Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 6 February 2001 (continued)
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
I would like to know when the Forum met to agree the motion. We are entitled to know that.
Mr P Robinson:
Give it to us now.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
Tell us. I will sit down and let the First Minister answer. No, he does not want to answer. What is the use of bluffing the people outside the Assembly and of telling us that the Forum has agreed this resolution when the Forum did not have a meeting and did not agree this resolution? It may have been agreed with the chairperson, but it definitely was not agreed by the Forum.
People are saying that they are fighting for the rights of the Forum. If it was the right of the Forum to have a meeting and say that it agreed this resolution, why did it not have such a meeting? Does the Assembly say that the next time that the Forum tells us to agree a resolution, we have to agree it? Has this Assembly no independence? That is the key to this whole matter.
It is completely untrue for people to say that that body represents the whole of the civic community. I wonder how many sections of the community have no representation on that Forum. The people who make that claim put other people beyond the pale. What about the Loyal Orange Institution? It is a very large organisation, yet it has no representation on this Forum. It is therefore beyond the pale, because we are told by the Alliance Party that all real civic interests are on this Forum.
I know some things that happened when people were being picked for this Forum, especially in regard to the smaller church bodies in the Province. If the powers that be could have had their way, the smaller denominations would have had no representation on the Forum. Only after battling to get position were the smaller denominations given a - [Interruption].
Since the Member is unhappy with the failure, as he sees it, to have direct representation of the Orange Institution, why did his party not put down an amendment to that effect when this went through the House in mid-February 1999?
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
There was no point in putting down an amendment.
Let us talk about the churches. How were the churches going to be represented on this body? How were the smaller denominations that would call themselves evangelicals going to be represented on this body? It was by the pushing of the First Minister of an evangelical minister of the Irish Presbyterian Church, whose church was already represented on the body. I am not going to discuss fully the things that I know, but at another time I will. The smaller denominations dug their heels in and told the Irish Presbyterian minister concerned - who was the nominee of the Northern Ireland Office to chair the meeting - that he would not be on the Forum representing evangelicals because the smaller denominations had the right to have a voice on that body.
Let no one tell this House that the body was established to give representation to all views. It was brought into being to ensure that there would be no views of those who were opposed to the agreement. However, it did not succeed in the one instance of the smaller denominations.
Why is the Assembly, which is the elected body, being told that it must pass this resolution because it is the resolution of the Forum? The Forum has no right to dictate to the Assembly on what it should pass or not pass. We have been told - as the First Minister told the Alliance Party - that we cannot really oppose this because it is what the Forum has asked us to do.
There was a resolution that came before the Business Committee of the House. It was withdrawn by the First Minister, according to what we were told by the Speaker of the House. It was withdrawn because the First Minister said that he did not agree with it. Where did it come from? Who provided it to be put on the Order Paper? Why was it withdrawn just before the Order Paper was printed? Those are matters that the House should be given information on. Why hide those things if all in the garden is rosy and everything is open and above board? Why is the Assembly not told the whole story?
Why was the Assembly not allowed to approve an agenda that was already approved by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister? What were they afraid of? The Assembly is an elected body, and it has the right to know what that non-elected body decides upon. There are some people who are vocal in their support of the Civic Forum, but they do not have much basis in the electoral world that would give them respectability in any other sort of meeting. Therefore, they need not say that somebody in the organisation wants this or that, when they themselves scrape into the House.
The Assembly should have authority over those who are put into positions and paid public money to advise the Assembly on any matter. Their advice should be on subjects that the Assembly seeks advice on.
The Assembly should not roam round the world as if it were a replica of another body of which I am a member - the European Parliament. That Parliament roams round the world every time it meets. Its members go here, there and yonder and pass resolutions which are unheard and unheeded. The civic body should have its agenda agreed by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and not by its chairperson.
The First Minister:
I am sorry that it has taken so long to obtain the answer that the Member sought earlier in his speech. In my introduction of the motion I said that the motion was agreed at a meeting of the Civic Forum. Dr Paisley asked when that meeting had taken place. It took place at Balmoral on 20 December. The Forum discussed the Programme for Government and also discussed and agreed the motion. On the same day the Forum's management committee too agreed the motion.
I will also look at whatever information is available to my office regarding the matter of the smaller churches to which Rev Dr Ian Paisley referred. That was not known to me, but I will make enquiries.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
It is nice to know that to get information one has to screw it out of the First Minister. Why did he not say that in his speech? He had to go and find out when the meeting occurred. I said that the Assembly was entitled to the information. It has now been told that the Forum discussed the motion at a meeting and suggested that it was proper.
Mr P Robinson:
It is alarming that a body set up to give its views to the Assembly met in December, had a view on the way forward but did not tell the Assembly that view. It appears that the Forum whispered its view in the ear of the First Minister alone.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
Stranger things will come out, when the First Minister does not know that his own office appointed the chairman of the meeting for the smaller denominations. A letter from his office went directly to them explaining the arrangements.
The First Minister had better make some enquiries about what is happening in his own office. That is obvious when he comes to the House and has to wait so long to find out about that meeting. I also want to put on record that I have my suspicions that the motion, as we have it today, came from the Civic Forum.
I will enquire of members of the Civic Forum about whether they discussed this exact motion. Why did the management committee have to discuss it if the whole Forum discussed it and said that that was what it wanted? The House needs to know the exact wording of what was given to the First Minister. Was it conveyed to him in writing? Were the words of the motion contained in that letter? That is what we are asked to believe today. I want it to be clear that when the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister approve the agenda, it will have to go to the Assembly. I want it to be clear that the Assembly, which will be advised by the Forum, should have the right to say which topics advice is required on. Will the Assembly have reports that it does not want advice on - for example, those that it has already made decisions on? The time has come for proper clarity on the matter. Why was the motion, in draft form or whatever, suddenly taken off the Order Paper, only for us to come back to it today?
Because of the way in which it was handpicked and constructed, the Civic Forum will not do a necessary job. It is weighted entirely in one way to back up a policy which puts gunmen into government and which seeks to destroy the constitution of this country.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
It is very illuminating to hear Dr Paisley talk about a body which he has opposed from the outset. Now he tells us that he will consult with it on how it conducted its business with regard to the motion - [Interruption].
Check your own comments.
In case hon Members do not recall his words, Dr Paisley said that he would go and ask the Civic Forum people -
Mr P Robinson:
No, he did not.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Check Hansard. It is also interesting -
Mr P Robinson:
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The record will clearly show that Dr Paisley said that he would consult with members of the Civic Forum, not with the Civic Forum.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
We will look into that point.
That point of order was very interesting. In Mr Robinson's earlier remarks he said that it was never the intention to have an upper house. I think those were his words, but I am prepared to check Hansard in the morning or to be corrected by Mr Robinson. He was not involved in the discussions on the Civic Forum and the Good Friday negotiations, unless perhaps he wants to acknowledge that he had some kind of proximity discussions with someone or other at the time. He is not really in a position to talk about the intentions behind the establishment of the Civic Forum.
I support the motion on behalf of Sinn Féin. That support is primarily based on the assurances given in the Executive and in the Chamber this morning. I oppose the amendment tabled by the Member from the DUP on the basis that the DUP has always opposed the Civic Forum. The DUP has been very consistent on that, and that is fair enough. That is its right. However, we will oppose anything that the DUP wants to do to restrict the functioning of the Civic Forum, as I am sure many others will.
We oppose the amendment tabled by Mr Ford and Ms Morrice because it is unnecessary. Members will acknowledge that the assurances given by the First Minister this morning satisfy most of their concerns.
In his comments this morning the First Minister exaggerated his embracing of the need for the Civic Forum and the kind of functions that most Members want to see.
As people have already pointed out, the original motion coming to the House - or at least going on the Order Paper - had to be withdrawn because of objections that it was clearly going to restrict the work of the Civic Forum. My party's view is, quite simply, that the elected representatives here are ultimately responsible for legislation and for carrying out the wishes of the people who return us by way of the ballot box.
Nevertheless, we are very supportive of the need for a Civic Forum to ensure that we have a more inclusive way of doing business in our society. Therefore our very clear and fundamental view on the Civic Forum will always be on the basis that it is, and should be, an independent body. We welcome, and want to see, the Civic Forum adopting a challenging role in society as a whole.
We oppose anything that seeks to restrict the work of the Civic Forum. We are very satisfied with the assurances that we have received from our Ministers in the Executive and from the First Minister this morning. I welcome the First Minister's comments and his assurances to Members that there will be no attempt whatsoever to restrict the work of the Civic Forum. We will not be supporting amendment 2, because Assembly Committees already have the right to invite submissions from any organisation, or individual, with a particular interest in any matter that the Committees are enquiring into.
Committees have invited views from a range of organisations, and we have also had situations where organisations and individuals have requested the opportunity to address the various Committees. After all, we are supposed to be sitting in public session quite often. Amendment 2 is unnecessary, but we are very happy to support the motion from the First and Deputy First Ministers.
I support the amendment in the name of the Alliance Party and the Women's Coalition. I suppose that there are those of us who have scraped - as it has been described - into the Assembly or into political life. So far as I know, most of us took either third, fourth or fifth place and most of the sixth places were actually taken by the larger parties. One could argue that some of them say that they do not want to be here, but I get the impression that they could limbo dance under the closed front door with a top hat on.
This admonishment of the small parties and the Civic Forum is all very well. I would like to define that a little. I know some members of the Civic Forum who can talk in joined-up language, and who can do joined-up writing. They can actually speak without a script. They are people who manage affairs in banks, trade unions and churches, and who make practical efforts on a day-to-day basis, thus undoubtedly proving their capacity as citizens of this society to make a contribution.
I get confused when we ask citizens to make a contribution. Very often I hear the DUP or the less inclusive democratic parties of small nature - the UUAP, the NIUP, the UKUP and all those p's with very few conveniences - use the word "inundated". They use that word a lot. When there is an issue of concern for society they are inundated by phone calls and suggestions from concerned members of their constituency that there is something wrong. Fair enough - politicians have to listen to the people. So, when we decide that there should be a group of people who are strategically placed to feed politics from the ground up rather than from the old, tired, unworkable politics from the top down, we are told that we should not listen when we are inundated. They really cannot have it both ways.
I am terribly worried. From the wording of the DUP amendment, it seems to me that the DUP actually trusts the nefarious, evil and reprehensible First and Deputy First Ministers more than it trusts the bad and terrible Civic Forum. There would seem to be that suggestion.
Mr P Robinson:
Well, that is how it seems to me, but there was a suggestion that it is perfectly all right for the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to direct what the Forum should do.
Mr P Robinson:
Will the Member give way?
Mr P Robinson:
Will the Member give way?
Not at this moment.
Mr P Robinson:
Will the Member give way?
I will give way later.
Mr P Robinson:
He has made an allegation.
I will give way later.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
The Member is not giving way.
It is my choice. I will freely give the information I have when Dr Paisley gives the stuff about the ecumenical people that he held back. However -
Evangelical? Oh, sorry, perhaps he would not have wanted them on the Forum at all. Well, all those "e"s - you get mixed up. Touché.
What we are seeing from some Members is the "Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man" attitude. They say "Politics is my job, and don't you be thinking of doing it. Away, and do what you do - churchman or trade unionist or whatever. Don't be entering my regime, don't be coming here and making any remote criticisms of what we might do or, indeed, offering us ideas on what we should do." Basically, that is what this is about. They are afraid of the dark. They are afraid of the positive attitudes that can come from those people. If someone were to be a shining light on the Civic Forum, would they be a threat?
I remember social development workers were always considered by some elements to be threats from all sides. Usually the parties with plenty of votes felt more aggrieved that community development officers existed and made some kind of commentary. One feels that we are seeking a self protection process.
On a more positive point, it was our hope and our dream and - certainly at the creation of the Civic Forum - our belief that we could have a group of people in society who might well be our alter ego in some ways. They might listen in places that we do not get to. They might develop attitudes and opinions worthwhile for us to hear. They could have fed us politics from the ground up. Not that any of us are devoid of being told by many people what is wrong on a daily basis, but it could be done in a structured, common-sense way, embracing many elements of society. I cannot, for the life of me, believe that we need to be afraid of such a concept. I think it was the Deputy First Minister, Séamus Mallon, who in a previous speech indicated that if they are going to be a crowd of nodding ducks then they are wasting their time and ours.
I value that the Civic Forum has been created because there is a paucity of civil society in relation to political affairs in Northern Ireland, especially within the community from which I emanate. There is not a civil society of great strength upon which we can rest our politics. We need to be challenged. We need to have others moving in similar fields and realms, especially on issues such as culture, economics and social affairs. It can be of no harm to this Chamber - no harm to the Executive - for those people to be developing attitudes, understanding what the people say, and moving around this country taking evidence from large numbers of people in public. What is to be afraid of there?
On another positive note, although not directly about the Civic Forum, the DUP did not want a Civic Forum, and it made that very clear. In fact, it was alluded to today. It also did not want the Northern Ireland Assembly. I suppose that you can take some comfort that if it uses the same effort to collapse the Civic Forum as it has to collapse the Assembly, then the Forum will grow to old age. That is a reality.
What we are hearing from the DUP is "Why is it not all in our hands? Why don't we hold it all? Why don't we control it all? Why would we allow these people?" You can hear that those people are distrusted, not because of who they are but because of who they are not. We have heard "Who they are not" referred to substantially in earlier speeches.
The people of Northern Ireland have a right to be heard. Political representatives are the natural vehicles for that, but there is a capacity for that alter ego of the Civic Forum to add to what we do, not diminish it; to benefit what we do, rather than detract from it. Those of us who are not afraid of the Civic Forum are often those who argue that it should have a broader and more sweeping capacity to stick its nose in where it wishes - within its remit, of course. The amendment that I support, in the names of David Ford and Jane Morrice, shows that.
There are parties in the Executive that will support the motion credited to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and there will be those in the Executive who will oppose it. We must talk to those who oppose it first. I have tried to address my remarks to them. Those parties in the Executive who support the motion must bear in mind the nature of opposition in this Chamber. Opposition has difficulty being heard and difficulty encouraging and engendering movement in our Government. Why do we propose that there are those outside this place who can be our alter ego? It is because we are frightened of the fiefdom - not any fiefdom that could be created by the Civic Forum, but a fiefdom that could, and just might, be created by the four large parties in this Chamber.
Those of us who want openness and the opportunity for interaction in society will support the amendment in the names of David Ford and Jane Morrice. We must stop playing games about what we want to collapse and what we do not like, and get on with business. Has it gone unnoticed that the DUP is shifting its language and its position? It is not "Collapse" any more; it is "Listen to our concerns".
It is worth remembering how the Civic Forum came to be in the first place. Its establishment has been a long process. It was useful to hear Mr Peter Robinson remind us that it initially came about as a result of the agreement. It is on record that the DUP is opposed to that agreement and everything that is in it. Its position of opposition has been on record from then on.
However, I cannot find anything that reconciles that position with the DUP's current position: "We did not like the agreement. We did not like the legislation. In fact, we did not like the working party that was established to decide on the sectors." For the record, it is not right to call people cronies when they have voluntarily given their time to participate in social, economic and cultural decision-making in this society. Nonetheless, the DUP took that view, and now it is saying that its disagreement with the Civic Forum is not because of the agreement, the legislation, the working party or the sectors that took so much time in deciding who should go forward, but rather because some of the evangelical churches are not fully represented or the loyal institutions are not represented.
Clearly, its current position is derived from that. I always find it amusing when someone uses the words "We must be in control." In this case, that does not surprise me, given that the Member who was speaking was Mr Robinson. I am often left wondering whether he wants the Assembly to have control of the various institutions we seek to establish, or himself. It would be great if we reached the stage of trying to "empower" people, rather than "control" them.
I am, however, very heartened that the Civic Forum has now been established, and it is extremely important to remind ourselves that participatory, as well as representative, democracy is good for this country. One of the reasons for the Civic Forum was that many people felt politically homeless. As a result of the bitter constitutional difficulties we faced, they did not feel that the time had come for them to engage in the political parties that currently existed. Many of them were very active politically - with a small "p" - in their work for informal politics. It is only right that as a result of that model of conflict resolution we produced, which has become known as the Belfast Agreement or the Good Friday Agreement, those people have a voice. They will perhaps be the stabilisers of the fast speed bike that was agreed in 1998.
I also take heart from the fact that resources have been set aside for the Civic Forum. If you are not in, you will not get any money to do what you wish to do. That would have happened had the Forum not been mentioned in the agreement. We had to work extremely hard on those last nights before the agreement to protect our wording on the Civic Forum and to ensure that it made its way into legislation. I am aware that the Northern Ireland Act 1998 says, as the First Minister told us earlier:
"The arrangements so made shall not take effect until after they have been approved by the Assembly".
I am heartened that this provision relates mainly to resources. The Assembly should have a view, since the budget for the Civic Forum is initially decided by the Assembly, and it will come to the Floor. However, it is right that the Forum should be given a certain amount of independence on social, economic and cultural matters - wide ranging as they are. The two can, therefore, be reconciled.
I am heartened that the First Minister says that he has no intention of restricting the work of the Civic Forum. The motion which came before the Business Committee at an earlier stage was aimed at doing exactly that. Nonetheless, the reason I support the amendment in the name of Mr Ford and Ms Morrice is to take issue with something which Mr Maskey said. The original motion, put down today by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, is still restrictive. It still suggests that a motion so requested has to be placed before the Assembly. The Civic Forum's work on the Programme for Government did not come as a result of a motion in the Assembly. By putting that motion down, therefore, the work of the Civic Forum is still restricted, whereas Mr Ford's and Ms Morrice's amendment further opens it.
There are several points to which I would like the First Minister to respond. I am heartened that he says that there will be a review of the Civic Forum. Anyone who is reluctant to participate in, and support the work of, the Civic Forum will have another opportunity to participate when that review takes place. A working party was formed in which Assembly Members expressed views on how the work of the Civic Forum should go forward. I will be interested to see if those who chose not to become members of that working party - the DUP was one such party -participate in the review.
The First Minister has said that this review will take place after one year. Does he refer to the establishment of the date of the Civic Forum or to this year, 2001? The Civic Forum should be able to do some of its work before that review.
I also make a plea for more effective liaison between the Civic Forum and the Assembly. I agree that if the Civic Forum had been asked for its views on this motion, perhaps there could have been better liaison between the Assembly and the Civic Forum. I would like to see more formal liaison mechanisms. However, I am heartened by the First Minister's comments. I will support the amendment.
I am speaking as a Member of the legislative Assembly and not as Chairperson of the Committee of the Centre. This motion was never presented to the Committee, so members had no opportunity to give their views on it. It is, however, good to see the Junior Minister, Mr Nesbitt, with us - [Interruption].
Mr P Robinson:
Is the Member saying that a matter which is the responsibility of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and, by the admission of the First Minister, worthy of being put before the Civic Forum, was never put before the Committee of the Centre?
Yes, I can confirm to Mr Robinson that this matter was never brought before the Committee of the Centre. Obviously, the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister thought it more important to take the issue to the Civic Forum than to bring it to the public representatives who are supposed to be scrutinising that Office.
As I have said, it is good to see the Junior Minister, Mr Nesbitt, here. He is a bit like the Scarlet Pimpernel:
"We seek him here, we seek him there",
but seldom can he be found. It is good to see that he is here and looking so well. We were concerned for his well-being.
If we want to look at the basis for the Civic Forum we need to go back to the 1996 Forum elections. We had previously heard much about accountable democracy, especially from the Ulster Unionist Party. I took it that accountable democracy meant exactly that, and that it did not mean more quangos or more people who could not be called to account by the electorate. So, we had the 1996 elections which gave top-up positions for the 10 parties that achieved the highest percentage of the votes. Those top-up positions included people who were unable to be elected in the normal way. The Labour Coalition was nominated, wherever it has gone, as were the UDP, the Women's Coalition and the PUP. We know that the Women's Coalition has been detrimental to the community. Then we had talks and negotiations - [Interruption].
That will get us more votes.
Yes, there might be another 10 votes for the Women's Coalition.
During the talks process a number of these parties realised that in a normal election they would not be returned, so they decided to introduce a fallback position, which is the Civic Forum. Mr Ervine, in his 10-minute speech - if you could call it a speech; it was more bluster and codswallop - made a lot of noise but delivered very little. He made many accusations against the DUP and its stance on the Assembly and the Civic Forum.
I will make it abundantly clear what our position is on the Assembly. The DUP has always supported a devolved Administration for Northern Ireland. However, we do not support a devolved Administration that lets terrorists into government. Those two facts will remain at the centre of our policy. We believe in devolved government, in accountable democracy and in having a situation in which people can come to their politicians at a local level where decisions can be made. We also believe that there is no place in government for people who are closely aligned to, or are apologists for, terrorist organisations. On that point Mr Ervine will fundamentally disagree with our party.
What the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister propose is less public accountability - it is a triumvirate of the two Ministers and the chairperson of the Civic Forum, who will make decisions which will not come before the Assembly. I am surprised that some of the parties want the Assembly to have less influence and want the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to exert more influence than the Assembly. For that to come from the smaller parties, which often cry about this very thing, surprises me. I ask them to reconsider their position. In this case, they should seek to give the Assembly more authority and reduce that of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. They should take the opportunity to put their money where their mouths are.
As I understand it - and perhaps this can be confirmed later - the Civic Forum has had some problems in getting quorums for its committees, a number of which have had to be cancelled. Perhaps the First Minister should have been more careful when choosing who was going to represent him. For example, look at the representation that Mr McMichael has given in his council. He never attends it. The fact that the Civic Forum is having problems getting quorums comes as no surprise, given the record of some of the individuals appointed to it. I am not sure whether Mr McMichael has attended the Civic Forum. All I know is that he certainly does not attend his council.
Yesterday we were told that it cost £75,000 to set up the Civic Forum, with £110,000 having been spent thus far on running costs - a total of £185,000. That would have paid for about 47 hip operations. That would have created more nursery places for children. That could have employed another 12 nurses. We have lots of problems and needs in our society. We have people crying out because the roads are not gritted. However, it is OK to throw £185,000 at the Civic Forum. What has it achieved so far? I am not aware of any achievement that can be accredited to it. We may be at an early stage, but it should be producing something tangible and beneficial to the community if the money is going to be spent on it. The Civic Forum is a waste of taxpayers' money.
Politicians should be at the beck and call of the general public if they are doing their job right. Many of us in the Chamber have constituency offices. I am not sure what some others do with their office costs allowance - they seem to be able to use it up, but they do not have constituency offices. Many of us do have constituency offices in which we hear the views of the public. In my constituency, I have received a mass of letters concerning, for example, the closure of the railway between Crumlin and Knockmore. I do not need someone from the Civic Forum to tell me about the problems that will be created if Translink is to close that line. My constituents are telling me about that. I have had many letters about the transfer procedure for children from primary to secondary school. Again, I do not need the Civic Forum to tell me what my position should be on that, because my electors are telling me the position that I should be taking. The opportunity is there for them.
A cabal has been created of people who are, in general, in tow with the pro-agreement parties in Northern Ireland. There has been a little tokenism - a couple of individuals have been included who would not necessarily be supporters of the Belfast Agreement. However, by and large, we have a group of people who support the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and who will be directed by them. What we will hear from the Civic Forum is not in reality what civil society wants. We will hear in May, all being well, what civil society wants, because it will have the opportunity to come out and express its opinion at the polling booths. I am quite positive that, among the Unionist community, it will not be expressing support for the Belfast Agreement.
In talking to people on the ground, both pro-agreement and anti-agreement, I often hear people saying that we need an Assembly in Northern Ireland, irrespective of whether it is this Assembly or the sort of Assembly that we would like to see, which would not involve having terrorists in government. I have yet to hear someone - be he pro-agreement or anti-agreement - say that we need a Civic Forum. I have not once heard anyone challenge me or criticise the position that we take. I do not think that there is a demand for the Civic Forum, but it has been constituted under the terms of the Belfast Agreement, so we will have to live with it. However, the work it does should be controlled by the Assembly rather than by the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the chairperson of the Civic Forum alone.