Topical Issue Matters- 8th November 2011 The need to finalise arrangements in relation to the Border Uplands Project

Deputy Joe O’Reilly:

The cross-Border geopark straddles counties Cavan, Fermanagh, Leitrim and Sligo. Recognised by UNESCO, the geopark contains a fine array of geological, geomorphological and biodiversity features of international importance. Within the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark it is possible to see some of Ireland’s finest cliffs and scarps, including Cuilcagh Mountain summit ridge, the Cliffs of Magho, which overlook lower Lough Erne, and Knockmore Cliff, which reaches a height of 130 m. The Border upland project builds on the established reputation of the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark and will greatly enhance the landscape tourism product of the region by creating much needed outdoor access, recreational and amenity infrastructure in the scenic upland areas of the four counties straddling the Border. Part of this will be an interpretive centre at Blacklion.

The overall project was approved by the INTERREG IVA steering committee on 10 February 2011. It was awarded funding of €3,183,804 and a letter of offer was expected in May or June of this year. However, on 15 June, the Special EU Programmes Body, SEUPB, stated that the letter of offer was on hold as the accountable Departments were working on agreeing the percentage splits for the matched funding amounts. The fact that a 25% outlay by the Governments of Northern Ireland and the Republic will attract 75% funding from Europe makes their acceptance vital. We need an answer. The intergovernmental debate on the ratio of contributions needs quick resolution because the letter of offer is long overdue. It is a question of giving effect to an agreement between the two Governments on a ratio of expenditure. This infrastructure is vital for the community and the area.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government (Deputy Fergus O’Dowd):

I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Public Service and Reform, Deputy Howlin. The Border uplands project is a joint venture between Fermanagh District Council and the county councils of Cavan, Leitrim and Sligo. This project will greatly enhance the region’s landscape tourism product by creating much needed outdoor access and recreational and amenity infrastructure in the scenic upland areas of the four counties concerned. It is due to be implemented under the INTERREG IVA programme, which covers the period 2007 to 2013. INTERREG is co-funded by the Irish and UK Governments and the European Regional Development Fund. The objective of the programme, which has a total value of €256 million, is to support strategic cross-Border co-operation for a more prosperous and sustainable region. It focuses on the development of a dynamic economy and the provision of support to cross-Border infrastructure that will improve access to services and thereby improve the quality of life for those living in these areas.

The Irish experience of Structural Funds has been very positive. Cohesion policy has played an important role in the development of Ireland’s economy and the financial transfers from the EU budget are important levers to bring about change and encourage development in the regions covered. The INTERREG programme is managed by the Special EU Programmes Body, one of the six North-South bodies established under the Good Friday Agreement. Funding allocation is based on a comprehensive and robust application and approval process. To implement the programme, the SEUPB issues calls for project applications, assesses applications received and presents projects for final selection by a steering committee. All funding applications are subject to this process to ensure funding is allocated in an effective manner. Funding for the approved projects is then provided by the relevant Departments in Ireland, Northern Ireland and, in the case of tripartite projects, Scotland. The INTERREG programme should take account of the overall agreed apportionment of funding from member states for the period 2007 to 2013. Ireland’s ratio is 27.6%, or €70.7 million, while the ratio for the UK is 72.4%, or €185.3 million. Over the lifetime of the programme to date, however, Ireland’s contribution has been in excess of the agreed rates and is currently running close to 40%. This issue was raised by the Minister, Deputy Howlin, when he and the Minister for Finance met their Northern counterpart, the Minister for Finance and Personnel, Sammy Wilson, MLA, at a sectoral meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council in July.

It was agreed that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the Northern Ireland Department of Finance and Personnel in Northern Ireland and the SEUPB would work closely together to address this issue urgently to ensure the correct funding ratios are met by end of the programme. This will mean that remaining projects will need to be funded with relatively higher UK and relatively lower Irish contributions.

However, pending a resolution it has been necessary to put all letters of offer for INTERREG projects on temporary hold. I understand the concerns arising for Deputy O’Reilly and the project’s sponsors. However, I assure them that officials in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform have been pursuing this issue with their Northern counterparts and I am hopeful we will shortly reach a resolution which will allow the letter of offer for this project to issue.

Deputy Joe O’Reilly:

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply. The last paragraph of his response was particularly helpful in that it appears to indicate that a solution is at hand. I ask him to confirm that he is confident of a favourable outcome to the intergovernmental negotiations on the ratio of financing and assure me of early issuance of the letter of offer. The delays thus far have been so lengthy that any further delay could put the project at risk.

Senator Joe O'Reilly representing Cavan & Monaghan 2010. | An ExSite website