Officials from across NI Civil Service departments, the Public Health Agency and ABC Council took part in an official three-day study visit to Flanders last week.
ABC Council’s Head of Community Development, Seamus McCrory, joined the delegation on the visit, which was co-ordinated by the NI Executive Office in Brussels (ONIEB) in conjunction with the Government of Flanders.
Representatives from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), the Executive Office (TEO) Department for Communities (DfC), Department of Health (DoH), Department of Justice (DoJ), Department for the Economy (DfE), Public Health Agency (PHA) were also represented with officials taking part in a series of general and policy-specific meetings.
On the first day of the visit, the delegation met with several of their counterparts in the Flemish public administration including the Flemish Peace Institute, the Agency for Justice and Enforcement, Flanders Innovation and Entrepreneurship (VLAIO), the Agency for Integration and Civic Integration, the Department for Agriculture and Fisheries, the Department for Environment, the Energy and Climate Agency of Flanders (VEKA), the Agency for Nature and Forests, and Digital Flanders.
The group had the opportunity to meet with officials from the Flanders Chancellery and Foreign Office, including the General Representative of Flanders to the European Union and Deputy General Representative of Flanders to the United Kingdom, to discuss potential future collaboration between the regions.
Next day, field visits took place for which the delegation was divided into two groups according to their areas of interest, to either the Port of Antwerp/Bruge or to West Flanders. The group who travelled to the Port of Antwerp/Bruge were hosted by port officials who arranged meetings and terrain a visit, where they were able to discuss issues around the need for transparency and certainty regarding trading with NI, as well as areas of mutual interest.
The other group’s field trip to West Flanders had a theme of ‘An Area of Shared Cultural Interest – Peacebuilding and Integration’ which included a meeting with the Mayor of Messines and visits to the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Messines, the Menin Gate, the ‘In Flanders Fields’ Museum and an integration project in Ypres.
On the final day, the visit concluded at Errera House, the official residence of the Government of Flanders in Brussels with presentations by Flanders Investment and Trade and the Flemish Interuniversity Council. The closing plenary session was introduced by the Secretary General of the Flanders Chancellery and Foreign Office, Julie Bynens, and the Director of ONIEB, Aodhán Connolly. During this session, delegations exchanged positive views on future Flanders-Northern Ireland relations and reflected on the visit as having laid strong foundations for the potential signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the regions in the future.
Speaking upon his return, Seamus said, “In addition to profiling NI and indeed the borough, this visit provided a great opportunity to exchange research and share ideas with the Flemish Peace Institute on the potential to progress community development to improve lives of people across the borough.
Likewise, it was equally useful to hear from government officials who shared information on the support available to NI businesses exploring the region as a potential export market.
The visit to the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Messines was really informative. This memorial site, which is approaching its 25 year anniversary in November 2023, is dedicated to the soldiers of the island of Ireland who died or were wounded in WW1 during the Battle of Messines.”