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Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 7 February 2000 (continued)

Economic Development Policy

2. Mr Byrne asked the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to explain how the economic policy unit will be involved in devising and implementing a radical economic development policy.

(AQO 164/99)

The First Minister (Mr Trimble):

The role of the economic policy unit is to assist the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister in a number of strategic economic tasks. These include co-ordinating the Executive's economic policies and monitoring the effectiveness of public spending in achieving the Administration's economic goals.

The economic policy unit is currently engaged in assisting the Executive Committee in developing the programme for government. That document will enable us to define both the nature of our economic development policies and the most effective form of co-ordination that is needed to achieve the agreed goals. Already a number of Ministers are working together on areas of common concern. The programme for government will help us to agree other areas where we need to develop new approaches. In this work the economic policy unit will play an important role.

If we are to make a difference, if we are to strengthen our economy while ensuring opportunities for all, it will be essential for Departments and agencies to co-operate on common objectives and deliver new, focused policies. The economic policy unit will be central to this new approach.

Mr Byrne:

I thank the First Minister for his answer. Does he agree that the biggest challenge facing everyone in Northern Ireland, including the Assembly, is to devise an enterprise-driven regional approach to the economy? Does he accept that the economic policy unit has a central role in co-ordinating that and making sure that we have better value-added production so that we can lessen our dependence on public transfer payments?

The First Minister:

I agree entirely with the Member. The challenge is to shift away from subsidy-based activity, from the public sector to the private sector, and within the private sector to higher-value-added areas. This is the key objective for the future. The work of the Administration needs to be focused on that. We need the capacity to co-ordinate policies across Departments to avoid the silo effect that has slipped into some elements of the Administration.

Mr McClarty:

Does the First Minister agree that we need to focus on radical new economic development policies?

The First Minister:

I agree. This is largely the same point that Mr Byrne was making. It is essential that we refocus the economy in that way. The best cure for social exclusion is a well-paid job.

Dr McDonnell:

Does the First Minister accept that while the role of the economic policy unit is to assist him and the Deputy First Minister, its funding appears to be a matter for the Department of Finance and Personnel? Will he say to which of the House Committees the economic policy unit will be accountable and explain how we will deal with the complicated matter of communication between the economic policy unit and the Department of Finance and Personnel?

The First Minister:

I do not foresee any great difficulty in communication. The two elements will work closely together. In essence, the economic policy unit, which has a co-ordinating role, is located in the Centre and consequently is subject to oversight by the Committee of the Centre. It is clear that the Administration needs something equivalent to the Cabinet Secretariat in Downing Street, which has a Minister. However, I would not like to draw an analogy between Mr Haughey and Mr Nesbitt on one hand and the Cabinet's Minister of State for Enforcement on the other.

3.45 pm

Ms Morrice:

The stress that the First Minister has put on the need to co-ordinate policies is appreciated. Can he explain in more detail to the House how the economic policy unit will interact with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and, in particular, the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee? We want to avoid duplication and allow as much co-ordination and co-operation as is possible.

The First Minister:

It should be borne in mind that the economic policy unit does not have an administrative function. It is there as a source of advice for the First and Deputy First Ministers and to assist co-ordination.

Mr Davis:

The First Minister has given very comprehensive answers. What resources will the economic policy unit have?

The First Minister:

It is essentially a small think-tank with research budgets, and it will work with Departments to provide better co-ordination. The staff of the Public Service Office, who work on improving public service efficiency and effectiveness, are part of the team. However, for the new responsibilities, such as economic policy and co-ordination on European matters, four senior staff have already been recruited, and we are starting to recruit more.

'Publicly Funded R & D
and Economic Development'

3. Mr McGrady asked the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister what assessment they have made of the recent publication by the Northern Ireland Economic Council entitled 'Publicly Funded R & D and Economic Development in Northern Ireland', and if they will make a statement.

(AQO 126/99)

The Deputy First Minister:

While the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers has responsibility for appointments to the Northern Ireland Economic Council and for its funding, this recent report has implications for several Departments. Since its focus is particularly on economic development, it is of most relevance to the work of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment. I understand that the Ministers, Sir Reg Empey and Dr Farren, have already met to discuss it. They will be putting a joint report to the Executive Committee. This will enable us to come to a collective view on how its recommendations might fit into the new programme of government.

Mr McGrady:

I thank the Deputy First Minister for his reply. Is he aware of the comments made by the chairperson of the Northern Ireland Economic Council on 18 January? She stated

"Research and Development (R&D) will be critical to determining Northern Ireland's economic success in an increasingly global and knowledge-driven economic environment."

In his answer to my question, he indicated that a team is operating to produce a report. Will he ensure that that team follows the advice of the Economic Council that an effective partnership be developed between business, the Government and the universities, with public and private investment, on research and development to spearhead economic progress?

The Deputy First Minister:

We will be encouraging the Departments involved along those lines. Perhaps one way of doing so, as the Member has suggested, is to encourage much greater collaboration between universities and industry and partnerships between the universities, industry and the Government, so that research can be placed in the technological chain which leads to development and entrepreneurism. It has worked in less-developed regions in Europe, and it can, and will, be made to work here.

The Member will be aware that we have inherited a level of university research funding that is low in comparison with that in other regions. However, our universities are now benefiting from substantial new investment in research across the United Kingdom. In the current academic year this includes an additional £1·5 million for research infrastructure, £2 million of university challenge money and part of the investment of £10 million towards the Northern Ireland science park.

This additional new funding is helpful, but Northern Ireland is lagging behind, as the council has pointed out. We will have to ensure that industry, the private sector, the public sector and the education sector are equipped to deal with research and development because, in today's world, we will not stand a chance of competing without it.

Freedom of Information

4. Mr Maskey asked the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister if there are any proposals to provide for freedom of information.

(AQO 166/99)

The First Minister:

The Freedom of Information Bill, which is before Parliament, extends to Northern Ireland. This measure provides, for the first time, a statutory right of access to information held by a wide range of Northern Ireland public bodies in the transferred field, including Departments, district councils and executive and advisory non-departmental public bodies. It also provides for the enforcement of that right of access and for an appeals procedure.

The extension of the Bill was agreed following a consultation exercise in Northern Ireland last year. However, freedom of information is a transferred matter, and it is for the Executive Committee to decide whether to introduce separate legislation on freedom of information in Northern Ireland. It is hoped that the Executive will discuss freedom of information in the near future.

Mr Maskey:

A Chathaoirligh. I thank the First Minister for his reply. Does he agree that this issue is of immense importance, given that one of the key principles of these institutions is openness and transparency? Good governance means that everyone should have access to information. I suppose the First Minister has already answered the question in that he said he hopes that the Executive will deal with this as a matter of urgency.

Go raibh maith agat.

The First Minister:

The legislation going through Parliament at the moment is very similar to that introduced in the Republic of Ireland and in a number of Commonwealth countries. We will have an opportunity to look at it and consider whether its provisions need to be extended.

Mr S Wilson:

Does the First Minister remember that on 9 January 1999 he wrote to members of his party a letter stating that the North/South bodies would be minimalist and completely accountable? Is he aware that the agendas for two North/South Ministerial Council meetings held last week were put in Members' pigeon-holes only today, or possibly on Saturday? Does he agree that that does not smack of accountable government? Will any Freedom of Information Act that is introduced in the Assembly ensure that, instead of being told of the agendas for North/South Ministerial meetings after they have taken place, Members are informed in advance?

Mr Speaker:

Order. As far as I am aware, the papers were in Members' pigeon-holes last Thursday. The First and Deputy First Ministers and their Department cannot be held accountable for any administrative delay. I will, however, check whether there was such a delay.

Mr S Wilson:

The meeting took place on 1 February.

The First Minister:

The Member knows - or ought to know - that there is more openness about North/South Ministerial Council material than about the rest of the public administration. This was deliberately arranged by us. As to his comment about knowing the agenda in advance of the meetings, if his Colleagues bothered to attend the Executive meetings they could take part in the discussions that take place in advance of the North/South Ministerial Council meetings.

Several Members:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker:

Order. Members know that I cannot take points of order until the end of Question Time.

Sir John Gorman:

Does the First Minister agree that freedom of information should also apply to the families of those victims of terrorism whose remains have yet to be recovered? Does he agree that it would be contemptible if paramilitary organisations and their political backers were to withhold such information from the victims' loved ones?

The First Minister:

Of course I agree. There should be freedom of information for all the victims of terrorism, and the various paramilitary organisations, along with those who established and assisted them, have a lot of explaining to do.

Mr A Maginness:

Does the First Minister agree that for the healthy development of any democracy it is necessary to have a Freedom of Information Act? When is the legislation at Westminster likely to apply to Northern Ireland?

Further to that, in relation to the Freedom of Information Act in the Irish Republic to which he has previously referred, are there any provisions in that Act that we could usefully include in any legislation here? What does the First Minister think of that legislation?

The First Minister:

I understand that the Freedom of Information Bill that is before Parliament is likely to be brought into operation in mid-2001. The legislation in the Republic of Ireland is broadly similar. There may be differences in detail that we could usefully examine. Indeed, the Committee of the Centre could do likewise.

Mr Beggs:

Does the First Minister agree that in order to have freedom of information people must have freedom to meet without harassment or intimidation and that some political parties and, indeed, terrorist organisations should respect that principle?

The First Minister:

The Member's point is very well made.

Civic Forum

5. Mr Ford asked the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister what criteria they will use to determine their nominations to the Civic Forum.

(AQO 144/99)

The Deputy First Minister:

The Good Friday Agreement includes provision for the establishment of a Civic Forum to act as a consultative mechanism on social, economic and cultural matters. The Forum will comprise representatives of the business, trade union and voluntary sectors and such other sectors as agreed by the First and Deputy First Ministers.

Under the terms of the report which was agreed by the Assembly in February 1999, nominees for the Forum will be drawn from the following areas: business, agriculture and fisheries, trade unions, the voluntary and community sectors, the churches, culture, arts and sports, victims, community relations and education. In addition, as First and Deputy First Ministers, we will appoint six persons and the chairperson. Our nominees will be people who, in our view, have a range of insights, expertise and experiences that will inform the deliberations of the Forum in the social, economic and cultural spheres. We will ensure that the Forum has the appropriate balance to enable it to represent fully all sections in Northern Ireland.

Mr Ford:

I thank the Deputy First Minister for that response. In the light of the cynicism that now exists about some of the appointments already made - there have been allegations not only about jobs for the boys but about jobs for the entire family - can he give an undertaking that no member of either of their political parties will be appointed to any of the six positions in the gift of himself and the First Minister?

The Deputy First Minister:

We will apply the principles that I have already enunciated to the appointments that are open to the First and Deputy First Ministers to ensure balance in the Civic Forum. To date, we have embarked on consultation, and the junior Ministers have had discussions with NICVA, Disability Action, the Rural Community Network and the Women's Resource and Development Agency. I assure the Member that everything will be done in a way that will contribute to the Forum and nothing else.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Can the First and Deputy First Ministers assure the House that only genuine victims and their representatives, who know what it is like to suffer at the hand of terrorism, will be appointed to serve in a victims' liaison capacity? Can they assure us that they will consider appointing a representative of Families Acting for Innocent Relatives?

The Deputy First Minster:

No decision has been or will be made about any sector of the Civic Forum until all the nominations have been received. The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister is very aware of the victims. We have already had a meeting with the Minister of State, who shares that responsibility with us, and we have taken steps to ensure that there is a dedicated sector in the equality unit to deal with the issue.

I want to make a final point in relation about the sting in the Member's question. In many ways we are all victims of the past 30 years, and there are many groups that have suffered in various ways. We will ensure, through the equality unit and the nominations put forward for the Civic Forum, that all groups are represented, in the wider interests of everyone in Northern Ireland.

4.00 pm

Mr Speaker:

We must proceed to the next item of business.

Mr Dodds:

Mr Speaker, I have already indicated that I want to raise a point of order.

I am sure that it is in order to point out to the First Minister that, unlike him, DUP Ministers are adhering to their manifesto commitments. I would like you to give a ruling on whether, by urging Ministers to breach their ministerial code and divulge Executive business, the First Minister is giving a green light to Members to breach confidentiality.

This is a very interesting precedent, which we will note carefully in the record. I would like to thank the First Minister for his indulgence in this matter.

Mr Speaker:

It is not for me to speak about the conduct of Executive Committee business, which is what the First Minister was referring to. There is no question about the need for confidentiality in Committees. That is clear, and I trust that all Members, including those who are Chairmen, recognise that.


St Patrick's Day


Mr McCarthy:

I beg to move the following motion:

This Assembly calls on Her Majesty's Government to proclaim each year St Patrick's Day a public holiday in Northern Ireland.

I wish to explain to the Assembly the words of the motion. Unfortunately, under current constitutional arrangements, the declaring of public holidays remains a responsibility of the British Government. Therefore, regrettably, it is not possible for the Assembly to take a decision on the matter. The only course of action open to us is to lobby our Prime Minister and our Secretary of State directly and hope that the Taoiseach and the Irish Government can also use their good offices to enable us to achieve the desired result. The Assembly does, however, have an important representative role in that it can express the authoritative voice of the people of Northern Ireland to other levels of government.

Why should the Assembly push for St Patrick's Day to be made a public holiday? Put simply, St Patrick's Day is an important day for people throughout Northern Ireland. It celebrates the man who is historically associated with bringing Christianity to Ireland. His importance is recognised by Protestants, Catholics and many others. St Patrick is the great unifier.

St Patrick's Day is also significant in a number of non-religious ways throughout the island. Throughout the world it is regarded as Ireland's national day, North and South. Around the world it is something for people of Irish descent to celebrate. And why not?

In Northern Ireland many people from all traditions wear shamrock. Indeed, shamrock is traditionally presented to the Irish regiments every St Patrick's Day. Sometimes at parades and festivals we have the great traditions of music, Irish food and green Guinness, which are enjoyed by many people. More importantly, religious services are celebrated throughout the length and breadth of the island, and it is also the day on which schools' cup rugby, soccer and gaelic football finals are played.

There is no doubt that St Patrick's Day contributes to tourism in Ireland, both North and South, which is so important to our economic well-being. I welcome the news that the Apprentice Boys of Derry are planning a St Patrick's Day festival this year and are to encourage their members to wear shamrock. That is progress that we can all support. I draw the House's attention to the fact that the Apprentice Boys are set to go green for St Paddy's Day. Who could fault people for that? Quite rightly they are recognising that St Patrick's Day is a celebration for the whole community, and not just for one part of it.

St Patrick's Day is a bigger event in some parts of the world than here, especially where there are large populations of Irish descent. One of the biggest annual parades is in New York, and there are parades in many other American towns and cities as well. The St Patrick's Day pilgrimage to the White House is now an annual event for many of our leading politicians, and they all seem to enjoy the festivities. Surely it is strange that St Patrick's Day is celebrated more enthusiastically internationally than at home and that it remains only a bank holiday, not a public holiday, in Northern Ireland.

Some workers, such as civil servants, bankers and, indeed, Assembly Members, will have the day off and can join in the celebrations. But many others, such as the shipyard workers, the aircraft and other factory workers, will have to plod on. Indeed, many children still have to go to school.

I have spent many years working in industry, and I always felt it an injustice to have to clock in on St Patrick's Day when others were on holiday. In this era of equality all people should be given the same opportunities and privileges. We discussed equality issues this morning. Now is the time to show our sincerity and treat everyone in the same way. To do otherwise would be barefaced hypocrisy.

There are other reasons for St Patrick's Day's being made a public holiday. St Patrick's Day unites all sides of the community in Northern Ireland. We should cherish and promote this in what is otherwise a deeply divided society. The Good Friday Agreement seems to be built on a vision of two separate but equal communities working together with mutual respect. This is not a vision that is shared by us; nor is it sufficient for Alliance. Not only does it ignore the much greater pluralism that exists; it does not encourage the emergence of common bonds and loyalties among our people - something that should concern not just the liberally minded but everyone. Unless the things that unite us begin to dominate those that divide us, it will be too easy for society to be torn apart at some time in the future by those who thrive on suspicion and mistrust.

To counter this danger we need to develop a stronger sense of common regional identity. This should draw upon, reflect and respect the diversity of cultural traditions right across society. It cannot and must not be based exclusively on one or other of the two main political and religious sections. Promotion of what the people of Northern Ireland hold in common is something that the Secretary of State himself touched upon in a speech that he made to the Institute of Irish Studies in Liverpool last Friday. He said that he wanted to see a Northern Ireland with two self-assured traditions but one body of citizens united by

"shared language, shared values and shared land with bonds that are strong enough to encompass diversity of religion, of politics and of custom."

He cautioned against outsiders trying to impose this but recognised that within the institutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement the people of Northern Ireland, and their representatives, can help to shape the values, identities and symbols of our society.

We can now do this by speaking with one voice. A call from the Assembly to make St Patrick's Day a public holiday could be an important first step towards trying to recognise and enlarge our common bonds. However, we must recognise that not every citizen in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland is of Christian origin. As far as I am aware, St Patrick was neither a Unionist nor a Nationalist, nor was he a card-carrying member of the Alliance Party, the Women's Coalition or any other party, North or South.

All people in Northern Ireland, Unionist and Nationalist and those of us from the centre, should be able to associate with St Patrick, in comfort. It should be open to those from all religious backgrounds - Christian, non-Christian - and none.

This motion gives the Assembly an opportunity to send an important message asking that St Patrick's Day be made a public holiday, and I commend it to the House.

[Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McClelland) in the Chair]

Mr J Wilson:

I beg to move the following amendment: At the end add

"and to add that day to the list of official flag days".

I am moving this amendment because I believe that if the Assembly were to support it we would be taking a step towards what is custom and practice in other parts of the United Kingdom. The Union flag is flown in Wales on St David's Day (1 March), in England on St George's Day (23 April), and in Scotland on St Andrew's Day (30 November).

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McClelland):

I intend to allow five minutes for each Member who wishes to speak so that the proposers of the motion and the amendment may have 10 minutes each at the end of the debate.

Mr McGrady:

It will not surprise the Assembly that I am speaking in favour of the motion, being a native of, and coming from, Dún Phádraig (the fort of Patrick), where his mortal remains and those of St Brigid and St Colmcille lie in the cathedral grounds under the auspices of the Church of Ireland.

Anyone who has taken the trouble to research the history of St Patrick will agree with the proposer of the motion that he should be a unifying force, an important part of the Christian heritage of the people of Ireland. It does not matter that that Christian heritage diversified and has different connotations today - it had a common origin in the preachings of St Patrick and his disciples. Indeed, non-Christians in our community have very high regard for that tradition and would not oppose the celebration of St Patrick in any way, if only because on his day, throughout the world, Irishmen, from North or South, commemorate together their origins in the island of Ireland.

I always find it sad to look across the Atlantic and see the enormity of the celebrations there, and the exodus from this island to America. We should be celebrating the day here ourselves in harmony and comradeship.

4.15 pm

The Irish diaspora, which is not often mentioned but is very much Patrician, is that which spread from this island, and particularly from the North - Down, Antrim and Armagh - through western and eastern Europe to the Dalmatian coastline of the Adriatic. People from here founded monasteries, towns and all sorts of institutions, and that has never been tapped.

If we want to be commercial about it, we could harness that enormous link with people around the world. The people of Ireland have touched not only the 40 million people in America but huge numbers of people in Western Europe, the Middle East, the Far East and Australia. They would be only too happy to celebrate that wonderful day with us if we got our house in order.

I believe I heard the melodious voice of Sammy Wilson on the radio this morning saying that he intended to oppose the motion. I am not sure if I interpreted him correctly, but it puzzled me somewhat because I remember my esteemed parliamentary Colleague, the leader of the DUP, asking in the House of Commons some years ago that St Patrick's Day be made a public holiday. I support him entirely in that. This should not be a party issue; it should be a matter of us all getting together to celebrate the day.

I would hate to think that this debate might later involve divisive issues. That is not the intention of the motion. The intention is to create something that we can celebrate together without confrontation, a national day that we can invite people from all continents to join with us in celebrating.

Mr Hussey:

I know that the Member is talking to the motion, but I would appreciate a word about the amendment, remembering that the Union flag incorporates the cross of St Patrick.

Mr McGrady:

I do not know if I should thank the Member for his intervention. I accept the fact. I have just been handed -

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I must ask the Member to bring his remarks to a conclusion.

Mr McGrady:

Let us support the motion. May I invite all Members to Downpatrick in July this year to celebrate the opening of the first Patrician centre in Ireland and in the world - a £6·3 million development which will explain to all of us what St Patrick is all about. Ergo Patricius.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

My views on this subject are well known. I have expressed them in the House of Commons, and I proposed an amendment to a motion on the matter in the Forum. The amendment was carried. I support the amendment to this motion.

I, like all other right-thinking people in Ulster, regret the sectarian and political label that has been put on St Patrick. Prof Barclay was a well-known historian and a leader in the Irish Presbyterian Church who wrote a book which asked the question "Was the early Irish Church subject to Rome?". He answered "No. The independence of the early Irish Church is one of the most indisputable facts in history". How did Rome come to Ireland? Rome first gained an entrance - [Interruption]

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Order. Members have been reminded before the use of mobile phones in the Chamber.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

Yes. I forgot about it. I humbly apologise to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to the House for disturbing my speech.

A Member:

Perhaps it is St Patrick on the telephone for you?

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

St Patrick has such a wonderful place in heaven that he would not return to a place like this.

Rome gained entrance into Ireland in the eleventh century, 600 years after Patrick. When the Danes who had settled in Ireland became Christians they refused to acknowledge the authority and jurisdiction of Patrick's Church and sent their bishops to be consecrated as Roman Catholic bishops.

Rome gained hold of the whole of Ireland because in 1155 Pope Adrian IV, the only Englishman who was ever Pope - and look what he did to you people - gave Henry II of England permission to conquer Ireland to enlarge the bounds of the Roman Catholic Church. I regret that Rome has put chains around St Patrick and said he was a Roman Catholic -

Mr McCarthy:



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