Civil servants were warned that the allocation of EU funds to ex-prisoner groups in Northern Ireland was to come under intensified scrutiny from Brussels in the wake of 9/11.
Officials were told of inevitably heightened sensitivities within the European Commission on how its Peace Programme funding initiative would be portrayed internationally, after the terror attack on the US, according to a newly released archive document from the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland.
The cautionary note was written by a senior official in the Department of Finance on September 26, 2001, after the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Gerry Loughran, asked all departments to assess and report back on the potential implications of 9/11.
In his email to colleagues within the Department of Finance, Leo O’Reilly said the events of September 11 in the US could have a “direct bearing” on EU structural funding.
He highlighted that allegations had been made from “time to time” that structural funds, particularly from the Peace initiative, had been used to “assist those in Northern Ireland/Ireland engaged in terrorism”.
He then referred to two allegations related to arms finds in premises used by ex-loyalist prisoner groups, that he said had received funding in the first tranche of the Peace Programme, Peace 1.
“These incidents were investigated by Olaf (the European Commission’s anti fraud unit) at our request, and in neither case did they find any evidence that EU funding had been used to purchase the arms concerned,” he added.
He then noted the arrest of three republicans in Colombia the previous month – August, 2001. They were held on suspicion of training Farc rebels.
Mr O’Reilly said in that case there had been an alleged link to a republican ex-prisoner group that also received funding under the Peace Programme, albeit via the Republic of Ireland part of the initiative.
He continued: “We and the NIO (which was the lead department involved in the cases last year) take the view that since Peace money is and will continue to be used to assist ex prisoners, then it is inevitable (and entirely consistent with the objectives of the Programme) that some of those who benefit from it will be individuals, associated with projects, who have a previous paramilitary associations.
“However there is also a clear responsibility on us and on intermediary funding bodies concerned to ensure that the money is used only for the purposes specified in some detail in the Operational Programme and the Programme Complement.
“Officials in the European Commission also acknowledge that by providing this type of support to former prisoners carries presentational risks, but their line is that this is a ‘risk for peace’ worth taking in the Northern Ireland context.
“At the same time there is also considerable nervousness among those at senior levels in the Commission about how such funding might be portrayed more widely in the Union and beyond.
“This is particularly so since several MEPs, including local unionist MEPs, have used their positions to put down motions etc criticising the Commission’s approach to funding former prisoners’ projects in the Peace Programme.
“All this usually manifests itself in detail requests for analysis, information and reassurances from the Commission to the member states each time allegations arise, as well as ‘administrative’ delays in the payment of EU receipts to NI.”
Mr O’Reilly suggested the level of scrutiny would ramp up further following 9/11.
“The events of September 11 will inevitably heighten the European Commission’s sensitivities as to how it how its funding policies under the Peace Programmes might be portrayed,” he wrote.
“This will not manifest itself in any general or arbitrary suspension of the funding (which could not be done anyhow without the member states’ agreements); however it will mean that we will be expected to ensure there are rigorous systems in place to ensure that the EU funding provided to ex prisoner and other groups is carefully targeted and monitored to ensure it (is) consistent with the objectives of the measures concerned.”