Northern Ireland & the EU

Northern Ireland and the European Union

 Northern Ireland is, for the time being, a member of the EU by being part of an EU Member State- the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.


“Northern Ireland is not unique among the regions of the European Union, but it does have certain distinctions.

 It is a small but discrete region with a considerable degree of administrative autonomy within a large and still largely centralised member state. It is divided by sea from landmass of the state of which it is part, and by a currency difference from the other EU member state by which it shares the island of Ireland”.

(Dennis Kennedy: Living with the European Union, the Northern Ireland Experience, Macmillan Press 2000)

EU Referendum 2016

On 23rd June 2016, Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU Referendum by a majority of 56% to 44%.

However, the UK, as a whole, voted by a narrow margin to leave the EU.

Therefore, Northern Ireland is scheduled to leave the EU in March 2019.

Brief history of UK joining the EEC

Following the resignation of President de Gaulle in 1969, and the election of the British Conservative Party under Edward Heath in Britain in June 1970, Great Britain submitted another – the third- application to join the European Economic Community (EEC). Within 11 days, of the Conservatives winning office, the British application was revived and it was now that the time was right for Heath to fulfil his political dream of the UK joining the EEC.

The final negotiations for British entry to the EC were conducted on 22-23 June 1971 in Luxembourg[1] and the British White Paper was issued on 7 July.

On 22nd January 1972, in the Palais d’Egmont in Brussels, Ireland and the UK signed the Treaty of Accession to the European Communities. Taoiseach Jack Lynch and PM Heath spoke of an new era of  understanding and friendship.

Ten days later, the British Embassy in Dublin was attacked, and between the signing in January 1972 and accession the following year, more than 450 people died in terrorist related violence in Northern Ireland.

However, the Northern issue never featured in any discussions at EEC level in negotiations.

As Dennis Kennedy has pointed out:

“In the prolonged accession negotiations in 1970 and 1971 no one-the Irish, the British, nor anyone in the Community-made any reference whatsoever to the events in Northern Ireland.”

On 1st January 1973 Denmark, Republic of Ireland, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland became members of the European Economic Community.


The Republic of Ireland already had the debate and the referendum out of the way before joining the EEC.

The British case, on the other hand, was very different. Reason being, the two largest political parties were in disagreement over the issue of membership[2] and the debate went on, unsettled after accession, as Britain went to the polls in 1974.

The Labour Party had been divided over the issue of the EEC, and the leader, Harold Wilson had finally come round to the idea – largely to keep his party united- that while Britains’ entry into the Common Market was in principle correct, Heath had not won sufficiently good terms. Having won the second 1974 election, Harold Wilson had been busy renegotiating Heath’s terms of accession, and in the spring of 1975, Wilson could recommend the new package of terms to the people of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The Cabinet finally agreed that a referendum should take place and in March, the date was set for 5 June of that year.[3]  Command Paper 5925 carried the actual question that the people of the UK would have to vote on: The Government have announced the results of the renegotiation of the UK’s terms of membership of the European Community.

In Northern Ireland, there was no much appetite for another poll. There had been nine visits to the ballot box between 1970 until May 1975. Now, in June, there was to be a referendum on Europe.

The Northern political landscape was dominated by the violence of the ‘Troubles’. Europe was not high on the agenda. Nevertheless, some MPs in the Stormont Parliament (prior to 1972) were aware of the importance of the EEC to Northern Ireland, in particular to agriculture.

The most high profile figure in the NI Referendum, and in Britain was undoubtedly Enoch Powell. Previously MP for Wolverhampton, he quit the Conservatives over Europe, and was invited to stand as Official Ulster Unionist candidate in South Down in 1974. He did, and won, prompting Ian Paisley to dub him the ‘Wolverhampton wanderer’.

Dr Paisley himself was a key figure on the NO side of the Referendum, although it was not a straight sectarian split.

The leader of the right-wing Vanguard-Bill Craig was pro-Europe, while the main leaders of the SDLP were against the EEC, with John Hume being the prominent YES supporter in the party. Republicans were against the EEC.
The question on the ballot paper was:


Overall, the UK result was a high turnout of 65%, 67.2% for continued membership and 32.8% against. (Gowland and Turner, p.212).

Northern Ireland was a Yes, but a stronger No vote:

YES 259,251 52.1%
NO 237,911 47.9%

The turnout in NI was lower at only 48.2%, though polling fatigue could be a factor, as well as the fact that Europe was not a key issue in 1970s Northern Ireland.

So Britain was definitely in, but was it definitely in? Or had it 2 other feet in the other ‘2 circles’, the Commonwealth and the ‘special relationship’ with the US?

The PM during the 1980s Margaret Thatcher seemed to almost prove that De Gaulle’s fears were justified in that Britain was not full-hearted into Europe was but very close to the US. This was confirmed by her Bruges speech in September 1988 when she poured scorn on the idea of supranationalism and wanted a Europe which preserves that ‘Atlantic Community- that Europe on both sides of the Atlantic-which is our noblest inheritance and our greatest strength.’ (May, p.115-116)

The issue has still not been settled.

Indeed, the anti-European element of the Conservative Party, nervous at losing support to the UK Independence Party, resulted in the decision by the Conservative Government under David Cameron to call for an in/out referendum in June 2016. In the years since the vote, the country seems more divided than ever on the issue.

[1] Gowland, David and Turner, Arthur. Reluctant Europeans, Pearson (2000), p180.

[2] Although Harold Wilson, the British PM, said he did not disagree with the principle of joining the EEC, only the terms of accession.

[3] Gowland & Turner, Reluctant Europeans, op cit, p. 203

[4] Cited in Gowland & Turner, Reluctant Europeans, p.204


Northern Ireland & the EU

In terms of the history of NI and the EU, the next date of importance following entry into the EEC, was 1979 in the first Direct elections to the European Parliament, which returned Ian Paisley, John Hume and John Taylor as Northern Ireland’s first three elected MEPs to Strasbourg and Brussels.

While still on the backburner for most people in Northern Ireland, the EU was affecting the farming and fishing sectors in particular.

In 1997, Northern Ireland was twice as dependent on agriculture as the rest of the UK -4.5% against 2% in terms of contribution to GDP –while its agriculture is generally based on small farms.

European Directives have also affected many aspects of working life.

Protected geographical indication (PGI)

Lough Neagh Eels, Comber Early Potatoes and Armagh Bramley apples are three Northern Ireland products to have achieved EU protected name status.

Lough Neagh Pollan is the fourth product from Northern Ireland to have been recognised as a Protected Food Name (PFN) under EU law. It has become the first to receive the status of Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), which is a more rigorous designation

Northern Ireland PEACE programme

For more than three decades Northern Ireland benefited from aid for regional development from the EU. The Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation was another important funding programme.

Currently, there are a number of EU programmes managed by Stormont departments.

The peace process in Northern Ireland has been receiving financial support from the EU since 1989, through both EU regional policy and EU contributions to the International Fund for Ireland (IFI).

Following the recommendations from a special Commission Task Force, the PEACE I programme (1995-99) was approved on 28 July 1995. In March 1999, the European Council decided that the special programme should continue until 2004 under the name of PEACE II. The programme was subsequently extended until 2006. PEACE III (2007-2013) carried on some of the priorities of the previous programmes. A closure declaration should be submitted to the Commission by 31 March 2017.

A new programme (PEACE IV) was launched on 14 January 2016, with a strong emphasis on creating opportunities for young people.

What is the SEUPB?

The role of the Special EU Programmes Body is to help facilitate the positive impact that European Regional Development Funding will have on the lives of people living across Northern Ireland, the Border Region of Ireland and Western Scotland.


The SEUPB is responsible for the implementation of the EU’s PEACE IV (€270m) and INTERREG VA (€283m) Programmes. It also have a signposting role to promote involvement in the INTERREG VB Transnational and INTERREG VC Interregional Programmes.

It is one of the six cross-border Bodies set up under the “Agreement between the Government of Ireland and the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland establishing implementing bodies” signed on 8 March 1999 (the British-Irish Agreement of 8 March 1999).

The Agreement was given domestic effect, North and South, by means of the North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 and the British-Irish Agreement Act 1999 respectively.

It is responsible to two Sponsor Departments, the Department of Finance in Northern Ireland and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in Ireland along with the European Commission and the North South Ministerial Council.

European Policy and Devolution and Northern Ireland

European affairs is a matter for the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM)


EPCU, European Policy and Co-ordination Unit


EPCU helps Northern Ireland fulfil its EU responsibilities and develop a positive approach to participation in the European Union. This involves:

  • Leading on the development of the Executive Committee’s strategic approach to Europe.
  • Maintaining effective liaison arrangements with Whitehall, the Scottish and Welsh devolved administrations, the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of the Taoiseach and across NICS departments on European matters.
  • Monitoring the transposition of European directives.

The European Policy and Co-ordination Unit (EPCU) along with the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels (ONIEB) constitutes the European Division of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

The Unit was also responsible for promoting European networking by administering Measure 4.1 ‘Networking in Europe and Beyond’ – of the Peace II Programme.


The Division is led by Gerry Mulligan, Director of the ONIEB, based in the Brussels Office.

EPCU officials are based in Belfast.


The Unit operates within an annual baseline budget of £220,000, £212,000 of which is used to cover staff salary costs.

Contact EPCU

The EPCU can be contacted by post, by phone, by fax or by email.

European Policy and Co-ordination Unit (EPCU)
Room E5.27
Castle Buildings
Stormont Estate
Belfast BT4 3SR

By phone 028 9052 3125

By fax 028 9052 3499

By email


The Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels

The Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels (ONIEB), which opened in 2001, is a Northern Ireland Civil Service office based in Brussels, Belgium.

The fundamental vision of the office is to help Northern Ireland better engage in the European Union.

The three strategic priorities of the office are:

  • To support Northern Ireland’s engagement with the EU.
  • To ensure that Northern Ireland has the opportunity to engage in policymaking with the EU Institutions.
  • To raise the positive profile of Northern Ireland.

ONIEB has prepared information on how ONIEB can facilitate Government departments and other Northern Ireland organisations in organising visits and events in Brussels.


Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels
180 Chaussée d’Etterbeek
1040 Brussels



EU Insitutions

The European Parliament and NI


The 751 members of the European Parliament represent over 500 million European citizens in 28 Member States.

Northern Ireland has three elected MEPs. Government works closely with these parliamentarians to ensure that matters of concern to Northern Ireland are raised in the European Parliament.

Read more about the role of an MEP on the European Parliament(external link opens in a new window / tab)website.

The MEPs who represent Northern Ireland are:
Martina Anderson – Visit the Sinn Fein website(external link opens in a new window / tab)
Jim Nicholson – Visit the Ulster Unionist Party website(external link opens in a new window / tab)
Dianne Dodds – Visit the Democratic Unionist Party website


European Commission

The European Commission have their UK office in London, but they do have an office in Belfast.

European Commission office in Belfast

They are located at 74-76 Dublin Road, Belfast.
Tel: 028 9024 0708
Fax: 028 9024 8241

Their job is to represent the European Commission in Northern Ireland and to provide information about the European Union, its programmes and policies.

The Office of the European Commission in Northern Ireland was set up in 1980.  Their role is to represent the European Commission in Northern Ireland and to provide information about the European Union, its programmes and policies. The Office works closely with the Northern Ireland administration and the public and private sectors to help Northern Ireland engage and make the most of European Union funding programmes.

The Office also has a dedicated Information Point, open to the public, with a comprehensive range of EU publications available free of charge. The Head of Office is Colette FitzGerald.

Northern Ireland Task Force

The Northern Ireland Task Force was set up in May 2007 to help Northern Ireland participate more actively in the EU policy process and fully benefit from EU programmes and projects fostering growth and jobs. It operates within the European Commission under the authority of the Commissioner for Regional Policy, Corina Creţu, and is composed of representatives from 17 European Commission Directorates-General (DGs) that have a role in fostering socio-economic development in the broadest sense.

On 14 January 2016, the European Commission announced the continuation of the Northern Ireland Task Force. At the request of European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, the services of the Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy, together with their counterparts in Northern Ireland, will carry out an assessment of the work of the Northern Ireland Task Force by the end of 2018.

For more information on the Northern Ireland Task Force, see the DG Regional Policy website.

European Investment Bank

The EIB is the European Union’s bank. It is the only bank owned by and representing the interests of the European Union Member States and works closely with other EU institutions to implement EU policy.

The European Investment Bank (EIB) was established in 1958 with a remit to finance investment projects which contribute to EU policy objectives.

In partnership with the European Commission the EIB has launched an Investment Plan for Europe, focusing on sectors of strategic importance to the European Union, including infrastructure (digital, transport and energy investments in line with EU policies); education, research and innovation; employment (particularly youth employment) and environmental sustainability.

The University of Ulster has secured a £150 million loan from the European Investment Bank that will support key campus development works.
The University of Ulster has secured a £150 million loan from the European Investment Bank that will support key campus development works.

EIB investment in Northern Ireland has included road infrastructure projects and a £150million loan in 2014 to Ulster University to part-fund the relocation of the Jordanstown campus to North Belfast.

The Committee of the Regions (CoR)

Set up in 1994 under the Treaty on the European Union, the Committee of the Regions is an advisory political assembly representing local and regional authorities in the European Union.

About the Committee of the Regions (CoR)

On 12 February 2015, under a new mandate, 24 UK elected representatives took up their role as members of the Committee of the Regions (CoR). Meeting in Brussels, local and regional representatives pledged to bring Europe closer to its citizens.

Northern Ireland has two full and two alternate seats on the Committee with delegates serving on four sectoral commissions. CoR members must hold a local or regional authority mandate or be accountable to an elected assembly.

Who represents us?

As the Northern Ireland Assembly is currently suspended, NI does not have elected MLAs as representatives in the Committee of the Regions.

Full members

Name Political Party Responsibilities
Councillor Trevor Cummings Democratic Unionist Party Natural Resources (NAT), Territorial Cohesion Policy (COTER

Alternate members

Name Political Party Responsibilities
Councillor Arnold Hatch Ulster Unionist Party Natural Resources (NAT)
John Dallat MLA Social Democrat and Labour Party Social Policy, Education, Employment, Research and Culture (SEDEC)

European Economic and Social Committee (EESC)

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) is an advisory body of the European Union set up by the Rome Treaties in 1957. The European Policy and Co-ordination Unit is responsible for administering the nomination procedure to select Northern Ireland’s EESC representatives.

What are the goals of the EESC?

The EESC’s main task is to advise Parliament, Council and Commission on economic and social aspects of policy and legislation. The Committee aims to bring Europe closer to its citizens and to make the European Union’s decision-making process more transparent.

How do we fit into the EESC?

The EESC has 353 members, split into three groups:

  • Employers
  • Workers
  • ‘Various interests’, (for example, craftsmen, farmers, minority rights and academics)

Northern Ireland has two seats on the UK delegation, which comprises 24 members.

Who represents us?

Northern Ireland’s current members are:

Jane Morrice

  • Group: III (Various Interests).
  • Sections: Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship (SOC) and Transport, Energy, infrastructure and the Information Society (TEN).

Michael Smyth

  • Group: III (Various Interests)
  • Sections: Single Market, Production and Consumption (INT) and Economic and Monetary Union and Economic and Social Cohesion (ECO).
  • Michael was rapporteur for a recent EESC Opinion on European Commission President Juncker’s “An Investment Plan for Europe”. A copy of the report can be downloaded below:

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee – An Investment Plan for Europe 

Further information on the committee’s work and members may be found on the European Economic and Social Committee website(external link opens in a new window / tab).


European Networking

The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) was one of a number of Implementing Bodies delivering Peace II funds to promote reconciliation and help to build a more peaceful and stable society in Northern Ireland.

The Department, through EPCU, invested £6.5m to support 18 projects developing European networks and partnerships on social, economic and cultural matters. These activities were funded under Measure 4.1 – ‘Networking in Europe and Beyond’ – of the Peace II Peace Programme. Read more about Measure 4.1.

A further four projects in the Border Region of Ireland were administered by the Special European Union Programmes Body.

For more information on the Peace II Programme, access the EU Structural Funds website

Network NI

Measure 4.1 funded projects have come together to form Network NI to enhance the sustainability of European networking through:

  • inter-regional co-operation;
  • partnership building; and
  • increasing civil society engagement in Europe.

Visit the Network NI website for more information .