Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 25 September 2000


Washington Visit of First Minister and Deputy First Minister

Civic Forum

Harland & Wolff

New Deal Programme

Oral Answers to Questions

Department of Finance and Personnel

Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety

Department of Education

Retailing in Northern Ireland

The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Washington Visit of First Minister and Deputy First Minister


Mr Speaker:

I have received notice from the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister that they wish to make a statement on their recent visit to Washington.

The First Minister (Mr Trimble):

The Deputy First Minister and I will make a statement on our recent visit to Washington. The Deputy First Minister and I flew to Washington on 12 September. [Interruption]

Mr Speaker:

Order. I am somewhat surprised that the Member, having returned to the House of Commons, is not aware that the rules of that place also apply in large measure here, not least with regard to the bringing in of visual aids.

Rev Dr William McCrea:

I was just trying to be helpful.

Mr Speaker:

Order. Resume your seat.

The First Minister:

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am sure that the subsequent sentences in this statement will be equally warmly received.

We were accompanied on the visit by the head of the Civil Service and other officials. Our purpose in visiting Washington at this time was fourfold: first, to brief President Clinton on developments here; secondly, to invite him to visit Northern Ireland while still President; thirdly, to meet other members of the Administration in order to build relationships in a number of important areas; fourthly, to pave the way for future visits by ministerial colleagues from the Northern Ireland Executive.

On Tuesday 12 September, we met George Mitchell to update him on developments. We had a useful exchange, and he expressed the hope that continuing progress to implement the agreement fully would be maintained so that Northern Ireland might have lasting peace, stability and reconciliation.

Our first engagement on Wednesday was a meeting with the Deputy Secretary for Education, Mr Frank Holleman. This meeting allowed us to express our appreciation for the high level of support and co-operation which Secretary Richard Riley has offered the Department of Education and the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment. Both sides wish this to continue and develop. The meeting addressed how the education system could best meet the needs of pupils of all abilities. We also looked at vocational training and noted the importance of partnership with employers in providing young people with the skills needed to find employment in their areas.

We welcomed the invitations extended to departmental officials from Northern Ireland to attend a conference in West Virginia last week on the use of information and communications technology (ICT) in education. Deputy Secretary Holleman thanked the Administration here for the invitation to US experts in special educational needs to visit Northern Ireland this autumn.

On Wednesday 11 September, the Deputy First Minister and I met President Clinton and his advisers. We thanked him for his tremendous input while in office in helping us to make progress here. We drew attention to the growing links between our Administrations, and both sides agreed that these contacts should be encouraged. We briefed the President on the progress that has been made by the new institutions here.

At this point I would like to hand over to the Deputy First Minister.

The Deputy First Minister (Mr Mallon):

We updated the President on the problems that society here continues to face, including the attacks by Republican dissidents and the senseless and needless violence in Loyalism, which has caused a number of murders. We stressed the need to secure the implementation of all elements of the agreement. Our views on police reforms and the need for further progress with the decommissioning of all illegal weapons were highlighted.

We invited the President to visit Northern Ireland again before he leaves office. He left us in no doubt about his high level of continuing interest in affairs here. He indicated that he would very much like to visit again, subject to finding a suitable time in his diary.

In a useful meeting with the Deputy Secretary of Labor, Edward Montgomery, we discussed a range of important matters, including the desirability of matching skills to the needs of employers, the best way of addressing the problem of long-term unemployment and how inequalities of pay on the basis of gender and disability can be tackled. We noted with interest projects being undertaken in the USA to tackle these and related problems. The importance of developing still better relationships and of learning from best practice in both jurisdictions was stressed.

We also briefed Madeleine Albright’s Deputy at the State Department, Strobe Talbott, on progress since the resumption of devolution, and we had useful discussions with both the British and Irish Ambassadors to the US.

In addition to the joint programme of meetings, the First Minister and I undertook a number of separate engagements.

In summary, both the First Minister and I regard our visit as having been very worthwhile. Besides the President, we met a wide range of influential people interested in the peace process and willing to offer genuine and concrete support. Above all, our visit showed that we can learn from the experiences elsewhere in tackling common problems. The development of our contacts can help us to learn lessons which will help us to meet the needs of the people of Northern Ireland. Increasingly, we too will have positive experiences and programmes to share with others.

The objectives of the trip were met. This was the first time that we had visited the United States as First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and the warmth of our reception was testament to the close interest and support for the new institutions which exist in the United States.

The Chairperson of the Committee of the Centre (Mr Poots):

The statement by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister suggests that our views on police reform were put to the President. Was that view a concerted one, or, as the press has reported it, were two disparate points of view put forward in something that was more like a schoolyard squabble than the dialogue of statesmen?

I want the First and the Deputy First Ministers to apologise to the taxpayers of Northern Ireland for the Deputy First Minister’s change of coat half way through to take up his role as deputy leader of the SDLP. Instead of representing the people of Northern Ireland, he represented the views of his political party when speaking of police issues to important United States bodies.

The Deputy First Minister:

The First Minister and I are at one when representing the Executive on matters relating to the devolved Administration. On non-devolved matters, there are differences of view on important issues such as policing, but we both accept the importance of a police service which is accountable, widely acceptable to the community and representative of that community.

As Deputy First Minister, I was invited to speak to the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. In New York, I also undertook a number of engagements with the press and the British and Irish Consuls General. Prior to the visit, my office confirmed with the head of the Civil Service that it could be undertaken at public expense. Both the First Minister and I have undertaken separate visits on this basis before.

Mr Dallat:

Was the future of the Walsh Visa Programme raised by the Ministers at meetings with the US Administration?

The First Minister:

Yes, we discussed that programme with the Department of Labor and with Mr Walsh himself. The programme has had some teething problems, but there is a strong desire to continue with it.

Dr O’Hagan:

Go raibh maith agat. I refer to the meeting that the First and the Deputy First Ministers had with the Deputy Secretary for Labor, Edmond Montgomery. What emerged from their discussions on the problems of long-term unemployment and how to tackle inequalities in society here?

The Deputy First Minister:

We had a very interesting meeting. The Deputy Secretary had a number of officials with him, notably those dealing with both racial and gender inequality. It was interesting to discuss the programmes they have for dealing with those problems. The most interesting thing from our point of view was that the difficulties they are experiencing with their programmes are often the same as we are encountering with ours.

We also discussed the Walsh visas. Among the first people we met at a reception in Washington were eight or ten young people who were there on Walsh visas. The way in which those young people comported themselves was a credit to all of us. They were able to make cases, not just for their own lives, but for all our futures. It is crucial that we maintain this type of contact. On the basis of that discussion, our background information and the meeting that we had with the Education Department — the Minister of Education, Martin McGuinness, has also been there and the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment, Dr Farren will go shortly — I have no doubt that there are elements in their programmes that we can learn from. They too are keen to learn from our life here.

10.45 am

Mr Close:

I thank the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister for their statement, and I am pleased to hear that they believe that the objectives of their visit have been achieved. This was their first visit as the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and, when such trips are undertaken, it is important that at no time should party politics be seen to intervene. I say so in the interests of the Assembly. As we have already heard this morning, whenever there are disputes and disagreements over sensitive issues and either the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister is, for whatever reason, inclined to don his party hat, that in itself brings the Assembly into a certain amount of disrepute. It also —

Mr Speaker:

Order. I must press the Member to put his question. This is an opportunity to put questions, not to make statements.

Mr Close:

Do the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister agree that this provides the enemies of the Assembly with an opportunity to take out a whip and beat us across the back? Do they agree that, in future, they should be seen to be operating in unison throughout the entirety of their trips?

The First Minister:

I think that there is a problem of perception. I can assure the Member that, in the meetings that we had in the White House and with those who have responsibility for labour and education, matters were presented — and this was appreciated by the people whom we met — in the spirit that he mentions. There is no point in meeting people who are well informed and putting up a false front. There are areas where disagreements exist, and that is known. Those disagreements were argued, not in a party political spirit, but in a spirit of informing people of what the position was and what the different perspectives were.

I can appreciate the perception that the Member has, but I believe that that perspective is largely formed by the quality of the reportage in this country, which tended to emphasise the points of difference and did so in a tendentious manner. Many of the people who were with us on the trip will confirm what I have said about the good spirit that existed and that things were presented in a mature and balanced manner.

Ms Morrice:

I thank the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister for their statement and congratulate them on the success of their trip to Washington. I wish to underline the importance of links with the United States and how important it is that we go there and are seen to be there.

With regard to the Walsh visas — and I realise that two questions have already been asked on that subject — can the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister explain how the company Logicon, which, I believe, majors more in defence matters, was chosen to co-ordinate the visa programme? Do they agree that insufficient resources were put into training and induction before the young people left for the visa programme? How do they intend to resolve that matter?

The Deputy First Minister:

The first part of the question is a departmental matter, and must be addressed to the Minister responsible. It is not within our remit, but we will ensure that a full reply is given in writing.

With regard to the second part of the question, there have been problems with the Walsh visas; problems that were not of the making of any of the people who were responsible for the programme, and I believe that that fact was recognised. Sometimes things happen that are outside the remit of those who are in control. I believe that those matters will be resolved and that we all know what one of them is.

It is essential that we keep in contact with those responsible for various Departments in the United States and try to ensure that the qualities that those young people showed in Washington are developed. We should not be deterred on this issue, or on any other, by the type of hiccup that occurred in relation to the Walsh visas.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Can the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister tell the House if it was during or after their meeting with the President of the United States that he expressed his full support for the implementation of the Patten Report and for Sinn Féin/IRA’s interpretation of it?

The First Minister:

I cannot comment on the second point, for I never heard the President use those terms. We had a 45-minute meeting with the President, which went a little over time, as such meetings sometimes do. There is no doubt at all about the extent of his interest and his pleasure at seeing things working here. We were able to give him a full account of the Assembly’s success and the way in which, despite the occasional sour comment from a certain corner of the Assembly Chamber, all of its Members are working hard together in a good spirit and pulling their weight.

Mr McElduff:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Cuirimse fáilte roimh ráiteas na maidine seo. I wish to welcome this morning’s statement. My interest lies in the meeting held on Wednesday 13 September with the Deputy Secretary of Education, Mr Frank Holleman III. This follows on from contacts with the Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, continuing to explore areas of educational co-operation for our mutual benefit. The statement says that the meeting addressed how the education system could best meet the needs of pupils of all abilities. This dovetails neatly with an inquiry into underachievement being conducted by the Education Committee. I should like to hear some further detail of what was discussed.

The Deputy First Minister:

The meeting was extremely interesting, and Mr Holleman was accompanied by a number of officials working in various sections of the US education programme. We discussed how lack of attainment is linked to social or economic deprivation and what programmes can be developed to combat the problem. They had some very interesting things to say. Attainment, especially in maths, is seeping right down into the core of their programme — something from which we could learn. They also pointed out the difficulties of the programme very honestly to us. Secretary Riley was not present — he was, quite rightly, at the hustings — but the effect of the contacts which have taken place between him, the Department here and various people in the Assembly is very important.

We discussed a range of matters, particularly vocational training and arrangements to ensure that students are given the appropriate skills to meet local employers’ needs. We also discussed the good co-operation already taking place, as evidenced by our education officials’ attending a recent conference in Virginia and by US experts’ visiting Dublin to share expertise on autism and dyslexia. Northern experts will also attend that meeting. Of these very positive meetings, this was probably the most interesting, at least for me. As they have been initiated, they should be followed up.

Mr S Wilson:

I notice that the First Minister has made no mention in the statement of the party political canvassing on policing engaged in by the Deputy First Minister while they were in America. Is it not a fact that, once again, just as he has been conned by Tony Blair, Gerry Adams, Bertie Ahern and others, the Deputy First Minister — I should say the First Minister — has been conned by the First Minister on this issue of policing? Does the First Minister agree with the conclusions reached in this statement — that the visit was worthwhile and that the trip’s objectives were met? Were the objectives of the trip once more to denigrate the RUC and call on the President of the United States to endorse the changes which the SDLP and IRA/Sinn Féin wish to be made to the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill before Westminster? If that is the case, how can the First Minister claim that his party defends the RUC?

The First Minister:

Unfortunately that question was largely predictable, although the Member did at times get muddled between the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. The general sense of these predictable comments came across and has already been dealt with in previous answers.

Quite clearly, the objectives of the visit were achieved. The meetings in the White House and with other Departments were successful. We look forward to a visit by President Clinton, it is hoped before the end of the year, which will be welcomed generally.

On the specific points that he mentions, the key thing is that the agreement, which was endorsed by 71% of the voters in Northern Ireland, be implemented in full. That involves a whole range of matters, including matters of interpretation. However, the important thing is that the agreement is implemented in full, and we look forward to that.

Dr McDonnell:

Is it in order —

Mr Speaker:

Order. I am not accepting any further points of order.

Civic Forum


Mr Speaker:

I have received notice from the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister that they wish to make a statement on the Civic Forum.

The Deputy First Minister (Mr Mallon):

I wish to make the following statement on the Civic Forum on behalf of the First Minister and myself.

We are pleased to make this statement on the Civic Forum. The Forum is one more step in the realisation of the vision of the Good Friday Agreement. The Forum is a unique body with a membership comprising a wide breadth of experience. It is in keeping with the new era in which we are now operating that, through the Forum and the other institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, we embrace these progressive and positive developments in inclusive democracy.

On 16 February 1999, the Assembly approved the proposals set out in our report in relation to establishing the consultative Civic Forum. That report proposed that the Forum would be comprised of 60 members and a chairman. The allocation of places to the Civic Forum is as follows: business 7; agriculture/fisheries 3; trade unions 7; voluntary/community 18; churches 5; culture 4; arts and sport 4; victims 2; community relations 2; education 2; First Minister and Deputy First Minister 6.

The first meeting of the Civic Forum will be on Monday 9 October in the BT Studio in the Waterfront Hall. Future meetings will also be held in venues outside Belfast.

In our report to the Assembly, we identified the organisations that would be invited to develop a nomination process for each sector. Those involved in the nomination process were advised that appointments should adhere to the principles applicable to all public appointments and have regard to equality of opportunity, merit, openness and transparency. They should also seek to achieve balance in terms of gender, community background, a geographical spread across Northern Ireland and age. Each of the sectors submitted its procedures to us for approval and has made its nominations in accordance with those procedures. One nomination, from the agriculture/fisheries sector, remains outstanding. We shall advise the Assembly when the membership from that sector is complete.

Of the six members appointed by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, I have made three: Brian O’Reilly, regional president of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, which works at the coalface of poverty; Sharon Haughey, a 19-year-old student who came to the public eye in 1998 when, as a 17-year-old, she shared a platform in Armagh with President Clinton, the First Minister and myself; and Hugh Frazer, director of the Combat Poverty Agency.

11.00 am

The First Minister (Mr Trimble):

I have made the following three nominations: Mr Gary McMichael, leader of the Ulster Democratic Party; Mr Richard Monteith, a solicitor whose clients include Portadown District of the Orange Order; and Mrs Betty McClurg, who is the chairperson of the Southern Education and Library Board.

We would like to pay tribute to all the organisations and individuals that worked so hard to help us achieve our goal of establishing the Civic Forum in what proved to be a very short time. We have now ratified their nominations to the Civic Forum, and we have placed a list of its members in the Assembly Library. The list includes the six members appointed by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

We have also appointed Mr Chris Gibson as chairperson of the Civic Forum. He is well known for his business experience, including his contribution to the IDB and the CBI. This knowledge, combined with his work in the Irish School of Ecumenics, makes him a uniquely suited person to hold the chair. We know that his wisdom will help to ensure that the Civic Forum achieves its full potential.

The agreement provides that the Civic Forum will act as a consultative mechanism on social, economic and cultural matters. We anticipate that the Assembly will, over time, develop a constructive relationship with the Civic Forum in order to avail of its experience on social, economic and cultural matters.

As the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, we are required to provide the Forum with its administrative support, and, under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, we are required — with the approval of the Assembly — to make arrangements for obtaining from the Forum its views on social, economic and cultural matters. We hope shortly to bring forward a proposal for this for approval by the Assembly.

Mr Poots:

Did the Orange Order make nominations to the Civic Forum? Were any of its nominations taken up? It seems strange to me that, in spite of the fact that there was to be equality in the Civic Forum and a cross-community element, one of the largest — probably the largest — organisation in the Protestant community has been snubbed.

The First Minister:

We were responsible for overlooking — or approving, to be precise — the nomination procedure. [Interruption] We ensured that open and fair procedures were established, and we are satisfied, from the information available, that this has happened. There was a sector focusing on cultural matters, from which a number of nominations came. I will not go in to the details, but I think that when the Member looks at the list in the Library, he will find that there is balance. He knows — at least, there are people sitting close to him who can tell him — that Mr Monteith, whom I appointed, also holds office in the Orange Order.

Ms Hanna:

I welcome the setting of a date for the first meeting of the Civic Forum. Do the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister agree that one of the first issues that should be debated is the relationship between ill health and poverty? Do they agree that age and gender balance in the membership of the Forum is essential if it is to be truly representative?

The Deputy First Minister:

The Member is absolutely correct, and I agree with her. There is no doubt that the views of the unemployed will be represented by a number of members. While this is not a direct answer to the question, the relationship between unemployment, poverty and ill health is so stark that we will have to look at it in those terms.

The trade unions have nominated one person with experience of working with the unemployed and those suffering ill health in the Derry Unemployed Centre. Also, one of the nominees from the voluntary community sector comes from the Organisation for the Unemployed in the North of Ireland. A number of people on the list are from the voluntary sector and have a direct interest in health matters.

I believe that that area is covered, perhaps not fully, but as fully as possible under a system such as this. The element of initiative that might come from young people in the Forum, and from the involvement of others who deal with poverty on the ground, is also a factor in catering for health.

Mrs Nelis:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the setting up of the Civic Forum as recommended in the Good Friday Agreement. It is two and a half years since we signed the agreement, so certainly it is welcome. During the deliberations on the Forum, Sinn Féin flagged up a number of concerns. The party was very unhappy with the proposed format of the representative nominating bodies in the remit.

I must say to Mr Trimble that I am very unhappy with his appointments. The statement says

"We anticipate that the Assembly will over time develop a constructive relationship with the Forum, in order to avail of its experience on social, economic and cultural matters."

How do the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister propose to make this happen? What mechanisms will be put in place to bring forward the Assembly’s proposals, and what timescale are we talking about?

The First Minister:

First, we achieved the target that we, with the approval of the Assembly, set for ourselves in terms of having the Forum operating within six months of devolution. That is quite a credit, and I must pay tribute to the staff in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister for the work that they have done. It was a very difficult job to deal with a wide range of bodies and to encourage the formation of consortia to make nominations. The persons responsible for carrying it through so successfully deserve our thanks.

In my appointments, my overriding concern was to ensure that there was a balance. Each of the three nominations that I made was specifically to ensure that balance and inclusion did occur. We all want to see — and it is very much a strong theme of the agreement itself — that there is equality and inclusion. Consequently one insured, as far as one could with a limited number appointments, that that was done.

At this stage, I cannot give any detail on the arrangements by which we will obtain the views of the Forum on social, economic and cultural matters, because we have not yet had the chance to consult. It is not appropriate for us to be over-prescriptive at this stage. We will want to meet the chairman of the Forum and consult him. We will want to then consider how best to do this. We will want to consult the Assembly, because the Forum is there to provide advice to the Assembly. It is something which deserves a little consideration. Obviously, arrangements have to be made to enable the Forum to function as quickly as possible, but we need time to reflect on that.

Mr Neeson:

I thank the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister for announcing the names for the Civic Forum. I am not trying to undermine their respective nominations, but do they not agree that this was a lost opportunity to show that Northern Ireland was moving forward in a more cross-community, pluralist basis, rather than to appoint people from their respective religious communities? Had there been a cross-community aspect to their individual nominations, that would have sent a very powerful message to the community. Can the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister inform me of how many applications were made from the various sectors? I understand that in some sectors there was very little competition. A breakdown of the number of people who applied would be helpful.

The Deputy First Minister:

It should be recognised that the appointments do have a cross-community element. One of the appointments that I have made falls into that category. I agree with the Member on that. I am very pleased that a person of Mr Frazer’s quality and contribution to life in the North of Ireland has accepted the nomination.

I cannot give the exact number of those who made representations. I will write to the Member and inform him. We read them all carefully. Representations were also made verbally. There were substantial representations from various interest groups, sectors within the community and political organisations.

I agree with the Member that the Civic Forum has to be different. It has to have its own mind and it has to bring an independent view to the political process. I hope it will.

Mr Boyd:

How did the First Minister arrive at his decision to exclude the Grand Orange Lodge, which has a huge number of members in Ireland, from his nominations while including Gary McMichael of the UDP, particularly at a time when innocent Protestants have to endure untold heartache at the hands of a pro-agreement paramilitary organisation? Will he further tell the House which prominent office Richard Monteith holds in the Grand Orange Lodge, if any?

The First Minister:

I want to pick up on a comment made earlier, from a sedentary position, which displayed a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the process. A number of sectors were identified in respect of which applications would be invited. Within that there was a nominating process. It would have been quite inappropriate to give a specific body such as the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland the power to nominate an individual, which seems to be the thought of some Members.

This should not be a surprise to the Member, because the arrangements for the consortia and the sectors were debated in the Chamber and approved by the Assembly. So far as I recall, no point was made in that debate along the lines suggested by the Member. We can examine the record. The decision was made in the Assembly.

As to the particular office that Mr Monteith holds, if the Member asks along the Benches there, he will find someone very well qualified to give him the answer.

Mr Watson:

Following on from that question, does the First Minister agree with me that the Orange Institution has always played an important part in civic society in Northern Ireland? If so, why did he not recognise this when making his appointments to the Civic Forum and ensure that the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland was officially represented, bearing in mind the assurances that were given by the Prime Minister to the Orange Institution some time ago?

Will he tell the House how many members of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland applied for membership of the Civic Forum and were unsuccessful? I can confirm that neither worshipful brother Richard Monteith nor the several other Orangemen who have been appointed will be representing the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland.

The Deputy First Minister:

I am not as well informed on these matters as the Member who asked the question. I understand that the person who has been appointed is the Member’s deputy in one of the areas of —

11.15 am

Mr Watson:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. That is not correct.

The Deputy First Minister:

I said "I understand".

Mr Speaker:


The Deputy First Minister:

If that is not the case I will withdraw it and apologise to the Assemblyman. It is the advice that I have been given — [Interruption]

Mr Speaker:


The Deputy First Minister:

As I have already said, I am not as well versed in these matters as many other Assembly Members.

With regard to the nominations, I was surprised that there was not one from the Orange Order. I would have welcomed a recommendation from them or from the Apprentice Boys. I have always held the view — and I expressed it last week — that the Civic Forum is not just something we should feel comfortable with; it is a body that should bring in the total width of views in the North of Ireland. I ask the Assembly to accept that, and if I am wrong I will make the matter right very quickly.

Ms McWilliams:

As a representative of the party that first proposed a Civic Forum, I am heartened to hear that the Worshipful Brothers, and Worshipful Sisters, from the Orange Order were looking for places on it, especially when so much criticism of it came from the DUP in the first instance.

Is it intended that the Civic Forum should set its own agenda and priorities, rather than those matters being decided here? We did not have clarification on the arrangements, and I understand that, but that is my understanding of how it is to operate.

I commend the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister for establishing the Forum. However, it is a pity that those who have been critical of it did not take the opportunity to co-operate. I am sure that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister would agree that many of the sectors spent over a year, through self-nomination, selection and elections, trying to fulfil the participative nature of the Forum. Will those critics also take the opportunity to congratulate those who established the Forum?

The First Minister:

I agree. It is remarkable to see the interest and desire shown in certain quarters in being part of the Civic Forum. This indicates that those evincing that desire wholly approve of the Civic Forum. They are clearly in favour of it, just as in the case of the other institutions of the agreement. One wonders why they describe themselves as anti-agreement when they are clearly endorsing it by their behaviour.

Under the legislation, there is a clear responsibility on us to make arrangements for obtaining the Forum’s views on a number of matters. Those arrangements could take a several forms — they do not have to be exhaustive. It does not necessarily follow that the arrangements made to enable the Assembly to take the views of the Forum cover all that the Forum does. However, the Forum must operate in social, economic and cultural matters. As I have already said, this is a matter where some reflection and consultation would be appropriate. Until now, our objective was to establish the Forum and get the nominations. We had a very tight timetable and we are delighted to have achieved it. We are going to try and achieve other things with regard to the Forum just as efficiently.

Mr Shannon:

Considering the current level of input that all relevant groups already have, do the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister agree that the Civic Forum is another level of unnecessary bureaucracy? Is it coincidental that the Civic Forum includes people who failed to gain an electoral mandate for the Assembly?

Will the Minister tell us the cost of each individual’s wages and the overall cost of the Civil Forum? This is especially relevant as more money is required for health, education, roads and meeting the costs that organisations need to look after constituents.

The Deputy First Minister:

The Civic Forum is not part of bureaucracy. The key element is that it is part of the imaginative independent thinking that exists in the North of Ireland right across the board. I hope that Members will look upon it as that. The administrative costs associated with the Civic Forum will not be clear until the Forum is operational. A notional figure of £300,000 has been allocated for the current financial year; it may be more or it may be less. It will be reviewed in the light of experience. The budget for the Forum will cover staff costs, office running costs, members’ expenses, research and the cost of hosting plenary and other meetings.

The post of chairman of the Civic Forum was widely advertised to attract the best possible field of candidates. The cost of advertising was some £10,000. Eight of the nominating sectors placed advertisements in local newspapers to offer the widest possible opportunity to all members of the community in Northern Ireland to apply for the Forum. Those advertising costs amounted to some £40,000.

Mr Wells:

I note with interest the silence from the Ulster Unionist Back Benches. Perhaps those Members had a rough night on Thursday.

Does the First Minister agree —[Interruption] He cannot take it. Does he agree that never has so much money been spent — [Interruption]

Mr Speaker:


Mr Wells:

Does the First Minister agree that never has so much money been spent in appointing so many lapdogs in the history of Northern Ireland? Can he confirm that the original estimate for this whole process was £10,000 to £15,000, and that the nomination process for the Civic Forum has increased that by a factor of five or six? This makes the budgeting for the millennium dome look extremely proper. Can he confirm the total cost of the entire nomination process, and can he confirm that, as was shown on Thursday night, this Forum is not representative of the people of Northern Ireland because the majority of people in the Province are opposed to the whole sordid process?

The First Minister:

On the Assembly Member’s first point, he should consider the good manners displayed by all parties here, bar his own.That might lead him to reflect on his own behaviour or his party’s behaviour. I know that outside this Chamber the Member is not as rude as the people who sit beside him.

We very much regret that during the session we had with the Committee of the Centre last week, I said on advice from officials, that the cost of the nominating process was estimated at £10,000 to £15,000. That answer was incorrect, and we have acknowledged that in writing to the Committee Chairman, as the Member knows. The Deputy First Minister has, in his answer, given more accurate information on the costs. It is obviously undesirable that inaccurate information was given. When we discovered that that was the case, we moved, as we have done this morning, to correct that.

Mr Berry:

As one who works closely with the victims, and especially people who have suffered so much trauma and so many problems over this past 30 years, I ask the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister why the victims are so grossly under-represented in the Civic Forum. When one thinks of the thousands of people in Northern Ireland over the past 30 years who have been affected by the troubles, it is a shame that there are only two victims’ representatives.

The Deputy First Minister:

The Member will be as aware as I am that the Assembly decided the numbers that each consortium would select. That was a collective decision by the Assembly of which we are all part. The report agreed by the Assembly provided that organisations working with victims should be invited to assist in ensuring that the concerns of victims are represented on the Civic Forum through two nominations. A consortium was established to develop a selection process for the nominations. It represented a wide cross-section of those working with victims, including groups from outside Belfast, groups recently established and those in existence since the early part of the troubles of the past 30 years.

Mr Roche:

I would like the First Minister to return to a question raised by my Colleague and deal with the part concerning Gary McMichael. The appointment of McMichael is completely incomprehensible. McMichael represents no economic or cultural body. Not only has he no electoral mandate but his entire party was wiped out in the 1998 elections. The only significant claim to political status that this man has is that he gives political analysis — to use his own term — to a so-called loyalist terror organisation. Anyone who pays a blind bit of attention to anything that he says must be even more politically gullible than he is. However, on a more serious point, in appointing that man, the First Minister has obscured the issue of decommissioning.

Mr Speaker:

Order. The Member was making a point. This is an opportunity to ask questions.

Mr Roche:

I am asking the First Minister to explain clearly to the Assembly why he appointed Gary McMichael.

The First Minister:

As I indicated earlier, the clear intention was to be inclusive. Mr McMichael is the leader of a political party. It is true that his party did not win any seats in the Assembly, but it does hold a number of seats at local government level. I considered it desirable, in the context of inclusion, to give a measure of representation in the Forum to that party. He is not the only councillor in the Forum.

Mr S Wilson:

I note the First Minister’s last reply when he said that he intended that the list would be inclusive. Obviously, that does not include the Orange Order, and it does not include many of the people who voted against the agreement. As we look through the list, we can see that it is made up of the membership of the Ulster Unionist Party, political failures, IRA terrorists, and yes-men. Does the First Minister agree that this kind of cronyism is of a kind that would make even Tony Blair blush? What credibility can an organisation made up of cronies, failures and IRA bomb-makers possibly have when it comes to public pronouncements?

The Deputy First Minister:

I thank the Member for the question. I have heard numerous descriptions —failures, lapdogs, yes-men and cronies. I am not sure if we are reading the same list, for when I look at it I see the names of a large number of very independent- minded and strong-willed people. I think that that is good for a body such as the Civic Forum, and I repeat that I welcome the type of inclusion that has taken place. It is unfair to describe people who have made a contribution — maybe we do not like their contribution — to the life of this country as cronies, failures, lapdogs and yes-men.

I make one last point. We should never be comfortable with the Civic Forum. It should be there as an independent place where there is independent thought. Of course, there are those within the political process who are more afraid of independent thought than they are of anything else.

11.30 am

Mr Paisley Jnr:

How can the First and Deputy First Ministers justify these appointees to the crony Forum? The number of trade union representatives is triple the number of representatives of the victims and double the number of representatives from the agricultural community; the voluntary sector has almost double the representation of the combined interests of the business and agricultural sectors; and the number of First and Deputy First Ministers’ appointees is triple the number of those representing victims. How do they justify victims’ having to sit with people like Donncha MacNiallais, who actually created victims in Northern Ireland? What recourse, if any, have victims, the Orange Order, and the other snubbed groups and individuals to appeal those decisions?

The First Minister:

I remind the Member that the arrangements for the distribution of members were approved in the Assembly on 16 February 1999 — quite some time ago. The hon Member is a little bit late in making his complaints about these matters.

There is, however, an opportunity for us to review the operation of the arrangements. In the report that the Deputy First Minister and I placed before the Assembly for the debate on 16 February 1999 we indicated that we would review the operation of the arrangements 12 months after the appointment of the Civic Forum. That we will do.

Ms Morrice:

I would like to make the point that there are 22 —

Mr Speaker:

Order. I must draw to the Member’s attention that this is an opportunity not to make a point but to put a question.

Ms Morrice:

My question concerns the fact that only 22 of the 59 appointees are women. In the spirit of equality, will the First and Deputy First Ministers agree that there should be a 50:50 gender balance in the Civic Forum? Why did they not use their nominations to correct that imbalance?

The Deputy First Minister:

I take the Member’s point. However, she should also recognise that, in our nominations, the First Minister and myself did try to redress that imbalance. I should also point out that decisions of the consortia that chose the Members were greatly influenced by the matter that she raises. We did try to help in our nominations. Maybe it should have been more, maybe next time it will be, but there was a wide field to cover, and we had to make sure that young people, those involved with poverty, those involved with health, those involved with all the different areas were represented. I think, on balance, when we look again at the final list we will conclude that it may not be perfect, but it is as near as possible under the present system.

Mr Speaker:

I have received notice from the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Sir Reg Empey, that he wishes to make a statement on Harland & Wolff. [Interruption]

The Deputy First Minister on a point of order.

The Deputy First Minister:

It is not a point of order, but perhaps you would indulge me for a second. I am now aware that I gave inaccurate information in response to the question from Mr Watson. I regret it very much. He is someone I have dealt with in very difficult times and in a very honest way, so I apologise to him personally. I also apologise to the Assembly, and I ask that those remarks be withdrawn. I must take more of an interest in those matters so that I will not give faulty information again.

Mr Speaker:

The Assembly will be grateful that the Minister has, with such alacrity, moved to correct the matter on the Floor of the House.

Harland & Wolff


The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Sir Reg Empey):

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement regarding the future of Harland & Wolff. It is a statement that I had hoped would not be necessary but, nevertheless, one which circumstances dictate be made.

The future of Harland & Wolff has been at the forefront of the news in recent days, and I have been following events closely. I am obviously very concerned about the recently announced redundancies at the shipyard and in particular, the impact that they will have on the livelihoods of employees, their families and the local community. I have already expressed my deep personal regret about that and reiterate it today.

The situation arises as part of an overall re-structuring of the Harland & Wolff group in response to very difficult market conditions. The company has been in private ownership through the Fred Olsen Group for some 11 years now, following privatisation in September 1989. At that time, approximately 2,400 people were employed by the company. My officials continue to do everything we can to assist the company in its search for viable new work. We have already, since I became Minister, acted flexibly and constructively in all our dealings with the company. I have supported the business in a tangible, often imaginative way through stage payment of intervention aid grant for the two major deepwater drill ship contracts and for the conditional contract, as yet unconfirmed, with Seamasters International for four roll-on roll-off passenger ferries, towards which we have made a conditional offer of intervention aid grant at the maximum possible level permitted under EU rules.

Furthermore, Ministers and Departments in Belfast and London have worked very hard and continue to make strenuous efforts in support of the company and its endeavours to seek new work. I must pay tribute to colleagues in the Executive who have been helpful in this matter.

However, contracts are placed commercially on price, competitive and technical criteria. They are subject to the buyer's ability to structure suitable funding arrangements and satisfy terms and conditions for bank finance. My Department will continue to play our part by providing all the help that we can by way of intervention aid grant for new orders contracted by the company, and in any other way permitted under the terms of the EU Shipbuilding Regulation (EC No 9506/98).

The success of the Harland & Wolff bid to win a recent contract was the results of the efforts that we have made and the unprecedented level of support for the shipyard's bid to win this contract. Although I was not acting in a ministerial role earlier this year, when the Queen Mary II contract negotiations were taking place, I discussed the project with Ministers at the Department of Trade and Industry and with the Deputy Prime Minister, who took a great personal interest in this contract and did a lot of work to secure the order for the United Kingdom and for Belfast. I am confident that the work done by Ministers here and in London will continue. As with any of these deals, it is not simply a matter of IDB assistance, there are huge finances necessary through ship mortgage guarantee schemes as run by the Department of Trade and Industry and, of course, there is the commercial bank sector. So there are three different sectors involved in putting together any order.

In support of the attempt to win the Queen Mary contract, the First Minister and I met the president and senior executives of Carnival Corporation. I have also written to the Ministry of Defence about bringing forward order programmes and to press for Harland & Wolff's case to share in future defence work. I stand ready to do everything I can to assist the company to secure new orders from that quarter. There is more that other Members of the House can do in that regard by continuing to lobby strongly with the Ministry of Defence and so strengthen the case for the company.

I also highlighted at ministerial level the difficult and aggressive global market place in which Harland & Wolff is competing, when the Deputy Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry called together the UK's shipbuilding forum in early July to discuss the way ahead for the UK industry as a whole. Several topics were discussed, including our ability to help the shipbuilding industry under EU regulations, a range of activities with regard to training and the high-level age profile of the workforce in the shipbuilding industry - the fact that there are not sufficient young people coming in to the industry. The point was also raised that the UK share of world shipping is at an all-time low.

Since coming into office, I have made it a priority to maintain open contact with senior management at Harland & Wolff and with Fred Olsen Energy ASA, as well as with various representatives of the trade union movement at the shipyard. Frequent meetings have been held with all parties in recent months, and that contact will be maintained.

The Department is working closely with the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment (DHFETE) and with agencies and training providers to ensure that suitable job opportunities are identified for those affected by redundancy. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Dr Farren for his close personal interest in this matter. Colleagues in the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment are standing ready to assist those in the company who may eventually be affected by the current situation and to help with re-training and the identification of other job opportunities where possible.

As an immediate and, I believe, constructive response to the situation faced by the company, we propose to set up a task force representing our two Departments to address three main priority areas. The first of these is the co-ordination of the setting up of a Training and Employment Agency temporary jobcentre to provide advice on redundancy as well as information on retraining and job opportunities. The second is to fully support the company in its search for new profitable work, making use of IDB's overseas network as appropriate, and the third is to work with the company to examine opportunities for other uses of the manufacturing facilities. Membership of the task force will include the chief executive of the Training and Employment Agency and the deputy chief executive of the IDB. The group will work closely with the Engineering Training Council in carrying out its remit.

Harland & Wolff has a long and distinguished tradition as a shipbuilder and employer in Northern Ireland. It is an impressively well-invested yard with excellent skills and competencies and a large number of talented people with whom to build for the future. We will do everything possible to help sustain that future and assist the company to grow competitively in areas of shipbuilding, heavy industry and offshore construction. In the end, however, that can come only from the company's bringing in commercially viable new contracts. With colleagues, we stand ready to play our full part and do everything we possibly can to help, both through the work of the task force and in any other way possible. I will continue to follow events in the company and will keep the Assembly informed as and when appropriate.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee (Mr Neeson):

I thank the Minister for his statement, and I want publicly to acknowledge all the efforts that he, as an individual, and his Department have put into dealing with the crisis at Harland & Wolff. Does the Minister agree that time is not on our side and that every effort must be made? It must involve the UK Government to ensure that the potential order for four roll-on roll-off vessels for Seamasters International will be secured. Also, I believe there is a need for an investigation into the operations of Global Marine. Does the Minister agree? We have seen the closure of a French shipyard in similar circumstances, and I think that this matter needs to be looked at very closely indeed.

Sir Reg Empey:

I agree with the Member that time is of the essence.

11.45 am

The situation is that 613 workers, who have not yet been individually identified, are facing the dole. Those people will have families and friends and also financial commitments. We are dealing with a personal as well as commercial issues.

With regard to the roll-on roll-off ferry order, there has been a tendency in recent months for several newpapers to report that Harland & Wolff has obtained huge orders. I wish to sound a note of caution here as these reports of orders being achieved are inaccurate and misleading. All that has happened is that companies have indicated, perhaps with a letter of intent, that they wish to pursue negotiations towards an order. A letter of intent does not constitute a contract. It merely indicates a degree of interest, and we must not get focused on particular individual contracts. That is where we have fallen down before.

These are commercially sensitive matters, and I cannot get into detail. However, with regard to the Seamasters International contract, the Department, through IDB, has made an indicative offer. Negotiations still have to take place on some matters. The Executive have been supportive. We have put a funding package together which has never been done before anywhere in the European Union, and certainly not in the United Kingdom. We look forward to having the opportunity to complete our negotiations on that. However, it has to be stressed that the key issue is that the company and its customer reach a commercial contract which puts the finance in place. Only at that stage does our involvement become critical. I can assure the Member that we are conscious of the time issue. The company, in its press statement, said that while it was proposing to make 613 people redundant, the security of the remaining workforce depended on securing new work quickly and improvements in productivity. We are not out of the woods yet, and the hon Member knows that.


Next >>