North West Citizens' Forum 9 June 2007
Citizens and community groups from across Ireland's North West met on 9 June at a Citizens' Forum organised in Bundoran, Co Donegal by the European Parliament Office in Ireland.
This event was aimed at providing individuals and community groups in Ireland's North West with the opportunity to raise issues of concern to the region and to access information on influencing EU policy-making.
Marian Harkin MEP (ALDE) opened the proceedings with a short overview of the work and role of an MEP. "I am a legislator, but I am also a conduit between citizens and the EU", she said. "MEPs have a duty to keep citizens informed and also to show them the means by which they can get involved in influencing policy".
Marian Harkin proceeded to outline a number of issues of concern to Ireland North West, including the impact of postal liberalisation on rural post offices and the status of agriculture in the EU, which she described as under serious threat in the WTO negotiations. Further issues discussed included energy efficiency ratings for homes and the status of carers, whom she described as Europe's biggest but most invisible and unrewarded workforce.
Participants were asked to divide into workshops to focus in detail on three main areas:
Climate change and energy policy
The issue of individual responsibility for controlling energy use was the focus of detailed debate in this workshop. Participants felt that the EU and national governments have a role to play in encouraging individuals to control their energy consumption. This could be done, for example, by providing people with information so that they can make informed choices when, for example, buying or building a house or buying a car. "Why not an EU-standard energy efficiency rating for cars as we have for dishwashers or fridges?" suggested one participant. Overall, said Michael Ewing of Sligo Institute of Technology, who chaired the discussion, we need to use "a lot more carrot and a little more stick" to encourage individuals and businesses to alter their behaviour.
Exploration and licensing issues regarding hydrocarbons (oil and gas) off Ireland's North West coast was also the focus of debate. Control over natural resources should not be given away to private business; instead these resources should be used for the needs of the community and not for profit for big business. The importance of investment in research into clean technology and renewable energy was also highlighted.
Regional Development in the North West of Ireland
Ireland's North West is one of the most peripheral regions in the EU, and in many respects lags behind Dublin and eastern parts of Ireland when it comes to regional development. It is also a border region, adjoining Northern Ireland.
The discussion on regional development was led by Pat Colgan, Chief Executive of the EU Special Programmes Body, which manages a number of structural and regional funds in Ireland, including Interreg, Leader and the PEACE programmes. Participants were asked to identify some of the key issues or priorities for the region
Lack of public transport was highlighted as a major concern by many. "Before coming to Ireland I lived in Belgium for a year, and I never bought a car because I didn't need one. When I moved to Ireland I had to buy one straight away because I couldn't manage without it" said Magnus Amajirionwu from Sligo's Sustainability Institute
As one of the EU's wealthiest countries, Ireland will no longer benefit from substantial EU structural and regional funds as it has done in the past. This was acknowledged by all participants. Many people, however, stressed the need to ensure detailed and timely information on possible funding opportunities for local communities or activist groups. The EU should also work to reduce red tape for individuals or small community groups who find the process of applying for European grants or funding daunting and time-consuming.
Equal opportunities and the social dimension
Gerry Farry, presenter of the daily talkshow North West Today on the local radio station Ocean FM, opened the discussion by pointing to statistics showing high levels of educational and social disadvantage in the North West. In particular, he argued in favour of substantial investment in pre-schooling and in adult education.
Amanda Slevin from the Donegal Workers Co-Operative pointed out that Co Donegal has the highest rate of social welfare dependency in Ireland - up to 50% of residents of are in receipt of some form of social welfare assistance.
Brian Crummy from Sligo Community Forum, himself a wheelchair user, raised the issues of accessibility across a number of fronts, notably housing, employment and transport. For example, wheelchair users generally can't access the toilets on an airplane - this issue could be tackled at EU level, he suggested.
Ann McGowan from Atlantic View Community Development Programme raised the issue of services for cancer patients across the North West, whom she said were severely disadvantaged as they could not receive chemo- or radiotherapy in the region.
What can the EU do?
Participants were aware that many of the issues which most concerned them, such as health or education, are not matters where the EU has significant competence. However there was near-universal agreement that the EU had a role to play in facilitating exchange of best practice between Member States and in setting minimum standards in a number of areas. This was particularly the case for energy and environmental policy, where there is no "quick-fix" solution and where politicians might not find it easy to enforce tough changes. "The EU sees the big picture" said one participant; "we need pressure from outside" said another.
Should the EU have more power in areas like health and education? Citizens were divided on this point. "If we can be fined for over-fishing, why can't we be fined for overcrowding in classrooms?" asked one. "It takes so long to get any action in Brussels" said another. The EU is also seen as over-bureaucratic: "People running small business can't deal with EU health and safety legislation" one participant complained.
Overall, however, participants felt that the European Parliament should work to ensure that Treaty provisions on equality and non-discrimination are followed up with secondary legislation on issues such as disability, age, sexual orientation etc.
Closing the event, Marian Harkin MEP (ALDE) acknowledged that a common theme throughout the discussions was the sense that citizens do not feel they have the capacity to influence the political system enough. She pledged to bring the conclusions and suggestions back to the European Parliament and pursue them at that level.
Participants were very positive about the event but underlined the importance of adequate follow-up to the points raised. "It was a good initiative to have this consultation; I hope the follow-up will be equally satisfactory", said one; "I hope something comes from this in a practical way" said another. The European Parliament Office in Ireland will monitor the follow-up and has undertaken to keep the participants informed of the results.