Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 19 February 2001 (continued)

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I congratulate you on finishing in less than half your time. It is a good example.

Mr Kane:

Although I readily accept the complexity and scale of the task of compiling budgetary proposals, I assume that areas in the scope of the Budget have been less than provided for and that that will serve as a lesson for the Minister and his Department of Finance and Personnel in the future. These areas where lessons may be learnt are no doubt numerous and should be given consideration. No one will draw comfort from bogus percentage increases, which, when considered carefully, produce only minimal changes in funding levels.

I fail to see how the vision steering group will be able to provide the long-term and medium-term strategies that it is hoped will put the agriculture industry back on any kind of firm footing. That message is interpreted in the industry to mean that low priority is being given to the industry and its problems. Frankly, I fail to see how the allocation of £10 million will be enough to enable us to implement the recommendations of the vision group that we must implement if we are to tackle problems of this magnitude. Furthermore, the figure fails to account for the percentage of the sum that will be swallowed by administration.

I risk being repetitive when I mention how vital farm capital investment grants are. Let me just qualify the term "farm capital investment" by saying that this is not an attempt to provide every farm in the Province with state-of-the-art farmyards and livestock accommodation. It is a call for assistance to reverse the decline that has occurred on farms during the past five years. For example, on a local farm, when an official from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development arrived to inspect animals for the first stage beef special premium scheme, he was accompanied by a health and safety inspector. Why? If the facilities were substandard on that farm, how do you blame the farmer, and who is listening to the calls for assistance anyway?

Finally, despite announcements about research on the eradication of tuberculosis and brucellosis in cattle, the inadequacy of funding has been demonstrated over the past week. I say this with reference to Greenmount Agricultural College, where over 200 breeding animals have been slaughtered because of an outbreak of brucellosis. Farming could do without that level of uncertainty about those diseases. It says something about the Department of Finance and Personnel's allocation for research when the diseases continue to be unchecked. It also says something about the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development's housekeeping when an outbreak occurs in one of our agricultural colleges.

I conclude by thanking the Minister for his presentation.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Thank you, Mr Kane. That was creditably brief.

Mr Savage:

I welcome the Minister's comments. However, the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee did not get the opportunity to discuss the papers in question, so I cannot respond on its behalf. The Supplementary Estimates are a housekeeping exercise that are designed to obtain formal approval of decisions on the reallocation of funds following the various monitoring rounds. From that perspective, the additional funds announced for agriculture, following the monitoring reviews, will be contained in the supplementary figures sought.

As Deputy Chairman of the Agriculture Committee, I must comment on the notice given with the papers. Members of other Committees will agree that there has been no time for informed debate at Committee level. Our Committee was given little opportunity to participate in the Budget process, including the monitoring rounds, so we will be pushing for greater involvement in the 2001-02 financial year. We will also be seeking, at an appropriate stage, information on expenditure from the Department for Regional Development's budget. The true value will then be seen of the additional allocations which we are being asked to support today.

We hear of the huge amount of money to be channelled into agriculture, but the entire farming industry in Northern Ireland needs to be given an injection. The industry requires environmental schemes as well as restructuring to streamline services. I also ask the Minister to consider seriously the proposal for a long-term, low-interest loan scheme, which would give the entire industry a whole new lease of life. Such a scheme could stand alone as it would structure itself.

Another emerging issue, which has been touched upon by many Members, is the state of the Province's roads. My own constituency of Upper Bann is one of the fastest growing areas outside Belfast. The increase in traffic and industry in that area is placing a good deal more pressure on our roads. An in-depth review of our infrastructure is needed, and I hope that our roads will benefit from such a review. The Roads Service's regional offices inform us that they are prepared to carry out developments, but that they are prohibited by a lack of finance.

The lack of Water Service schemes is also a major problem. Since Christmas and "the big frost", a mile-long stretch of road in my area has become covered in patches where pipes have burst, which can be seen approximately every three metres. An unbelievable amount of money has been spent on the maintenance of local water supplies. I presume that money has been made available for that purpose, because every other day there is a burst pipe in the area.

1.30 pm

Many Members have highlighted work that needs to be done in different areas.

I welcome the news that money is going to be spent on a rail service. Over the past two days the rail service has been in the headlines because people have misused it in an attempt to make it difficult for others to use. I hope that a measure can be introduced so that those people who are making life miserable for our commuters can be taken to task for it. The system is being abused, and it could do without that abuse. I hope that all those issues will be taken on board.

Many matters have been discussed this morning, and I am not going to repeat them because I have seen Mr Durkan writing all morning. I do not want to add to his summing-up list, as long as he keeps Upper Bann to the forefront. Many things in my constituency need attention. However, there are level-headed people in various sectors in Upper Bann, and all they need is an injection of money. It does not take much to make a big difference. If that can be taken on board, the results that will flow will be unbelievable.

The Chairperson of the Regional Development Committee (Mr A Maginness):

Mr Savage implored the Minister to be mindful of Upper Bann. I would like him to keep North Belfast in his thoughts also.

I welcome the Minister's speech today. It was delivered with characteristic skill and effectiveness. We are used to his skilful presentation and analysis - it is of great benefit to all who are trying to follow the detail of the figures presented today. Several of the announcements about additional expenditure are particularly welcome to the Regional Development Committee.

Resources are scarce and money is clearly in short supply. Nevertheless, resources have been used imaginatively, and the Minister and Departments have effectively maximised the use of those resources for the people of Northern Ireland. That is not to say that all is perfect and rosy in the garden - far from it. However, we welcome the additional funding to allow for free travel for the elderly from October 2001. We also welcome the £5·3 million for the road infrastructure, in particular for structural maintenance. The allocation of an additional £3·1 million for a modern integrated ticketing system for bus and rail is important if we are to have an effective co-ordination of rail and bus services and for the development of a realistic and effective public transportation policy. I greet the additional grant of £19·6 million for the rail infrastructure as a timely intervention by the Executive and the Minister of Finance and Personnel to support our under-resourced railway system. It will add significantly to the development of a public transportation strategy for Northern Ireland. The extra £14·5 million for water and sewerage capital investment is heartening, as that area that has been starved of funding for many years.

Although that will not cure what is an immensely difficult problem, it is a welcome start. The £41·9 million from the Chancellor's initiative for capital road projects is necessary to relieve the road infrastructure problems in Northern Ireland. I welcome the additional £7 million from the Executive programme funds' infrastructure/ capital renewal fund to deal with these problems. That represents an overall increase of about 10% on expenditure over previous years, which the Regional Development Committee welcomes.

However, I wish to highlight remaining areas of underfunding. Most notably, if bus and rail services are to provide an effective, reliable and affordable public transportation system, major investment is required. The first stage of public consultation over the regional transportation strategy is due to be completed shortly. It is likely that a central theme - and I hope it will be a central theme - will be a public transportation system that supports a socially inclusive and vibrant economy. That cannot be realised without the required financial investment. Therefore, I ask the Minister of Finance and Personnel to give it his immediate attention. The draft Programme for Government recognises the importance of an effective road infrastructure to support a modern and vibrant economy. Consequently, it is important that funding is targeted at existing bottlenecks along key transport corridors such as Toome, which the Minister for Regional Development knows is a top priority, as does the Minister of Finance and Personnel.

The draft programme of work also states that we will undertake a programme of road maintenance, based on good practice treatments. What additional funding will be made available for that programme of work? Water and sewerage have consistently been underfunded, and it is estimated that an additional £3 billion will be required over the next 10 years. The extreme weather conditions that we suffered recently have shown that the water and sewerage infrastructures are not capable of coping with the problems that have arisen. They require immediate attention and major investment, and I urge the Minister to look at those favourably.

I welcome the additional funding available in the Executive programme funds' infrastructure/capital renewal fund - a total of £7 million this year, £40 million next year and £100 million the following year. How will that funding support the Department for Regional Development's priorities, which are largely infrastructural? Secondly, how will it support the findings of both the regional development strategy and the regional transportation strategy? Finally, how will the Department for Regional Development and other Departments have access to the fund? The Minister must give clear advice on the criteria that will be used for that.

Mr Kennedy:

I welcome the opportunity to participate in this important debate. It is clear that many Members are interested in having a say on where money ought to be spent and how it should be made available. We welcome the opportunity this presents to us, in that spending priorities can now be made by a locally elected Assembly. There are a range of issues that Members have already mentioned, such as education, health and transport. Of particular concern to me, however, is that Mr Durkan should make money available to his ministerial colleagues - Sir Reg Empey in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and Dr Farren for his responsibilities in training and employment, given the sad news of the job losses at the Adria textile plant in Newry last Friday. A total of 165 jobs will be lost. Announcements of that nature are to be regretted, and it is important that the Ministers with responsibility for enterprise, trade and training should be given an opportunity to prove to the workforce - and to the people of Newry and the surrounding region - that the Assembly is interested, is concerned and will rightly allocate moneys towards redeployment and training and trying to attract inward investment to the Newry area.

Although the announcement was not completely unexpected, the manner in which it came was a shock - especially to the employees. I have some criticisms to make of Adria in that respect. It is regrettable that they kept their employees in the dark before the announcement was made, and they have a duty, therefore, to put proper procedures in place to allow for the retraining and alternative opportunities that we spoke of earlier.

I join my Colleague Mr George Savage in condemnation of the continuing rail disruption in my constituency of Newry and Armagh. The railway line is continually dogged by hoax bombs or by real bombs. Those present a real danger to local people, as well as a great deal of inconvenience to rail and road users, local inhabitants and the industrial sector. It is important to continue to highlight that behaviour of that kind is completely unacceptable. It is an indication that security levels should remain high in the south Armagh area, and therefore the Government ought not to be taking any pre-emptive strikes to remove any of the security installations. I wish to place that on the record, although I do so in the context of welcoming the indication from the Minister that there will be increased moneys made available to upgrade the rail network.

The people of Northern Ireland will want to see the Assembly work in practical ways. They will want us to prove that the substantial investment in public funds, which went into creating and sustaining the Assembly, was worthwhile and can be seen to have tangible results. Changes in the road infrastructure, health and education and all other aspects should be made as quickly as possible. I commend the Minister, wish him well and hope that he will remember the constituency of Newry and Armagh in any considerations of the allocation of finance.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

In the Chamber at the moment we have only one other Member to speak after Mr Clyde, and that is Ms Gildernew. Some of you have been saying nice things about the Finance Minister, but he has been sitting here taking notes since 10.30 am, and I am sure he would like some lunch. I would not be averse to the two Members finishing shortly, and then we will have a short suspension. The sacrosanct 2.30 pm start for Question Time is almost upon us.

1.45 pm

Mr Clyde:

I welcome the opportunity to add to this debate and to call for financial support to facilitate the provision of slip roads from Antrim Hospital onto the M2. For too long, the people of South Antrim have been forced to endure long and unnecessary detours from the hospital, across the town, before joining the motorway that runs adjacent to the hospital. I understand that the Department for Regional Development would look favourably on the construction of slip roads. That would significantly shorten journeys and provide easy access for ambulance journeys to specialist services in Belfast hospitals.

Not only would that provide a more rapid response for the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service attending emergency situations, but it could well mean that a life could be saved. I call on the Assembly to give serious consideration to road provisions that would have the support of not only the local community and patients using Antrim Hospital, but the United Hospital Trust. The availability of funding would allow proposals to move ahead immediately. It would not only improve the quality of health services, but allow for optimum performance at all times.

I also appeal to the Assembly to make money available for more orthopaedic beds in the Royal Victoria Hospital. Currently, elderly people with broken limbs have to wait in Antrim Hospital for up to six days before admittance for surgery in Belfast. Also, patients attending the fracture clinic in Antrim Hospital were sent home on Wednesday 7 February because there was no doctor available to supervise the removal of the plaster casts. For people in their 70s and 80s, that is far from acceptable.

Ms Gildernew:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Far be it from me to keep the Minister from his lunch. I welcome the Minister's statement. It has been a valuable exercise. That we now have locally elected Ministers making the decisions about where money is spent has been of benefit to everybody.

One of my major concerns is the gap funding in the voluntary and community sectors. Although I welcome the £2·2 million that has been made available, there is still a serious shortfall in those sectors. Many groups have been doing invaluable work in the community and voluntary sectors, and those jobs are now on the critical list. Training, skills and experience could be wasted. Thousands of jobs are in danger, and people who have, for many years, carried out work that, by its nature, is difficult to quantify are in danger of losing their jobs. I want to see funding put on a secure footing. People do not know how long they will have jobs. The uncertainty in the sector is damaging.

Some people have to spend a great deal of time administering a system that is complicated, and working to as many as eight or 10 different sets of criteria for different funders. We must simplify it.

I would like the Minister to clarify a few points that arise from his comments last Monday. In relation to gap funding and room to manoeuvre, he mentioned projects that were not based on criteria that were as close as possible to those adopted in the new programmes, and where they do not succeed under the new peace programme. Are the criteria based on the old figures or the new figures? He mentioned a safety net that would be available if Departments needed additional spending power. Can he comment on that and on the cases in which an exit strategy for funding will be necessary? Some projects are not likely to come under the Peace II programme. I ask him to go into more detail on that. There has been a good deal of confusion over whether gap funding is based on the old criteria or the new and on how it is going to work. When will the new criteria be in place to allow the sector to evaluate and make bids?

Among the issues that concern the Social Development Committee is that of urban regeneration. Over the last few years, Belfast has benefited from most of the money spent in that context. I do not often find myself in agreement with the DUP, but Mr Poots was right when he said that a lot of that money is spent in Belfast and, to a lesser extent, in Derry. Meanwhile, towns and villages across the North are not benefiting from these resources.

Towns are struggling to encourage people to spend their money locally rather than drive to out-of-town shopping centres. I must declare an interest in town centre regeneration schemes because I am involved with one in Dungannon. If we fund these schemes, we may create a level playing field.

Housing does not feature in the Supplementary Estimates either, and that concerns me. There are still huge waiting lists, and 17% of social housing in Fermanagh is deemed unfit. Increases in homelessness are also continuing, and we are trying to introduce an updated system to eradicate fuel poverty. However, the pilot schemes have proved that, in this initiative, the rural community will be at a disadvantage. If we bring in half-measures, we cannot expect to end fuel poverty, and that will have a knock-on effect on education and health.

Poverty and social exclusion are among the worst indictments of our society, and unless real resources are channelled into the Department of Social Development the problems that have plagued the vulnerable in communities - the elderly, children, single parents - will continue.

Targeting social need objectives will not be met unless Departments take seriously their obligations. Our Budgets should reflect the needs of the marginalised and vulnerable in society.

Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Carrick:

I draw attention to the reduction in budgetary provision for watercourse management and flooding. Although there has been a £1·76 million reduction in the running costs of the Rivers Agency, capital provision has been increased by £1·56 million.

What provision has been made for the recommendations that will stem from the Lough Neagh management strategy? I refer particularly to the urgent need for flood control measures along the River Bann basin. It is vital that the plight of farmers and landowners be given the same weighting and consideration in respect of their production land as will be given to commercial fishing, tourism, recreation and conservation.

It is time that the Assembly showed some teeth in dealing with cross-cutting issues. Resources must be made available to address the raft of issues associated with the management and exploitation of our natural assets, especially Lough Neagh, which has been neglected over the past 50 years. An example of such neglect is the discharge of Lurgan sewage and effluent into Kinnego Bay via the Woodvale River over the past 60 years. There is evidence that the water quality in the harbour is poor and that there has been a build-up of silt on the bed of the harbour.

Resources are required for the removal of the contaminated layer on the lough bed. It must be removed if water quality is to recover. The relevant Department has been reluctant to clean up the harbour bed. If we hold to the view that the polluter pays, we must find the resources to enable that Department to carry out the work - if we wish to promote the lough for recreational and tourist purposes.

In addition to improving the water quality in the lough, there is the need to address the whole system of feeder rivers and watercourses in a strategic manner and examine new engineering solutions to alleviate flooding of agricultural land. A comprehensive study should encompass the economic cost benefits of releasing potential development land, especially around Portadown, which hitherto has blighted and stunted the natural growth of the town. I call on the relevant Department and on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to find the vital resources to enable that work to be carried out. We need to promote our greatest natural asset - Lough Neagh - as an attraction that will bring tourists and allow people to enjoy the recreational facilities and at the same time allow the farming community to enjoy the full use of their production land. We are not talking about taking additional wetlands into production; we are talking about preserving the traditional production land.

I will just touch on the issue of fraud and the haemorrhage from the public purse to which my colleague Seamus Close referred this morning. His comments have my full support. If additional administrative costs identified in the Minister's statement are being directed to reduce fraud and block that haemorrhage, the Assembly will be doing the citizens of Northern Ireland a good turn.

Mrs E Bell:

I congratulate the Minister on the Budget statement and the wide ranging issues dealt with in it. Members have already covered the points I wished to make, so I will simply outline my comments, which, I hope, will be linked to the others.

With regard to education, I ask again where the moneys will be allocated for the implementation of the Burns review. I support the idea that resources will be given to all young people, through participation at school, so that they can reach the highest possible standards of educational achievements. I ask the Minister to encourage the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Minister of Education to ring-fence resources for the provision of non-teaching staff for special schools. We have been campaigning for that for some time, and no definite action has been taken so far. Children are suffering on a daily basis. I did compliment the action programme for education in the Programme for Government, and I hope the moneys are found to implement those proposals fully.

On the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, as a Committee of the Centre member I have to say that I would like an outline of specific resources. The many different remits - from human rights to victims, including the whole process of equality legislation - must have moneys available. Will there, for example, be adequate money available to implement the Bloomfield Report? Will the Equality Commission have enough money to enable it to carry out its important remit?

2.00 pm

I have to support Mr Poots, who commented this morning on libraries provision. Of course, in my case, I would put forward Bangor library as an urgent priority because of the state of the building. I am aware that the Minister has promised action, but I want to use this opportunity to highlight again the conditions and the use of the library.

I welcome the funding allocated to the Department for Social Development for voluntary bodies and community groups. However, I again urge the Ministers in the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to expedite the core funding under Peace II with our European partners.

My Colleague has spoken about the roads situation. I want to touch on the railways situation. That is one issue where there is all-party consensus. I ask again that we let people - especially those who travel on the railways - know exactly how the Department for Regional Development's money will be allocated and spent.

I also express my disgust at the destructive actions on Saturday on the Belfast to Dublin railway line. If the people who disrupted the services felt they would destroy the feeling of camaraderie and friendship on both sides of the border, they were wrong. The team - thank goodness - and the thousands of supporters won through. I hope that the Minister will show strong support to Translink for its handling of the situation.

I finish by stating my support for my Colleague's remarks on the timetabling of the exercise and the need for more consultation. Notwithstanding that, however, I congratulate the Minister and his Department on their work on the Budget process. It is a complicated process, and, as time goes on, we will, I hope, get it right.

We may still have concerns about the process, but the Estimates and Vote on Account show clearly the advantage of a devolved Assembly. We, as Assembly Members, can see the ways in which the money is being spent and how we can be answerable and accountable to our voters.

I support the two motions.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

We will suspend proceedings until Question Time at 2.30 pm. This debate will resume at 4.00 pm. Judging by the voluminous notes that the Minister has taken, I guess that the remaining 55 minutes will be taken up mostly - if not wholly - by him.

The debate stood adjourned.

The sitting was suspended at 2.02 pm.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) -

Oral Answers to Questions



Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister

Victim Support: Finance Allocation

2.30 pm


Mr Armstrong

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to detail allocation arrangements for the moneys announced for victim support.

(AQO 824/00)

The Deputy First Minister (Mr Mallon):

The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has made no allocation of money to Victim Support Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Office recently announced a support package of £1m for that organisation. Victim Support Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Office are responsible for the detailed arrangements concerning the use of that money.

Mr Armstrong:

Does the Deputy First Minister believe that the allocation of £6·67 million under Peace II funding to support victims is adequate in comparison with the cost to date of over £33·8 million for the Saville inquiry? Will the Deputy First Minister ensure that Peace II money reaches the real victims of terrorisism, and not the perpetrators of terrorism?

The Deputy First Minister:

I am afraid that, with regard to this, the Assembly Member is comparing apples with pears. The reality is that no one in the devolved Administration has any responsibility for the Bloody Sunday tribunal. Our efforts should be directed to ensuring that money available for victims from Europe is used to the best effect.

In relation to the question of funding for victims' groups, the devolved Administration is aware that the victims of violent action have been one of the most neglected sections in society over the past three decades. The Executive intend to ensure that, alongside other organisations operating in this field, victims' groups have the capacity to access support and funding opportunities from Government, European and other sources.

Mr A Maginness:

I welcome the Deputy First Minister's comments about victims. They are an important element in society. One hopes that the Executive will continue to give them proper support.

With regard to Peace II, what provision for victims does the Deputy First Minister see in it? Indeed,what remains from Peace I for the support of victims?

The Deputy First Minister:

The Peace II programme will contain a specific measure for victims with funding of approximately £6·67 million. The closing date for applications for funding under Peace I was 31 December 1999, and therefore no money remains in Peace I for victim support. However, money already allocated can be spent until 31 December 2001.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

Will the Deputy First Minister keep the early victims of violence in mind? Only small amounts of money were paid out then. For instance, an Armagh woman whose husband was shot had five sons. They received £500 each, which was an insult. Will the Deputy First Minister keep that in mind, and can that be rectified now by paying suitable moneys to those victims?

The Deputy First Minister:

This is an important question in the sense that everyone in the Chamber has, I suppose, been astounded in the past by the way that people and families who suffered bereavement of that type did not have access to the type of support that was required.

The Member touched upon the crucial point of how we can effectively cater for the individual victim, as opposed to victims' groups. In relation to both those parts of the question, we in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will certainly try to ensure, first, that people who choose to remain outside victims' groups are not forgotten and, secondly, that those in victims' groups will have the capacity and financial resources to develop the type of support that they most need.

Police Board


Mr Dalton

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to detail any discussions they have had with the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State regarding the establishment of the new Police Board.

(AQO 855/00)

The First Minister (Mr Trimble):

We have not jointly discussed that matter with the Prime Minister, the current Secretary of State or, indeed, his predecessor. However, our respective parties have, of course, met each of those named persons to discuss the issue.

Mr Dalton:

Does the First Minister agree that the failure of the SDLP and Sinn Féin to offer their support to the Police Service is undermining confidence in the agreement? Is it not true that if the Ulster Unionist Party had taken the same attitude to the establishment of the Executive that those parties have taken to the Police Board, there would not even be an Assembly at the moment? Is it not a disgrace that at this difficult time, with pipe bomb attacks and parliamentary activity continuing, those who complain daily about the attacks have not got the decency or the moral courage to support the police now?

The First Minister:

I understand the Member's points, although I might have couched them in slightly different language. Everybody is anxious to see progress being made on the issue, especially for the last reason that the Member mentioned - namely, the violence that is occurring and, in particular, the unacceptable level of pipe bomb attacks by some Loyalist elements.

We congratulate the Royal Ulster Constabulary on the success that it has had against the pipe bombers, but I am concerned that the continuing uncertainty about policing arrangements will have the effect of undermining the effectiveness and morale of the RUC and limiting its ability to deal with that serious issue.

Mr Roche:

Will the Minister confirm that he would be totally opposed to the introduction into legislation of any retrospective powers of investigation for this Police Board? Does he agree that it would be unthinkable for the representatives of fully armed terrorist organisations to be allowed to participate, through the board, in the policing of Northern Ireland?

Mr Speaker:

Order. Before giving the Minister the opportunity to reply, I remind Members that questions to Ministers - and I refer not just to this question - are supposed to refer to the Ministers' areas of responsibility. There is a tendency for Members to go outside that and ask for opinions. There are other contexts where that is entirely appropriate, but in this context questions are supposed to refer to ministerial responsibilities.

The First Minister:

We have discussed the matters raised by Mr Roche with Ministers on several occasions. However, he has to take account of the fact that we now have legislation on the statute book that defines the position with regard to the measures that he mentioned. I am sure that he, like myself, would like to see sensible progress made on the issue as quickly as possible.

The Chairperson of the Committee of the Centre (Mr Poots):

Does the First Minister acknowledge that the delay in establishing the Police Board is leading to a situation where the most vulnerable in society are under threat as a result of the hundreds of police officers currently leaving the force and not being replaced?

The First Minister:

That relates to the answer that I gave earlier with regard to uncertainty having the consequence of undermining the effectiveness and morale of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, especially when we have these rashes of pipe bomb attacks, which I am sure that the Member deplores as much as I do.

Northern Ireland Executive:
Brussels Office


Mr Fee

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to outline progress made in establishing the Northern Ireland Executive representation in Brussels.

(AQO 846/00)

The Deputy First Minister:

The role of the office is primarily to service the needs of the Executive. To that end, it is planned that the head of office will take up post in March 2001. His or her deputy will be recruited shortly afterwards. Staff will be based in accommodation provided by the UK permanent representation until the work of fitting out the office has been completed, probably in May. A wide range of consultations have taken place to ensure that the facilities provided by the office meet the needs of the Executive.

Mr Fee:

I am delighted to hear that the timescale for getting the office in place is so short. What arrangements will there be to ensure that the needs of the Assembly and its Members in representing their constituents will be fully met by the new office? Will we have access to the advice and support of the new officers in representing our views in the European Union?

The Deputy First Minister:

The office's role is to service the needs of the Executive in respect of developing and implementing EU strategy. That is likely to involve direct relations between the office and the 11 Departments, and it will entail detailed input into particular policy areas. I can assure Mr Fee that the office will also play a role in promoting Northern Ireland's wider interests in the EU, and, as part of that role, it will seek to assist Assembly Members in carrying out their responsibilities.

The hon Member will agree that recognising our part in Europe is important. When the First Minister and I recently met President Chirac and the Minister for European Affairs, Monsieur Moscovici, they did not focus on French issues; they focused on European issues and our role in Europe. We have much to offer other regions in Europe, especially those experiencing ethnic conflict. Therefore, it is important that we encourage all public representatives to engage in the wider issues of Europe, and I have no doubt that the office, when it is fully opened and staffed, will be able to assist all Assembly Members in fulfilling that important role.

Mr Taylor:

Brussels is one of the main tourist centres in Europe. Where will this new office be located? Will it be in a back street behind the European Commission premises and inaccessible to the public, or will it be in the centre of Brussels, where hundreds of thousands of tourists can see Ulster in the wider European scene, as the Deputy First Minister has suggested?

The Deputy First Minister:

The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has been assured that it will be located in a prime site at the heart of the administrative centre in Brussels and that it will be accessible to everybody. We will take every opportunity in the opening and running of it to ensure access for Assembly Members and other organisations that wish to promote the interests of Northern Irish people. That will be successfully achieved if Members work collectively.

Republican Terrorists


Dr Birnie

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to detail any discussion with the Government of the Republic of Ireland regarding the activities of Republican terrorists.

(AQO 868/00)

The First Minister:

The Deputy First Minister and I have not jointly discussed that matter with the Government of the Republic of Ireland, but our respective parties have met members of the Irish Government and their officials to discuss the issue, just as we have discussed the issue with our Government.

Dr Birnie:

Does the First Minister agree that for as long as the IRA refuses to decommission, its dumps in the Republic of Ireland will not be secure? Will he undertake to impress upon Mr Ahern the need to apply rigour in tracking down any terrorist still at large in the Republic of Ireland, especially the Omagh bombers? Perhaps the leader of Fianna Fáil should learn from the ruthlessness that some of his predecessors applied to Republican dissidents.

The First Minister:

There is evidence that some material from mainstream IRA dumps has found its way to dissidents and has been used in recent incidents - including, possibly, the Omagh bomb. The first part of the Member's question makes that important point. There is a serious risk to the public so long as those dumps are not secured and for as long as dissident Republicans or any other dissident paramilitary groups are operating.

The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has impressed upon the Irish Prime Minister the importance of that matter, and he has assured us of the steps he is taking. We would love to see the issue dealt with speedily and simply if possible; it is extremely important.


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