it is important that regions are interlinked and that there are good contacts and good flows of people — particularly decision-makers — in all directions. That is one of the most important things to achieve. It is a more graceful form of lobbying, but it is important to get involved in networking. The report contains a number of suggestions in that regard, and a lot of them have been followed up already.

Mr Elliott:

Do you accept that directives are implemented to a different degree in various countries throughout Europe? Do you see that as a problem — particularly for Northern Ireland, where they are, sometimes, implemented to the highest degree?

Mr Hall:

It is difficult to be precise in that field. In this context, the member state is the United Kingdom, and the United Kingdom has a relatively good track record in what is called the transposition of European directives into national law. Most of my experience in the implementation of directives is anecdotal, and, therefore, not serious evidence. However, accusations are made sometimes. For instance, I have heard that one of the problems facing transport-industry operators in the United Kingdom is the tendency to gold-plate. That term is reserved for when a relatively simple directive comes from Brussels, and a battery of national rules and regulations, which were unforeseen in the original directive, are added on. However, the record is reasonably good.

Advantage is not necessarily gained from the transposition or non-transposition of a directive. A classic example is in the field of environmental policy, where the degree of transposition differs according to the member states. In my area of work, which is regional policy, the time will come when we will probably be forced to suspend payment if the transposition is not satisfactory in some member states.

Mr Molloy:

Thank you for your presentation, and welcome back. The presentations that you gave us in Brussels and here have been beneficial to our response to the Barroso task force. This is the only area that has a task force; have we made the most of it? Have the Departments grasped the opportunities provided by that unique task force and made the most of them? What do you think of the Executive’s response to the Barroso task force report?

Further to Jimmy Spratt’s question, do we have enough people there to ensure that we get the best income?

Mr Hall:

The European Commission produced the Northern Ireland task force report in April 2008. It is true that a long time elapsed before the action plan was agreed formally by the Northern Ireland Executive. There was a loss of momentum. As the person from the European Commission who was chairing the work of the Northern Ireland task force, I had to explain the reasons for that to my colleagues of different nationalities from the various departments. I had to explain to them some of the intricacies of Northern Ireland politics and tell them not to worry and that everything would be fine some day.

My biggest concern during that period —

The Chairperson:

We admire your faith.

Mr Hall:

It could only come from a native.

My biggest concern during that period was over a classic case with which you are all familiar. One of the most difficult things to achieve in a public service is to get Departments to work together. To put it most simply, around the table of the Northern Ireland task force, I have people from the Department for Employment and Learning, the Department of the Environment and from research and development, none of whom are my responsibility. I do not complete their annual reports or do their promotion recommendations.

During that period, there is always a risk that people will lose interest and that the process will lose momentum. I am pleased to say, however, that that has not been the case. It has been helped, for example, by the visit that was undertaken on 31 March, which, once again, brought into play the President of the European Commission and that, by definition, has brought all my colleagues into line.

To go a little further, that is not something that can be done twice. I could not afford another hiatus of many months and keep the Northern Ireland task force together. That is not in your interests. No one knows who will be the President of the next European Commission in 2010. If it is not Mr Barroso, will the new person have the same interest in Northern Ireland? For the rest of this year, there is a window of opportunity, which, if it works well, will carry us forward into 2010. We must exploit that.

Mr Shannon:

I apologise for having to leave during your presentation. I was doing something for the press, and I had to get it finished before the deadline. I was not ignoring you.

The building of alliances with Scotland, Wales and — if necessary and when suitable — the Republic of Ireland has reoccurred.

Mr Spratt:

I have already asked that question.

Mr Shannon:

I apologise; I was not here to hear the answer. I am keen to know how we can influence that, access it or do better than we have done in the past.

Mr Hall:

You asked the question in a slightly different way, and there is one aspect that I did not cover in my answer. The new co-operation programmes that are funded by the European regional development fund offer a great opportunity. For example, a new programme brings Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic together in one programme for the first time. That is one of the best-performing programmes in European Union, with some 65% of the resources already having been allocated. It is a relative oddity among co-operation programmes in that the quality of its management, particularly its financial management and financial control or audit, was approved in our so-called compliance assessment in Brussels. That is interesting now, and for the future, because the current financial planning period ends in 2013, and, as we move forward, thoughts will turn to what will happen in 2014.

Nearly everyone can agree that co-operation programmes are an important priority for European regional development funding. It is important that Northern Ireland makes a huge success of those programmes and uses that as handle on the future, particularly by continuing to cement the PEACE programme, because it is not clear that there will be another PEACE programme after 2013. The balance of probabilities on that is probably negative. Therefore, co-operation across borders on regional development is very important; just as it is, as I have said, in other key policy areas, such as research and development projects.

Ms Anderson:

Thank you, Ronnie. That was very informative.

You mentioned the Communication that was adopted by the Commission, the inventory of projects that have been done, and the amount of money that had been drawn down. I do not know whether the Committee has access to that collated information, but it would help the Committee to get where it wants to go. I am not sure whether it is possible for the Committee to receive that information, or whether it has been received in another form that has gone over my head, but I would like the Committee to have it in order to track developments.

Are the 60 companies that have drawn down €8·5 million in the course of the seventh framework programme from across Ireland?

Mr Hall:

They come from Northern Ireland only.

Ms Anderson:

There was a conference — I think it was in November 2008 — in which agencies from the North and South came together to try to tap into the seventh framework programme in an all-Ireland context, because they saw opportunities to draw down that money for research and innovation projects. You must have additional information, because the figures given then were that there were 50 companies involved in 18 projects. Are they included in that €8·5 million funding? I understand, and correct me if I am wrong, that €50 billion is attached to that framework programme. Is there that much money involved?

Mr Hall:

Yes, the whole framework programme is worth roughly €50 billion over seven years.

In reply to the first question, the report was published. It is in two parts: there is a short political commentary of about five pages on the main areas to be explored and a Department-by-Department analysis, with the recommendations. Those recommendations form the basis of he action plan.

Ms Anderson:

Is there a section in the report containing information on the projects in which we were involved and how much money was drawn down for them, or must that be extrapolated from the document? You said that an inventory of that had been done. Can we have that information?

Mr Hall:

It is one of those classical problems in the sense that the information is collected by sector or by theme rather than by geographical area. We did a special exercise to measure the impact of those sectoral programmes in Northern Ireland. We intend to update that regularly, and, in the course of our monitoring of the action plan, we will make available information on performance to the Administration here. That is an example of the unique service that will be offered by the Northern Ireland task force. Frankly, we could not do the same for the 274 regions of the European Union, because that would involve civil servants in the European Commission working on nothing but statistics.

Ms Anderson:

Will each Department produce an action plan annually, or are they now committed to producing one action plan through the lifetime of the task force?

Mr Hall:

At present, it is one action plan that is implemented and monitored jointly by the Commission and the Administration. However, the action plan is updated as necessary. That is one of the benefits of contact with the Commission — people have the opportunity to say to Northern Ireland Departments, “Here’s a new thing, have you thought about this”? Therefore, nothing is set in concrete. It is a framework with the flexibility that is required for sensible adjustment.

Mr McElduff:

I am interested in the conflict transformation centre and its European dimension.

The Chairperson:

It is about time.

Mr McElduff:

I would like Mr Hall to tell us a bit more about the Commission’s interest in that, and about the potential that it sees in it from a wider European perspective. Are we any closer to identifying a site? Will it be in the listed buildings at the Maze/Long Kesh site?

Mr Hall:

We are not planning to site it in Brussels. [Laughter.]

It is an internal question, as members will be aware. On 31 March, President Barroso told the First Minister and deputy First Minister that they should come forward with their ideas, and the Commission would discuss them constructively. We can interpret that as meaning that he is willing to help if there can be agreement inside Northern Ireland on the proposed structure. The Commission would need to know what the centre’s aims and objectives would be, what its structure would be, and how it would relate to other ongoing activities in that field in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. As you know better than I do, there are a number of projects in that field across the globe and in Ireland, North and South. Most importantly, we would need to know what kind of seed capital would be available inside Northern Ireland to get it going.

It is possible that the European Union could support it. It is too early for me to give any definitive answer on that, but likely sources could be the International Fund for Ireland or the European regional development fund. I know that people from the Province have been exploring the possibilities in the budget of the Directorate General of Education and Culture. There are a number of possibilities that might support the project, but at present, since the meeting on 31 March, the ball is in the court of the Administration here.

The Chairperson:

That completes the questions. Thank you very much for your presentation and for your answers. If you wish to provide any additional information, please do so, and if we wish to have any further clarification we will be in contact with you. Thank you, and good afternoon.

Mr Hall:

Thank you; it was my pleasure

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