On a proposal from the European Commissioner for Regional Policies, Mrs. Monika Wulf-Mathies, the Commission has approved an operational programme for Northern Ireland under the SME Community initiative. The initiative will double the number of SMEs using advanced telecommunications for the first time, and will substantially increase the number of companies notified of public sector tender opportunities. It will also help local SMEs engage in international partnerships. The European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) is contributing ECU 6.2 million to the programme, while the public and the private sector will contribute ECU 4.8 million, bringing the total cost to ECU 11 million. While SMEs are a vital part of the Northern Ireland economy and contribute a substantial proportion of the manufacturing sector's output and employment, they are nevertheless faced with particular disadvantages in the marketplace. They often lack skills and information in the field of new technologies, inhibiting their capacity to innovate. Their limited financial resources further constrain their ability to compete effectively. These problems are magnified in Northern Ireland because of its peripheral location. The SME programme aims to compensate for some of these shortcomings by contributing to the achievement of valuable projects for the small business sector. The initiative complements other support available under the Northern Ireland Single Programming Document. The programme consists of three measures: - The first measure builds on previous Community support under STAR and TELEMATIQUE. It will assist SMEs to prepare and to implement strategic plans for improving their production capability and their management of information systems through the use of advanced telecommunication systems. Specifically, it aims to assist companies to audit their IT and telecommunications needs for improving their businesses and to bring about a more widespread use of telecommunications services in Northern Ireland. - The second measure recognizes the importance of open and efficient public procurement markets and the benefits which can be achieved in this area by ensuring improved access for SMEs. It aims to equip and to enable local companies to enter public sector markets, both inter-regionally and internationally. It will facilitate the development and networking of service suppliers in the field of public procurement. It will further identify and develop contacts between SMEs and public buyers. In addition, technical, legal and linguistic assistance for the preparation of tenders will be provided. - The final measure will promote regional, inter-regional and transnational cooperation between SMEs through the establishment of common services, particularly marketing. In this way it aims to assist SMEs to pool market information and contacts; to enhance capacity or gain economies through pooling resources in marketing, research, skills know-how and other functions; and to share or alleviate risks associated with international trading.