Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 19 February 2001 (continued)
Mr Paisley Jnr:
Before the First Minister takes the second step of approaching the Irish Government, he should take the first step of approaching his own Government. Will he inform the House of what steps he has taken to challenge those people in his own Government who are clearly linked to a terrorist organisation? What steps has he taken to put in place worthwhile sanctions that will prevent those people from using the ballot box in one hand and the Armalite in the other to progress their Republican agenda? What worthwhile sanctions will he now put in place?
The First Minister:
If the Member had been listening carefully to my answer he would realise that I made reference to the discussions we had with our own Government on this issue - our own Government being Her Majesty's Government. The issue of this Administration is a matter of a completely different order entirely. The Member should not get those matters confused.
Have the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister made any representations to the Irish Government or the British Government about the recent spate of pipe bombings across Northern Ireland?
The First Minister:
The Member raises a very important issue, and I am sure he is very much aware of it due to the problems that have occurred in his own constituency.
In the first five or six weeks of the year, there have been no fewer than 41 pipe bomb attacks. This is a very serious matter, which I have raised with the appropriate authorities, and I am sure that the Deputy First Minister has raised it also. We are glad that the RUC has had some success. I commend Mr O'Connor for the work he has done in his own constituency and, in particular, for the way in which he has encouraged the RUC and supported it in its work in Larne.
asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister whether they have had any discussions with the Minister of State regarding the establishment of a victims' commission.
The Deputy First Minister:
The Junior Ministers, Mr Haughey and Mr Nesbitt, who have responsibility for victims' issues in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, regularly meet with their Northern Ireland Office counterpart, Mr Ingram, to discuss a range of matters relating to victims. Their next meeting is scheduled to take place before the end of this month, and a victims' commissioner or ombudsman is among the matters to be discussed. It is an idea which needs to be considered carefully and evaluated before any firm proposals are brought forward.
Will the Deputy First Minister give his backing to the suggestion made in the House of Commons on 23 January by Jeffrey Donaldson, the MP for Lagan Valley, that the victims' liaison unit be expanded to become a victims' commission, with an increased remit and greater resources to focus specifically on providing funding and support for the victims of terrorist violence? Does the Deputy First Minister accept that, even in recent months, those who have suffered at the hands of terrorists have not been adequately or speedily supported by the system?
The Deputy First Minister:
As Mr Beggs will know, the victims' liaison unit is part of the Northen Ireland Office. The devolved Administration has no role, therefore, in determining its operational remit. As outlined in the answer to the original question, the issue of a victims' commission or ombudsman needs to be considered carefully and evaluated by the Northern Ireland Office and the Administration before any firm proposal can be brought forward.
With regard to his second point, I refer Mr Beggs to what I said in response to Dr Paisley's question. The issue of victims needs to be considered carefully - not just examined - and decided upon in such a way that the individual and the groupings have the resources to give the full support needed.
Is the Deputy First Minister aware that in some people's minds, not least in the minds of some Members of the House, there is confusion about the delineation of victims' responsibilities between the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and the Northern Ireland Office. Will he clear up the confusion by stating who has responsibility for what?
The Deputy First Minister:
I thank the Member for his pertinent question. There is confusion in many minds at times. In broad terms, the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is responsible for all devolved matters, and the Northern Ireland Office is responsible for reserved and excepted matters.
We appreciate that it is confusing for those on the ground. For that reason, an information leaflet was sent at the end of January to victims' groups, individual victims and the victims' spokespersons of political parties. The leaflet set out the responsibilities of the respective units and each of the Northern Ireland Departments. That exercise received positive feedback from a variety of groups and will be built upon by the continuation of a rolling programme of visits to victims' groups by the victims unit. I agree with Members' general feeling that we need to be in a position where there is much more clarity in relation to this issue. I believe that the will is there to see if we can bring that clarity to it.
What are the views of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on this morning's announcement that a private civil action is being taken to try to bring the Omagh bombers to book? That group of victims - and I think that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister would have to agree -received assurances at the time that the perpetrators of that heinous action would be brought to book. The draconian measures promised in the respective parliaments have proved ineffective. A £1 million effort has been launched this morning. Will the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister consider helping the victims of Omagh? Where legal authority has failed, can they assist with civil action?
The Deputy First Minister:
I was among those who stood in Omagh that night, and I will never forget the devastation and the effect. I have no hesitation in stating my sympathy with those who were killed or bereaved and for the entire community of Omagh, which has coped in a remarkably efficient and effective way.
The First Minister and I have been to Omagh on several occasions since, and we will be there again to help with the various projects in which we have been invited to take part. I note the question posed by Mr Gibson. We will take, as we will have to do, legal advice in relation to the matter, and we will continue to do what we can, as individuals and in our ministerial roles, to help people who have been bereaved and families that have been devastated so terribly.
Civil Service: Statutory Functions
asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to outline on whose authority permanent secretaries have been seeking to establish conventions by which the Civil Service will work with the Executive Committee and the Assembly in respect of statutory functions.
The First Minister:
Permanent secretaries have sought guidance from the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on the departmental Committee interface. The head of the Civil Service has since been engaged in informal exchanges with the objective of improving the working relationship between Departments and the Assembly.
Go raibh maith agat. Do the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister agree that the sentiments expressed in the memo distributed by Mr Ronnie Spence on 12 January are totally unacceptable insofar as he says that while Committees in the Assembly may have legal rights, they are poking their noses in where they should not? That sentiment is unacceptable. Do the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister acknowledge that the seeking of guidance by the permanent secretaries and the head of the Civil Service was only sparked by the leaking of that memo and the public controversy surrounding that?
The First Minister:
I understand the point that the Member makes, and if permanent secretaries were attempting to limit the statutory position or proper role of Committees in any way, that would, of course, be quite wrong. However, the situation evolved in a slightly different way. The consultations to which I refer came before and not after the memo in question. There is no intention, in any way, to limit the proper role of the Committees. The Committees are mentioned in the agreement itself, where we agreed that Committees will have a scrutiny, policy development and consultation role with respect to the Department with which each is associated. That provision in the agreement is embodied in the legislation and, in particular, in the power of the Committees to send for papers.
That legal power is accepted by permanent secretaries. How it is to be exercised to enable the relationship involving the Assembly, the Committees and the Departments to run smoothly is a matter of detail to be looked at. I refer the Member to the protocols which have been developed in Wales and Scotland to spell out that relationship in more detail. It is not a matter of undermining the Committees - that would be quite wrong - but of trying to ensure a smooth and harmonious relationship. Any impression given by the memorandum that the objective was otherwise is misleading.
The First Minister referred to Scotland and Wales. Is he aware that conventions have been agreed in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly? Given that this problem first arose in a Government Department run by a DUP Minister who refuses to sit down with his Executive colleagues, does the First Minister agree that there is a need to agree conventions so that the Assembly can function properly and all relevant information can be made readily available?
The First Minister:
The Member has made the important point that officials, including permanent secretaries, operate under the direction of their Minister. One assumes that the permanent secretary was acting in that way when he penned the memorandum, but that is another matter.
The main point that the Member made was in relation to the position in Wales and Scotland. He is quite right - protocols have been developed and published in Wales and Scotland on such matters. Members who are interested will find them stimulating. That will be quite educative.
I welcome the First Minister's comments regarding the role of the Committees as defined in the Belfast Agreement, especially the section on policy development. Does he agree that, notwithstanding what is in the agreement, the natural inclination of Ministers, and particularly of their officials, is to sideline the views of Committees as far as possible?
The First Minister:
It was clearly in the minds of those who negotiated the agreement - and in the minds of those who then translated it into legislation - that the Committees of the Assembly should have an important status that would go beyond that of a Westminster Select Committee. In referring to policy development, the Member has put his finger directly on that point.
It is fair to say that most Ministers try to work closely with the Committees when discussing and developing policies. We commend that approach because it limits any scope that there might be for friction in the relationship. But there is a difference in viewpoints between the Minister and Committee members, so we should not be surprised if different opinions occur from time to time. As with so many other things, we have to work through this rather unusual arrangement because the position of our Committees differs from that of the Westminster Committees. We have to work through that and, in doing so, developing our own protocols and precedents on how we proceed could be a useful exercise.
asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to make a statement on the award of Charter Marks to Government agencies and Departments.
The Deputy First Minister:
The Charter Mark scheme is open to all public-sector organisations that deal directly with the public. Overall, we have 169 holders of the award in Northern Ireland. Of these, 30 are in Government Departments, and 19 in agencies. We are pleased with Northern Ireland's success in obtaining Charter Marks. All the latest winners, including 50 from local organisations, were in London last week to receive their awards. Junior Minister, Mr Nesbitt attended the ceremony to show our support. Winning a Charter Mark award is a great achievement, and it is outward recognition for providing an excellent service to the public.
Does the Deputy First Minister agree that the Charter Mark system has become rather meaningless in certain instances, given the failure of some Departments to be efficient and the fact that in some cases they cost taxpayers millions of pounds?
The Deputy First Minister:
The cost is currently defrayed by the Cabinet Office, although it now places a charge on various types of firm. The charges are £500 for firms with up to 50 employees and £600 for others. We cannot measure the value of the award in monetary terms alone; it is a mark of efficiency and effectiveness that all Departments and agencies should aim to achieve. I congratulate all those sectors of our organisation in Northern Ireland and other organisations that have done so.
New Deal for Sport
asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to give his assessment of the implications for sport in Northern Ireland of the recently announced programme, New Deal for Sport; and to make a statement.
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr McGimpsey):
The New Deal for Sport is a recently launched partnership initiative between the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. The initiative aims to provide assistance to staff delivering physical education and sport in schools by extending the New Deal programme. The initiative, which is being taken forward on a pilot basis, will create a role for sports assistants working alongside existing school sport co-ordinators. It applies only to England at this stage. As Minister with responsibility for sport, I will monitor developments closely to see whether there are potential benefits for Northern Ireland.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)
Does the Minister agree that implementing the New Deal for Sport - or a similar scheme - in Northern Ireland would bring many benefits? Does he also agree that there is a need to increase sporting activity among all age groups and that such activity can bring people many social and health benefits?
I am keen to see the introduction of any initiative that has the potential to improve the methods of delivering sport to the young and offering potential employment opportunities. However, it is important to note that it is a pilot scheme. We must wait and see whether it offers any opportunities. If so, we will need to decide how they could be introduced in Northern Ireland. I agree with the thrust of the Member's question; there are huge benefits to be gained by increasing participation in sport.
I congratulate the Minister on setting up the task force to investigate soccer in Northern Ireland, and I look forward to seeing its conclusions. Does the Minister agree that there should be special emphasis on schools, with particular regard to providing funding to allow children to take part in all sports in an integrated manner?
Participation is a key issue, and we seek to promote it. The Youth Sport programme, run by the Sports Council, is a Province-wide initiative that aims to develop links between local schools -primary and post-primary - to ensure that there is equality of after-school sporting opportunities for all young people. The pupils involved are eight to 16-year-olds. The scheme is inclusive and raises participation rates.
asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to detail the steps he is taking to remove restrictions on the development of the Irish language.
I take seriously my responsibilities under the Belfast Agreement with regard to languages. There has been considerable progress since the agreement was signed. Funding for the all-Ireland Irish language agency, Foras na Gaeilge, has increased. Its total budget for this year is £7·2 million, of which my Department will provide £1·8 million. That will increase next year to £10·1 million, of which my Department will provide £2·53 million, representing an increase of 40% on the funding allocated for 2000-01.
I thank the Minister for his answer, although, with respect, I do not think that it addresses the specific question. Recent comments made by the Department for Regional Development indicated that there are legal restrictions on the use of the Irish language, for example, in public signage. Has the Minister considered the matter with a view to identifying such legal restrictions? If so, what must be done to remove them?
Directional signs are the responsibility of the Department for Regional Development, and Mr Maskey must thus ask that Department and its Minister to identify the restrictions - if there are any. Street names are a matter for district councils.
I thank the Minister for his comments, but the original query was on the steps he had taken to remove those restrictions. Could the Minister look specifically at what is happening in the Newry and Mourne district? Townland and place names can be bilingual there. Names of buildings, such as the Ardmore RUC station, can be signed in more than one language. The Minister's Department and others are involved in the promotion of the Slieve Gullion area of outstanding natural beauty. Where is the sense in investing in so many different facilities if the Department for Regional Development's Roads Service will not allow the indigenous names of places or any semblance of the Irish language to be used?
The Council of Europe's European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages is being ratified by the United Kingdom, which includes Northern Ireland. The Irish language is covered by Part III of that charter. One of the Department's initiatives is an interdepartmental group to co-ordinate action plans for implementing Part III in respect of Irish. Each Department will have its own action plan. How we proceed with that initiative, and what steps will be taken, are matters for discussion. We will take it one step at a time.
As far as signage is concerned in the Member's area, I repeat the answer I gave Mr Maskey. Directional signs are a matter for the Department for Regional Development, and his question should properly be directed to that Department. Questions regarding street names and so on are matters for local authorities. Whether building signs are bilingual - or trilingual, as might be more appropriate under the agreement in many Northern Ireland areas - is a matter for the owners and the people who operate the buildings concerned.
The Minister will be aware that, during the nineteenth century, Irish was rescued largely by those from a Presbyterian background. Can he assure me that when he is dealing with the Council of Europe's charter, the same effort will be put into Ulster Scots as is currently put into Irish?
I can give an absolute assurance that equity of treatment is the cornerstone of the Department's approach to language. Ulster Scots is recognised by Part II of the Council of Europe's charter. However, Ulster Scots and Irish are at different stages of development, but Tha Boord o Ulster-Scotch is confident that its language will achieve Part III status in 10 years. That is an ambitious target, but it is serious. I must point out that, since devolution, funding for Ulster Scots has increased tenfold.
Battle of Moira (637 AD)
asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to outline whether he has any plans to commemorate the Battle of Moira (637 AD).
My Department has no plans to commemorate the Battle of Moira. That represented the final and disastrous attempt of the Ulaid King Congal Cáech to challenge the growing supremacy Uí Néill dynasties of the midlands and the north-west. The battle was fought on 24 June 637 AD, not far from Moira village. This year marks its one thousand three hundred and sixty-fourth anniversary and is of no particular significance.
The Battle of Moira was one of the most significant battles in early Irish history. It was significant in three respects: politically, ecclesiastically and culturally. It was significant politically because, following the battle, the old links with Scotland were broken. In fact, you might say that the first union was dissolved. It was significant ecclesiastically because, following the battle, the cult of Patrick -
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Dr Adamson, can you get to your question, please?
I must reply. The cult of Patrick moved from Connor in Antrim, where it was formed, to Armagh, which became the ecclesiastical centre of Ireland. Culturally, it engendered a series of sagas, some of which are still -
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I am sorry, Dr Adamson. Unless you come to your question, I am going to rule you out of order.
Some are still prevalent today, especially Seamus Heaney's great work 'Sweeney Astray'. The Minister must agree that he would be contributing to cultural education if his Department recognised events such as the Battle of Moira as historic, rather than historical. Would it not help the development of a shared sense of identity for future generations in Northern Ireland if we paid more attention to those events which have not been trademarked by mural painters? That could perhaps be brought about through the Columba Initiative.
I replied originally that I thought that the Battle of Moira had no particular significance. I now stand corrected by the remarks that Dr Adamson has just made. I am aware that it is one of many battles fought over the centuries between the Uí Néill and the Ulaid. I also recognise that it has a significance. What I have ascertained actually came from a book that Dr Adamson edited. The historic significance of a battle in 637 AD needs to be better represented and explained before we begin to commemorate it. It is clearly something that Dr Adamson feels strongly about. There are obviously resonances, both within the Chamber and without.
Mr A Doherty:
Taking account of what Dr Adamson has just said about the significance of the historic battle, will the Minister, in the interests of efficiency, consider setting up a committee of one - namely, Dr Adamson - to make preparations for the commemoration of the battle? Will he further require him to report 12 months before the date of that commemoration and to make his report in the language in common use at that time?
I realise that that was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. It is important to recognise that some 10 years ago Dr Adamson was instrumental in having an interpretative panel commemorating this battle unveiled inside the Moira demesne. Unfortunately, the panel was vandalised and has not been replaced. Lisburn Borough Council may have a role in replacing it. I would not begin to suggest that Mr Doherty was the one who vandalised it.
Allocation of Funds: Equality-Proofing
asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to detail how he intends to ensure that all funding provided through his Department is equality-proofed.
For the most part, funding from my Department is distributed through its non-departmental public bodies and the North/South Language Body. They are all public authorities by virtue of section 75(3)(b) and (c) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and are required to produce equality schemes. Such schemes detail the policies, including funding policies, which will be subject to equality impact assessment. My Department's funding will be equality-proofed in that way. In my routine review of the performance of non-departmental public bodies, I will monitor their progress on commitments in their equality schemes.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Perhaps he can answer a few further questions. Can he inform me how sport for the disabled is resourced? What percentage of the Exchequer and lottery sports funding has been allocated specifically to funding sports for the disabled? Moreover, can the Minister tell the House what the Sports Council for Northern Ireland is doing to promote the participation in sport of people with disabilities?
I regret that I cannot indicate specific amounts, but I will certainly write to Ms Lewsley with information about Sports Council funding and on the other matters about which she asked questions. I gave the information in response to a similar question in the past, either in written or in oral form. However, I will certainly update those facts if required.
The Department and the Sports Council take their responsibilities seriously with regard to equality. Their individual equality schemes will bear testimony to that by ensuring that everyone is treated equally. Participation and access will be key themes in the Department's approach to sport, not least with regard to those suffering a disability.
Almost all Culture, Arts and Leisure funding is distributed via the bureaucracy of "quangoland". However, does the Minister not accept that equality might be better safeguarded if funding were provided by more direct means, such as through local government? Will he undertake to ensure that the matter is considered as part of the review of public administration?
All parties agree that a review of public administration is required. Clearly, when that review takes place, all bodies, such as the Sports Council and the Arts Council, which are in the remit of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, will be included. Those bodies are governed by equality schemes and programmes under the new targeting social need programme. Changes and improvements have taken place, and those will ensure that everyone is treated fairly. We are trying to ensure that no barriers to access, participation and involvement are put in place by the Administration or the public bodies for which it is responsible.
asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to detail his plans to promote athletics throughout Northern Ireland.
The Sports Council for Northern Ireland is responsible for the promotion and development of sport in the Province. The council works closely with the Northern Ireland Athletics Federation, which is the governing body for athletics. Athletics has benefited recently through various National Lottery-funded talented athlete programmes, which are aimed at improving athletes' performance levels and the quality of potential athletes. Lottery awards have also been allocated to capital projects, which will enhance sports development opportunities for future generations of athletes.
In addition, the proposed Sports Institute for Northern Ireland at the University of Ulster's Jordanstown campus will offer specialised training facilities and top-of-the-range back-up services to enable those who are part of it to perform to their full potential.
Does the Minister agree that, although Northern Ireland has hosted and promoted several international events in recent years, that appears to have been to the detriment of grass-roots athletics in Northern Ireland, which appears to be in constant decline?
I am not sure that I agree that the sport is in constant decline. For example, the Sports Council recently made several awards under the various talented athlete programmes. I have not heard the Northern Ireland Athletics Federation say that it is in serious decline.
To an extent, all sports are in competition with each other in developing their participants. We in Northern Ireland often fail to recognise that there is great sporting activity here, and that includes athletics. It is wrong to ignore that fact or to fail to develop the talent. If Mr Hilditch has examples of where the sport could be improved, I will be happy to discuss them with the Northern Ireland Athletics Federation and the Sports Council.
Mr J Wilson:
Given that we wish to encourage more young people into sport, is the Minister in a position to indicate whether his Department will offer assistance to the Antrim athletics stadium, which is one of the Province's better known stadiums and is much used by schools from a wide area?
I am aware of the problems surrounding the Antrim stadium. It is now about 20 years old and requires investment - probably considerable expenditure. We have been in discussions with and sought clarification from the council on several issues. It is estimated that about £1·6 million will be required to bring the Antrim Forum back up to standard. We are proceeding with the matter as best we can, and we will look at how we can manage to give support to Antrim Council to ensure that the venue is upgraded. It plays an important role in the sporting life of the Province. Mr Wilson is quite right - 60% of its use is by schools.
The Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee had a worthwhile presentation last week from a very athletic group called the Northern Ireland Karate-Do Wado-Kai. Has the Minister any plans to give more support, that financial or otherwise, to that very athletic sport?
I cannot be specific on that group, or that sport. The Sports Council is the intermediate funding body, which is responsible for encouraging and developing sport. The group should make an application to the Sports Council in the first instance. If it feels that it is being treated unfairly or is not being given due consideration, it is quite free, through Mr McCarthy or others, to come to the Department, and I will ensure that its case is considered. It is a matter of satisfying criteria for funding, and if it does that, funding will be forthcoming.
EU and IFI Funds (West Tyrone)
asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to detail the criteria used by departmental agencies when distributing European Union funds and funding from the International Fund for Ireland to West Tyrone.
I am not aware of any agencies under my authority that are at present responsible for distributing European funds or funds from the International Fund for Ireland anywhere in Northern Ireland.
I presume that the Lottery Board and the Sports Council are under the Minister's aegis. Is he aware that the last allocation of funding by those bodies was of 49% to GAA sports and 4% to football? One is a cross-community activity, and the other is regarded as being exclusively Roman Catholic. Would the Minister care to comment?
I am not aware of the precise details. I can certainly investigate the matter and write to Mr Gibson about the balance of funding between football and GAA. It is, however, a matter of making an application. Applications which satisfy the criteria are successful, and those which do not, are not. If he has specific examples, I will be happy to investigate them for him.
I have heard this sort of thing said before, but any time when I have looked at the matter I have been unable to satisfy myself that there has been unfair treatment. We are anxious to ensure that this does not happen. Equity and fair treatment are the cornerstones of funding allocations through all bodies under the Departments of the Administration.
Will the Minister say whether his Department has any responsibility for the distribution of Peace II money and whether such money will be allocated to West Tyrone? Indeed, following the previous question, I ask whether the money will be shared more fairly than Lottery Fund money is.
With regard to the third part of that question, I attempted to deal with the suggestion that funding needs to be shared more fairly in my answer to Mr Gibson.
I will investigate that matter, and if we come up with something, I will communicate with Mr Hussey. The Department expects around £4 million of Peace II funding over five years to be spent on water-based tourism. As one would expect, funding will be allocated against set criteria. Bids that come forward from West Tyrone will determine its allocation; I cannot predict what will go to West Tyrone until bidding starts. Funding has not yet begun, so bids from West Tyrone are premature.