Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 24 September 2001
The Assembly met at noon (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I have received notice from the Minister of the Environment that he wishes to make a statement on the North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting on the environment, which was held on Friday 15 June 2001 in Dromad, County Louth.
The Minister of the Environment (Mr Foster): Following nomination by the former First and Deputy First Ministers, Mr Durkan and I attended the fourth North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting on the environment. The Irish Government were represented by Mr Dan Wallace TD, Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government. Mr Wallace chaired the meeting. The statement has been approved by Mr Durkan and is also made on his behalf.
The meeting began with a review of the progress of the joint working group on water quality, which was established to consider water quality strategies for the Erne and Foyle catchments and the implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive.
A primary objective of the Directive is to harmonise approaches to water management across EU member states. The water quality working group has been examining a number of technical issues related to that objective. A technical advisory group has been established to provide advice and support to the working group.
The technical advisory group’s priority tasks will include the development of an agreed characterisation system, or typology, for surface waters, and the development of a map of North/South shared river basins to assist the process of identifying appropriate international river basin districts. To assist the group with the latter task, the Council endorsed a number of principles on the development of proposals for the delineation of international river basin districts in Ireland.
The Council received a report on the tendering for a jointly funded contract to develop an interactive web site of current environmental research. The tendering process followed Government procurement procedures and was overseen by the Northern Ireland Government Purchasing Agency. The Council noted the outcome of the tendering process and agreed that the Environment and Heritage Service and the Environmental Protection Agency should award the contract to a Belfast-based company, Infinet Design. The Council looked forward to viewing a prototype of the web site at a subsequent meeting.
The Council was updated on the substantial existing co-operation between North and South on a range of new technology for monitoring issues. Areas brought to the Council’s attention included remote sensing, fish stock assessment and on-site monitoring. Dr Eon O’Mongain of Spectral Signatures Ltd made a short presentation to the Council on airborne remote sensing for water quality monitoring. This sophisticated technology has been used in recent years for lake monitoring in the North and in the South. The Council recognised the long-term nature of the work and agreed that further progress reports should be provided as significant developments occur.
The Council noted the proposals on land cover mapping and key databases. On the first of these areas, the Council received a short presentation from Mr Robin Fuller, of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, relating to the technology used in developing these complex maps and the associated benefits of capturing the information. The Council approved the planning work on a sample cross- border area for comparison of the respective land cover maps.
In relation to key databases, a small working group has been set up to test the compatibility of the environmental databases, North and South. This will be done using water quality data. The working group will carry out some benchmarking of other environmental organisations to explore how the data, once captured, can best be presented for the ease of users, particularly the public.
The Council noted that progress on taking forward the scoping study on the environmental impacts of agriculture had been slower than anticipated. This was due to the foot-and-mouth disease crisis, which had necessarily been the focus of attention and effort of the agricultural authorities North and South. The Council did, however, approve the preliminary methodology for taking forward the scoping study when conditions permit. Under this methodology the study will be conducted as a six-month desk analysis to be carried out by two postgraduate students, one from each jurisdiction, under the overall direction of a steering group on which the relevant Environment and Agriculture Departments and agencies will be represented. The steering group will be co-chaired by the two Environment Departments.
The Council then turned its attention to waste management. It agreed that there is scope for a co-operative approach to the development of markets for secondary materials and recyclates on the island and that officials should work together to bring forward formal proposals for a structured approach to the establishment of a joint market development programme. It was also agreed that, should an appropriate opportunity present itself, the Environment Ministers would jointly examine and evaluate a successful recycling and market development programme abroad. The Council agreed that officials should give consideration to a cross-border proposal to encourage community-based recycling.
The Council noted the success of the recovery scheme for farm plastics operated by the Irish Farm Films Producers’ Group in the Republic of Ireland. The Council agreed that the Department of the Environment, in discussion with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, would consider the desirability of a complementary initiative in Northern Ireland.
Finally, the Council considered and agreed the text of a joint communiqué to be issued after the meeting. A copy has been placed in the Assembly Library. The Council agreed that the next sectoral meeting on the environment will take place in Northern Ireland in October 2001.
The Chairperson of the Environment Committee (Rev Dr William McCrea):
The Minister stated that the meeting related to the progress of joint North/South programmes on waste management. I find that interesting. At the last meeting of the Environment Committee, Thursday 20 September, the three regional groups in Northern Ireland - the one in the north-west is of a cross- border nature - said that there was poor co-operation between them and the Minister’s Department. We were told that £1 million of the £3·5 million allocated and made available this year was to be handed back.
Will the Minister tell us why progress on that important issue has been so slow in Northern Ireland? Why has none of the money been spent to date, when it seems that even more of that £3·5 million could be surrendered before the year is out? How much did the North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting cost the Northern Ireland exchequer?
I do not agree entirely with the Member’s statements, because progress has been made, even though it has been slow. Reasonable progress has been made in implementing the waste strategy since its publication in March 2000. For example, district councils submitted their provisional waste management plans to my Department in June 2001. Those plans have been reviewed, and they will be developed further by district councils prior to full public consultation early next year.
Moreover, the Waste Management Advisory Board has been established to assist with the strategy’s implementation; policy guidance on planning and waste management has been issued for public consultation; further guidance on the best practicable environmental option has been published; three detailed waste status studies have been completed to assist the development of waste management plans; proposals for new regulations for duty of care will be published for consultation in the next few weeks; and a consultation paper on new waste management licensing regulations should be published by 31 March 2002.
The £3·5 million budget for this financial year was dependent on the completion and adoption of the waste management plans and was intended for their implementation. The recent transfer of £1 million to other important areas of public expenditure, to which the Member referred, does not mean that there is a lesser requirement for extensive financial support for waste management. That simply reflects the need for expenditure to be properly planned and focused. Prior to the completion of the plans, the Department listened to the views of district councils and the Waste Management Advisory Board on immediate expenditure needs.
In this financial year the Department will invest £400,000 in the UK-wide waste resource action programme; it will complete £400,000 of data studies; and it will invest £500,000 in the initial public awareness and education programme, which will occur in tandem with the public consultation of district council plans.
At present, a sum of £130,000 is reserved to provide further financial assistance to district councils to complete their waste management plans and to support pilot schemes such as additional recycling and composting mills for households.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Environment Committee (Ms Hanna):
I welcome the Minister’s statement and the joint approach to a market development programme. In view of the urgency with which it must be done, will the Minister make it a priority to examine best practice in successful recycling and market development programmes in tandem with the consultation, education and culture change that is required to implement our waste management strategy?
I assure the Member that my Department will do all in its power to encourage people and to ensure that the educational message is put across. Much depends on the district councils working through the management plans and issues themselves. However, I assure the Member that the Department will be there to help.
I welcome the Minister’s report of the sectoral meeting. In the past there has been a lack of co-operation in attempts to deal with the Erne system’s problems. I do not like to hark back to that issue, but what progress has the working group made on water quality in the Erne catchment in particular? The zebra mussels make life difficult for the tourist industry in the bay area at Kesh, where waterskiers and boats are already having problems. Furthermore, I have come across a peculiar word in environmental circles - CORINE. Perhaps that is the name of a strange woman. Will the Minister explain the meaning of the word?
CORINE is not a strange woman. The acronym stands for the "co-ordination of information on the environment" and is a European land cover mapping project. A land cover map records in detail the extent and type of land, including forest, wetland, farm land and coastal areas, information that is valuable to environmental planners, regulators, agriculturalists and conservationists. Northern Ireland is included in the more detailed UK land cover 2000 map, which will integrate the collection of data on land cover across the UK.
Zebra mussels are a major problem in Northern Ireland, many parts of Europe and also North America. They first appeared in the Erne system in 1996. It is impossible to remove zebra mussels once they have become established, although they tend to reach a natural limit in waterways. That is why the emphasis must be on prevention rather than cure.
In the spring, my Department launched a publicity campaign to educate the public, particularly boat owners, anglers and those engaged in water sports, about the mussel problem. Their help is needed to prevent the spread of zebra mussels to unaffected waters. The campaign, which included the issue of information leaflets, alerted those groups to the danger of transporting zebra mussels to unaffected waters. It received good coverage in the local media and explained how boats and equipment can be cleansed by steam cleaning. Once zebra mussels are there, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to remove them. The mussels must be controlled, and I urge people to pay attention to any advice given because they will create many problems in our waters if they are not dealt with.
Mr M Murphy:
Go raibh maith agat. I welcome the all-Ireland dimension of the Minister’s statement. It is a common sense provision on the water quality of the island as a whole. We can, and should, establish an island- wide monitoring and recording process. We should, without delay, explore the most common best practice in Europe.
I also welcome the co-operation on recycling and waste management. Up until now, the focus has mostly been on waste disposal methods rather than on reuse and recycling. Will the Minister ensure that priority will be given in any educational programme to those matters?
As far as I am concerned, I deal with cross- border issues because there are two separate Administrations working together for mutual benefit. It is important to realise that.
The water quality working group has made good progress and is now focusing on implementing the Water Framework Directive, which requires cross-border co-operation for shared waterways. It is long-term planning work, and the aim is to achieve good water quality status for all waterways by 2015.
A North/South technical advisory group now supports the working group because the Directive sets water quality standards across a range of scientific and conservation fronts. The technical work builds on previous consultancy work carried out in the mid-1990s on water quality management strategies for the Foyle and Erne waterway systems. That was reviewed under the working group’s direction earlier this year.
We are there to help and to educate where we can. The cross-border issue accepts and acknowledges that we are two separate jurisdictions.
I am interested in the Minister’s statement, and particularly his last point. The Minister emphasises the identification of international river basin districts. I am sure the Minister will agree that for something to be international it has to involve the interests of at least two countries. Will he also agree that the willingness of the Dublin Government to acknowledge that international dimension on the island of Ireland has come about as a direct consequence of the change in their Constitution that stemmed from the Belfast Agreement?
Will the Minister further agree that that change is a welcome recognition of reality as opposed to the observance of aspirations that we had for 70 years and that, irrespective of what might happen to the Belfast Agreement or any further change to that Constitution, it is permanent?
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Mr Leslie, you are coming very close to being ruled out of order, but I will let the Minister respond.
I refer to my response to an earlier question. I participate on the basis that the two separate and distinct Administrations reflect separate and distinct jurisdictions, but they can and should co-operate where that can deliver genuine mutual benefit. The environment sector’s agenda passes that test by concentrating on practical measures rather than on symbolic gestures. I welcome the acknowledgement by the Republic of Ireland that we are a separate jurisdiction. My opposite number, Mr Noel Dempsey, and I work very well together, and co-operation is excellent.
The Water Framework Directive requires member states to identify cross-border waterways as international river basin districts and to co-operate on their water quality management
I thank the Minister for his statement and for the further information in his answers.
On the problem of general refuse and waste management, does the Minister agree that a critical mass is required for the economic and effective recycling of waste and the possible creation of energy from it? Does he agree that an all-Ireland approach is required? The matter has been talked about for more than a decade, but there has been no real progress in quantum recycling and the production of energy. Will he put at the top of his agenda for the next North/South environmental meeting the need for a common approach to recycling and the critical mass required for it? It cannot be done piecemeal. For example, the nine councils around Belfast are at present trying to introduce a scheme for the recycling of tyres. Does the Minister agree that that needs to be done on a much larger all-island basis? It should not involve only tyres, but all domestic and other waste.
There is no doubt that we are keen to co-operate on recycling and to facilitate it where possible. The waste management strategy, in promoting recycling, sets a target for district councils to recycle or compost 25% of household waste by 2005. That will entail a significant increase on present recycling levels by councils in Northern Ireland, currently estimated to be around 5%.
Key to the success of any recycling programme is the co-ordination of systems to recover materials and the development of markets for their use. I am pleased that my Department will provide financial support for the development of new markets and will assist councils to implement their waste management plans, particularly in respect of recycling.
All district councils now belong to one of three sub- regional groups which are examining the establishment of a network of waste management facilities, including provision for recycling. Cross-border co-operation will come into that and will provide the economies of scale necessary to make investment in recycling and recovery facilities viable. The smaller scale is not viable. A larger market will be provided for products made from recycled materials.
In view of the reprocessing of farm plastics, which are an obscenity in the countryside, what efforts have been made to implement the European Directive that says that the polluter should pay? What efforts are being made to persuade the takeaway industry and farm suppliers to find suitable alternatives that are not too expensive, but stop the countryside from being polluted with plastic bags and sheeting?
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I remind Members that I gave Mr Leslie a degree of licence on this matter. Questions should relate to the ministerial statement, and I am afraid that some Members are straying from it. However, the Minister may wish to comment.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the Member for his point. The negative impact of all sorts of packaging, including plastic bags, has long been a matter of general concern. The EC Directive 94/62/EC 1994 on packaging and packaging waste was specifically designed to bring about a reduction in the use of packaging by placing recycling and recovery obligations on businesses that are involved in the making or filling of packaging or in the sale of packaged goods. Several of the larger supermarket chains including Tesco and Sainsbury’s are now using multi-trip bags such as Tesco’s "bag for life". More recently, companies have been investigating the extent to which biodegradable bags might meet the requirements.
Agricultural plastic is not a controlled waste. Therefore it is exempt from waste legislation. That is likely to change in the near future when agricultural waste becomes a controlled waste under the terms of the proposed controlled waste regulations for Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland has introduced new regulations that govern the collection and recycling of waste farm plastics. Producers and suppliers of farm wrap must register, operate a deposit scheme of £200 per tonne and collect farm plastics for recycling or recovery. In conjunction with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, my Department is looking at the necessary primary powers to introduce a similar scheme in Northern Ireland and the feasibility of setting up voluntary collection schemes.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Have the waste management schemes that were put forward by the three different regions been accepted, or are the Departments sticking to their rejection of them because they do not cover a long enough period? I understand that the schemes cover a five-year period, and the Department is looking for a 20-year period that would include incineration.
We are trying to co-operate where we can. Areas that we feel are not as they should be have been returned for further discussion and assessment. We need to ensure that we get it right, but the onus rests on the respective groups in the district council areas. However, we will look at the difficulties, assess them and refer them back to the district councils.
I welcome the Minister’s statement. It is long overdue. I am glad to see that the Department of the Environment and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development are coming together regarding waste management.
Can the Minister outline what costs are likely to be associated with the office of the environmental research register and its use?
The winners of the tender competition to develop a web site for the joint register were Infinet Design from Belfast at a cost of £31,350. Work on the register has begun. The cost will be shared by both jurisdictions. A prototype will be available by the end of this year. Access to the register will be through its own web site, the web sites of the two agencies and through the sites of partner organisations that have contributed research information to it.
Currently the register contains information about environmental protection research that was carried out by the Environment and Heritage Service and the Environmental Protection Agency. Work is under way to add research about nature conservation. It is planned to add information from academic institutions and the private and commercial sectors where available.
It is important that that information be shared, because that will help researchers and sponsors to avoid duplicating effort and cost, to identify new areas for research, to find partners for collaboration, and to identify potential sources of funding.
I will return to an issue raised by Mr McGrady. Is there potential on an all-Ireland basis for thermal recycling, which breaks down waste into gas, minerals and metals? The problem with recycling, as the Minister knows, is that there is no demand for much of the recycled materials. How do we create the demand?
I note that officials are working together to make formal proposals for these joint strategies. When will those proposals be put forward?
We are working consistently on the matter that the Member raises, and we will continue to do so. The waste management strategy allows for cross-border co-operation as part of the district-council-based management plans. The market here is not large enough for such a system, so we are proceeding on an all-Ireland basis. Any cross-border co-operation will need to comply with both the waste management strategy and the UK management plan for exports and imports of waste. The UK plan is currently under review and is likely to allow cross-border imports and exports of waste where there are sound economic and environmental reasons for doing so and where the activity is included in each district council’s waste management plan. We are working on that matter and we will co-operate.
I welcome, in particular, the reference to waste management. The Minister will be aware of all the methodologies that are being employed in this field, such as reduction at source, reuse, recycling and, as Mr O’Connor mentioned, demand creation. Whichever method is used, there will still be residual waste. Did the North/ South Ministerial Council consider the issue of creating energy from waste?
All options will be considered. It is important that we consider anything that might be useful. I assure the Member that we will look into that issue.
I support North/South waste management collaboration and the Minister’s efforts to improve river water quality in the Erne and Foyle systems. Does the Minister agree that the Foyle basin and its associated tributaries - the Finn in Donegal and the Derg, the Mourne and the Strule in Tyrone - are vital to drainage and fishing? Would the Minister support a comprehensive study of fish stocks and fish stock management in the Foyle system to protect the environmental and economic potential of the counties of Donegal, Derry and Tyrone?
We are co-operating with the authorities across the border, and we will take into account what the Member has said. The Water Framework Directive aims to improve water quality through the management of complete river catchments. There is an important issue there. The Directive requires member states to agree water quality management plans for cross-border waterways, which are known as international river basin districts.
The Water Framework Directive was adopted by the EU on 22 December 2000 and must be incorporated into Northern Ireland legislation by 2003. In order to achieve good water quality status, water quality management plans for all river basin districts must be prepared by 2009 and implemented by 2015. The plans will then be reviewed, as it is a continuous process. It is an important plan, which we are working on.
Mentioned in the communiqué is a co- operative approach to developing markets for secondary materials and recyclates. Were the landfill tax and the proposed aggregate tax, which is distorting the quarry industry in the border regions, mentioned in the Minister’s discussions?
Given the Chancellor’s decision to impose that tax on Northern Ireland, has there been any discussion about the need for the imposition of a similar tax in the South, which would remove that distortion and provide a fair playing field for Northern Ireland industry?
There has been no in-depth discussion about the aggregates tax, but I am aware that it creates a great problem in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Quarry Owners Association has approached me about the matter. It is a big environmental issue, and I know how difficult it will be for quarry owners in this jurisdiction. It is important that we examine this touchy and difficult issue, because there could be disastrous consequences for local quarry owners.
That Mr Billy Armstrong shall replace Mr Duncan Shipley Dalton on the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. - [Mr J Wilson]
I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the Executive to establish an interdepartmental working group to make recommendations on the removal of paramilitary flags, emblems and graffiti from public property.
The University of Ulster will this week publish a report entitled ‘Spaces of Fear’. It demonstrates the paradox that exists in our society: although much progress has been made as a result of the Belfast Agreement, bigotry, sectarianism and segregation have increased rather than decreased. We should be alarmed by those findings.
There has been a marked increase in the amount of graffiti and the number of paramilitary flags - sometimes on lamp posts along main arterial routes - murals, kerbstone painting and monuments in virtually every housing estate in Northern Ireland. They are the physical manifestation of sectarianism and segregation in our society and a sign that paramilitary groups have entire areas in their sights.
I shall not argue about which flags are intimidatory and which are not; opinions on that will differ. I refer to Republican, Loyalist and other potentially racist graffiti. I do not intend to attack anyone’s national flag, nor do I want to argue about when a mural is offensive and when it is artistic. Most of us can see the artistic talent in many of the works on gable walls. However, murals depicting guns and which bear the initials of paramilitary organisations are deplorable.
Flags, murals and kerbstone painting cause considerable offence to many. Those emblems mark out territory and send out a message that certain parts of our country are the exclusive preserve of one side and that, by implication, others are unwelcome. The threats and intimidation behind the emblems are clear and are unacceptable. Furthermore, some murals celebrate the most brutal killings of the troubles, and cause immense offence to victims. That is totally unacceptable.
An important point is that such displays are not merely offensive to the perceived minority - they are offensive to those in the majority who reject the implication that these flags symbolise good community relations. Many decent people who like to put a flag on their property at certain times of the year, and for specific reasons, find these practices offensive and wish that they did not happen at all. These emblems pose a major challenge to the cause of preserving a common civic space across Northern Ireland.
Tattered flags left flying at the end of every summer and through the worst of our winters are nothing but an eyesore, regardless of their colours or origin. What must tourists and potential investors think when they see our society divided up in this way? It is certain that properties are devalued as a result of these unwanted items being foisted upon them, and that too concerns owners.
There is a great sense of powerlessness and frustration across the community that the problem has existed unchallenged. Individuals are afraid to act or speak out, because they risk being threatened or intimidated - they might get a brick, petrol or pipe bomb through their window. People are scared to complain to the police or to take legal action based on equality legislation. Under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998, arguments can be made that public authorities have a duty to maintain neutral, non-discriminatory public space. However, those laws are of little use if people or public authorities are afraid to take action. In Britain, or elsewhere, if racist flags and murals causing substantial offence and damage to good racial relations are put up on public property, people can be sure that the authorities will act swiftly to remove them. Here the authorities simply do not act. Either they point to inadequacies in civil or criminal law or simply pass the buck. If you phone the police to complain about the young lads - and, in some cases, the not so young putting up flags, they will advise you to ignore them. Taking them down may result in the erection of even more. That is simply not good enough.
The erection of a flag can be construed as an action likely to lead to a breach of the peace. However, the police will only act when flags are being erected in areas perceived to be of the other side of the community. Indeed, you are more likely to be arrested for taking down a flag. If you phone the Department of the Environment, the Roads Service or the Housing Executive to complain, they will usually say that they are powerless to act, because more will go up. Alternatively, they point to the dangers posed to their staff. Also, to date, councils have no power to intervene. Worse is the number of anecdotal stories of agencies advising concerned callers to raise the matter with the local paramilitary leader. That merely increases the control of paramilitaries in certain areas and reinforces the division of society.
There are no easy answers to the problem, but we should recognise that there is a serious problem, and face up to it rather than run away from it. Many of our Departments, particularly the Department of the Environment, the Department for Regional Development and the Department for Social Development, have public property affected by this problem. However, time after time, when asked questions about this, Ministers have said that they are powerless or have passed the buck.
I suggest that the Executive create an interdepartmental working group to discuss the matter, to guide public bodies and to co-ordinate an appropriate response. The group should work in liaison with the police, consider how the existing criminal and civil law could be better enforced and highlight what legislative changes could be made by the Assembly.
Everyone in the House should support the motion. It simply calls on us to show leadership on the issue and perform our duty by examining the problem and trying to find solutions. I ask for Members’support.
Mr A Maginness:
It is said that evil triumphs when good men do nothing. The particular evil of paramilitary displays, whether they be flags, emblems or murals, will continue to triumph in our society if we, as good men in positions of responsibility in the Assembly, fail to act against it. I welcome the motion. Kieran McCarthy has done a great service by bringing the matter to the attention of the House. He has described accurately the situation that obtains in our society.
It is a continuing problem. Many people are deeply offended and outraged that paramilitary organisations continue to put flags and emblems on public property. Paramilitary displays and emblems are threatening and intimidatory no matter which side they come from. They deter inward investment in the areas of our community that need it most. They also deter the development of tourism. We are aware of the situation in many of our coastal towns that normally attract greater numbers of tourists. The presence of paramilitary flags, murals, and displays has a significant adverse effect on visitors to those areas.
Flags and emblems create a paramilitary culture in many parts of our towns, villages and housing estates. Unfortunately, they have become the norm. Young people are growing up in a culture in which paramilitary displays are seen as a part of ordinary life - that cannot be right. It cannot be right, by any democratic standard, that we, as legislators, should continue to tolerate such a situation. It corrupts the people who live in those areas and the children who grow up in such an environment.
There has been an extraordinary growth in the number of paramilitary displays on both sides of the sectarian divide in the past few years. We require effective measures to counteract that growth. Flags and emblems create the appearance a fiefdom controlled by a paramilitary organisation. They help to reaffirm sectarian divisions. Paramilitary displays are grossly offensive to ordinary people who live in areas polluted by them. Many do not want such displays and want us to condemn their use. However, people will not support us, because they feel intimidated and cowed by the might of those who have imposed offensive displays on their communities.
However, paramilitary displays are offensive not only to those who live in the affected areas, but to people who work in, travel through, or visit the areas. Many people are affected. In principle, it is wrong to impose the burden of testing opinion on residents of affected housing estates, because they are not in a position to freely exercise their rights.
Does the Member accept that there can be a solution to the problem that he has outlined? In South Down, a local community association wrote to every resident in a certain - in this case, Loyalist - estate, asking them for their views on paramilitary flags. A confidential response was sent back to a post office box address. The responses showed that the overwhelming majority of residents in the estate - the Langley Road estate in Ballynahinch - was opposed to the flying of paramilitary flags. Is that not a way forward without opportunity for intimidation?
Mr A Maginness:
I accept Mr Wells’s point. That is a good scheme, and I am aware of it. It was carried out in an effective way that removed the chances of intimidation of the local community by paramilitaries. I accept that there are effective ways of doing that.
I want, however, to reaffirm the general principle that it is wrong to place on people an unfair burden that they, alone, have to discharge. It is wrong in principle to allow something as fundamentally offensive to democracy as paramilitary displays to remain in any public place.
I disagree with Kieran McCarthy’s comments on national flags. That issue must be handled sensitively, but national flags, although not used as paramilitary displays, are used in an overtly sectarian manner. I would have thought that Mr McCarthy’s motion could have encompassed that factor. Although the motion is limited to paramilitary displays, that aspect of the problem should also be addressed by the interdepartmental working group if the motion is accepted by the Assembly.
There is a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness among those in our community who see these offensive displays everyday. We, as legislators and people in authority, must take effective action. Prima facie, the interference by anyone other than a lawful authority in relation to public property would, in my view, be unlawful. I would have thought that, even now, the public authorities and the police have at least some residual power to deal with this problem. The paralysis of public authorities, and of the police, in regard to this problem, which has been evident over the past number of years, highlights the need for the Assembly to introduce, as expeditiously as possible and as a top priority, legislation to deal with the problem. There must be practical and effective legislation to outlaw paramilitary displays in public areas. Such legislation should be the objective of the interdepartmental working group. That will be the only effective means of dealing with this evil. As I said at the beginning, evil triumphs when good men do nothing. We, as good men representing the public good, should act and do so quickly.
I am not opposed to the principle of the motion, but problems exist in regard to the fixing of paramilitary flags, no matter where they are displayed in the Province. First, it is all very well for us to sit as public representatives in the Assembly, to agree to the motion, and to pass whatever laws we want, but, at the end of the day, we are still asking people in the community to go out and remove these flags.
That is undoubtedly the nub of the issue. When that happens we have continuous and daily threats. In many, if not all, of the district councils across the Province, this issue has been discussed over the years, and the problem has grown.
A solution must come from within the community where it occurs. If it were tackled in the wrong way, many people, particularly paramilitaries, would see that as a challenge. As a result, more flags might go up, rather than come down. In my area of Foyle, we have managed to resolve the issue in some areas where the public have come together and worked on a solution for the removal of the flags.
Flags, especially those of paramilitary organisations, threaten the entire community. They are often regarded as a sign that an area is being targeted or controlled. Paramilitaries feel that the more flags they put up, the more of an area they control. However, that is often not the case. The community, would quietly disagree with the flying of flags outside their homes.
The problem has to be addressed without creating another problem. In two areas of my constituency we have been reasonably successful in removing all flags through hard work with the community to collectively resolve the issue. We could pass legislation in the Assembly, and we could discuss it at local authority level, but, at the end of the day, somebody somewhere - the RUC or, perhaps, personnel from the Department for Regional Development - would have to remove the flags. Employees in my constituency have often been threatened, some seriously. One person had to leave the area after he attempted to remove flags. The solution to all of these issues lies in the local community.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
Does the Member agree that the approach by the authorities is sometimes not even-handed? When Loyalists removed tricolours in parts of Ballymena, they were arrested and taken to court. There is a perception in the Loyalist community that Republicans are not arrested when they take down Loyalist posters or signs. Is it not important that the police are even-handed in their approach to this? If people break the law, they should be seen to be prosecuted.
I will take on board the hon Member's comments about getting that balance. There is a feeling that often the authorities have not got the balance right. There are people who put up paramilitary flags, or flags of any nature, and who try to get them as close as they can to either a Nationalist area or a Unionist area. In some areas of my constituency, tricolours fly so close to a Protestant area that it is clear that they were only put up to create problems from the neighbouring community.
The only reason for putting up those flags was to try to get a reaction from the Protestant community. It is good that that community did not react, because the Republican movement has, over the years, tried to get a reaction from that Protestant estate. During the summer, it decided that, everything else having failed, it would try to put up a few tricolours. The Protestant estate was very restrained and did not react.
Flags have been a problem for 30 years. This issue will not be resolved over the next number of months, or even years. It is a major problem for both communities, and it is on the increase. Unfortunately, there are occasions on which public representatives make a bad situation worse.
There is a way to tackle and resolve this issue. The only way in which it can be genuinely resolved is if communities say that enough is enough and are no longer prepared to allow people to come into their areas to put up paramilitary flags and then leave those areas feeling under threat. When Government agencies and others drive through those areas, it can appear that the UDA, the UVF or the IRA controls them. In many instances, that is not the case.
I am not, in principle, opposed to the setting up of a working group. However, I do not know what that working group would recommend on the removal of flags. It would be a miracle, because if we got that right, we would probably get everything else right here. In any case, I do not know how the working group could enforce its recommendations, and if the recommendations could not be enforced, the group would have failed. My party is not against the motion in principle; the difficulty is in its delivery on the ground.