Belfast Telegraph

Commission's new head expresses her optimism

By John Simpson

Colette FitzGerald is the newly appointed head of the European Commission office in Northern Ireland.

Ms FitzGerald has taken on this representational role with the advantage of first-hand local knowledge since she has been working, on secondment from the European Commission, with the Northern Ireland Executive for seven years. Since 2007, Colette has been a Commission advisor to the Executive with special responsibility to facilitate the work of the unique Commission task force for Northern Ireland set up by President Barroso when he made a first visit to Northern Ireland.

Her earlier experience was, formerly, in the Irish Department of Finance and later in Brussels for the European Commission where she specialised in aspects of European Regional Policy.

Northern Ireland has good reason, according to Colette, to benefit from a better appreciation of the importance of European Union developments. "The key aim of the task force set up by President Barroso is to make sure that the stakeholders here have a better understanding of what Europe has to offer," she said.

"The Commissioner with responsibility for research and innovation, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, has made several visits here and wants to ensure that some of the smaller businesses participate in the new Horizon 20:20 Research and Development programme. It will have simpler rules so that it will be more accessible for smaller businesses.

"In an example of Northern Ireland contributing to important IT developments, and benefiting from international expertise, a co-operation arrangement on the potential for Connected Health, between Belfast and Boston, based in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will be explored at a major conference this October.

"Northern Ireland can make better use of European opportunities by influencing and benefiting from European policies and by making the most of the available European funds."

Ms FitzGerald has worked to build a more structured organisation in Government departments to be aware of European questions. Today, there are civil service inter-departmental groups with continuing responsibility for four areas: competitiveness and employment, innovation and technology, climate change and energy, and social cohesion

Any reference to further significant funding sits alongside the more restrictive aspects of harmonised competition policy on State Aids constraining, for example, the work of Invest NI: is this harmonisation helpful? "Northern Ireland is one of the more developed regions in the EU and there are other regions where needs are greater than ours. The guidelines still give some relative advantages to different parts of Northern Ireland. In addition, there are other sources of European funding available which we have not locked into as much as we should."

"The most obvious area where Northern Ireland might increase its involvement is in applications from businesses and universities for research and development proposals and linked funding grants. In the next funding period, from 2014 to 2020, the proposal on the table is for a European research programme of €80bn for a period of seven years.

"We need to get the private sector, particularly smaller companies, to step up their investment in research and innovation activities," said Ms FitzGerald.

There are plans for a more effective local dialogue. "I am looking forward to working closely with the newly established Northern Ireland European Regional Forum which was set up in May, this year. This will provide a framework for stakeholders here, public and private bodies, farmers union, business organisations and voluntary sector organisations to share information on what each is doing on European topics.

"The forum, led by Ministers from the Office of the First Ministers and Belfast City Council, will increase our capacity to learn about, and influence, important European issues."

"I look forward to maintaining my close working relationships with the various stakeholders here and also with the offices of the Executive in Brussels. We are performing well ahead of other similar sized regions in Europe, but we can do even better in the future."