It used to be said that the cost of freedom is eternal vigilance. In Brexit Britain, the benefit of freedom seems to be freedom from local vigilance, as much as from EU bean counters, writes the ICTU’s John O’Farrell.
Six years ago, this column asked Theresa Villiers MP, the last-but-four Secretary of States this: ‘Could she promise that the Great Britain taxpayer will compensate Northern Ireland for all the cash we will lose from the Brexit she championed?’ That was: CAP for the farmers (€714 million, from 2014-2020); ESF for skills (€205 million); ERDF for infrastructure (€308 million), Interreg for links to Scotland and other EU regions (€€283 million) and Peace IV (€270 million) for repairing the human and social damage of the Troubles.
In April 2022, we may get our answer. The UK Government is scheduled to deliver details of the UK’s Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF). However, as the Northern Ireland Finance Minister Conor Murphy MLA recently observed: “Neither Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland had been given any say in its design, policy direction or delivery.”
In the old days of the Brussels yoke, the EU doled out structural funds using a formula that accounts for per capita GDP relative to the EU average, as well as local levels of employment, education, and population density.
Additionally, the devolved administrations exercised a high degree of control over the funds, within broad parameters set by the Partnership Agreement and the EU Common Provisions Regulation, which required minimum amounts of spend on certain specific areas, such as innovation. This allowed the devolved administrations to align ERDF and ESF expenditure from the EU with other devolved priorities and spending.
To declare an interest, I represented trade unions on a board of social partners overseeing ESF and ERDF funding. We met quarterly (and more often in specialised sub-groups) and were given access to all the supporting documentation we could manage. We could ask direct questions of EU and Northern Ireland officials and expect answers. We did so and got answers.
It used to be said that the cost of freedom is eternal vigilance. In Brexit Britain, the benefit of freedom seems to be freedom from local vigilance, as much as from EU bean counters. The UKSPF seems to be plotted from Whitehall, with little input from Executive ministers, let alone local representatives of farmers, business, community sector, district councils, or unions.
It is also a fact that there will be less money to follow. Invest NI has had a few difficulties lately, and the source of some are the ‘informal indications’ that the yearly £100 million it got from EU Structural Funds will be whittled down to £11 million from the UKSPF. One would laugh except for the central role assigned to Invest NI for attracting investment and developing our ‘prosperity’.
Many of the broader problems with the UKSPF are outlined in an excellent report from the Institute for Government, who add one concern unspoken by the Executive: “…the need to allocate funding in a way that attracts support and has a sense of legitimacy across the community divide. Care should be taken, for instance, over the branding of UKSPF projects in Northern Ireland…”