Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 17 January 2000 (continued)
The First Minister:
The Member will recall that in earlier answers I made it clear that the subject matter of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference includes all devolved matters and, consequently, the particular issues he has mentioned. In the statement we made today I referred to the issues which were discussed on 17 December, and at that meeting there was no discussion of any other matters. If at future meetings there are discussions on non-devolved matters which relate to Northern Ireland, as do the issues mentioned by the Member, we will be present and give a report on those discussions. As no such discussions have yet taken place, I am unable to give such a report, and I do not think it wise to explore purely hypothetical issues at this stage.
Mr C Murphy:
A Chathaoirligh, I welcome the fact that this meeting took place - another instance of the institutions envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement coming into effect.
With reference to this body's taking the lead on transport, I presume that the Minister for Regional Development was in agreement with that. That would be welcome because the issues of transport on this island and transport between the two islands are important. My question is about resourcing and, given the bleak picture painted by the Minister for Regional Development of our infrastructure and the problems we face with transport here, whether we can take the lead on this. Are the resources that will enable us to take this lead coming directly from the Department of Regional Development or from some other source in the Executive Committee itself?
The Deputy First Minister:
There are two parts to the Member's question. One concerns how we intend to take forward our lead role in transport, and we have both made it clear that the needs of the people of Northern Ireland are what matter. Transport is a sectoral format in both the North/South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council. It is vital that work on transport be taken forward in both contexts, irrespective of the attitude taken by any Minister to those institutions. I hope that all Ministers will participate in the relevant institutions. The decision on ministerial participation in the transport sectoral meetings is one for the First and Deputy First Ministers, which, under legislation, we will take at an appropriate time.
In relation to the second part of the Member's question, it is true that the Council member taking the lead in any of the sectoral issues identified will bear the cost of any meeting which takes places within its jurisdiction. Who foots the bill for the research and compilation of the final product is a matter to be decided by the Council members.
I welcome the statement, and I am pleased to hear the list of subjects which the British-Irish Council will be addressing. It is particularly appropriate that the Northern Ireland Executive should be taking the lead on transport, but can the First Minister confirm that the British-Irish Council will not be a mere talking shop? Is he confident that it will develop practical co-operation between the Administrations?
The Deputy First Minister:
As with all of these institutions, it will be what we collectively make it to be. I do not believe that it will be a talking shop. The participants of the British-Irish Council are all conscious of the fact that this institution must show that it can impact properly and truly on people's lives. By splitting the work into sectoral formats from the start it will be possible to make progress on a range of issues, and those already identified are drugs, social exclusion, environment and transport, as well as the knowledge economy. These are issues which impact on all of us.
It is no coincidence that a number of the issues chosen impact differently on those who are less well off and less fortunate. That indicates that the British-Irish Council is about learning from each other and ensuring that all our policies and practices are brought up to the highest quality. The British-Irish Council is one of the institutions at the core of the Good Friday Agreement, and, as with all the institutions, we must show that we can deliver what lay behind the concept.
I look forward to progress being made across the sectoral formats in the next six months and to taking stock of progress in June at the next plenary session of the British-Irish Council. These institutions - what they do and what their ultimate results will be - will be as good as the effort we put into them.
The statements from the First and Deputy First Ministers show that we have taken another important step on the road to securing permanent peace and reconciliation on these islands. May I ask the Deputy First Minister what benefits will derive from the British-Irish Council?
The Deputy First Minister:
The ultimate benefit is the co-operation with the other Administrations and Governments. We live cheek by jowl with all of those involved in the British-Irish Council - even though in some cases there is a sea or a border between us. However, in reality there is no border, for the days of borders in international business and national life are gone. We will benefit by learning from the experiences of other areas, by dealing with those experiences in a collective way and by producing, in conjunction with each member of the council, policy positions from which we can all benefit, individually and collectively.
Sometimes we believe that this is the only place with good ideas and good policies. That may or may not be true, but we should not be afraid to learn from other places and help to create a relationship between all members of the Council which will begin to transcend their differences, not just in practical and economic terms, but also in political terms.
Mr S Wilson:
We know from the answer given by the First Minister that we have a secretariat serving the British-Irish Council and that some of the members of that secretariat were previously members of the Anglo-Irish secretariat. Does he agree that his answer to Mr McClarty's question was misleading in that he said that the Secretariat had now been done away with? Will he tell the House where the secretariat which was supposed to have been done away with is now located? Is it located in Maryfield or somewhere else in Northern Ireland?
The First Minister:
The latter point is not within my responsibility. Consequently, I am not in a position to give an answer. I suggest that the Member approach one of his Colleagues who is in a position to table an appropriate Question in another place.
Can the Ministers assure us that the benefits of the British-Irish Council will have the resources needed to tackle unemployment and all the other social ills that currently afflict Northern Ireland?
The Deputy First Minister:
I should remind myself and everyone else that the decisions taken in relation to matters pertaining to the British-Irish Council will be taken by the Executive Committee here and, through the Executive Committee, by the Assembly.
I trust that in their wisdom all Ministers, the Executive Committee and the Assembly will make sufficient funding available so that we can maximise the benefits of membership of the British-Irish Council. We should also remind ourselves that government on these islands becomes more de-centralised as power is devolved. It is important that strong links be established and maintained between the various Administrations. As set out in the Good Friday Agreement, the British-Irish Council is established under the British-Irish Agreement
"to promote the harmonious and mutually beneficial development of the totality of relationships among the peoples of these islands".
Through membership of the British-Irish Council we will be able to exchange information and use our best endeavours to reach agreement on matters of mutual interest with our neighbours on this island. To do that properly we need to have a proper attitude towards the funding of policies which the Assembly and Executive adopt as a result of their experience in the British-Irish Council.
Rev Robert Coulter:
I beg to move
That the Second Stage of the Assembly Members' Pension Bill (NIA 1/99 ) be agreed.
This stage provides an opportunity for a general debate on the Bill and for Members to vote on its general principles.
The purpose of the Bill is to make provision for the payment of pensions and gratuities to, or in respect of, persons who have been Members of the Assembly. I should make it clear that this is only in respect of Members - it does not cover their staff. Members need to make a separate provision for staff using the allowances available in the Members' Allowances Determination.
Members will recall that while in shadow form the Assembly agreed that the recommendations in the Assembly Commission's first report of 22 February 1999 dealing with matters of salaries, allowances and pensions for Members should follow the recommendation of the Senior Salaries Review Body. I would like to point out that at that stage no one in the Assembly knew what those recommendations would be. Subsequently, the review body recommended that in proportion to a Member's salary and service, a pension scheme for Members of the Assembly should be established to provide the same categories and, substantially, the same levels of benefits as are available to MPs at Westminster under the Parliamentary Contributory Pension Scheme.
Since then the Commission has been engaged in developing a pension scheme for Members which would give effect to the review body's recommendations, and that has resulted in the Bill that I am taking forward on the Commission's behalf. It has not been possible to introduce a scheme before now, since the powers to do so did not become available until devolution.
A sub-committee, chaired by Mr Denis Watson, has helped the Commission considerably in preparing the scheme. The Commission has spent a great deal of time scrutinising the Bill's very detailed provisions, and I wish at this point to record the Commission's appreciation of the sub-committee's work. I will come back to how the Commission sees the group's being involved in the long-term management of the scheme.
While I do not wish to go into the Bill's detailed provisions today, perhaps I may give a brief summary of the benefits of the scheme. In doing so, I should emphasise that these benefits apply to all Members of the Assembly. The Commission believes that all equal- opportunities issues are addressed in the detail of the Bill.
Members' pensions will be based on final salary and length of service. A Member's pension will amount to one fiftieth of final salary multiplied by the number of years' service. Members will pay 6% of their salary into the pension fund, with the Assembly making up the balance of the cost. The maximum pension that can be accrued is two thirds of the final salary. Part of the pension can be commuted into a lump sum.
The normal retirement age is 65, but, subject to Inland Revenue limits, Members who are currently over 65 will continue to accrue their pension in the same way as those below this age. In certain circumstances Members may retire earlier than 65 with a reduced pension, although there is no reduction if a Member retires early due to ill health. A lump sum of three years' salary may be paid if a Member dies in service. Widows', widowers' and children's pensions are also provided for. There is a facility available for the purchase of added years and for additional voluntary contributions. Members will be able to transfer service to, and from, this scheme.
Pensions will be increased in line with inflation, and enquiries have already been made to have the scheme contracted out of the State Earnings Related Pension Scheme. A supplementary scheme will be available for officeholders on the same basis as for Members of Parliament. The pensions of Members who are also Members of the Westminster or European Parliament will be based on their reduced salary.
The scheme cannot come into effect until this Bill is passed. At that time, all Assembly Members will automatically become members of the scheme. Additionally, Members' service between the time they took up their Assembly seats and the Bill's being passed will automatically count towards their pensionable service. Unless other arrangements are made with the trustees, deductions of 9% of salary, in addition to the normal 6% deduction, will be made to cover the contributions that Members would have paid had the scheme been in place from the date they took their seats.
On this basis we hope that these retrospective contributions would be paid for within a year of the scheme's coming into effect. Provision is also made for the scheme to apply retrospectively to any Member who dies between now and the Bill's coming into effect. The sub-committee, under Mr Watson, has spent a lot of time looking at the detail of the scheme. It has also started to consider what administrative arrangements would be needed for the practical operation of the scheme as soon as it is in place.
Subject to the Assembly's approval, the Commission's view is that this sub-committee, given the expertise it has developed, should take on responsibility for the administration of the scheme once it comes into effect. In other words, the sub-committee's members would become the trustees of the scheme. The arrangements for appointing the five trustees, their powers and responsibilities are set out in Part B and in Schedule 1 to the Bill. Therefore the trustees and not the Commission will be responsible for running the scheme. An important part of their responsibilities will be communicating with Members, explaining the scheme's provisions to them in more detail and dealing with queries such as the transfer of service from pension schemes relating to Members' previous employments, assisted, where appropriate, by the scheme actuary.
The Commission hopes to produce a note shortly on the issues which Members should consider in coming to a decision on such transfers. For instance, some Members retained their previous pension arrangements on election to the Assembly. However, unless these arrangements relate to another current employment they will probably have to be cancelled for any period in which the Assembly scheme applies to them. This is an example of one of the detailed matters on which the trustees will be offering assistance.
I hope that this has given Members an appreciation of the principles and main provisions of the Bill, which, because of its subject matter, is necessarily complicated and involved, and that the Assembly is content that it should now pass to the Committee Stage for more detailed scrutiny.
The Bill will now pass to the Committee Stage for further scrutiny, but there are two points of principle which should be considered. The Committee should look at the principle of giving some discretion to Members over when they may transfer or pay back contributions. If the Committee were to consider that, it would be extremely useful to Members. As Mr Coulter said, this is a complicated piece of legislation. It would also be helpful if the Committee understood that many Members come from various walks of life. Mr Coulter pointed out also that some continued to contribute to other pension schemes and that it would be illegal for them to continue to do that and thus hold two pensions. They must decide either to transfer into this pension scheme or to remain in their current one.
I would like the Committee to give some further consideration, as a point of principle, to the fact that the legislation as currently drafted allows only for a start date of 25 June 1998 or the present date, and some thought needs to be given to variation in terms of dates that lie in between.
I would like it put on record that we owe a debt of gratitude to the trustees and to the Chairperson of the Pensions Committee for the work that they have done and, in particular, to Mr Denis Watson.
Rev Robert Coulter:
We shall contact Ms McWilliams with a detailed reply.
There will be an opportunity to examine the detail of the Bill at the Committee Stage scheduled for 27 January and to move amendments then.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Second Stage of the Assembly Members' Pensions Bill (NIA 1/99) be agreed.
The Bill stands referred to the Finance and Personnel Committee.
Under Standing Orders we move to questions at 2.30 pm. The decision of the Business Committee was that if we completed the business up to this point in advance of a reasonable time for a suspension for lunch, we would proceed to the motions that are down for debate for today. That being the case, we will move now to the three motions.
Mr P Robinson:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you give us some guidance about the timing of the debate? As I understand it, there is a time limit for the overall debate. If there is an amendment, presumably you do not want the person moving the motion to speak all of the time. Is there a time limit for the debate and for the speeches?
The Business Committee's decision was to accept three motions for debate today, along with any amendments that might come forward, and to finish our business by 6.00 pm, as laid down in Standing Orders.
The intention was to try to have the first motion dealt with before the suspension for lunch. Questions would then be taken in the absence of any statements from Ministers. I have received no notice of any statements. Questions will be completed between 2.30 pm and 4.00 pm, and there will be an opportunity to take the second and third motions between 4.00 pm and 6.00 pm. That will allow one hour for each motion - one before lunch, one between 4.00 pm and 5.00 pm and one between 5.00 pm and 6.00 pm.
There are amendments for the first two motions on the Marshalled List, and we will proceed in the usual fashion.
Mr P Robinson:
Are there limits on the individual speeches?
As you may recall, I asked at the start of the day that those Members who wished to speak should let me know. I find it extremely difficult to define time limits unless I have some indication about the number of Members who wish to speak. I am also required to ensure that there is a degree of balance in the arguments put forward. I have to say that Members have not been hugely to the fore in indicating that they wish to speak. At present there is a very limited number of Members who wish to speak. I shall therefore have to judge that as time goes on.
In the first instance, we should perhaps allow the proposers of the motions and amendments to speak, since that may well, in itself, stimulate some speakers to come forward. At this stage, however, there are no particular limits, although I may have to introduce them as we move along in order to achieve a reasonable spread of speakers.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Will the proposer of the motion have time to reply?
In the normal course of events, the mover would have the right of reply. I shall have to give some consideration to the question of timing. We move on to the first motion, which stands in the names of Dr Paisley and Mr Peter Robinson.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
I beg to move the following motion:
This House demands the handing over of all illegal terrorist weaponry and its destruction in accordance with legislative provisions; acknowledges that the people of Northern Ireland will not accept token decommissioning; and calls for the process of decommissioning to be verifiable, transparent and credible.
The issue of decommissioning continues to frustrate the people of Northern Ireland and constrain genuine political development in the Province. The Unionist people are sick of being misled and lied to over the issue of decommissioning. Even the "Yes" voters must be embarrassed by their misplaced political judgement in putting their trust in the word of the IRA.
It remains my firm conviction that the IRA has no intention of decommissioning. That is confirmed by a recent statement made by the leader of IRA/Sinn Féin before he left these shores to go to the United States. He pointed out that he was talking about the decommissioning of all weaponry, including that of the security forces, members of the Army, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Royal Ulster Constabulary Police Reserve. Decommissioning in the so-called peace agreement, as any ordinary individual reads it, has to do with terrorist weapons and not with legally held weapons. Not so with the leader of IRA/Sinn Féin.
At present it appears that the Official Unionists will be satisfied with, if not relieved by, a token gesture - one which will be hyped up by Gen de Chastelain and the two Governments as a credible start to decommissioning. It will, of course, be no such thing. Like all of the First Minister's previous claims about decommissioning, the idea that the IRA will give up its guns when their presence has secured it a place in the Government of Northern Ireland is simply untenable.
I noted, with a sense of some irony, the statement by the recently knighted Josias Cunningham that the Official Unionists would not stomach any more drift over the issue of decommissioning. We have had nothing but drift from the Official Unionists on this matter. In June 1996, Mr Trimble told the 'Belfast Telegraph' that he would end the talks if decommissioning did not commence. That was in June 1996. He did no such thing. Since then the leader of the Official Unionists has twisted, turned, digressed and avoided dealing genuinely with this issue, while the IRA has held to its position and held on to its arsenal of murder weapons.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
Is the Member aware of a statement and, indeed, an article written by the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party on 18 April 1998, just before the referendum? In that article the First Minister said
"As for the eligibility of those seeking to hold ministerial positions, the Unionist Party negotiators have, in writing from the Prime Minister, an assurance that no member of a terrorist-related party can hold such office until it has commenced the decommissioning of all its illegal weapons. Without this there should be no early release of prisoners."
He went on to say
"Any attempt to bring into office paramilitaries who have not proved a commitment to peaceful means by decommissioning will precipitate a crisis in the Assembly. We will not serve alongside such persons."
Can he tell us his view on the Ulster Unionist Party's change of heart on this most critical matter?
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
Lines have been drawn in the sand by Mr Trimble, but he always drew the line where the tide could reach it. When the tide came in, the line was conveniently wiped out. That has been happening all along on this issue.
I resent the attempt by the scurrilous 'News Letter' to tell us that we have no right to discuss this matter in the Assembly. Who does it think it is? Has Geoffrey Martin suddenly got the infallibility of the papacy? Does he feel that he should tell us what we ought to discuss? Mr Martin never submitted himself to the electorate. He has no mandate. He is the paid stooge of the Mirror Group, and he will no doubt advocate what they are advocating. As long as I am in this House, Mr Speaker, I will be using my mandate to speak up for what I believe, and no amount of 'News Letter' garbage will keep me from doing my duty.
I am reminded that when I first came to this House the same newspaper, on the day of the election, had a full banner headline across the front page "Minford X". That is exactly what the people of Bannside did. They axed Minford and put me into this House to represent the constituency of the former Speaker. Well done, the Belfast 'News Letter'! Let it continue its acts of folly if it will.
Far from being penalised, the IRA has been put into government without a single shred of evidence that there will be any decommissioning and without a single shred of evidence from the other partners in the Government. I am glad that there is an amendment. It is very interesting - a sort of attempt by the SDLP to be neutral, as if that were possible. The SDLP and the UUP are together on this matter. There will be no punitive action against the IRA when it fails to decommission.
I am angry at the deceit of the Official Unionists and at the way Mr Trimble, in conjunction with Tony Blair, has tricked a number of the Unionist electorate into supporting the Belfast Agreement. But I am equally disgusted at the behaviour of the SDLP. That party poses as a party of peacemakers, yet it has ridden to political advantage on the back of IRA violence. It has refused to take on IRA/Sinn Féin but has been taken in by them.
The release of 30-year-old Government papers reveals that while they may have talked publicly about peace, privately their members sought to arm Nationalists in Northern Ireland on the pretence of self-defence, but really for the murder of Protestants. There is no prospect of the IRA's disarming. It knows that the SDLP will not take it on or vote to eject Sinn Féin/IRA from the Executive.
It was claimed that under the Belfast Agreement, decommissioning would happen. I do not see where or how it is going to happen. The "Yes" campaign claimed that it would be achieved. Gen de Chastelain claimed that IRA weapons would have to be destroyed, as well as their residue. In June, "destroyed" was changed to "put beyond use". I challenged the general to define "put beyond use". He said that it had the same meaning as "destroyed". In that case, why use it?
Given the Member's comments on the 30-year-old papers, would it not now be appropriate to call for a public inquiry into the SDLP-inspired gun-running by the Irish Government?
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
There can be a public inquiry provided that it is against the overall Unionist position. Those who call for a public inquiry on anything that might vindicate the Unionist position will not get it. If the public inquiry into "bloody Sunday", which has been very slow in starting, does not come out with the answers that the Nationalist community in Londonderry wants, it will be rejected. That will be £20 million down the drain. Public inquiries are acceptable only if they come out with what the Nationalists want.
I understand that the Official Unionists are being briefed privately to the effect that the deadline is not February, or any meeting of their council, but has been moved to May. More drift and indecision seem to be the order of the day for the Official Unionist Council meeting. Public confidence demands movement on this issue. I note that even Bertie Ahern said in South Africa that the public will not accept excuses on decommissioning. According to Bertie Ahern "No surrender" is not an option, but he will be the first to bow the knee before the IRA when the day comes.
Action must be taken against IRA/Sinn Féin. They should be punished if they do not decommission. The people cannot be held to ransom. There must be decommissioning. If there is not, it is not Unionists who should be put out of the Executive but IRA/Sinn Féin. Some people, even in the Unionist camp, seem to have a twisted imagination on that issue. There is a concerted effort to move this issue away from the politicians. There was an attempt to get a leading South African publicly to call on Ulster politicians to leave this matter in the hands of the general. In an interview that was embarrassing for the "Yes" campaign, he changed his mind and called for politicians to get involved.
This key political issue must be faced. The largest arsenal of terrorist weaponry in the Western world is in the charge of IRA/Sinn Féin and can be used at a moment's notice, as the Canary Wharf tragedy showed, against the peace-loving, law-abiding citizens of any part of this United Kingdom.
Time is very limited, and Members are getting hungry and desire to eat. One of them said that he was flummoxed and tired by the amount of work that he had to do as an Assembly Member. I would not like that man to pass away. I will therefore draw my consideration of this matter to a close, and I look forward to having a brief opportunity to respond to any vital points that may be made.
I beg to move the following amendment: Delete all after "House" and add
"will work to implement all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement, including decommissioning, consistent with the three principles agreed on 25 June 1999 and reiterated by Senator Mitchell in his concluding report on the review."
The amendment which has been tabled in my name, on behalf of the SDLP, seeks to address the question of decommissioning on the basis that has already been agreed by the parties participating in the Executive.
One would have hoped that at the first meeting of the Assembly in this new year, this new century and this new millennium the Northern Ireland community would be treated to a much more worthwhile and meaningful debate - a debate on health, education or employment, instead of on the endlessly rehearsed subject of decommissioning. Members are faced with so many problems whichever way they turn - problems with health and education, jobs, farming and fisheries - but yet again we are debating decommissioning, even though the framework has been put in place for its total achievement.
By bringing forward this motion and the next two, the DUP is again engaging in the ritualistic performances which seem to me to be geared to grabbing the headlines or creating a confrontation in the Chamber that will make the news later. It does this instead of addressing and participating in the reality of trying to achieve decommissioning in its best form. Perhaps the 'News Letter', which Dr Paisley referred to, was right when it said that there might be a bit of headline-seeking in what is currently a rather dull political scenario for the DUP.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it not correct to say that every party in the Assembly had an opportunity to put down a motion for today? They could have put down motions on health or on the other matters that Mr McGrady referred to, but they did not do so. It is no wonder that they are mad that the DUP was able to table three motions. Even I was amazed.
Order. It would be inappropriate to go into the discussions and dealings of the Business Committee, save to note that Dr Paisley is obviously gratified at the opportunity to have three motions in one day.
That request for a ruling under the guise of a point of order merely illustrates the point that I was making: anyone could have tabled these motions. I have no objection to any number of motions being tabled, but I am entitled to address the motivation behind them. Are they effective or simply a means of giving the impression of real political movement? The DUP has failed to prevent the creation of the power-sharing Executive, having lost out to the common sense of the great majority of people in Northern Ireland. Its political credibility is now being reduced to nothing.
How else could one describe the gross, audacious hypocrisy of the DUP in accepting two ministerial positions in the Executive, the very creation of which it says is a threat to Northern Ireland's existence?
How can they participate so fully in government? No amount of verbal camouflage can conceal the reality of the DUP's participation in the Government of Northern Ireland. The DUP knows that this process is going to succeed - that is its real problem. However, it should also remember, in the terms of these motions, that part of the process that I hope will succeed is that the decommissioning of all illegal paramilitary weapons takes place. That is part of the process that we are in.
Do the proposers of the substantive motion think that they have a unique claim to the need and the desire for decommissioning? Let me assure them that they have not. All the people of this island, and beyond, have a deep and pervasive desire to see the end of guns and explosives in this society. Unless the question of arms is dealt with now, we all know the dangers they represent to peace and harmony, to our future and to the future of the next generation.
Decommissioning should not be achieved by the extraction of benefits for those who hold weapons.