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Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 11 December 2000 (continued)

Private Notice Question

Coats Barbour: Job Losses


Mr Davis

asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment what has been done to avoid the impending job losses at Coats Barbour, Lisburn.

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Sir Reg Empey):

The recent announcement of proposed redundancies at Barbour Campbell Threads is regrettable. However, this was a commercial decision taken by the company because of global market conditions.

Mr Davis:

This company is a mainstay in the Lisburn area, and the consequences of 60 job losses at this time of the year, or indeed at any time of the year, cannot be overstated. These job losses will take about £1 million out of the local economy - spending power that will be lost to local business, which will have to grapple with the knock-on effects. It is conceivable that some businesses may be forced to re-examine staffing levels to take account of the loss of these manufacturing jobs. In essence, we are not just talking about 60 jobs, because more may depend on this long-established company's subcontracts and the money it injects into the Lisburn economy.

Like many other companies in this sector, Barbour Campbell Threads is not immune to the volatility of world markets and the pressure on margins caused by cheap imports. I understand that little can be done on the home front to create a level playing field for this sector. However, I ask the Minister to explore the potential of raising this matter in a European context. In addition, can the Department's agencies, particularly the IDB and LEDU, undertake a comprehensive review of textiles to determine what can be done to protect remaining jobs and safeguard some of the Province's older companies?

Sir Reg Empey:

I deeply regret the fact that a consultation process has begun with the trade unions. It may be that some redundancies will take place in the first quarter of 2001, with the remainder towards the end of 2001. However, I want to make a couple of points. First, while the company advised the IDB of the impending job losses, it did not seek financial assistance. I understand that the decision reflects on the inability of the Hilden operation to match the cost of synthetic thread products, which can be sourced more cost-effectively from Asia.

I also understand that they have a strategy of focusing on speciality products and that the company is receiving Industrial Research and Technology Unit assistance on a number of technical matters. These include a method of bonding and sewing threads using an innovative curing system rather than the current solvent-based system.

My Department initiated a review last June. We appointed Kurt Salmon Associates as consultants. The report has been completed, although I have not yet received it. However, I hope to make a statement about it after the recess because a number of Members have asked me questions on those matters and have great concerns. However, what can be done is being done.

Ironically, in the next few days when certain figures will be released, Members will find that there is still a degree of buoyancy in certain sectors of the textile market. However, in this particular case the company has taken a strategic decision to protect its position, bearing in mind that it is a substantial company currently employing some 300 people.

I understand and sympathise with the Member's concerns that such a large concentration of job losses in the Lagan Valley area has a knock-on effect. However, I believe that the company has made the strategic decision to specialise in areas where it will not be facing the wall of Asian competition with its low-wage economies, as it is very hard to compete under those circumstances.

Mr Close:

I thank the Minister for his reply to my Colleague from Lagan Valley, Mr Davis. I wish to place on record my and my constituents' concern at such a potential loss of jobs at such a historic company - one which has its roots deeply imbedded in the Lagan Valley constituency.

Is the Minister aware that rumours have been circulating for a protracted period about the firm? Will he ensure that there is no asset-stripping in the concern? Will he also ensure that all the grants that have been provided - for example, through IDB - are secured and that there will be no attempt to remove machinery, et cetera, from the country?

Sir Reg Empey:

First, I will say to the Member for Lagan Valley that the company has made no request for financial assistance. The company took a strategic decision, and this announcement was made. To be precise, Hilden is to become a centre of excellence for speciality threads to be used in the manufacture of car airbags, seatbelts, sportswear and upholstery products.

With regard to what the Member describes as asset- stripping, IDB, of course, has rules about how assets are treated if those assets are currently in receipt of IDB resources. That may not be the case in this matter, but we are acutely aware of the sensitivities of these matters. Any company that has an agreement with us has to honour its terms and conditions. It is a legally enforceable document - and I draw that to your attention, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I stress that the company will remain a significant employer in the Lagan Valley area. It has a clear strategy as to what it wants to do. It was its decision and the company has made no recourse to us for assistance.

Ms Lewsley:

I add my dismay to that of my two Lagan Valley Colleagues concerning the number of job losses at Barbour Campbell Threads. One of the issues raised by many of its workers was the lack of consultation. I am glad to hear that consultation started in June, yet well over a year ago I spoke to some people from IDB about concerns that had been raised. One of the biggest issues was the lack of consultation between the workforce and the management.

4.15 pm

Also, machinery was removed from Barbour Campbell Threads and sent to Hungary, and Coats Viyella has another venture in Asia. Is the streamlining a bit more sinister than we thought? In the past, it was suggested that Lisburn would be a centre of excellence, but how many people will be employed in it? Very few, compared to the current numbers.

The work force at Barbour Campbell Threads is a tightly knit community, and two or three people in the same family could lose their jobs. The impact on the quality of life for many in that community will be horrendous. Many of those people have been kept waiting to hear when they will lose their jobs; they could not find other employment, because they were not told when they would be made redundant. If they wished to take redundancy, the company would not let them. People have been badly put upon, and the Minister should take that into consideration.

Sir Reg Empey:

I sympathise with the people who find themselves in those circumstances. It is not a unique situation; people elsewhere, particularly in the textiles industry, have experienced exactly those problems. However, the Member must be aware that consultation with trade unions is a matter for the company and the unions.

I appreciate the local circumstances and that individual families can be disproportionately affected, but I must point out two things. First, there is the whole question of outsourcing, which is the process by which companies based in the United Kingdom carry out part of their functions overseas. That will be a growing problem. Some indigenous Northern Irish companies are now, as a matter of policy, outsourcing in regions such as Sri Lanka, north Africa and South Africa. That will not change, and we will be confronted with that in a range of situations. We will have to return to the issue because, sooner or later, someone will seek assistance for outsourcing. That will be a big issue for the House.

We must also consider the general position in the Lagan Valley. There are 41 IDB client companies in the Lagan Valley area, employing almost 5,000 people. I shall put that in context: selective financial assistance of £80 million has been made available in support of projects worth some £240 million in the past five years. There has been substantial IDB activity in the constituency. Even in the worst case scenario, Barbour Campbell Threads will still have 230-240 employees and will still be a substantial force. They have the technical ability to turn the plant into a centre of excellence, as has been discussed for some time. Funding has been made available, and the Industrial Research and Technology Unit has assisted them with the technical aspects. We are trying to take the necessary steps to protect the long-term future of the company.

Mr Poots:

The size of the company makes this a serious blow to the local economy. What investment has IDB made in Barbour Campbell Threads? Does the Minister know how many jobs will be available when the new centre of excellence is created?

Sir Reg Empey:

I shall write to the Member with details of the assistance that has been available for the long term. I repeat that we were not asked for anything additional.

It will remain a significant player in the constituency. Also, Coats Viyella has decided to sell certain parts of its businesses, and a number of Northern Ireland companies in its clothing and household furnishing sector are for sale at the present time. The thread business is going to remain the core business for Coats Viyella. I cannot say how much long-term funding was put into it, but I do know that in 1997 a letter of offer was issued to Barbour Campbell Threads in the sum of £1·4 million. To date, £733,000 has been drawn on the basis of that letter of offer, so there is an ongoing arrangement, which I assume is linked to either sales or employment targets. It might be better if I were to write to the Member with the precise details, but that is the statistical situation at this stage.

Question proposed:

That the Assembly do now adjourn. - [Mr Deputy Speaker]


Toome Bypass


Mr J Kelly:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I brought the issue of the Toome bypass to the attention of the House by way of an Adjournment debate because of the anger and frustration felt by people west of the Bann at the Minister's shock announcement that this project was once more going to be put in suspension, delayed or cancelled.

It may be that the Minister is playing hardball with the Executive or with the Minister of Finance and Personnel, or it may be that he is playing politics with a very critical, strategic issue around the Toome bypass. If he is playing hardball with the Executive or with the Minister of Finance, knowing that this is a vexatious issue that has caused hardship for a great number of years, he may feel that by creating a lot of controversy around his remarks he can force the hand of the Minister to give him the extra moneys that he is looking for.

I suggest that the Minister would have had a more responsible and responsive position had he carried on this debate in the Executive, and not outside the Executive, and that the place to decide these issues of urgency, of hardship and of crisis is in the Executive and not outside it.

It is barely a year since the Minister's predecessor, Peter Robinson, arrived in Toome, to a fanfare of TV, newspaper and Department of the Environment personnel coverage, to launch, in a blaze of publicity, the Toome bypass project. We, along with the assembled gathering, were told that the money had been secured. We were told that construction would commence by the end of 2001. It may be that it will commence towards the end of next year, but we do not know. We are waiting for the present Minister to indicate, perhaps in a more realistic way, what his intentions are regarding an issue that is critical, that has caused hardship, and that we know from the reduction of the acute services in the Mid-Ulster Hospital could cause death itself.

Some 21,000 vehicles - a conservative estimate - travel this road daily, and some 5,000 people in construction, education and the health services travel from areas west of the Bann to Belfast and back.

Each day we have two-mile-long queues, and average speeds are seven to 14 miles per hour. This occurs for one or two hours in the morning and for one or two hours in the afternoon.

These are critical issues for people who live west of the Bann. The road infrastructure west of the Bann is bad enough as it is. A bypass around Magherafelt has been awaited for many years. We are disadvantaged, yet we are being further disadvantaged by this Minister. He lives west of the Bann, and one would think that he would have a vested interest in ensuring that the Toome bypass be put in place quickly. Perhaps, politically, the Minister would be chopping off his nose to spite his face - I do not know.

I want Members to consider the critical issue of health and the Health Service west of the Bann, where people currently have to travel from Magherafelt to Antrim in emergencies. Travelling times have increased. From Swatragh to Magherafelt took 19 minutes. The time taken from Swatragh to Antrim rises to 36 minutes. Travelling time from Draperstown or Ballynascreen has risen from 13 minutes to 36 minutes. The small towns of Tobermore, Bellaghy, Moneymore, Castledawson and Magherafelt have all had extra travelling time imposed upon them, just on the one simple issue of health. They are also bedevilled by the traffic congestion that ensues on the way.

Increased travelling times to Antrim will increase mortality rates. That is borne out by the Ambulance Service. It tells us that in cases of acute pain - such as when people are in a traffic accident or are having a heart attack - people's lives are in danger unless they are dealt with inside of eight minutes. We now have a situation where it takes 16-36 minutes for people to get from west of the Bann to a hospital in Antrim - principally because of the difficult situation caused by the absence of a Toome bypass.

We can play politics with this issue, and it would be the simplest thing in the world to do so. However, I contend that this is too important an issue, too critical an issue, and an issue that has been outstanding for too many years, to play politics with. It is an issue that is economically damaging. We talk about the price of fuel, but if people are sitting in a traffic queue for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening, just imagine how much fuel is being used up. That is apart from the damage that is being done to the environment. It all mounts up over time.

I notice Mr Peter Robinson talking through his hand as usual. Perhaps he will take his hand away from his jaw and let us know what he is trying to say - he being the Minister who promised this bypass less than a year ago. However, the DUP is playing its usual funny little games.

We could play politics with this issue, and we could develop it into a political debate. Unfortunately, it is all the people west of the Bann who are suffering as a result of this delay at Toome. It is all the people - DUP, UUP, PUP, Sinn Féin and SDLP - who are affected, damaged and hurt by this delay. It is a daily delay at Toome. It occurs seven days a week, not just on the five working days.

4.30 pm

The Minister allocated £460 million in the recent Budget. In detail, where is this money going? Can he tell us of an area in the North of Ireland - in the Six Counties - that is in greater need of this money than the area affected by the Toome bypass? Can he detail exactly where and into what areas that £460 million is going? Can he tell us that he is not playing politics with the Toome bypass but is committed to alleviating the hardship that is being inflicted on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis on the people west of the Bann?

Mr Armstrong:

I welcome the opportunity to debate this matter. However, it is unfortunate that we must be here today. I must express my exasperation at Sinn Féin/IRA, who have the nerve to complain about the starting of road improvements on the Toome bypass. It is somewhat two-faced for a member of Sinn Féin to raise this issue. Terrorists have brought great expense to the Province over the past 30 years. Cash has been pumped into Northern Ireland to fix and to renovate after the work of the terrorist army linked to Sinn Féin.

Mr J Kelly:

On a point of order, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Are we discussing the Toome bypass, or do we want to get into a debate about paramilitary organisations?

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I am listening carefully to what the Member is saying. I am sure that he will return to the subject in question.

Mr Armstrong:

This has further led to the lack of real investment in any future development in Northern Ireland. These people complain that they are treated as second-class citizens. Surely we are being treated as second- class citizens at the hands of these terrorists, who have prevented any real development in Northern Ireland. How can Sinn Féin have the face to ask for more money in Northern Ireland when, in the past, they have easily allowed Government money to go up in smoke?

I am surprised to hear the DUP Minister for Regional Development announce that his Department has difficulty in funding major work. In January 2000 Gregory Campbell's predecessor, Peter Robinson, announced at a press conference in the O'Neill Arms Hotel in Toomebridge that the Toome bypass would go ahead. Mr Robinson gave a commitment to the people of Northern Ireland, claiming that he would listen to the people and explain why decisions are taken. Mr Robinson said that construction would start in late 2001 and would take approximately 18 months to complete. The finance was to be provided by the 1998 Chancellor's Initiative package.

Mr Robinson described the Toome bypass as a major development that would help the people of Northern Ireland and relieve traffic congestion. Did Mr Robinson not plan ahead at the time? Why was there so much hype, if there was not enough money to pay for the bypass? Could Mr Robinson not have told us the state of his Department's finances at the time, rather than indulging his party in a blaze of publicity?

It is now apparent that a major challenge to the policy has taken place, both at departmental level and with the DUP Minister. Both Mr Robinson and Mr Campbell are prepared to engage in political stunts rather than address the real needs of the people of Northern Ireland.

The Toome bypass is absolutely necessary to link industry with the east and the west, whether it is stock in transit, people travelling to and from work, or sightseers on a tour of our beautiful Province. Direct rule has prevented the direction of finance to the most needy areas of Northern Ireland. Now, with the devolved Administration, we have the opportunity to prioritise as we, the people of Northern Ireland, see fit. Toome is a significant bottleneck, a narrow bridge over a river flowing north from Lough Neagh. In modern life, people do not want to be delayed. Aeroplanes or boats do not wait for customers if they are stuck in traffic congestion.

Excess pressure is put on commuters and frustration arises. Over the years, Mid Ulster has been socially and economically neglected, and it seems to have been considered unimportant in many regards, including road infrastructure. Being centrally situated, the area is ideal for businesses targeting the whole of Northern Ireland. Fifty-four of the top 1,000 Northern Irish businesses are situated in the Sperrin area. If Mid Ulster were more accessible, industry would be more attracted to set up in the region, thus producing more jobs and encouraging people to live there instead of in the city.

Unemployment rates in the area are significantly higher than the Northern Irish average. There is a higher proportion of self-employed men and women in Mid Ulster than in Northern Ireland as a whole. There are a huge number of farmers in Mid Ulster, and we all know the problems they face at this time. Unfortunately, with the present depression in agriculture, it is becoming more commonplace that farming alone cannot bring in sufficient income for a satisfactory standard of living. The result is increased commuter traffic.

A bypass at Toome is essential for the future of the region west of the Bann. We must make Mid Ulster more accessible, for otherwise our efforts to promote the area for tourism and other industries will be wasted. The people of Mid Ulster want to share the benefits and attractions of our area with everyone across Northern Ireland and beyond. The bridge at Toome will carry traffic in both directions and will therefore benefit everyone.

Mr McClelland:

Mr Deputy Speaker, I will take your advice and be very brief. I understand that there are several Members waiting to speak, and that the Minister will want to respond. All those who have spoken said that they did not want to play politics with this issue. What did they do then? They played politics with it.

I have a special interest - if not a vested interest - in this subject. I am very proud to have been born in the village of Toome. I attended primary school there - they have not yet put up a blue plaque on the wall, but perhaps they will. I represent Toome on Antrim Borough Council.

This debate is not new. Since first elected to Antrim Borough Council, I have met with every direct rule Minister to present this case. No one needs to be told that this road joins the two major cities of Northern Ireland and several surveys have been carried out on traffic density. Approximately 20,000 vehicles pass through the village every day and it is estimated that the number will increase to approximately 30,000 by 2017. Where was the planning during the decades of direct rule that did not envisage this level of traffic density on this main road bridging our two major cities? With the ending of direct rule, and the start of our own Assembly, the people of the area - and of the whole of the north-west - had very high expectations that this programme would receive a high priority in government.

I want to pay tribute to my colleagues on Antrim Borough Council who, for decades, have been pressing successive Ministers for this bypass. One of my colleagues on the council can affirm that even during the latter part of the 1980s - when it was not politic for local government Ministers to be meeting with Ministers of State to discuss issues such as the Toome bypass - Antrim councillors were regularly meeting with Ministers to press for this development. The council has also worked very closely with the local community group in Toome, Tidal, in providing finance for a variety of surveys on the density of traffic going through Toome and the environmental impact on the village.

Any delay in this programme will be disastrous for the people of the village and will have wider implications for the economy of the north-west as a whole. For years, the people of Toome have had to suffer the impact of traffic congestion, pollution, noise and delays. In addition, there is now what is called "rat running" - cars taking short-cuts through the small rural areas surrounding Toome village, with the attendant destruction of the rural and farming communities in the area.

All these issues impact on the people of Toome and mean a poorer quality of life for them. They also have a dramatic impact on economic and tourist development. Environmental plans and the commencement of a new industrial development strategy for the area are badly needed if unemployment levels are to be reduced.

We need the road for many reasons. We need it for the people of Toome, for economic growth in the whole of the north-west and to improve road safety. We need it, as Mr J Kelly said, because of the importance of acute services and the fact that the Ambulance Service has to move between the Mid-Ulster Hospital and the new Antrim Area Hospital. We need speedy access to our ports and airport, and to provide tourism, not only locally, but throughout Northern Ireland.

I do not subscribe to the view of one of Mr Kelly's colleagues, who wrote to my local paper recently to say that the Minister's decision not to proceed with the bypass was sectarian. I do not believe that there is some sad little civil servant sitting in a car in Toome counting the number of Catholic cars and Protestant cars going through the village. I would, however, impress on the Minister the need to proceed with this project for the benefit of the people of Toome and the whole of the north-west.

Rev Dr William McCrea:

I am delighted at the interest - albeit belated - that some Members have shown today in Toome and the Toome bypass. To the best of my knowledge some of them have never made a statement about Toome in their lives. It is always good to find that there are some takers and comers along the road, but I will return to that shortly.

Some Members told us that they are endeavouring to assist in getting the project off the ground, but they are giving misleading information. The Minister never said that he was going to put the Toome scheme into suspension, as one Member from Mid Ulster said - a Sinn Féin/IRA Member. To the best of my knowledge, the context was that if necessary funding were not forthcoming, all the schemes that were being processed at that time might not be carried out in the timescale that was mentioned. That was the tenor of the Minister's speech.

There was talk about the fanfare of publicity in Toome a year ago. I remember that morning well. My hon Friend Mr P Robinson attended as Minister, and everywhere the cameras went, Mr J Kelly followed or tried to get in front of them. One could see his neck stretching out every time a photograph was being taken of my Colleague and me. He wanted to be sure he was in it. When it comes to fanfares and cameras, the said person is far from shy; he wants to be there in the forefront, if humanly possible. There is so much hypocrisy about this issue that it is sickening for those who have been campaigning for Toome for over 20 years. However, let us push aside some of the minutiae that are being brought up.

This is and has been an important issue. It is so important for the area west of the Bann and for Mid Ulster that the Member of Parliament for Mid Ulster and an Assembly Member for Mid Ulster - the same person, representing Sinn Féin/IRA - is missing. He is not here for this important discussion. This issue is so important that it has frustrated Members and engendered anger in their bellies. However, it seems that the matter is not so important to the Member of Parliament. Of course, MP does mean "Missing Person" so far as the constituency is concerned.

4.45 pm

There has been so much hypocrisy about the Toome bypass. It is interesting that they say that they are worried about people's lives. There is a fly in the ointment; they were not interested in people's lives during the past 30 years of terrorist violence, when people were murdered and maimed and the ambulances needed to get through Toome to get not to Antrim Area Hospital but to the excellent services at the Royal Victoria Hospital. We have heard an awful lot of hypocrisy; they want to grab the headlines, rather than deal with the situation.

I am glad that the hon Member for Mid Ulster (Mr Armstrong) has found out where Toome is. I must be honest - over the 28 years that I have been in public life, I had never, until now, heard him making a statement about a Toome bypass. However, it is better late than never, I suppose. It is good that he has found out that Toome and the rest of the constituency actually exist. However, it ill becomes people to chide those who are endeavouring to do their best for the area, when those people have done nothing for the area themselves.

Mr Armstrong:

Will the Member give way?

Rev Dr William McCrea:

I certainly will not give way.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Mr McCrea, you have been asked to give way.

Rev Dr William McCrea:

I said that I would not give way. Mr Deputy Speaker, you know that it is the Member who decides whether he will give way - not the Chair.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I asked the question - that is all.

Rev Dr William McCrea:

I was delighted that one of the first ministerial acts by my hon Friend the Member for East Belfast (Mr P Robinson) was to come to Toome and announce the proposals for the design of the bridge. Now, that was not regarded as sectarian, but it is regarded as sectarian to consider the wider financial aspects. Toome was not an isolated scheme; all schemes of similar magnitude were considered as part of the overall package. The people west of the Bann appreciated the fact that a DUP Minister was taking their interests into consideration and putting something in motion by unveiling the design proposals for the bridge and the bypass.

When the Chancellor announced his initiative and talked about his proposals, few elected representatives actually heard him - it is amazing how they listen to what they want to listen to, and then shut off. They welcomed the Chancellor's statement, not realising, of course, that the Chancellor said that the scheme would happen as one of a series of proposals that would benefit from the money accrued by the sale of Belfast port. It was simply and directly connected to that sale.

At that time Minister Robinson prioritised the roads programme, and Toome was a beneficiary of that. Mr Campbell followed Mr Robinson's policy, but - and he would be right to tell people all about this - the moneys allocated to his Department were changed. It would have been possible to make a start on all the schemes that were included in the proposal in year one. That is what the Ministers - past and present - wanted to do, but, of course, they did not have the money. Not even the Jews down in Egypt, who were receiving special help from the Almighty himself, were able to make bricks without straw.

The debate may be helpful. Although the money for year one was safe, the capital roads budget for years two and three seemed to be under question. To the best of my knowledge, we are politicians and this is a debating chamber for politicians, though that is not always evident, given that some contributions are always read, and sometimes badly read. If those speaking in this debate today are politicians of conviction - though it seems that we are not politicians if we are bringing politics into this - and if this debate means something to the parties and is not just "huff and puff", today could mark progress in this Chamber.

If the Members from Sinn Feín/IRA, the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP who have spoken are making commitments on behalf of their parties to do everything in their power to ensure that the finances for the road budget are restored, progress will have been made today. But I have a feeling that, as usual, when their arms are twisted up their backs, they will cave in and prove themselves to be jellyfish, rather than men.

However, I would be happy to be proved wrong. If that is the case, we can be assured that the Members I referred to are not seeking headlines but are trying to ensure that the Minister has the finances to do the job. My conversations with the Minister have convinced me that no one would be happier to make sure that this scheme and others in the programme were processed properly.

I ask the Minister to ensure that there is no delay and that everything necessary is being done. Have the necessary procedures been put into place and into operation to ensure that there will be no delay in the programme for the Toome bypass, if the funds become available? We have seen that the goodwill in the Chamber has grown, and I have no doubt that the issue will be easily overcome. Are the planning process, the environmental studies, the vesting programme - if that is the way forward - being processed now to ensure that there will be no undue delay in the creation of this bypass?

Unlike some who have spoken, I have campaigned with genuine conviction for the creation of a Toome bypass for over 20 years. Mr McClelland of the SDLP said that he is familiar with the congestion because he comes from the area. I appreciate that, and I understand his conviction, because he has experienced the problem himself. I too speak with conviction, for I believe that the bypass would benefit not just the west of the Province but the entire region. It would be beneficial because it would remove the west-east divide. There should be one Province with the people of Northern Ireland enjoying all its benefits.

There are two industrial sites in the area, one of which is at Creagh, on the verge of Toome. The other is on the Ballymena side of the town. This road is vital to attracting industry. It is important to ensure that people and industries do not avoid this area because of congestion, delays and pollution. Many issues hinge on this decision. That is why I know that my hon Friend will listen carefully to those whose belief in this issue is genuine and not based on political gain or belated interest. The Toome bypass is necessary to the well-being of the people of that vast area in the west and in the adjoining constituencies and council areas.

That is why I ask my hon Friend to ensure that nothing impedes progress. I hope and believe that all Members of the Assembly will unite in pressing for additional finances for the second and third years. If they do so, there will be no problem in ensuring that the Toome bypass becomes a reality, and that is what really counts.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I call Mr David Ford, and ask him to remember that time is moving on.

Mr Ford:

An advantage of speaking at this stage in a debate is that one does not have to repeat everything everyone else has said. A disadvantage is that one directly follows the Member for Mid Ulster, who has dictated the Minister's winding-up speech to him.

I certainly acknowledge the Minister's quite clear problems in the realm of finance, but I do not think that they are entirely inflicted on him by others. Sometimes I wonder if they are not inflicted by the "hokey-cokey" policy of the DUP. Perhaps if one pulls Peter out to put Gregory in, one pulls out Peter's proposals and aspirations at the same time. I trust the Minister will show this afternoon that he has not forgotten all the commitments that we thought were given earlier this year.

One project in the Department for Regional Development's proposals that is worrying to me when compared to the Toome scheme is that to upgrade - I believe that is the euphemism - the Westlink in Belfast. I certainly acknowledge that there are problems with freight going through the city and that the Westlink can get thoroughly jammed. However, examining the possibilities, there are alternatives - particularly with public transport, but also with roads - which could reduce the demand for over £40 million worth of improvements on that stretch. There is a real fear on the part of many experts that all it will achieve is to speed the traffic jams up to three quarters of a mile through the city with a deterioration in air quality for those living in the area.

By contrast, the Toome proposals would cost under a third of the amount required for the Westlink. There is no alternative, and there would be significant environmental benefits, not only for those who travel through the village, but more particularly for those who live in and around it. Mr John Kelly referred to the problems of ambulances and to the fact that hospital services are now centralised. However, this is not just a problem for ambulances; it is a problem for freight vehicles, private cars and buses as well.

There is a bizarre situation in which the Maiden City Flyer, the most efficient way of getting between Northern Ireland's main two cities, cannot get through Toome in the morning in time for people to catch the Enterprise to Dublin. It is hard to imagine anything more bizarre than businessmen from Derry driving to Belfast to catch a train to Dublin because of the inadequacies of public transport resulting from the congestion that is solely in Toome.

Of course, the railway might make a slight difference at some stage, but even if it removes the north-west traffic we cannot expect it to take out traffic from the mid Ulster and mid Tyrone areas, and possibly parts of west Tyrone as well. There is a major need for the bypass, for in its absence we shall see the entire area grinding to a halt. There is no incentive for people to use public transport to improve their travelling times for, because of the jams, it is even slower than private transport.

Representing South Antrim - and therefore two thirds of the length of the proposed bypass, rather than the third which others represent - it is my great fortune that I rarely travel through Toome in the rush hour. When I do, it tends to be in the opposite direction to the main traffic flow. However, what I see is quite enough to convince me of the need for a bypass soon.

Reference has been made to the previous Minister's visit to the O'Neill Arms Hotel to launch the exhibition on the bypass proposals. I have a confession to make. I did not manage to squeeze into any of the pictures; I was not seen beside Mr J Kelly, Mr McCrea or Mr P Robinson. I was in this Building on Assembly duties while the exhibition was being launched. However, I travelled there that evening, which gave me a much better opportunity to see the exhibition, though a slimmer chance of getting on television. I had the opportunity to speak to local people, and it was quite clear that there is deep feeling in the village and its surroundings on both sides that the bypass is needed now. It is very rare that one finds people whose land is to be affected by a vesting scheme for a main road saying "Yes, this area needs it." However, I heard that said in the O'Neill Arms Hotel that night. Clearly, the feeling in the district is that priority must be given to the bypass, and we must take note of that.

5.00 pm

Currently, we have a temporary throughpass in the village, which seems to have made a marginal improvement in travelling times. This was clearly accepted by people in Toome, and certainly by Antrim Council, as a temporary expedient until the bypass was built - and it will only be accepted as such.

Why is there such reluctance from the Ministers responsible to do something about the Toome bypass? The Minister for Regional Development travels here most days from Londonderry, and the Minister of Finance and Personnel travels here most days from Derry. Perhaps they are being so careful about their own interests that they do not want to be seen to be promoting the Toome bypass, lest anyone have any suspicions of their personal motives. We could accept and understand that if they felt that they wanted to make progress on the scheme. People would not criticise them of being solely interested in their own circumstances.

To give one hint to the Minister, perhaps he and his Colleague the Minister of Finance could set an example. Instead of coming in two cars, some day they could meet up at Lisnagelvin and travel to Stormont in one car. That would at least cut down the traffic jam through Toome slightly. I am not going to suggest that they bring the Minister of Education as well - I am not trying to be unrealistic. The Minister for Regional Development and the Minister of Finance could co-operate that far, and the people of Toome would appreciate it. I have no doubt that what they would appreciate much more is giving this scheme its proper priority within the region - doing something to put the bridge and bypass in place immediately.


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