“The PEACE programme is a fine example of the European Union’s longstanding commitment to peace and reconciliation”. These were the words of EU Commissioner for Regional Policy Johannes Hahn at the opening of an event held yesterday in Brussels celebrating the role of the EU in promoting peace in Northern Ireland. The PEACE programme, currently in its third iteration (PEACE III), is managed by the Special EU Programming Body and is funded through the European Territorial Cooperation objective. Since its inception in 1995, the PEACE programme has funded over 20,000 projects in Northern Ireland. It has cost just under €2 billion with the aim of “reinforcing progress towards a peaceful and stable society, and promoting reconciliation”[i]. The projects range from large infrastructure and economic regeneration schemes to small community-led mediation groups.
Many of the speakers reminded us that the peace in Northern Ireland is still fragile. The recent riots in Belfast are a visible reminder of this, but that some communities remain isolated and segregated is certainly of more concern. Education, for example, is still divided along religious lines. Many of the projects funded by the PEACE programme try to promote integration between previously segregated communities at the local level. We heard from ‘Theatre of Witness’, a community theatre project which describes itself as “bringing survivors of violence together with perpetrators and witnesses to explore issues of accountability, healing, guilt, restorative justice, forgiveness and redemption”. People who suffered during the Troubles play themselves in theatre productions, allowing audiences to collectively bear witness to their pain.
In the video below you’ll see excerpts from their show ‘I Once Knew a Girl’.
There is uncertainty as to the future of the PEACE programme due to the current difficulties in EU budget negotiations. If all goes well, the next stage of the programme, PEACE IV, would commence in 2014, and Commissioner Hahn did remark that some funding has been secured. We’ll await the outcome of the European Council meeting next week to see the future of what is obviously a worthwhile EU peacebuilding project.
Throughout the event, those people working in the projects in Northern Ireland reminded us of the importance of listening to communities affected by conflict. By understanding their grievances and suffering, often passed down through generations, peace programmes can make a positive impact on creating societies where conflict is managed in a nonviolent and constructive way.
[i] EU Regional Policy website. http://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/activity/ireland/index_en.cfm [Accessed 31/01/2012]