Today, when you drive between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the only way you can tell you have crossed a border is that the painted lines in the middle of the road are different. The check points which once divided them are gone.
This year it is 20 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement which paved the way for peace in Northern Ireland. Prior to the agreement many people, especially in the region, saw peace as an unachievable dream. Impossible in their lifetimes.
I visited Northern Ireland in March to assess how EU funds have been spent as I am responsible for reporting on this issue to the European Parliament. EU spending in Northern Ireland has amounted to EUR 1.2 billion since the creation of the first Peace Programme.
I had been to Northern Ireland previously, but this visit was truly eye opening. It is incredible what has been achieved.
If you are from other parts of the UK, particularly if you weren’t around during the ‘troubles’, it’s easy to forget just how terrible things were and how essential it is that we do everything in our power to ensure the senseless killings and injuries that took place during that period in many of our lives are never repeated.
I witnessed first-hand how EU programmes are giving young people from both communities the opportunity to come together to learn, train and socialise. These young people have the possibility of a conflict free future in a peaceful and stable country.
We’ve come so far. But there is still a long way to go.
Just weeks ago police in Northern Ireland were attacked with petrol bombs and other missiles after they tried to stop an illegal dissident parade. The major political parties have publicly cut ties with terrorist groups but many of the groups themselves remain active.
It is clear that we still need the Peace Programme.
However, after Brexit, Northern Ireland could lose EU funding.
In my report to the European Parliament I will recommend the Peace Programme funding continues post Brexit and Interreg funding for cross border projects also continues. But will the UK Government guarantee same amount of funding the EU currently provides? And will it commit to continuing to do so after the Tories no longer need the DUP to prop up their weak position? It is hard for May to rule when there is faction within her party: ‘the enemy within’ which wants a Brexit no matter the costs - even if that means reinstating the border the Good Friday agreement removed in 1998.
A hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would absolutely contravene the Good Friday Agreement. Just last week, the man who brokered the Agreement, Mr George Mitchell said a hard border after Brexit could lead to “serious trouble” and a return to the violence of the 1970s and 1980s. During my visit I was told that attitudes in both communities have hardened since the Brexit decision.
Theresa May’s Government will fall without DUP support in Westminster, so she cannot let Northern Ireland stay in EU and have a hard border in the Irish Sea. It would be simply unacceptable for the DUP.
We are now less than a year away from leaving the EU and there has been no progress on this issue.
Short of remaining in the EU, the only real solution is for all of the UK to stay in the Single Market and Customs Union. No other option provides security or stability for Ireland and by extension, the UK. It may be time to face up to the undeniable truth that peace in our time was created through Europe coming together, not splintering apart.