Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 14 September 1998 (continued)
May I draw Members' attention to page 1 of the Committee on Standing Orders' Report and, in particular, to paragraph B, "Appointment of Ministers (Designate)". It was advanced in the Committee that the Assembly should not only have the ability to pass or to reject proposals coming from the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) in relation to the numbers of Departments and the functions within each Department, but that Members of the Assembly should also have the right to table amendments.
Amazingly there was a view advanced in the Standing Orders Committee that that would not be appropriate; that it should be a take-it-or-leave-it issue, that when the First Minister (Designate) and Deputy First Minister (Designate) present to this Assembly their substantive report, the Members' should accept it or reject it in total and not have the right to put down amendments as the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) would, of course, have consulted widely.
The same argument was used during the years of direct rule when we were not allowed to amend Orders in Council which were brought to the House of Commons by Northern Ireland Office Ministers. We had to accept or reject them in total.
There were six members of the Committee who voted against a proposal that it should be explicitly recognised within Standing Orders that we should have the right to put down amendments to any such proposal. I hope that the Minister present today, will convey the tenor of our deliberations back to the Secretary of State and that she will consider that there has been a cross-community vote in favour of ensuring that amendments can be put forward and deliberated by the Assembly.
May I also draw Members' attention to part D, headed "Exclusion or Removal from Office", of the Secretary of State's draft Additional Standing Orders. The Committee has completely omitted any provision which would enable the Secretary of State to table or bring to the attention of the Assembly those matters that were so important during the House of Commons debate. The Secretary of State inserted provisions into the Northern Ireland Bill which enable her to consider certain issues, such as parties not committed to exclusively peaceful means, or parties that do not co-operate with the decommissioning body or parties who are engaged in paramilitary punishment attacks and so on.
There was also provision for those matters to be referred to the Assembly. However, there is no provision in the Standing Orders for that. Whether that was simply an oversight or whether it was deliberate remains to be seen, but it must be rectified by the Secretary of State when she considers these Initial Standing Orders and when she receives the report from the Assembly.
It is incredible to think that the Northern Ireland Office could have overlooked this matter, which was the subject of intense debate and deliberation in the House of Commons. The Northern Ireland Office, having deliberated and assured us that these were all issues that the Secretary of State would take into account, made no provision for the Assembly's part in that or for any motion to be put down other than by the First Minister (Designate), the Deputy First Minister (Designate) of a Commission of 30 Members. That must be rectified as well, and I hope that the Secretary of State will do that.
I am sure that Members will devote themselves assiduously to the path that is before us. It will be challenging to meet the 26 October deadline, but it is absolutely essential that we have Standing Orders which are owned by the Members of this Assembly and which have not simply been imposed upon us by the Secretary of State. If we leave it to the Secretary of State, we will not have Standing Orders which will be acceptable to the vast majority of Members.
When I came here this morning I was reminded of some words from Scripture:
"Lord, it is good to be here."
Having been here for an hour and a half, I am now beginning to doubt whether it is good. However, I would like to join in the thanks being given to the two co-Chairmen of the Standing Orders Committee and to all the Committee Members. We have worked diligently over these past few weeks at our task to produce the rules necessary for the good order and conduct of the House. We did, as has already been stated, I suppose take the easy way out. We began with the less contentious issues. Undoubtedly there will be others which will be more difficult to resolve in the future.
The report before us is self-explanatory, and in commending it to the Assembly I would like to draw attention to two specific issues. One is the thorny issue of designation whereby
"Members shall then take their seats by signing the Assembly's Role of Membership and registering a designation of identity - Nationalist, Unionist or [ ]".
Members will note the brackets in the report, whereas in the Initial Standing Orders produced by the Secretary of State, the word "Other" was included there. Since its inception, this party has made it absolutely clear that we are not large "N" Nationalist or large "U" Unionist. We want to continue to be known, as we have done so over the last 20-odd years, that we are clearly a party of the centre, of that there is no doubt. The electorate know and appreciate that, and the Standing Orders of this House must recognise those who are not large "N" Nationalist or large "U" Unionist.
The Initial Standing Orders state that Members designate themselves as "Unionist, Nationalist or Other". It is quite clear to the Alliance Party that that "Other" refers to "Other" designation. It is not just "Other" left hanging in mid-air. That is why we have argued and will continue to argue that the word "centre" must be permissible to designation. We will not be arrogant and dictate to other Members how they wish their designation to be described. I am perfectly happy for the Members of the Ulster Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, the Progressive Unionist Party or whoever else to designate themselves as Unionist.
I would like clarification as to the real argument that Mr Close is making about designation. I am sure that everyone in the House understands the centre ground when one talks about economics or social policies, but what in constitutional terms is his definition of the centre ground between Unionism and Nationalism? It would be a very intriguing explanation in view of his remarks.
I thank the Member for giving me the opportunity to explain and I could do so at great length, but I feel that today would be an inappropriate time in which to describe exactly where the Alliance Party stands. The Member believes and understands the Alliance Party's ethos, why it came into being and its raison d'être in Northern Ireland. The job it has been doing in Northern Ireland needs no further clarification from me. I am referring here to the Initial Standing Orders produced by the Secretary of State where they say
"Members shall take their seats by signing the Assembly's roll of membership and registering a designation of identity - Nationalist, Unionist or Other."
My argument is that that "Other", as far as the Alliance Party is concerned, means centre. Members should not have any difficulty with that because I am perfectly content to accept other parties' designation of themselves. So please do the Alliance Party the courtesy of permitting itself to be described as a centre party.
Mr Dodds referred to this change of identity every seven days. We are offering the people of Northern Ireland a new opportunity, we want them to respect the dealings and operations of this House. We do not want to start off with some farcical procedure by which Members can change their designation willy-nilly by giving seven days' notice. That would do us all a tremendous disservice, and I urge that that particular Standing Order be changed.
It has been argued that we should recognise people's right to change their designation, and as I suggested at the Standing Order Committee meeting, let us recognise that right. Perhaps they made a mistake; perhaps they were not sure of where they stood, and they should have the right to change. But I believe that that right should be restricted to one occasion. If they wish to change, let them change once and have done with it. But let us not have a situation where on a weekly basis, simply for expediency or to thwart the purposes of votes in this House, individuals can move from one side to the other. That would be inappropriate. This is all I have to say on these two issues at this stage. There are others which will, no doubt, arise in the weeks ahead. I commend the Report to the House.
I, too, rise to respond to this particular Standing Order and for exactly the same reasons.
When the Northern Ireland Womens' Coalition Members signed the Roll Book, we wrote "Inclusive Other", our reason being that we hope that one day in this country people's political identities can be respected as crossing and that we will be able to work with our differences. I understand the reasons why the voting mechanisms are as they are in the agreement, but the opportunity should be available for those who wish to have themselves designated in a different way to do so.
By designating yourself as centre, you are saying to the rest of the people here that they are at the extremes and I do not believe that to be the case. There will be many times when people in this room will take a central, socialist or a conservative position on particular social and economic issues and no one should be viewed as being extreme for having done so.
The fact that the seven-day rule is there permits a party like ours to protect the agreement. We will not vote according to whether it is a Nationalist or a Unionist issue. We will vote to protect the agreement, which is the mandate on which we were elected. We believe that this rule has been inserted to allow us to protect the agreement against those who were not in favour of it and do not wish for it to be proceeded by this House. We will give the required notice.
The situation will not be so radical; Members will have seven days' notice and those who are opposed to the particular issues will know in advance what the arguments will be. The Northern Ireland Women's Coalition will insist that this rule is not changed so that people may take advantage of it only once; it should remain throughout the four years during which the House will be sitting.
There is a review mechanism in the agreement, and those who are unhappy with the current voting procedures or the designations, which some would say institutionalise sectarianism in this county, can give notice to have that review.
But the Standing Order present should be retained so that those who experience no difficulty representing Nationalists, Unionists and others, in the most inclusive fashion, can protect the agreement when we need to.
I speak as a member of the Standing Orders Committee. My remarks relate specifically to the rule that would give licence to political chameleons who wish from time to time to change their colour according to the exigencies of the day.
It should be immediately apparent to everyone that the working of the Assembly, and whatever structures arise from it, is to be based on consensus. The consensus was constructed by the agreement to facilitate an operation between the two essential groups in Northern Ireland who have been advancing their political goals and ideologies: Unionists and Nationalists. Indeed, if one looks at the agreement, and particularly at the arrangements made for dealing with that consensus, one will see that the agreement provides for either a majority, a clear majority, within each of those communities or, in some circumstances, for a 40% majority.
What was the reason for that? The reason was to ensure that, within each community there would be agreement that what was being advanced by both was a basis for ongoing business. The Ulster Unionists have a very, very narrow majority with 28 Members plus the assistance of those who have demonstrated themselves to be consistent allies, the Progressive Unionist Party, giving them a total of 30.
On the other hand, opposed to the views of the Ulster Unionist grouping are the Democratic Unionist Party, the United Kingdom Unionist Party and the three Independents, making 28 in number. What is proposed now is to allow the two members of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition to hop about from a Nationalist designation to a Unionist designation, on seven days' notice, which would give them a degree of influence entirely out of proportion to the votes they got throughout Northern Ireland.
I have no argument whatever with the advancement of the rights of women, though I find a political party calling itself the Women's Coalition a rather curious phenomenon, but that is another matter.
But the point I do make is that the Women's Coalition originally entered the negotiations on the basis of what many people saw as a completely anti-democratic arrangement. Under the top-up system 20 seats were divided among the top 10 parties thus allowing the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition to have two seats when its total vote in Northern Ireland was a little over 6,000. Now we have those two Members with limited electoral support endeavouring to do something which is fundamentally opposed to the principle of consensus upon which the agreement is based: they want to play see-saw Marjorie daw by changing their designation from "Nationalist" to "Unionist" when any crucial vote is about to come up.
In those circumstances the proposal put forward by the Assembly Member for South Belfast (Ms McWilliams) is one that would strike at the very roots of democratic consensus in the Assembly, and Nigel Dodds, the Assembly Member for North Belfast, has shown us the dangers of that very clearly.
I now want to turn to the remarks made by Mr Close on the matter of designation. The agreement provides for three designations - Nationalist, Unionist and Others, and in that context "other" was not being used in some derogatory way. Those who are neither Nationalist nor Unionist are "other" and the Alliance Party has demonstrated that it does not wish to be associated with any particular grouping, Nationalist or Unionist.
It is entirely irrelevant whether it is designated "centre" or "other" because it is certainly not Nationalist or Unionist, neither of whom, even allowing for the degree of ecumenism that occasionally creeps into both parties, could conceivably be described as centre. Whether you say left or right, Nationalist or Unionist, none of those terms of themselves in itself designates a person as an extremist of one form or another.
It is my proposal that those who are neither Nationalist nor Unionist can describe themselves in whatever way they like, but they ought not be permitted to change more than once. There is good sense and fairness in allowing people to decide that, broadly speaking, their party is now convinced that the Unionist or Nationalist ideology and goals are what it should opt for, but such people should be permitted to do that only once in a four-year term.
I commend to the House the sentiments expressed both by Mr Dodds and by Mr Close.
Mr S Wilson:
The fears which were raised both by Mr Dodds and Mr Close on the matter of changing designation have been borne out by the comments by Ms McWilliams. Under the guise of protecting the agreement, she has suggested that the Women's Coalition's intention is its designation as "other" so that sometimes it can be Unionist and sometimes it can be Nationalist, not on the basis of any political principle, but purely to influence a vote. I have no trouble with the words of one member of the Women's Coalition who said
"The Women's Coalition wished to be all things to all men."
I think that that was rather inappropriate, but to try to influence a vote in either community, to change and dance around, purely for that purpose, is wrong.
As Mr Close said, it would bring the Assembly into disrepute in the eyes of the general public, if someone was able to dance about like that, under the guise of protecting the agreement, while really seeking to subvert the views of those who have expressed themselves as either Unionist or Nationalist. The Rule must be amended, and I hope that Members will accept that a small group cannot be allowed to manipulate the Assembly in this way.
I am glad to see that the Committee had the good sense to agree that any proposal brought before the Assembly by the First Minister (Designate) or the Deputy First Minister (Designate) should be open to amendment. We do not want to have to accept it or reflect it simply.
One of the things said in defence of the agreement, especially by members of the Ulster Unionist Party, was that it would end the bad old days of Orders in Council in the House of Commons, that people would now be able to amend proposals that were brought forward. We cannot have that re-imposed on the Assembly. We must be able, when there are parts of a proposal brought before the Assembly that people do not like, to amend the proposal rather than have to vote the whole thing down.
I find it rather bizarre that those who defended that kind of undemocratic means of doing business were telling us that we did not need to worry, because the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) would take the opinions of the Assembly into account and consult their own parties.
From the record of the First Minister (Designate) over the last number of months, it appears that he cannot even take account of opinion in his own party, let alone the Assembly. Therefore, it is important that we are able to amend reports that are brought forward, rather than simply vote on them. I hope that the Assembly will have the good sense to agree this and that the Secretary of State will have the good sense to accept the amendment as proposed by Mr McCartney.
I want to endorse the comments of Mr McCartney and Mr Wilson. This is a totally undemocratic Standing Order. For Members to be able to change a designation within seven days and then change it back would make us a laughing stock. I would support a proposal that a designation be changed once only - that would cover everybody and exclude no-one.
I take exception to Ms McWilliams implying that the United Kingdom Unionist Party is exclusively Unionist. It is important to clarify that the political affiliation of someone who comes to us on a constituency matter is not an issue.
I would like to clear up the reference to me that was made by Mr S Wilson - the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition is all things to all men and women and children.
Change of designation has been discussed. It is very interesting to note those who accuse the Women's Coalition of possibly bringing the Assembly or the Agreement into disrepute. I am very happy to see that they are here to defend this institution, and I commend that. There is absolutely no question of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition's bringing the agreement or the House into disrepute.
Any move to change our designation would be made purely in defence of the agreement. As Ms McWilliams said, we have been put here to defend the agreement, and we will do so. We come from pockets of Unionism, Nationalism and "other", and we represent all three.
One very important thing that this Assembly must take on board is the ability to evolve. We do not want to get stuck in a mould. We want to be able to evolve towards a future that we can all support and work with. If we insist that there can be no change of designation, we are insisting that we stay in the mould that we have prescribed for ourselves from the start. I believe that the people who elected us would like to see us all evolve to the point where we can accept Unionism, Nationalism and "other" and move forward.
I thank Members for their contributions to a lively and interesting debate. There are one or two matters to which I ought to refer.
First of all, it is important to remember there is a distinction between the redraft of the Standing Orders which the Standing Orders Committee is considering and the additional Standing Orders which are being put forward by the Secretary of State to supplement the Initial Standing Orders. Under the legislation she has the authority to do so. The Standing Orders Committee was asked to comment on them; we have done that, and Members have a copy of our comments. That is a different issue from the redraft of the Standing Orders which will be adopted by the Assembly when it assumes full authority under the legislation.
I presume that there will be a full debate on the final Report of the Standing Orders Committee when it comes before the Assembly and that Members will then be able to go into detail on the various provisions of the Standing Orders.
It is also important to understand that the legislation currently going through the House of Commons will enshrine in law the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, and may not depart from that agreement. It would be invidious and quite unacceptable if the elaboration of the Standing Orders of this Assembly were allowed in any way to unravel parts of that agreement or to revise provisions which are clearly part of the agreement which was endorsed by sufficient consensus of the parties in the talks and by the overwhelming majority of the electorate, North and South.
There is further work to be done in relation to the question of designation and party, which, I remind Members, are two quite separate questions.
The question of designation is addressed in the preliminary Standing Orders as laid down by the Secretary of State; however, our response to the Secretary of State's draft additional Standing Orders says
"it was agreed that the Secretary of State should be asked to give consideration to the need to define the meaning of 'political party'."
That is something which will arise in respect of both the Standing Orders under the Secretary of State's authority for the shadow period and the final Standing Orders of the Assembly itself.
The Standing Orders Committee has given some attention to the question of party and designation. While one can respect Mr Close's suggestion the fact is that applying the term "centre" to one party does have implications, as pointed out succinctly by Ms McWilliams, for other parties.
The situation with regard to the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition is somewhat different. The very name of the party indicates that it is a coalition of people with different designations and that they also need to be given some regard.
Finally, may I thank Members for their contribution to the debate.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
As Initial Standing Order 12(2)(b) applies to this motion - any motion referring to Standing Orders requires cross community support - I must call for a recorded vote. This requires that an announcement be made that a vote will take place in three minutes. It will take place on the basis of roll call, because that is the arrangement under the Initial Standing Orders.
Is it necessary to do that unless you have established first that there is a difference of opinion?
The Initial Presiding Officer:
The initial Standing Orders give me very little flexibility on a whole range of issues. For example, with regard to the length of time Members should speak, there is a very strong case for some flexibility. The problem is it indicates use of this procedure in any decision concerning the Standing Orders of the Assembly, even in the case of an interim report which makes no recommendations. From my point of view it is not a very satisfactory position that there is so little flexibility in the interpretation of these Rules. I expect this is something that the Standing Orders Committee will wish to consider.
I would have thought that where there is no division it was quite evident that there is cross-community support. Mr Empey's point is a good one.
What are we voting on? We are noting a report. If there were a negative vote would we be saying that we do not adopt this report and that the Standing Orders Committee has to go back and start its work all over again?
The Initial Presiding Officer:
It is not for me to make an interpretation of the meaning of the House's vote but merely to try to conduct it. If there were unanimity then it would be clear that there was cross-community support. That is not the same as saying there was no one against it. There could be Members who were for the motion and other Members who merely abstained - for example, if all Members on the Unionist side voted for and all Members on the Nationalist side were simply to abstain, there would not be cross-community support. If, however, there is unanimity of the House then I would certainly accept that there would be no need for a recorded vote.
In that context, if you will permit me to take a vote - a kind of straw poll - and to judge from that whether we have effective unanimity and therefore not proceed to recorded vote, I am very content to do so. Is that the mind of the House?
Members indicated assent.
The motion was carried without Division, the Initial Presiding Officer recording his judgement that the cross-community requirement set out in Initial Standing Order 12(2)(b) had been met through the complete unanimity of the Assembly expressed in response to the Question being put.
That the Assembly takes note of the interim report prepared by the Committee on Standing Orders and grants leave for the preparation and presentation of a full report by 26 October 1998.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
The next item on the Order Paper is the motion that the Assembly takes note of the report from the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate). Members should note that, with agreement through the usual channels, it has been decided that this debate should be limited to three hours. I intend to suspend the sitting for about an hour and a half at approximately 1 o'clock for the purposes of taking lunch. Members may wish to take that into account. They may also like to know that the report will be presented.
Mr Presiding Officer, you said that the debate is to last for three hours. If we were to do what you suggest we would be splitting the debate into half an hour before the break and then two and a half hours. I suggest that we suspend the sitting now and reconvene at an appropriate time.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
I am a little concerned about your eagerness to leave the business, but I am happy to accommodate the request. However, staff in the refreshment areas were advised that we were likely to be proceeding until 1 o'clock, or shortly after, and that the break would be for about an hour and a half, so you may find that they are not entirely ready. If that is the case I ask you to be considerate and not reprove them.
Mr P Robinson:
Whilst the staff are heating the soup up, can you tell us how you intend to proceed, Mr Presiding Officer? I understand that the First Minister (Designate) is to speak first. Can we assume that the Deputy First Minister (Designate) will wind up the debate rather than speak second?
The Initial Presiding Officer:
There has been consultation about this. Normally the person proposing a motion is allowed to speak for 20 minutes. It has, however, been agreed that the time will be divided between the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate). The First Minister (Designate) will speak first but only for 10 minutes, and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) will speak second for the balance of the 20 minutes.
I will then take interventions from all the parties. Each intervention will be for a maximum of 10 minutes, and I will proceed through party order on the basis of size - assuming that I get names from all the parties which I have not as yet. We will take one run through on that basis. I will try to divide up the balance of the time in proportion to the size of the parties and considering the request for speaking rights as some parties will have submitted very extensive requests, others more limited. I will try to achieve the best balance that I can. There may or may not be any wind-up speeches, but if there is no desire to wind-up, other Members will be allowed to speak in any time remaining.
I trust that is clear, but if it is not I will try to explain it further.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
Mr Presiding Officer, what time do you intend to adjourn the House tonight?
The Initial Presiding Officer:
The intention is to suspend the sitting by 6 o'clock. The Adjournment debate must last three hours. If this afternoon's debate proceeds for the full three hours - if Members wish to use all of the time - clearly it would not be possible to accommodate the whole of the Adjournment debate. It might have been possible had we been quicker this morning, but that is not so now.
We will need to clarify over the suspension whether Members wish to proceed with the Adjournment debate this afternoon or whether we should suspend the sitting when we have completed the three-hour debate on the First and Deputy First Minister's Report and reconvene tomorrow morning at 10.30 am.
The sitting was suspended at 12.40 pm.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
This debate should be limited to a period of three hours, and I would ask Members who wish to speak to indicate that to me as soon as possible.
The report will be introduced by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.
That this Assembly takes note of the report prepared by the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) and grants leave for the preparation and presentation of such further reports by the two Ministers as are considered necessary. - [The First Minister (Designate), the Deputy First Minister (Designate)]
The First Minister (Designate) (Mr Trimble):
When we last met in July, I spoke of how our community was coming out of a morass of political violence and political impotence, and I cautioned then that coming out of that morass would not be a simple process. However, none of us could have envisaged the carnage and the evil that would be perpetrated against our community in the weeks that followed.
As we meet today in this splendidly refurbished Chamber our thoughts are with those who have lost loved ones, those who have been maimed or injured and whose faith in humanity, let alone democracy, has been profoundly tested. To the Quinn family in Ballymoney, the Kearney family in Belfast, the families of those whose lives were so cruelly ended in Market Street, Omagh, to those injured there and in Banbridge, to the traders of both towns, and to the family of the RUC officer, so grievously injured in Portadown, I convey, on behalf of all Members, our deepest condolences and sympathetic concern.
Our thoughts are also with those who so admirably served this community during some of our darkest hours this summer. To the emergency services - the doctors and the nurses in all our hospitals, the members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary - and to the countless volunteers who sought to help in whatever way possible, we express our deepest admiration and gratitude.
The evil deeds that manifest the depravity of the few bring out the best in the many. There is an inner decency in the community which is the cornerstone of the whole democratic process. Thirty years of sectarianism, including the most brutal acts of violence, have failed to extinguish the light of democracy. There can be only one response which reflects the revulsion felt by everyone throughout this island to the Omagh atrocity - there can be no place for violence in the achievement of political goals.
Mr Initial Presiding Officer, I also wish to thank you and all who have worked so hard to prepare this building for our use, including the Chamber in which we are sitting today. It is a tribute to their efforts and a mark of how much they have achieved.
Today we are presenting our preliminary report on those matters with which we were charged on 1 July. All of us are embarking on one of the most novel and challenging journeys in the annals of our democratic system. It gives us a historic opportunity to govern with honour and to create a Northern Ireland at peace with itself.
We have a unique opportunity to develop our own Assembly within a rapidly changing United Kingdom and in a structured relationship with the Republic of Ireland. We must have the confidence to grasp this challenge, to create jobs, foster economic prosperity, tackle divisions, and improve the quality of life for all. Our community deserves the best possible form of government that we can create.
In the near future we will be collectively accountable for the stewardship of the bulk of the £9 billion budget currently assigned to the Northern Ireland Office. When powers are transferred we will have direct responsibility for education, economic development, health, housing, transport, the environment and a host of other functions. We will have the power to pass legislation relating to those devolved matters. We will have the power to address the democratic deficit of which quangos are an obvious symptom, to create the circumstances within which local government can flourish and to work in partnership with the business, trade union and voluntary sectors. We will be able to set new standards in public administration, and provide leadership that will exploit the innate talents and abilities of our people.
I envisage the Assembly as a potentially powerful force for creating, sustaining and strengthening our sense of community and the sense of responsibilities that we have for each other; for formulating and implementing a programme of government that makes a real difference to people's lives. To do this we must set ourselves a clear goal of delivering effective, efficient and quality services to all our citizens, and we must ensure that we command their confidence and respect. As we begin this debate on the various governmental and institutional arrangements stemming from the Agreement, I hope that we can put the needs of people first. To do so we need a strategic, co-ordinated and integrated approach to government.
I want to thank those who attended our initial consultation meetings last week. I look forward to receiving their written submissions, elaborating on the matters mentioned in those consultations and also containing their views on those matters that we simply did not have time to discuss.
I am very conscious of the limited timescale, not just for last week's consultation but for the timescale within which we have to operate if we are to successfully negotiate this transition. The Bill to implement the agreement goes back to Parliament in October. The Government hope that it will receive the Royal Assent in mid-November.
If there are to be any changes in the number of Departments in the Northern Ireland Public Service then an Order in Council must be made under the Northern Ireland Act 1974 although in principle that is something we are not comfortable with. But, given the timescale and the need for urgency, that is the only realistic way to do it. The Order in Council will have to start its parliamentary procedures by the end of November if we are to have any hope of achieving the transfer of functions in February.
We must also remember that the creation of a new Department could take up to three months to implement. So, if we are to maintain the schedule we must conclude the work on our initial view of the Administration's structure by the beginning of November at the latest.
Any restructuring of government should be driven by the needs of the public and should reflect the policy concerns of the new Administration. In view of the time and cost penalties involved, I am sure that none of us should want to create new Departments just for the sake of it.
By evolving the policy concerns of the new Administration this also has problems. There are a number of major policy reviews which have already been put in train by the Northern Ireland Office - for example, reviews of health, environment and economic matters.
There is also the question of the Northern Ireland budget. The Northern Ireland Office will soon consult with the Assembly about the additional moneys made available to Northern Ireland as a result of the Government's own comprehensive spending review. Although the amount of that additional money itself reflects policy decisions taken by the Government in that review, when the Northern Ireland Office settles the Northern Ireland Budget - which it must do in the course of the next few months - it will be taking decisions that will definitively settle the detailed expenditure in the next financial year and also, to a considerable extent settle the expenditure for the subsequent two years.
These are the first three years in which the Assembly will be conducting the Administration, yet there is an expectation by the public that the new Assembly and the new Administration will make a difference, - and we will want to make a difference. Rather than implementing cosmetic policy changes in the first year we might do worse than follow the example of the present Labour Government by initiating, on a tight six to nine-month timescale, our own comprehensive spending review and our own comprehensive policy review. We would then be taking decisions which we can implement in subsequent years.
Of course, any comprehensive spending or policy review may have structural consequences and so whatever conclusions we arrive at initially in terms of structures may have to be reviewed at a later stage.
There is a more inflexible timescale with regard to the North/South Ministerial Council. Under the terms of the agreement the Assembly is set the target of agreeing on certain areas of co-operation by 31 October.
The Northern Ireland Office is planning a major investment tour in the United States in October and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) and I have been invited to take part from 7 to 18 October 1998. If the Assembly is to achieve the timescale set out in the agreement, there will have to be an inaugural meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council towards the end of September or in the first few days of October. I am further of the view that substantial business will have to be transacted at that meeting. Indeed, I hope it will be possible to sign off on some proposals for co-operation at that stage.
This, in turn, would require the Assembly to give authority, perhaps within a fortnight from now. There is, therefore, a grave urgency about looking at areas for co-operation in the hope of making considerable progress within the timescale. During our discussions there seemed to be considerable confusion among other parties about the provisions in the agreement for the transitional period. Colleagues seem only to be looking at those provisions on the North/South Ministerial Council that will apply only after the transitional period.
I refer all Members to paragraph 8 of the relevant section of the agreement which makes it clear that there is adequate authority for what we are proposing to do. The Deputy First Minister and I will consider what is put forward in this debate. We may consult further with the parties, and we will bring forward further proposals as quickly as we can.
Whatever decisions we take, we are now in the fortunate position of struggling with democratic, institutional arrangements rather than with the politics of the latest atrocity. I want, as I have said, this to be a pluralist Parliament for a pluralist people in a Northern Ireland in which Unionists and Nationalists work together for the benefit of everyone.
I have welcomed the moves made by those who are crossing the bridge from terrorism to democracy. However, as in all partnerships, the opportunity to implement the agreement in its entirety is predicated on trust and equality. There can be neither trust nor equality if any party to the agreement is not prepared to destroy its weapons of war. Everyone here should rely on votes and not on weaponry. I hope that those previously engaged in violence will now embrace peace with a new vigour.
I am determined to make the agreement work. However, I simply cannot reconcile the seeking of positions in Government with a failure to discharge responsibilities, under the agreement, to dismantle terrorist organisations. The agreement cannot work unless it all works. In presenting this report, I am noting the work completed so far in implementing part of the agreement. We, and the Ulster Unionist Party, will continue doing what is needed to make the agreement work. Let us all do what we all need to do to make all of the agreement work. [Interruption]
The Initial Presiding Officer:
I would remind everyone that it is a discourtesy to Members to allow mobile phones or pagers to go off in any part of the Chamber, and what applies to Members most emphatically applies also to those in the Galleries and elsewhere.
The Deputy First Minister (Designate) (Mr Mallon): I would like to associate myself fully with the remarks made by the First Minister about those who suffered needlessly during the summer months. It was a very difficult time, especially for the First Minister and me. It was a cruel summer. However, I believe that we have got several things out of that period which can be shared by everyone in this Chamber.
There is a greater sense of hope for the future and a deeper sense of belief that what we have to do here is create something absolutely new, something very different and something which is at odds with the violence and the brutality that we saw then. That is a challenge that the Assembly must accept, a challenge which we have taken on ourselves and is a challenge that we must work to meet.
It is a more difficult challenge, because communities that maintain conflict have no problem with understanding. An eye-for-an-eye culture does not demand any great comprehension. For a community to overcome conflict is much more complex. Respect and trust are not built in an instant.
Equality, while it does need laws and constitutions to protect it against abuse, is not built in any Parliament or by any legislation. It is built on the streets and involves dismantling past barriers, promoting tolerance and developing understanding and above all creating space for everyone of us to be inclusive of the other.
We have a very substantial institutional challenge here. For years we decried direct rule. We talked about democratic deficits. We criticised those who made decisions. At times we were right - probably most time we were right - but now we do not have any escape hatch. There are no bolt-holes. It is for us now to assume the responsibility of making those decisions. We have to move from criticism to construction, from making demands to making choices, from claiming rights to taking responsibilities for our own lives. We have to decide how in this Assembly we create not just those institutions but the attitudes of minds in the community which will underpin those institutions and make them work to their maximum advantage.
A new politics has begun. It is time for responsibility and commitment, a time for service to people - to those who elected us, to those who resolve to make this agreement work and to those who themselves have not yet resolved to do so. We in the Assembly have to make sure that we do it in a way that is people-orientated. We have to harness all the advantages we have here, and we have to deal with the disadvantages that we have facing all of us.
When the First Minister (Designate) and I met with parties, certain things struck both of us. We saw strengths and capabilities in the parties, a very constructive impatience to resume responsibility, real concern about what was happening in the community and an understanding of the socio-economic problems that all of us have to face. There was a unique connectedness between the political parties and those who elected them here - probably, in a sense, more immediate and potentially more dynamic than one would find in most other countries.
Our discussions and consultations centred mainly on the creation of Departments, not exclusively but primarily, because it was the first item on the agenda. Many parties gave very differing views, but there were factors that were shared. One was the absolute need to create Departments that were effective of themselves and could make the maximum contribution to the administrative life here and which could deal with those issues which interlock and transcend Departments. Some of them spring readily to mind - for example, how we handle European matters, how we handle the equality agenda, and how we deal with some issues that run through Departments and are the responsibility of all.
There was almost the unique agreement that we did not want any Departmental silos, that we could not have a situation, where there were six, seven, eight, nine or 10 floating Ministries acting independently, that there had to be a collective view that in any Executive formed would be dealing with one budget, with one governmental approach, and that there could be no luxuries of sitting outside of that.
We also had deep discussions about the North/South Ministerial Council. As one would be aware there were different emphases and different attitudes in relation to that. But again there was this common strand: what we decide upon after further consultation will be that which is of mutual benefit to the people in Ireland, North and South.
We will not be building ivory towers just to keep Nationalism happy, but something meaningful in terms of the economic, social and cultural life of all of this island. That view also extended into the British/Irish Council, which gives us all a unique opportunity to explore and develop the totality of relationships between these islands, a cliché that has been used for years we now have an opportunity to turn into a political reality.
Some of those areas for consideration are self evident. Transport for an island country such as ours must be one. The currency, common or otherwise, through which our industry will deal, must surely be something that will interest the North/South Council.
The final area that we were charged to consult about and report back on was the creation of a consultative Forum. I am pleased at the remarkable interest there has been in that body. That is not just something typed in the agreement. Given the amount of interest that we have seen, it is something that is organic, and it must be organic, organic in the sense that while it relates to the Assembly uniquely, above that it relates to the community that the Assembly serves, equally uniquely.
The Forum must not be a resting place for those on the way down, or for those on the way up, as such bodies sometimes are. It should not be a place for the great and the good in society who almost seek to have an automatic interest in bodies like these. It will be the success that we can make it when we see people from every walk of life, from every political view and from every social and economic class in that body contributing with us to a resolution of the many problems that we have.
We look forward to further consultation - more in depth and more decisive consultation - and we will do that with speed. And the consultation should be in the same spirit as this consultation took place. We must show that all Members of the Chamber do take seriously what we have said for years about the contribution that local politics in the North of Ireland should make to our lives.
I finish on this note. There are many divergent people with many divergent views in this Chamber. It will be the strength of that diversity that will actually be a creative, moving force in the working of the Assembly, its Executive and the North/South Ministerial Council, and in relation to the British/Irish Council as well. It will be the motive fulcrum that will allow people on the ground to look at this place and say "Ah they are serious. There is a new politic - not a politic of bickering; not a politic of sectarianism; not a politic of one doing the other down and getting the better of every argument and every decision, but a new politic." And that new politic will be absolutely impotent unless it can harness the involvement, the creativity and the imagination of everyone here.
The First Minister (Designate) and I look forward to that challenge. We can fulfil that challenge only if we all do it together, and together, we can succeed if we do it for the people who need it most - the people whom we represent, living across the length and breadth of Northern Ireland.
All of us welcome the opportunity of turning our minds to the task at hand of establishing the right structures for the future Administration of Northern Ireland. Many Members may not be aware that the Civil Service is currently going through one of the largest changes in its history. It is having to completely change its accounting procedures to create a balance sheet for the activities which it performs on a department to department basis; administratively, this is time-consuming and is imposing colossal strains on the Service.
There have been various hints in the press as to how many departments there will be. Will there be six, 10, 15? All sorts of numbers have been quoted.
In addition there are somewhere between 111 and 145 quangos - I do not know the exact number, but it is certainly large. Some of them are spending colossal sums of money; they are very large administrations in their own right, and it would be wrong if this Assembly were to simply create an additional administrative tier. Whatever we are facing, we face enormous change.
I am strongly of the view that we must not rush helter-skelter into creating new Departments without fully appreciating the implications. Neither can we allow the system to carry on as it is; we cannot allow ourselves to be suffocated by one review after another. If we decide to increase the number of departments or create new ones out of existing ones, the truth is that we will be spending large amounts of money in perpetuity.
If, say, it costs between £500,000 and £13,000,000 or £14,000,000 to set up a new Department from scratch, that is money which will come out of the Northern Ireland budget every year - not a one-off piece of expenditure. We have got to translate that into schools, hospitals and roads that will not be built, into economic development and initiatives that will not be taken.
Unless we are making compensatory savings in other areas of the administration, all we are doing is increasing the burden of government on the community, and that is not what I believe we are here to do.
I have been equally concerned at the arbitrary way in which some people have said "Oh, we will just have 10" or "we arrived at this figure on a 'snouts in the trough' basis" or "There is a mention of up to 10 in the agreement". The question is: what is needed? What is appropriate? What is right at this point in time? And we also have to be aware that we are being asked to do, in a few weeks, what our colleagues in Scotland and Wales are being allowed to take years to do. A tremendous burden is being imposed upon us and I for one do not wish to see us go ram-stam into something purely to make up the numbers.
We have also got to get away from this idea that if you have a Minister you must have a Department - that is not necessarily the case. It is perfectly conceivable to have Ministers who do not have Departments, who have cross-departmental responsibility, who could, for instance, have responsibility for piloting legislation. There is a range of things that we must look at.
With regard to other parts of the structure - be they the North/South Ministerial Council, the British/Irish Council, and so on - we are getting very positive indications from Scotland and Wales of a willingness to do business with the Northern Ireland Assembly. There have been communications from political representatives over there who are anxious to engage with us, and some of them have even given us ideas as to what issues we might pursue. That is also the case with the North/South Ministerial Council.
We have to see this within the context of the European Union and growing regionalisation. If we had not opted for devolution in this province, we would have been left out of the major constitutional change that is taking place in the rest of the United Kingdom, change which is not confined to Scotland and Wales - London is shortly to get its own Government.
I heard on the radio at the weekend that representatives of the North-East of England have already formed themselves into groups. The North-West is doing the same. The South-West, at local government level, has an embryonic structure in place. There is this pattern of devolving powers because the United Kingdom and, indeed, the Republic of Ireland are the two most centralised states in the European Union, and that situation is not sustainable in the long term.
Equally I am very pleased that we have decided today to appoint an ad hoc Committee to look into our relationship with the House of Commons. There are major issues there which go back, as Mr Robinson mentioned, to the "West Lothian" question, and that touches on very sensitive constitutional issues.
We should not be a stand-alone instrument here. The House of Commons has power under the Act to make laws for the whole of the United Kingdom, so we will still have to look very closely at the relationship that exists between ourselves and Westminster.
We have complained about quangos year in and year out for decades, and the future of some of the larger ones will have to be examined very closely. What is the future for bodies like the health boards, the Health and Social Services Council and the education boards? We had prolonged debate in the last couple of years about the education boards, many people wanting to retain the existing number. But is it conceivable that we would have an Assembly and a legislature here, yet retain those bodies? I think not.
We run the risk of sending the administration of this province into turmoil and placing question marks over everything. I fear that it is not going to be possible to make an omelette without breaking some eggs. I also suggest that people who are working for those bodies, people who are sitting on those bodies, will have to realise that major change is going to take place.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
Perhaps Mr Empey will give the Assembly his opinion on the chances of an Executive being formed. At a meeting with the Security Minister here on 6 August 1998 he said that as things stood then the Ulster Unionist Party would not have endorsed the agreement and no Executive could have been formed. Other members of his party insisted that the voters were wavering and that there was a real risk of civil war. What exactly is he saying today?
I do not quite see the relevance of that intervention, but I will give the Member an answer if he wishes.
Unlike his party's position, which as enunciated at the weekend, is that it is prepared to take seats in Government irrespective of whether there is decommissioning or not, the Ulster Unionist Party's position is that it is not prepared to do that.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
Is it right for a Member of this House to make a statement that has no foundation in fact?
The Initial Presiding Officer:
I fear that there may be many such statements made over the next period and I will have difficulty ruling them all out of order.
The difference between Dr Paisley's party and the Ulster Unionist Party is that he enunciated at the weekend that the Democratic Unionist Party is prepared to take its seats in the Government without a qualification that decommissioning must be involved; that is the difference between the two parties.
I wish to return to the question of Departments.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
We are coming near to the end of the time allocated.
I hope you will allow me time for the interventions.
We wish to ensure maximum cost-benefit and effectiveness in any changes we make. We must therefore be sure that they are based on solid judgements; that there is a strategy behind what we do; and that that strategy flows into policy. Therefore we will have to review policy and realise that there is a relationship between policy and structure. It is always easy to keep the system that already exists.
While I have no desire to change out of all recognition what has been an effective system, we nevertheless have to make it more responsive. Any changes will have to be made as efficiently and as cost-effectively as possible because if we spend money on administration we remove money from public services.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
Mr Empey asked whether further time will be allowed in respect of interventions. I must advise that no further time will be made available. I hope this will not discourage Members from permitting interventions, but if they permit extensive interventions the whole proceedings are disrupted. I have to rule that interventions are time lost from a speech, although interventions may, of course, contribute to it.