Many around the world, including in Europe, have played a valuable role in supporting peace and stability in Northern Ireland. Successive PEACE programmes, part-funded by the European Union, have directed funding to worthwhile projects aimed at community reconciliation.
Almost €330 million in funding through the PEACE III programme helped more than 450 projects across Northern Ireland. Those projects help to build a shared future and break down barriers between communities. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that she and the Government are giving full support to the implementation of a PEACE IV programme so that such good work can continue?
I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. We are very supportive of a PEACE IV programme and were delighted that funding for it was included in the multi-annual financial framework to the tune of €150 million. We hope that we might be able to provide a top-up for that fund from our territorial cohesion allocation and we hope that it will focus on those key shared society projects that are so important in Northern Ireland.
That was rather a strange question and I would have hoped that the Secretary of State would have said very little in reply, as surely the people who have helped the peace process are the people of Northern Ireland themselves led by courageous politicians from Northern Ireland, many of whom are sitting in this Chamber today.
My hon. Friend is right; the real credit for the huge achievements in the political settlement in Northern Ireland goes to the political leadership of Northern Ireland and the courage its members showed. They received welcome support from around the world, but it was their achievement and we should give them the credit for it.
Does the Secretary of State recognise that as well as the positive effects of EU funding programmes, including the PEACE programmes, the common experience of Britain and Ireland as members of the European Union brought British-Irish relations on to a new plain and created the context for the peace process? It has also delivered a situation in which the border is less intrusive in the economic and social life of the island, and those are positive factors that need to be weighed up in any consideration of the UK’s future in the EU.
There are many reasons why the relationship between the UK and Ireland has improved so dramatically over recent years, but certainly the background of the European Union has provided some assistance. Of course, that matter will be weighed up carefully in the ongoing debate about the future of our relationship with Europe, but it is important for everyone to recognise that if people want a say on the future of Europe and a referendum on it, they need to elect a Conservative Government.
The Secretary of State has already said that the peace process in Northern Ireland was helped immensely by our membership of the European Union, through the PEACE money and in other ways as well. Does she not agree that our continued membership of the European Union, reformed as it would be, is vital for the people of Northern Ireland and in the continuation of the peace process?
I believe that it is vital that we should seek to reform and renegotiate our relationship with Europe so that it is focused on the trade, investment and commerce that is good for the whole UK, including Northern Ireland. I believe it would then be right to put that new deal to the British people in a referendum.
Sometimes the mention of Europe in this Chamber engenders the same reaction as occurred this morning at a magnificent Ulster fry breakfast when somebody asked for the vegetarian alternative. From the perspective of a former very distinguished Member of the European Parliament, the Secretary of State must recognise that Northern Ireland has benefited greatly from the UK’s membership of the EU. Will she outline briefly how she sees that relationship developing in coming years?
As I have said, I think it is crucial that our relationship with Europe changes so that it is no longer focused on ever-closer political union, which is something that the people of this country never have wanted and never will want, but focuses on the commercial and trade opportunities that people thought they were voting for last time we had a referendum on the EU.