Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 3 July 2000 (continued)

1.00 pm

Mr J Wilson:

I thank the Minister for his report, and particularly for that part which we are dealing with now, Waterways Ireland, and the waterways of the island of Ireland.

Will the Minister give us an assurance that established groups like the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland and the Ulster Waterways Group, who have an interest in the waterways of Ireland, will be consulted and kept informed of development plans by Waterways Ireland as they unfold? I am assuming that he will keep the House informed of such plans. Will the Minister also elaborate on how he thinks Enniskillen will benefit from having the headquarters of Waterways Ireland there?

Mr McGimpsey:

I will take the three parts in reverse order. As I indicated, Enniskillen will benefit from 70 jobs. We estimate that about 80% of those will be new posts, so around 55 to 60 new professional, technical and administrative jobs will be created.

I will certainly keep the House informed of developments on the Waterways Ireland board. As we get reports through I will make them known automatically to the House. It is very important that interested groups are kept fully up to speed about and consulted on the work of Waterways Ireland and all such similar bodies. The development of waterways will complement other public and private sector businesses who will be consulted, including the Tourist Board, local authorities and - and this is very important - other groups who have an interest in waterways.

Mr McCarthy:

I welcome the meeting by the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure and representatives from the Irish Government on the waterways strategy. It certainly makes good sense to have co-operation right across the island and at the highest level. Waterways Ireland has the potential to capitalise on a huge tourist business throughout the island and in Northern Ireland, in particular. To date the inland waterways in Northern Ireland have experienced a great many problems and continue to be at a great disadvantage to those in the Republic. The Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee is presently engaged in a full public inquiry to see what the problems associated with the angling and fishing fraternity are. Can the Minister assure the House that sooner rather than later Northern Ireland will enjoy the benefits of easy, accessible, enjoyable and affordable activities for everyone on all our waterways?

Of particular interest to some Members is the large investment in Lagan navigation. This is also of particular interest to Lisburn Borough Council. Will the Minister agree that his Department has a responsibility to promote the Lagan navigation and will he look for support, if necessary, through the North/South Ministerial Council?

Mr McGimpsey:

Yes, I agree completely that the inland waterways activities is a navigation body. The benefits will be primarily economic. There is an enormous potential out there to attract tourists. We have only got to look south of the border in the Irish Republic and in England at the sort of experience they have with their inland waterways. Also on the Continent where they see the huge potential for water-borne tourism. People like to have their holidays on water, using canals, or cabin cruisers. We have an enormous potential in this area, and that is what we are looking to capitalise on.

Currently, we have only two navigable waterways. One is the Lower Bann and the other is Lough Erne. Canals formerly in existence are now defunct. The Ulster canal is one, the Newry canal is another, and the Member is quite right about the Lagan navigation. Some work is being done on that by Laganside in the City Council boundary and also by Lisburn Borough Council. We would see that as very much part of the priorities and of the agenda to get the Lagan navigation and the Ulster canal into operation. That brings up the fact that Lough Neagh does not have a navigable process, or navigable channels. Therefore navigation will have to be looked at in Lough Neagh.

The benefits are primarily economic, and there is potential for those rural communities along the path of the canal to ease their difficulties by tapping into those benefits through the development of arts and tourist craft shops, restaurants, pubs and so on. That is the experience in other parts of Europe.

Mrs Nelis:

Go raibh maith agat a Cheann Comhairle. I would like to welcome the Minister's statement. I am pleased that meetings on inland waterways are now being held. Inland waterways have the potential to create both tourism and jobs. May I ask the Minister whether Waterways Ireland will give some consideration to the issue of licence differential?

As he will know, the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into fisheries, fishing and the angling fraternity. One problem that surfaces frequently is licence differential and the effect that that has on the angling community and tourism. This is an important issue requiring serious attention.

May I also ask the Minister how Waterways Ireland proposes to examine the various concerns about hydroelectric schemes. The Erne Anglers Association gave evidence at the inquiry and raised serious concerns about the Ballyshannon hydroelectric scheme. However, we also have a host of these in the North, and these schemes sometimes operate illegally. It seems that the problems raised by anglers and the impact that these have on the angling fraternity have no means of being addressed.

Finally, will the Minister say how the new body will relate to the various other regions? I am thinking of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission and the Fisheries Conservancy Board for Northern Ireland in particular.

Mr McGimpsey:

I agree with the underlying issue raised by Mrs Nelis about licence differentials and the associated concerns and difficulties. However, the meeting on inland waterways was not concerned with fishing licences or angling. It was concerned with navigation and the Lough Erne and lower Bann navigation ways. It was also concerned with the economic benefits that can flow from developing our inland waterways.

The licence differentials are primarily the concern of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission and the Fisheries Conservancy Board for Northern Ireland. Previously if one wanted to fish in the Foyle Fisheries catchment area and used an FCB licence one could have it endorsed accordingly, or one could buy a licence for one area and a licence for the other, or one licence for one area and have it endorsed for the other.

That process now continues except that Carlingford Lough is out of the Fisheries Conservancy Board for Northern Ireland's area and part of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission's area. However, that cross-border body is not under my area of responsibility; it is under the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Whilst I can talk about licences from the Fisheries Conservancy Board for Northern Ireland, I do not have the authority to discuss licensing for Foyle.

Dr Birnie:

I welcome the report from the Minister and wish to ask him what arrangements exist between the North/South body for waterways and the Rivers Agency in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to ensure the cost effective management of flood defence. Also what is the extent of staff transfers from the Rivers Agency to this North/South body?

Mr McGimpsey:

I will answer the last part of the question first. As regards transferring staff, the Rivers Agency is currently carrying out work for Waterways Ireland under a service level agreement that will last for two years. The Rivers Agency has 460 staff and 10 are being transferred to Waterways Ireland - it is only a very small part of the total. Waterways Ireland does not have responsibility for flood defence, that lies with the Rivers Agency. Waterways Ireland is concerned with navigation, and in Northern Ireland terms, we are talking about Lough Erne and the lower Bann. Flood defences remain a matter for the Rivers Agency.

Mr Poots:

I would like to ask the Minister to state the basis on which we are employing an extra 70 members of staff and what impact that will have on the amount of money required by the Culture, Arts and Leisure Department to pay for that.

Mr McGimpsey:

The current year funding for Waterways Ireland is £11·5 million. Northern Ireland's contribution is £1·3 million, and that has been allowed for in the budget. The creation of 70 jobs in Enniskillen - of which we estimate 80% will be new jobs - is essentially for headquarters, administrative and technical staff. A major item of work is the feasibility study into the Ulster canal and how it can be opened. That is a major project with large sums of money attached.

Mr Dallat:

I welcome the Minister's statement and his positive outlook for Waterways Ireland. In terms of joined-up Government, will he assure us that the very real benefits this body will bring will be exploited by the new international tourism company, jointly owned by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Bord Fáilte with its northern headquarters to be established in Coleraine?

Mr McGimpsey:

I assure the Member that we will be making every effort to co-operate. One of the prime raisons d'être for this initiative is tourism, and one of the main features for the tourist body in selling tourism and in attracting tourists will be the potential of our waterways. In terms of canal development, we are a long way behind the Irish Republic where there is an extensive and well-developed canal system. Our canal system is not developed, and that is what we are looking to do. Major benefits will come from that, and it will be one of the selling points for a tourist body in attracting people.

Mr M Murphy:

Go raibh maith agat. What steps has the Department taken to stop the pollution of inland waterways, and would the Minister agree that such pollution discourages the angling aspect of tourism?

Mr McGimpsey:

I thank the Member for his question. Waterways Ireland does not have a responsibility as regards pollution. That responsibility lies with other Departments. Pollution is obviously a matter of enormous importance, and if we are trying to sell water-borne tourism by developing canals, and the water quality is poor, that will have an impact on the project's feasibility.

The matter is one which requires joined-up Government and the ability of Departments to sympathetically work together and complement each other. I take the Member's point and I assure the House that it is something we are trying to achieve. To be specific, water quality would be a matter for the Department of the Environment and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

1.15 pm

Mrs Carson:

I welcome the Minister's report, especially since the Enniskillen jobs are in my constituency, and 70 new jobs in that area will be welcome.

I welcome the statement that there is going to be a feasibility study for the restoration of the Ulster canal. I hope that the study will also incorporate the Coalisland canal in that area. It is a pity this body was not up and running a few years ago, so that we could have had more control over the waterways coming into the Erne system. There has been an infestation of zebra mussels from the Shannon system, and I hope the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure will endeavour to make sure that this manifestation is contained and does not develop further.

I look forward to the Minister's paying close attention to this environmental issue, if it is part of his remit, and to his addressing other issues, such as the craft that are coming onto our waterways from the South of Ireland. I also hope that the Department will institute a feasibility study into the size and power of the craft on inland waterways; some of them are no longer suitable for inland waterways. I look forward, with interest, to seeing how this new body works for the advantage of Northern Ireland's waterways.

Mr McGimpsey:

Matters such as the size of craft reflect back to the question Mr Wilson asked earlier and also the ability of Waterways Ireland to take on board the views of interest groups, local authorities and other Departments. It is very important that that be done and that issues such as the size of craft and jet skiing are taken on board.

The issue of zebra mussels is not specifically the responsibility of Waterways Ireland, but it is the responsibility of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure in terms of the angling estate, and the reality is that there is no answer to zebra mussels. In fact, I had never heard of zebra mussels until a few months ago. Apparently they are very small mussels the size of your thumb; they are inedible and have come in from the Caspian Sea. There are no natural predators, and their population is exploding. Our concern is that they are consuming the habitat that native fish rely on. Queen's University and other universities throughout Europe are looking at the issue, but, to date, nobody has come up with an answer of how to control them.

Mr Molloy:

Go raibh maith agat a LeasCheann Comhairle. I want to re-enforce the point made earlier by Mrs Carson about the Ulster canal and the need to include in the feasibility study the Coalisland canal. There is a need to have access to the town of Coalisland from the Ulster canal up the Coalisland canal. The two are interlinked, and it is very important that they be done at the same time in order to establish that link.

Secondly, with regard to the issue of zebra mussels, there needs to be some way of controlling vessels travelling from the Shannon waterway, which is infected, right up the Blackwater and into Lough Neagh, which is not infected. If there are no controls, the fishing stock in Lough Neagh will be severely damaged. We need some way of ensuring that when boats come into Lough Neagh they are clean and safe.

I welcome the placement of the office in Enniskillen, and I seek reassurance from the Minister that those who will be employed there will be new employees and that equality will become a main part of the agenda in the recruitment of staff for that office.

Mr McGimpsey:

I will answer the questions in reverse order. The Waterways Ireland Board, under the agreement, is currently producing its equality scheme which, in common with all other Government Departments, bodies and public authorities, will be lodged with the Equality Commission in September.

Of the estimated 70 jobs for Enniskillen, 80% will be new, many of them locally recruited, depending on skills available in the area. The head office, which will be the main focus for the Waterways Ireland operation, will be in Enniskillen. If the Ulster canal were open now, there would be difficulty avoiding the transfer of the infamous zebra mussels. That would have to come as part and parcel of the planning study as the Ulster canal is developed, since we recognise the danger to Lough Neagh. There are means to ensure that boats are sanitised as they move from one waterway into the other, pending our developing a means of controlling the mussels.

The Ulster canal is a big scheme, half lying in the Irish Republic, and half in Northern Ireland. The last estimate for its renovation, in 1998, was £70 million. We are now looking at an update of that cost, and how we address it will be another matter. The Ulster canal will link with Lough Neagh, which will require work on a navigation way through it, since there is none at present.

Relating to another question, the Lagan navigation - the linkage from Belfast - will also be connected. Our future plan is that one will be able to get into a boat in Belfast and travel to Dublin using canals and waterways.



Mr McGimpsey:

In the afternoon, the language sectoral meeting opened with a report from the chairperson of the Language Body, Maighréad Uí Mháirtín. In the absence of Lord Laird of Artigarvan, Mrs Uí Mháirtín reported on behalf of both joint chairpersons on the progress in developing the body as a whole and in taking forward its remit in regard to the Irish language and Ulster-Scots. She stressed the value of the body as a means of promoting greater respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to cultural and linguistic diversity.

The interim chief executive of the body's Ulster-Scots Agency, Mr John Hegarty, made an oral report to the council. He indicated that initial preparations to carry out the functions of the Ulster-Scots Agency were well under way. He indicated that early meetings of the board of the agency would concentrate on devising a corporate strategy, which would in turn determine the operational business of the agency. The agency has been putting in place administrative systems and liaising with Ulster-Scots and other language and cultural organisations, officials, researchers and sociolinguists to identify both the broad issues around promoting the language and culture and local priorities. The council noted the current position and looked forward to working closely with the board of the agency.

The interim chief executive of the Irish Language Agency of the body, Micheál Ó Gruagáin, made an oral report to the council. He indicated that the transfer of functions and staff from the former Bord na Gaeilge had gone smoothly. He also reported on the good progress made in devising a corporate strategy for the agency and preparing a business plan. He briefed the council on a number of its current operational activities. The agency has continued to carry forward the work agreed for the former Bord na Gaeilge, An Gúm and An Coiste Téarmaíochta (Terminology Committee). It has also taken over responsibility for funding several Irish-language organisations named in the Irish devolution legislation and for maintaining funding for the small number of Irish-language organisations which were previously core-funded from the mainstream budget of the former Central Community Relations Unit (now the Community Relations Unit of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister). The council noted the current position and looks forward to working closely with the board of the agency.

The council considered a request by the chairperson of the board of the Irish Language Agency for the provision of assistance in carrying out her duties and agreed a means by which this could be done.

The council considered and agreed a proposal by the Irish Language Agency of the body to establish a temporary office in Belfast.

The council agreed to meet again in sectoral format in September 2000.

Mr McElduff:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I very much welcome the report and wish to acknowledge the very positive fact that the work of the Language Body is operationally under way and that the North/South Ministerial Council focused on this area at its meeting on 21 June.

My questions relate to budgetary details and associated matters, such as the delivery of tangible benefits to Irish language activists on the ground in local communities. How much money has been invested to date in this body, and how much have the respective Governments invested? When will the funding be released to Irish language groups so that they can make future provision for programme content to enable them to forward plan in terms of employing people to deliver these projects?

I am very conscious of the urgency regarding this matter given that the Good Friday Agreement compels statutory agencies to take resolute action to promote language and that very many so far are failing to live up to their obligations. Three examples are the courts; directional road signs and broadcasting agencies such as UTV, which does not appear to acknowledge that the Irish language even exists.

I nGaeilge agus very briefly, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh an tuairisc seo agus tá mé sásta go bhfuil obair an Fhorais Teanga trasteorann faoi sheol anois. Is í an cheist atá mé a chur ná: cén uair a bhéas Gaeilgeoirí agus grúpaí atá ag obair ar son na Gaeilge abálta torthaí na hoibre seo a fheiceáil agus cá mhéad airgid a bhéas ar fáil don Fhoras seo? Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Mr McGimpsey:

Madam Deputy Speaker, I will try to answer all of the points, and please forgive me if I miss some. No doubt Mr McElduff will come back to me if I do.

With regard to the allocations, the indicative funding for 2000-2001 will be £7,879,000. Northern Ireland will provide £2,300,000 of that. The Ulster-Scots Agency will receive £667,000 and the Irish Language Agency will receive £7·2 million. This roughly equates, for the Irish Language Agency, to level funding over a number of years when one takes into account previous funding through Northern Ireland and also through the Irish Republic and Bord na Gaeilge. There is roughly a flat funding, as I understand it.

For the Ulster-Scots Agency it represents roughly a fourfold increase in funding up to £667,000. That is the funding that is available indicatively. Because of suspension and the interregnum, work on applications was suspended so there is work to be done there. As I indicated, the board, in the report to the meeting, said it was looking forward to coming forward with its strategy. It will be the body responsible through the Irish Language Agency and the Ulster-Scots Agency for funding the various groups the Member mentioned. I imagine that that will be in common with normal funding in terms of the criteria set and also the level of demand, and, of course, that has to relate to the resources available.

I am not capable at this time of giving a definitive answer. I will have to wait until I see the strategies and corporate plans from the various bodies before we can begin to project. Indicative funding is based on experience in the past, and we will take it further on that basis.

The agreement charges us with promoting Irish and Ulster-Scots - for example, where there is appropriate demand. Mr McElduff mentioned road signs. I do not have any response to make with regard to the demand for bi-lingual road signs. We will take such matters as they arise, and every issue will be examined and determined on its own merit. The main responsibility for street names lies with local authorities, and therefore is not necessarily the responsibility of the Language Body.

Mr Shannon:

I have a number of questions for the Minister. In the report on languages, paragraph 10 refers to a "corporate strategy". Can the Minister indicate when the corporate strategy will be finalised, and when the core issues for Ulster-Scots will be addressed?

1.30 pm

In his previous answer, the Minister said that Irish language resources will be £7·2 million and that resources for Ulster-Scots will be approximately £700,000. When does the Minister hope to see parity and financial equality for both languages? Lip-service is only being paid to the Ulster-Scots language, which is completely inadequate and unfair. It does not reflect the opinion in the Province and of those who regard themselves as Ulster-Scots people.

Paragraph 12 of the report states that the council considered a request by the chairperson of the board of the Irish Language Agency. Will the Minister clarify what that request was? Was it for financial, manpower or womanpower assistance? What are the agreed means referred to in the statement?

In Paragraph 13, where will the funding to set up the temporary office in Belfast come from? Obviously, secretarial help will also be provided for the temporary office. Will the budget for Ulster-Scots be financially disadvantaged as a result? Where will the temporary office in Belfast be located, and will it become a permanent office, as sometimes happens?

I also have a question about Ulster-Scots and tourism. Has the Minister given any thought or consideration to the introduction of Ulster-Scots' trails, or something similar, to take into account the 250,000 people who come from Scotland to Northern Ireland every year, to see what we have in Northern Ireland? What steps are being taken to take advantage of the income that would be generated and the interest that people have in the Ulster-Scots language, traditions, culture and history?

Mr McGimpsey:

I thank the Member for those questions. As with previous questions, I shall try to catch them all. On support to the chair of the Irish Language Agency, we are talking about appointing a deputy chair, as it is an unpaid, voluntary post which has been much more time consuming than was previously thought. It is not anticipated that there will be financial consequences, and it is certainly not anticipated that there will be any disadvantages for Ulster-Scots.

A corporate strategy for the Ulster-Scots Agency is currently under way, as I said in my report. The strategy and corporate plans of the Ulster-Scots Agency and the Irish Language Agency will inform the Language Body. Those two reports - on Ulster-Scots and Irish - are necessary to inform the Department, to allow us to develop our strategy. We have a duty to be as best informed as we can.

It is a matter for the Irish body to determine where its temporary office will be. I am on record as saying that it should be in a neutral venue, and the same applies to the Ulster-Scots Agency, which will also have an office in Belfast. It will also begin with a temporary office and a search by both bodies is under way. On the difficulties of parity between Ulster-Scots and Irish, I do not agree that there is unequal treatment. My policy is to provide fair treatment for everybody in the community, including those of Ulster-Scots and Irish identity. Like Mr Shannon, I am an 'Ards man, so I am very familiar with growing up in an Ulster-Scots environment, although I was not aware of the heritage and identity that I had when I was growing up. The vernacular and the way we spoke was just something that we all did. We simply had an understanding that it was not quite English.

I have no hesitation in saying that there will be equal treatment for everyone, and also fair treatment for the languages of ethnic communities. It is wrong to use the treatment of one language as a benchmark for the treatment of the other, because one is not comparing like with like. Ulster-Scots as a language, a culture and a heritage is in its infancy compared with Irish and Gaelic. There is a great deal of work to do. Under direct rule the funding for Ulster-Scots was £118,000. Under this process funding will be £667,000 in the first year. That is a fourfold increase. There is a limit to the ability of the Ulster-Scots community to absorb resources and use them profitably in order to develop. There is a lot of work going on with the agency, the Ulster-Scots Heritage Council and the Ulster-Scots Language Society.

As Mr Shannon is aware, and this reflects an earlier point he made, one of the problems that Hansard is encountering and that the Agency has identified and is working hard on is the codifying of Ulster-Scots. It has never been codified. Work on a dictionary and the grammar is currently underway. There is also discussion about whether to rely on Scots or to go back to the seventeenth century and try to build it up from the roots. I know they are working hard to resolve that.

As far as Ulster-Scots heritage trails are concerned, I entirely agree that there is a huge tourist potential there. In Irish America, approximately 40 million Americans consider themselves Irish, and about 56% of them, at the last estimate, consider themselves Scotch-Irish or Ulster-Scots. They call it Scotch-Irish; we call it Ulster-Scots. There is a massive tourist resource for Northern Ireland on that side of things. The Ulster-American Folk Park is an example of how things can develop. There are exciting prospects for developing not just the language, but also the culture and heritage, and how that can be sold in terms of cultural tourism.

Dr Adamson:

I thank the Minister for his report on inland waterways and languages. I also congratulate him on his fine pronunciation of the Gaelic.

The report says that the Irish Language Agency has continued to carry forward the work of these various agencies. I am familiar with the work of the former Bord na Gaeilge and An Gúm, but I am not as familiar with the Terminology Committee. Could the Minister tell us a little about the Terminology Committee, what its functions have been and how these will be progressed in the new Irish language body?

Mr McGimpsey:

The short answer is that I am not familiar with the actual details of the body and of An Coiste Téarmaíochta, the Terminology Committee, and how that integrates. That would be a matter for the Irish language Agency, reporting to the Language Body. I imagine they are carrying on as in previous years, using that as their precedent. Again, I am not familiar with the details. I can certainly make an effort to find out, and I will write to Dr Adamson on that. Neither the agencies or the body have produced a corporate plan. It is behind time, but that is to do with the interregnum and the suspension. They are working hard on that, and the functions of the Terminology Committee should be spelt out clearly when it is published.

Mr McMenamin:

I thank the Minister and welcome his report.

Irish and Ulster-Scots, at present, are seen in Northern Ireland as foreign languages. Does the Minister believe that it is imperative to establish a cultural heritage programme to co-ordinate and focus efforts to put young people in Northern Ireland in touch with vital elements of their culture such as language? Does the Minister agree that more Irish language teachers and special language counsellors need to be appointed to assist our young people to offer Irish and Ulster-Scots as attractive choices?

Mr McGimpsey:

In terms of our cultural heritage - and it is a shared heritage - I believe strongly that mutual co-operation in the form of working and helping everyone to understand our cultural heritage will help foster greater understanding and respect among our society. I come from an Ulster-Scots background but did not understand it as I was growing up.

It is important that we understand where we are coming from. In terms of the instruction of the Irish language, if the Member is referring to its role in the classroom or as a form of Irish language medium education, that would be a matter for the Department of Education. With regard to promoting the Irish language, that is something we are already doing. We are also promoting Ulster-Scots and the languages of our ethnic communities; it is important we do not forget about them. I was at a linguistic diversity conference last week in the Indian Centre in Clifton Street. It was remarkable to discover the number of ethnic minorities who are now indigenous to Northern Ireland and who have been almost subsumed or buried underneath the Irish, the Ulster-Scots and the English heritage. This is another important area which has to be promoted. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure will specifically promote the language of ethnic minorities as well as Irish and Ulster-Scots. How they do this is a matter for the agencies and a matter for the body.

Dr Birnie:

I want to ask the Minister two questions about the Ulster-Scots Agency. First, can he elaborate on measures being put in place to promote that culture in broad terms, broader terms than simply the language, important though that might be? Secondly, can he comment on measures being put in place to promote liaison between the Ulster-Scots Agency and any relevant institutions outside of Northern Ireland, particularly and obviously in Scotland?

Mr McGimpsey:

In terms of liaison with other groups it is very important to develop the link between the Ulster-Scots agency and its work in Scotland. It is a matter for the Ulster-Scots Agency to determine how they are going to do this. We have a mechanism through the British/Irish Council, as Dr Birnie is aware, which is a very important function of the British/Irish Council, allowing us to promote Ulster-Scots through that linkage. In terms of codifying the Ulster-Scots, the Scots have already done much work on this in Scotland for Lannans and also for Doric, and I think the Ulster-Scots are hoping to learn from their experience.

There is a discussion going on about whether they should base their codification on the experience in Scotland or whether they should be looking at how the language has developed in Northern Ireland historically. In terms of promoting the Ulster-Scots culture, that, as I said, is a matter for the Ulster-Scots Agency, and it has its corporate plan to bring forward. It is currently working hard on it, and I know that the chair of the Ulster-Scots Agency and the body itself are keenly aware of the potential of promoting the Ulster-Scots heritage and culture and see enormous advantages for all of our society, and, as a by-product of that, there is the economic potential. I cannot be more specific. We must await the corporate plan and the strategy, and when we get an opportunity, we will look at it and comment on it.

1.45 pm

Mr McCarthy:

I welcome the cross-border meeting to discuss languages. I particularly welcome the statement made by the chairperson of the Language Body. She stressed the value of the body

"as a means of promoting greater respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to cultural and linguistic diversity."

Nobody could disagree with that sentiment. I could not but notice that, in the report, the names of both the chairperson of the new body and the interim chief executive of the Irish Language Agency were printed in the Irish language. I am disappointed that the interim chief executive of the Ulster-Scots Agency did not have his name in the Ulster-Scots language. Why?

Will the Minister confirm that, as Mr Speaker suggested this morning, there is a real difficulty in finding people to translate the Ulster-Scots language? If that is the case, is the Minister confident that we are engaged in a real and genuine desire to resurrect or promote a language or dialect that will benefit everyone, not only ourselves in Northern Ireland but all those throughout Ireland who are interested in languages?

Mr McGimpsey:

Yes, there is a genuine attempt, and it is an attempt that I am confident will see major advances in the understanding of Ulster-Scots by all of us. I see that as a fulfilling exercise for a large section of the population. It is a serious operation. The organisations involved, such as the Ulster-Scots Agency and the Heritage Council, are dedicated to promoting the Ulster-Scots language and cultural heritage.

I agree with the Member that one would have expected to see Mr John Hegarty's name in Ulster-Scots. I assure the Member that that will be the case the next time I come before the House to make a report on Ulster-Scots. We are talking about equitable treatment. Whatever principle applies to Irish also holds for Ulster-Scots. I will ensure that that happens in the future.

Mr Dallat:

I welcome the Minister's statement. Will the Minister assure the Assembly that the various broadcasting media in Northern Ireland will play a significant role in ensuring that they too are part of the equality agenda for the Irish language and that their performance will be monitored so that we will know how successful they are in targeting this aspect of social need?

Mr McGimpsey:

The Member will be aware that broadcasting is a reserved matter. Specific provision has been made for Irish-language broadcasting. I expect that to be actioned. If it is not, I expect to hear about it. I am not clear on the exact monitoring mechanism, but I expect that the Irish Language Agency, for example, will be able to report on what happens in that important area.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

That concludes questions on the statement.

North/South Ministerial Council Sectoral Meeting


Madam Deputy Speaker:

Question Time starts at 2.30 pm; that leaves 45 minutes for the statement by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development.

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers):

I should like to report to the Assembly on the meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in sectoral format in Dublin on Monday 26 June 2000. Mr Dermot Nesbitt and I attended that meeting. The Government of the Republic of Ireland was represented by Mr Joe Walsh TD, Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. This report has been approved by Mr Nesbitt and is also made on his behalf.

This was the first meeting of the council in its agriculture sectoral format and the areas of co-operation as presented to the plenary meeting on 13 December 1999 were agreed. The broad areas of co-operation are: common agricultural policy (CAP) issues; animal and plant health research and development; and rural development. Within these areas the council reviewed the high level of existing co-operation between the two Departments and discussed a range of matters for enhanced co-operation. The council recognised the important contribution already being made to the development of agriculture by the two Departments and endorsed a proposal that officials prepare a detailed programme for joint action for consideration at the next council meeting in sectoral format.

On specific issues, the council noted the difficulties in both the North and the South in implementing new area-based schemes for less favoured area payments. In seeking to secure European Commission approval, the Agriculture Departments in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are working to minimise the risk of their new schemes producing big winners and big losers while at the same time ensuring that their schemes comply with EU regulations. Both Departments agreed to keep in touch regarding these difficulties and in their respective negotiations with the European Commission. On BSE the council noted my continuing efforts to achieve low BSE incidence status for Northern Ireland. In particular I welcomed the support of Minister Walsh and that of EU Commissioner Byrne.

The council also noted the activity which has taken place in the area of animal and plant health and research and development, and officials in the two Departments will now consider how continued activity might be formalised. For the next meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in its agriculture sectoral format, officials will produce a programme of work identifying those areas with the greatest potential for enhanced co-operation, together with a timetable for further work.

The council received a progress report on the joint study of the pig meat processing capacity in Ireland commissioned by both Agriculture Departments in December 1999. The council acknowledged the very severe contraction in the pig industry, particularly in Northern Ireland and noted that the study, together with the views of the two Agriculture Departments, would be presented to the next North/South Ministerial Council meeting in its agriculture sectoral format. We also noted that there has been an improvement in the price of pigs in recent times, which is very welcome.

On the broader rural development front, the council agreed to reconstitute a steering committee on cross-border rural development. The terms of reference of this committee, together with the rules of procedure, were agreed. The committee, which was first established in 1991, comprises senior officials from both Departments. It will consider ways to promote maximum co-operation in the implementation of rural development and EU programmes. The committee will also exchange information on experience and best practice in both jurisdictions in relation to rural development. It will also continue to develop common approaches to cross-border area-based strategies and rural development research.

A detailed work programme will be drawn up, and the agreed proposals will be tabled for endorsement at the next meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in its agriculture sectoral format. The council agreed that it will meet on a quarterly basis in this format and that the next meeting will take place in October in Northern Ireland. The council also agreed the text of a joint communiqué, which was issued following the meeting. A copy of the communiqué has been placed in the Assembly Library.

The Chairman of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee (Rev Dr Ian Paisley):

How much time was spent discussing the number of BSE cases in the Irish Republic? These seem to be increasing. The figures that I have before me are quite alarming. They show that in Northern Ireland there were six cases in 1998-99. I understand that so far this year there has been one case, whereas the numbers in the Irish Republic go into hundreds. Did the Minister take time with her colleague to discuss that matter? It seems strange that she is delighted that the Minister in the South is backing her case for low incidence BSE status for Northern Ireland, while at the same time there seems to be a rising tide of BSE cases in the Irish Republic.

Ms Rodgers:

I thank the Member for his question. My main concern is to get low incidence BSE status for Northern Ireland. I am aware that the Northern Ireland figures are better than those in the Republic, and it is for this reason that I am actively pursuing low incidence status for Northern Ireland. I did not discuss the situation in the Republic. I am pleased to inform the Member that, in relation to low incidence BSE status for Northern Ireland, I have the full support of the Minister for Agriculture, Joe Walsh, and that will be extremely important when our case reaches the stage of going before the member states.

Mr McMenamin:

I thank the Minister for her report. Has the Minister any views on the development of a common approach to developing cross-border rural development strategies?

Ms Rodgers:

I think that developing cross-border rural development strategies is extremely important, and they have been very beneficial to areas on both sides of the border. For example, in the integrated approach involving the Clogher Valley and Ballyhaise in Cavan, farmers on both sides have co-operated in improving their situation. One of the problems for such areas in the past has been that they have, in a sense, developed in a back-to-back approach, which has had a negative impact on areas on both sides. There is now the potential, within the developing cross-border rural development strategy, to allow those areas to work in an integrated basis using EU funds. This can be of real benefit to the rural communities on both sides of the border that have suffered from a back-to-back approach in the past. They can now work together on the basis of an integrated approach.

Mr J Kelly:

Thank you, A LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister's statement. Can the Minister have any input to the question of planning in rural areas? Is there any way of alleviating the difficulties that the farming community is experiencing presently by, for example, trying to encourage planners not to be so restrictive in relation to planning where land has become almost obsolete and is the only form of income a farmer might have at present?

Also, while the rural development programme is important in the drive towards economic and social revitalisation of deprived rural areas throughout the North of Ireland, would she give consideration to ensuring that all sections of the rural community are involved in their own rural regeneration?

Ms Rodgers:

I thank the Member for his two questions. I have no formal role in planning. That particular area is the responsibility of the Department of the Environment, but I hope to work closely with it because I recognise that there are problems relating to planning, particularly for diversification in rural areas. I will work closely with the Department of the Environment, but I do not have a formal role in the development of the planning strategies.

2.00 pm

The second part of the Member's question concerned the involvement of rural communities. There has been quite a lot of welcome involvement by rural communities in the designing of their projects and in identifying their needs. Because rural communities know their needs better than anyone else, they are best placed to identify those needs. That has been going on with the help of officials. Local involvement is an integral part of the rural development programme, and I hope that the new rural development strategy continues to strengthen and encourage it.

Mr Ford:

If the Minister permits, I will ask two questions. First, I welcome the reconstitution of the steering committee on rural development, but I note that the Minister's statement specifically says that it comprises senior officials from both jurisdictions. Is there any value in senior officials exchanging information if that information does not reach the ground where it might be of direct benefit? Can she explain how that will happen? I suspect that at times we have an information overload at senior level, yet sometimes the practical examples are not communicated to people working on the ground.

Secondly, the Minister referred earlier to the difficulties in implementing the new area-based schemes under the less favoured areas (LFA) proposals. Both jurisdictions are having difficulties getting those plans approved in Brussels. Can the Minister provide some more detail on when Northern Ireland farmers are likely to hear anything concrete on that? Unfortunately, to hear that we have problems with Brussels is not new; it would be much more beneficial if we could hear when those problems were likely to be resolved.

Ms Rodgers:

I thank the Member for his two questions. I will try to oblige and be very patient. I hope that everyone is not going to ask me two questions together.

In response to the Member's first question about people at senior level, officials take on board the views of everyone when discussing these issues. In the rural development programme people are involved at all levels, and local people are particularly involved in local action groups, the INTERREG programme and community networks. Although senior officials are clearly the people who will be steering it along, as has been the case in the past, it will be in conjunction with rural communities and the people on the ground. Their views will be taken on board.

In relation to the LFA schemes, we are, as the Member is aware, currently revising our proposals. There will be further discussions with Brussels this month and after that there will be further consultation. The reality is that Brussels sent back the scheme that we put forward for the less favoured areas, as it sent back the schemes put forward by other UK regions and the Government in the Republic of Ireland. Our scheme was aimed at minimising the numbers of losers and winners and had an environmental component based on area rather than on headage. I am afraid that, in conjunction with the less favoured area farmers, we did not quite succeed in getting what we wanted. It is difficult to say when the proposals will be ready, but I can tell the Member that we are working on them and that they will be ready as soon as possible.

Mr Poots:

It comes as no surprise that Mr Walsh TD is fully backing our case for low incidence BSE status. If I were sitting with one hundred times the cases of BSE that another country had, I would be backing its arguments for low incidence BSE status. It will help his case significantly.

Since devolution, has the Minister at any point questioned the Irish Republic's Minister about BSE cases? Does she recognise that it will impinge upon Northern Ireland's case because cattle imported from the Irish Republic may contaminate livestock in Northern Ireland with BSE?

Also, has she raised the problem of the higher levels of tuberculosis and brucellosis in the Irish livestock herd compared to those in Northern Ireland's? Finally, will she outline the proposals which she has been making to Brussels regarding the area payments?

Ms Rodgers:

I cannot remember how many questions I have had on that, but I will take the last first and then work my way back. The last one was about what proposals we are making in relation to LFA. I would need to have had a secretary beside me to keep track of all those questions - was it four? I am not sure. In relation to the LFA we are looking at putting forward new proposals which we hope to finalise very soon. We are looking at various areas, for instance, the idea of capping payments, raising the minimal acreage or hectarage for eligibility and at various proposals which will help us to ensure that the redistribution does not have a negative impact which it might otherwise have on our farmers. We want the redistribution to be as fair as possible and to have the minimum number of winners and the minimum number of losers. That is what we are working on. We are also looking at the situation of phasing in the changes over three years. We have not finalised our proposals yet, but those are the kind of areas that we are looking at. My priority is to ensure that the redistribution will not have a negative impact on those who most need help in the less favoured areas.

With regard to the low-incidence status, the Northern Ireland case is separate from that of the Republic of Ireland. Its position will not affect ours. Therefore, it is not necessary for me to raise the points that the Member mentioned. What we are looking for is low-incidence status for Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland will, in that situation, be treated as a region of the United Kingdom with separate status from the other regions of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Our main priority is to ensure that we get that low-incidence status; that it will be based on the strong case that we know we have because of the fact that last year we had only six cases. That is my main priority. It is not necessary to raise anything relating to the Republic's incidence.

Mr Dallat:

I am sure the Minister will agree that it is not in the interests of farmers, North or South to have fluctuations in BSE promoted by elected representatives at a time when there is a real chance of putting the problem in its true perspective, which, I understand, is that the scourge is minimal compared to other European countries. In relation to cross-border rural development, what has the steering committee achieved to date?

Ms Rodgers:

Since 1991, when the steering group was set up, it has acted as a useful forum for exchanging information, for example, on the evaluation of European Union programmes, such as LEADER II. It has also encouraged LEADER transnational co-operation and has reconciled policy and practice on both sides of the border to facilitate progress on rural development initiatives, for example, exchange of guidelines on LEADER II. Reports on progress were presented to the Intergovernmental Conference.

Mr Kane:

It would seem that the Minister is putting more emphasis on cross-border institutions, rather than taking the initiative in promoting rural development to its full potential in this Province which is her responsibility. It seems ludicrous for the Minister to be in discussions with the Minister of the Irish Republic in connection with areas of common interest at a time when no clear indication of policy on rural development has been made to the Assembly's Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Committee. When will the Minister be able to give us a clear indication of policy on rural development in this Province?

Ms Rodgers:

The Member will understand that in this report I am dealing with the North/South Ministerial Council in its sectoral meeting, which is specifically dealing with North/South issues, and for that reason the emphasis has been on North/South co-operation in rural development and other areas.

In relation to rural development in Northern Ireland, I can assure the Member that, for me, that issue is a high priority. It is an area that is close to my heart. I recognise the need to provide support and economic regeneration for deprived rural areas in Northern Ireland, which, given the changes in agriculture and world markets, are under severe pressure.

I am extremely interested and concerned that the rural development side of my portfolio should be progressed. My Department is at present working on a rural development strategy, and I am taking a keen personal interest. I hope that that strategy will be completed by the autumn of this year, and I can assure Mr Kane that as soon as it is available, I will make it available to the Committee. I will consult with the Committee and shall be interested to hear its views and have its comments. Perhaps I will take advice on where, or how, changes might be made.

Mr M Murphy:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister's report, and especially the references to the reconstruction of the steering committee on cross-border and rural development, promoting co-operation and the implementation of rural development. Does the Minister agree that it is about time that we had an agreed agricultural policy on the island?

Ms Rodgers:

The Member will realise that as we are presently part of the United Kingdom we have to work within its framework. The United Kingdom is the member state; that is how Europe works, and we must work within the context of being a region of the United Kingdom.

That is not to say that we are not able to find common cause with the Irish Government on many areas within Europe, and a perfect example is our search for low-incidence BSE status. We have been guaranteed the full support of the Irish Government and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development in the Irish Government, Joe Walsh TD, when we come to put our case to the member states. We want to co-operate strongly with them on such issues.

I recognise the Member's point about common agricultural interest, North and South, but we have to live in the real world, and, at the moment, we are working through the United Kingdom Government as a region of the United Kingdom.

Mr Morrow:

I noted in the Minister's statement that she acknowledges the severe contraction in the pig industry, but is she aware of just how severe it is? Something like 60% of the pig industry has now disappeared. What steps is the Minister going to take to stop this trend? If we have to wait for another long period before there is an announcement or a statement from the Minister, the pig industry will have retracted further.

At the moment pig prices are such that there is no profit in Northern Ireland pig production, and that situation cannot continue. Is the Minister aware of that crisis, and will she assure this House that she will not wait for action by her counterparts across the border, whose position is less severe, but will take all the necessary steps to rejuvenate this sector of the agriculture industry?

Ms Rodgers:

I thank the Member for his question. It is not related to my report, but I will attempt to deal with it as best I can. The Member will note that that is one of the first issues that I discussed at my first informal meeting with the Minister in the Republic as soon as I became Minister. The crisis in the pig industry was the main issue of discussion, and the Member will be glad to learn that at that meeting we decided to set up a joint study of processing capacity on the island in recognition of the processing capacity problem experienced at that time, particularly in the North.


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