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Northern Ireland an “inspiration” for conflict resolution

President of EU Commission Jose Manuel Barroso hailed Northern Ireland as an “inspirational” model for resolving conflicts Thursday after holding talks in Brussels with its two leaders, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness.

The first ever official visit to the EU headquarters by the British province’s first and deputy first ministers came as officials in Kosovo were busy announcing that they would soon be proclaiming independence from Serbia, thereby paving the way for a potentially explosive new conflict in the Western Balkans. “Northern Ireland is a success story that can be an inspiration for other parts of Europe - we still have problems in our continent - and for other parts of the world,” Barroso said. Barroso said the EU was ready to work with Northern Ireland and use its leaders’ expertise and experience to bring a “sense of hope of a better future” to areas strained by conflicts and divisions. While the Commission president did not explicitly mention Kosovo, the future status of the predominantly ethnic-Albanian province continues to be of major concern for EU officials. Later this month, Brussels is due to decide on sending a controversial law-implementation mission, which will relieve the present UN administration and assist Kosovo’s first steps as a sovereign nation, despite strong opposition from Serbia, Russia and some EU member states.

For their part Paisley and McGuinness - bitter enemies until the Belfast Agreement of 1998 brought an end to decades of religious and political violence - thanked Barroso for his support and for the EU’s help in building up the province’s economy. Paisley, a Protestant minister, whose Democratic Unionist Party wants to maintain Northern Ireland’s links with Britain, and former member of the European Parliament, said it was the first time that a president of the European Commission had shown “such an interest in Northern Ireland. When I wanted to get something (done) for Northern Ireland, I had to stand at the door, I had to scream, I then had to kick the door and I was sometimes nearly thrown out of meetings. Things are different now,” Paisley said. McGuinness, a politician in the pro-Irish unification Sinn Fein party, supported almost exclusively by Catholics, and a former Irish Republican Army (IRA) commander, also praised the EU for providing the province with an additional €1.1 billion ($1.6 billion) to help boost its economy over the next six years.

Northern Ireland has relatively high employment levels, but its workers have comparatively low salaries and its administration does not invest enough in research and development, Barroso noted. Northern Ireland has already received some €2.5 billion in EU funds over the past 20 years. (m&