DUP and SF clash as MEPs back call for Northern Ireland to retain EU funds post-Brexit
A row has broken out after the European Parliament said Northern Ireland should be allowed to keep hundreds of millions of pounds in EU funding after Brexit to keep the peace process on track.
A report drawn up by the parliament's influential committee on regional development recommended that funding for two schemes - the Interreg and Peace programmes - should continue whether "deal or no-deal" because of the invaluable role they have played in reducing community tensions.
The report was overwhelmingly backed by a vote of MEPs in plenary by 565 votes to 51. Notably, Conservatives MEPs abstained.
The programmes, whose total funding is £470 million, are currently 85% funded by the EU and focus on building trust between the two main communities.
However, Sinn Fein and DUP MEPs were immediately at loggerheads over the money, though both welcomed it.
Sinn Fein MEP Martina Anderson said yesterday's vote represented further endorsement of European support for special status for Northern Ireland within the EU.
Speaking from Strasbourg, she added: "Cohesion funding has been essential to many sections of society in the North, from agriculture and SMEs to Peace and Interreg funding, which has helped strengthen communities and promote reconciliation, as well as cross-border projects.
"The overwhelming support for this position in the parliament, with 565 MEPs voting in favour of the proposal, is a further indication of Europe's support for the North to have special status within the EU post Brexit.
"This vote illustrates that the lobbying by Sinn Fein for imaginative and creative solutions to Brexit is paying off across Europe."
However, the DUP's Diane Dodds claimed that "the UK exit has in fact breathed new life into cross-border peace and reconciliation funding".
"This builds on current examples of funding cooperation between the EU and partners from countries throughout the rest of the world," she said.
"Any new Peace or Interreg programmes will be constituted on the basis of Northern Ireland being a region of an independent UK after Brexit.
"This is not, as some try to portray it, any kind of special status for our province inside the EU."
Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson warned against the use of language that implied peace would be under threat if the funding was not renewed.
He said: "EU support has complemented the increased political, security and diplomatic normalisation of Northern Ireland. That is a major achievement which the EU should be proud of.
"However, I was disappointed with some language in the report that implied the peace process would be at risk if these funds did not continue.
"That, to me, is over-simplistic at best, and at worst risks giving succour to those who seek to justify terrorist acts."
The report recommends that "post-2020, without prejudice to the ongoing EU-UK negotiations, EU support for territorial cooperation, especially regarding cross-border and cross-community projects, should be continued".
It says that there are legitimate "fears that an end to these programmes would endanger cross-border and inter and cross-community trust-building activities and, as a consequence, the peace process".
Derek Vaughan, the committee's rapporteur, told MEPs that while Northern Ireland has seen "huge economic improvement and tensions have been reduced... we do know that those tensions still bubble away". "I hope nobody gets the impression, and they shouldn't get the view from the report, that we're saying that 'no EU funds means a return to the Troubles' - the report isn't saying that, and I wouldn't say that," he added.
"But I am saying, and what the report says, is that EU funds have made a valuable contribution to reducing those tensions and conflict."