Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 19 February 2002
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
I have received notice from the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment that he wishes to make a statement on telecommunications.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Sir Reg Empey):
I welcome the opportunity to address Members on the key infrastructural matter of telecommunications. Telecommunications is central to economic development, as Members have repeatedly drawn to my attention, especially those from rural areas. It is also key to the knowledge-based, science-driven innovation dynamic. It has a strong social dimension and is crucial to addressing the digital divide. Much is happening nationally and regionally in Scotland, Wales, the English regional development agencies and the Republic to develop telecommunications policy and to integrate it in a broader economic development strategy.
It is important that Members be up to speed on all those developments, especially the response in Northern Ireland. Accordingly, I shall take three steps to set a framework for discussion. First, I shall outline the key parameters of the telecommunications issue and the complex legal policy and economic dimensions involved in addressing it. Secondly, I shall show the position of Northern Ireland in relation to telecommunications provision as outlined in the Mason Communications Report, which I placed in the Library early in December. Finally, I shall outline the action that is currently in train to advance telecoms policy and strategy in Northern Ireland and current and proposed initiatives.
I will now deal with the key parameters. Telecommunications has interesting similarities to, and differences from, energy. Unlike energy, telecommunications is neither devolved nor regulated regionally; it is a reserved issue that is regulated nationally.
However, like energy it is privatised, independently regulated and confronts the challenge of the very small market in Northern Ireland, which, in particular, tests us in attracting private sector investment and promoting competition. Also, like energy, access to telecommunications is vital both commercially and domestically, so, like energy, it is a major infrastructure issue with very specialist applications.
Just as there are different fuel and energy sources, such as oil, gas, coal, lignite, and renewables, there are very different telecoms technologies with different applications and opportunities — for example, fibre, copper, wireless, mobile and satellite technologies. Many of those technologies are either at a relatively early stage of development or are still maturing, so it is an industry with exponential technological development.
The past 18 months have been a turbulent time for the sector; the industry has gone from rapid expansion to severe downturn and a scaling back of planned growth. In Northern Ireland we have first-hand experience of the impact of that downturn. The major implications of these factors are: the need to develop policy in a national context, in collaboration not only with the Department of Trade and Industry and the e-Envoy but also with the different and competing interests in the private sector and with the independent regulator; the need to ensure that in that context Northern Ireland has as much flexibility as possible to develop telecoms strategy in the interests of this region and to ensure that we keep up with Scotland, Wales, the English regional development agencies and the Republic; and the need to ensure that our actions are compatible with EU competition and state aid rules.
Accordingly, I ensured that Northern Ireland was represented fully on the e-Minister’s stakeholders group, which reported to the Prime Minister at the end of November. I met both the e-Commerce Minister and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and received assurances that we can develop distinctive policy in Northern Ireland so long as there are no EU complications and no additional funding implications for the Northern Ireland block. My officials have made links with Scotland and Wales to ensure complementarity with them. Officials also have very close links with the Department of Public Enterprise in the Republic, since on this issue there is a potentially strong North/South dimension in the evolution of telecoms policy, and North/South activity may well be important in the context of INTERREG III.
Picking up on the key recommendations in the Mason Communications benchmarking study, and following discussions with the local stakeholders, my Department has developed a broad strategic approach to implementing the strong emphasis on telecoms in the Programme for Government. I will summarise the Northern Ireland position as outlined in the Mason Communications report. This study compared Northern Ireland’s current infrastructure with the Republic, Great Britain and selected US, European and East Asian exemplars.
One of the main points identified in the study was that Northern Ireland’s backbone network, which is predominantly fibre-based, is on a par with international best practice. It gives us a strong telecommunications base, comparable to that in the Republic of Ireland and the other UK regions. It also means that broadband telecommunications using private leased lines are available readily across Northern Ireland. Companies such as Stream International and GEM have built their businesses through broadband telecommunications.
Other companies not in the information and communication technology (ICT) sector, such as Ulster Carpet Mills, are working more effectively in the global marketplace using broadband, and companies such as Shorts and Nortel routinely use videoconferencing to communicate with their parent companies in Canada.
OFTEL regulates the prices that the incumbent operator can charge for a range of telecoms products and services, including leased lines. However, I recognise that the level of these costs means that they are often not appropriate for small and medium-sized companies, which form the bulk of our business profile in Northern Ireland.
As Members have been keen to point out to me on several occasions, the key issue in telecoms provision is local access, linking customers to the new and developing high-speed, high-volume services and, especially, at a cost that companies feel they can justify.
In this regard we face exactly the same challenges as every other region in the UK and the European Union.
The benchmarking in the Mason Communications study highlights that Northern Ireland is on a par with most other regions and, crucially, that it faces the same intimidating challenge: to encourage the private sector to provide broadband access to sparsely populated and non-commercial areas, especially during the current telecoms market downturn.
The Mason Communications Report makes a clear distinction between the broadband services required by the vast majority of companies and those required by telecoms-intensive knowledge-based industries such as back-office operations and multimedia computer software operations. It is also important to recognise that there is a range of competing technologies, each with its own positives and negatives, different applications and different market prospects. New technologies are continually emerging and presenting new challenges and opportunities, so there is no single or specific magic bullet technology that will, at a stroke, answer the needs of all industries.
In conclusion, the Mason Communications study indicates that in a privatised market with competing telecommunications suppliers the Government have to remain technology-neutral while, at the same time, doing what they can to demonstrate the applicability of various technologies and to stimulate demand for broadband services. In effect, Northern Ireland’s twin challenges are basically non-technological: to increase demand and increase competition.
Within the perimeters I have outlined – and taking full account of the current Northern Ireland position and the challenges we face – my Department is already engaged in a proactive programme with three key facets.
To stimulate demand, we must demonstrate to potential users, particularly industry and the small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) sector, what each technology can contribute to their business and the associated costs. Accordingly, I have established an e-solutions centre at the Industrial Research and Technology Unit (IRTU) to demonstrate to business not only the various technologies on offer, but the costs and quality of service associated with them. At the new centre demonstrations are provided of broadband access technologies such as leased line, asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL), integrated services digital network (ISDN), standard telephone, satellite, wireless access, mobile 2·5 G and Bluetooth, which is wireless technology.
The e-solutions centre provides the only facility in Northern Ireland where companies can compare and contrast these technologies and get impartial objective advice from skilled telecoms experts. Indeed, the facility has been visited by the regional development agencies in the rest of the UK and is regarded as a leading example of demand-side activity; it is a facility that many of the regional development agencies may well replicate in the months ahead.
IRTU is developing an outreach marketing strategy, which will entail taking that expertise out through the rest of the region. That strategy will include sub-regional demonstrations of leading-edge technology at key locations throughout the Province. Regional advisers have been appointed to operate with this outreach activity and to provide guidance and advice on a one-to-one basis to companies.
Those three very different initiatives will serve not only to demonstrate the relative use of each key technology, but to stimulate market demand. In this context I am particularly keen to address the potential needs of SMEs, especially those outside the Greater Belfast area without access to affordable broadband telecommunications.
I have already announced financial aid for SMEs in such areas to facilitate their access to broadband services via satellite. That – again an exemplar initiative – provides each SME with up to 50% support for both the setting up and first-year running costs of satellite connections up to a maximum of £1,500. To date, over 60 requests for application forms have been received. Over 20 of those have been completed and returned, and 10 letters of offer have been issued. I am confident that our target of 250 SMEs will be achieved.
An additional benefit of the programme has been the stimulation of the satellite market in Northern Ireland, with four satellite providers — Aramiska, Xantia, Eirstream, and BeyondDSL — as well as BT, contacting IRTU to state their intentions to pursue proactively local demand.
I understand that we are the first region in the UK to implement this kind of initiative, and in our recent discussions with the Department of Public Enterprise in the Republic, considerable interest was expressed in the possibility of replicating the initiative in that jurisdiction.
In relation to the Department of Trade and Industry’s £30 million broadband fund, I have also secured £1·5 million from that Department for a range of innovative feasibility schemes and pilot actions designed to examine various ways of extending broadband technologies to a wider range of users. My Department will soon be inviting applications for feasibility and pilot actions.
In that context, my Department has already contacted local councils, as we recognise that they could have a key role to play in facilitating local access in their communities, and we will be taking forward our discussions with the economic development consortia, involving organisations such as CORE, SEED and Into the West. We will be contacting those organisations to discuss possible ways of working together to stimulate feasibility and pilot actions.
Since the Mason Communications study concluded that the main problem in Northern Ireland — as in many other regions and countries — is local access, we have also been considering how best to create market demand to encourage broadband roll-out by the private sector. That is another important area in which local councils, public bodies and private sector contacts can play a collaborative role in creating demand. Accordingly, my Department is working towards a call for proposals for local access projects and a request for expressions of interest in possible flagship projects that might, for example, link our science park developments with our research centres of excellence.
As Members will be aware, current market conditions are not immediately conducive to a positive response from the private sector — though not precluding a significant response from the public sector — so the precise timing of such calls and requests requires careful consideration, as do the state aid and legislative implications. Work is currently proceeding on both those issues, and I propose to keep the Assembly informed of subsequent developments.
Meanwhile, I would be grateful if Members could encourage as positive a response as possible in their respective constituencies to our current demand-side initiatives, especially from their district councils, working in concert or collaboration with one another. The more that local councils, other public sector bodies and the private sector work together and pool their requirements to create the necessary critical mass of market demand, the better. We would be particularly keen to see consortia-based activities, preferably with different technological applications.
In that collaborative context, the aggregation of public sector demand is a particularly important issue. I am pleased to say that an interdepartmental working group has been established, following discussions with the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, to examine how best to approach the aggregation of public sector demand within Government and the related public services. It might not be possible to do that in all circumstances, and various initiatives are under way to promote the greater use of broadband in the areas of education, libraries and health.
A formidable amount of work is proceeding on the progressive development of the telecommunications strategy. Much work has been, and is being, done to advance this important economic and social issue. Over the coming months, further initiatives will be proceeding, and I am looking to a continuous dialogue with the Assembly and its Committees as this important issue is taken forward.
I welcome the Minister’s statement, especially the announcement of the e-solutions centre. That is a great move forward. It begins to create a healthier e-commerce culture around the various funding packages, especially that for small and medium-sized enterprises. The granting to them of access to broadband services is most welcome. However, can the Minister go a little further and be more specific about what we are doing, if anything, on a hands-on version to demonstrate applicability and increase usage?
He mentioned local government and our various constituencies, and I will do all in my power to promote the thing. He even mentioned the aggregation of public sector demand for broadband, and that is my greatest concern. I wonder what, if anything, we can do to bring the various Government Departments under our control into the twenty-first century. The public sector seems to have a massive resistance to getting wired up and using e-commerce to its full extent.
I am particularly concerned about health, where I have some expertise. Again, I emphasise that I am not making a political point, or pointing the finger at the Minister of Health. I am simply asking that those people down the line in the bowels of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety get their act together, because we are in the nineteenth century in terms of communication strategy.
Does the Minister feel that there is something that can be done? There is no point in preaching to, or pushing, the private sector, if our own house is not in order.
Sir Reg Empey:
Dr McDonnell is correct in saying that we have to lead by example. We have trawled round all the Departments and asked them to tell us the level of demand that they currently experience. Dr McDonnell is also correct that health would be the largest single user. Clearly, health and education would be the largest users in the Government sector.
However, the reason for aggregating public sector demand is to find out what everybody currently uses, to estimate growth and to find out what the total is. Currently every Department does its own thing, has its own telecommunications budget and makes its own arrangements.
The purpose of this exercise is to find out how many users are in a particular area and what their volume of use is. Private companies will not put in the services unless there is a critical volume of use. Many of the companies will not know what that is. Indeed, the Government do not know. However, over recent months — especially in the past year — we have learnt more about the demand out there. We have a much clearer picture today than we had a year ago.
Two things will happen. First, if a major user of broadband is just up the road, it will be much cheaper for a company to link into that when it is nearby than if it was at a long distance. That is common sense. Secondly, we must get competition into the market, and that is the only way we will bring costs down. If suppliers begin to see where there is a volume, they can focus on that area and put the infrastructure in place. They will know that there will be an economic volume of traffic to justify the investment.
Basically, it is a very simple exercise. Local authorities, working in conjunction with groups in their area, will have better local knowledge, and they can go through the exercise locally and identify where the key users might be.
Dr McDonnell talked about resistance. Initially there may have been a little resistance, but that is breaking down. When I was in London in November 2001 I met Douglas Alexander, the Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry who has responsibility for these matters. He made it clear that the Government in London are making this one of their top priorities. The public sector has a critical volume that can stimulate this demand and take the lead. That is what we are all trying to do.
I said that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is trying to stimulate demand by other means. We have the centre at IRTU where people can come along and see all the technologies in front of them. What do ADSL, wireless, and satellite mean? People can come to the centre and find out.
They will get indications of what it will cost them and what it will do, and they will take advice. Five advisers have been appointed throughout the Province. They will talk with companies on a one-to-one basis, and training can be provided if it is deemed necessary. We are trying to take the message out to the country so that people will have access, and we are trying to stimulate demand, something about which I have been frequently asked in the Chamber.
E-commerce and e-technology are the new infrastructures, and they are useful as a means of overcoming remoteness and rurality. I welcome the Minister’s efforts on the SMEs. As far as my constituency is concerned, the emphasis must be on the small rather than the medium. Given the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s recent statement on the vision for agriculture and rural diversification, what co-operation has the Minister’s Department had with the promotion and stimulation of broadband and, indeed, other forms of telecommunications, so that rurality and remoteness are replaced by equality of opportunity for the rural west?
I do not know whether it is because the debate is about telecommunications, but I am experiencing a great deal of interference and white noise. Before I call the Minister to reply, I ask Members who wish to have conversations to have them in the Lobby and let those Members who are desperately struggling with this complex matter to hear what the Minister says.
Sir Reg Empey:
May I suggest that satellite technology might be the cure for that, Mr Speaker?
Mr Gibson has questioned me on several occasions over the past two years on this. Indeed, all the members of team West Tyrone have questioned me consistently and frequently on this. He is correct. This can be one of the tools that we can use to ease the problems of remoteness in the rural west. We are currently using IRTU’s new pilot scheme, which, as I referred to in my remarks, is the first in the United Kingdom. We have put £250,000 into this scheme. It means that a small company — it could be a one-or-two- person company — can apply to the Department, and we will assess the application. We will pay up to £1,500 or 50% of the cost of the hardware, the software and half of the first year’s running costs. At the end of that year we will assess the position of the company and whether it feels that it has benefited.
We have also secured £1·5 million from the Department of Trade and Industry in London, which will enable us to undertake such pilot schemes. In the first instance, we are thinking of a wireless-based scheme, which would be very suitable for a rural area. A base station linking a number of users in a particular geographical area would provide those people with access. That is a pilot that we could run, and there are others. The whole purpose, as Mr Gibson will know, is to provide access and to level the pitch for people in remote areas.
There is a misunderstanding about broadband. It is widely available in Greater Belfast and throughout Northern Ireland, because there is a backbone network through most major towns. However, it can be an expensive process to get involved in, so we are looking for a variety of technologies. Away from the major centres of population, although technically possible, it is in practice economically impossible.
We are exploring cheaper technologies, and satellite has helped. We have four operators in the market that are suited to areas such as west Tyrone. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has responded positively to our request for information about demand. Opportunities, especially for rural areas, will present themselves under INTERREG III.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s consistent efforts to ensure that the local economy is technologically proficient and can compete in the global marketplace. The Minister has stretched himself in exploring all possibilities. Does he agree that satellite technology is the most expensive and least cost-effective system, notwithstanding the grant aid that would be needed to cover set-up costs and running costs for the first year? That system would institutionalise disadvantage in the rural community.
BT has a fully developed fibre-optic system in all its main exchanges in the North. In exchange for the modest investment of £250,000, it could render proficient each of the exchanges in their delivery of an ADSL to every household, small and medium-sized enterprise, college, school, hospital, medical centre and Department, which would facilitate joined-up government. Would that not be more cost-effective? Would it not create the level playing field that some Members and the Minister referred to if BT were encouraged to accelerate the process of upgrading its exchanges from south Fermanagh to north Down and for everyone in the North. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Sir Reg Empey:
I do not accept that satellite is the most expensive form of technology. Satellite could be one of the least expensive technologies for rural areas. It would cost a fortune to install a hard wire in a rural area. In some cases, it would be almost impossible to finance without a huge subsidy. Satellite could cost £150 to £300 a month to operate. There is a misunderstanding about ADSL. For technical reasons, it works only in a radius of 3 to 5 miles of its exchange because of electricity and the movement of data, so one can imagine the number of stations that would be required. Each station costs between £200,000 and £300,000.
ADSL is suitable only in certain situations. The system allows a user to receive eight times more information in than it can give out; it is asymmetric. It would, therefore, be useful to a domestic user who wants video information. Such a user could get plenty of information in and would not need to put it out again. We must be careful not to focus on only one technology, because not every technology works in the same situation. Provision should be made on a case-by-case basis. One reason that the Department has avoided backing a specific technology is that the situation is evolving continuously. New inventions and developments are coming forward. We cannot say today what will be necessarily the most suitable solution in one or two years’ time, so we will try to remain technology-neutral.
First, I assure Mr McLaughlin that we have established that at the very least we are on a par with, and in some cases better than, our nearest competitors in the Republic and in the rest of the United Kingdom, and our intention is to ensure that we remain ahead. Secondly, we are the first region in the UK to run this pilot scheme. Thirdly, Mr McLaughlin should be aware that we have a full and major commitment — not only on the equality issue, but because it makes economic sense — to ensure that all the Province can make a contribution to our economic development. They can do it on the basis that they will be on as level a playing field as we can possibly make with the major centres of population.
Basically, that is our policy. The costs will change from year to year, and that is a lesson that we have learnt. However, I assure Mr McLaughlin that currently satellite technology is not the most expensive.
I declare an interest in encouraging businesses to adopt modern IT methods, in that I am a council nominee director of a local enterprise agency. I welcome the Minister’s proposals to keep Northern Ireland’s telecommunications infrastructure at the cutting edge of technology.
However, does he agree that in addition to the e-solutions centre at IRTU, his Department should encourage IT partnerships between universities, further education colleges, local businesses and enterprise agencies? Furthermore, does he agree that local government is often the first line of interaction between the public and the public bodies? With reference to the interdepartmental working group, does he believe that there can be benefits if there is collaboration between councils, and that local government needs are considered within the group?
Sir Reg Empey:
Mr Beggs will be aware that through the Department’s information age initiative, the local enterprise network succeeded in its bid and received one of our major projects. The local enterprise network received money from the Executive programme funds. Indeed, it is one of the leaders.
I agree with him that, consequently, IT partnerships are a key issue. As he is a member of one of the local authorities in the core group, which comprises local authorities in County Antrim and County Londonderry, he will be aware that those local authorities are already working together. It is a consortium that has the potential to take forward an issue such as this. The south-east economic development (SEED) group of local authorities in the Province has the opportunity to do the same.
With regard to the link with the universities, there is a system called SuperJANET, which is a fibre-based exchange that allows huge amounts of information to pass between research centres in universities. I do not think that local further education colleges are currently linked to it, but I understand that it is being considered that where research is being conducted, there is a need for broadband availability.
I support Mr Beggs in saying that the interdepartmental working group is working actively on ways in which we can stimulate demand. More and more people have access to those technologies, but our job is to ensure that people use them. Three years ago Northern Ireland was almost bottom of the UK league of people having access to those services. We have caught up and are now competitive. However, we have to stimulate the demand even further, so that when we come to the point of encouraging companies to put in the infrastructure, they know that there is enough to justify their investments.
We welcome IT partnerships, and we encourage them to progress the roll-out of broadband locally as an economic development tool. We sought proactively to promote partnerships between local authorities and the local enterprise agencies. We are carrying out those two policies.
Further education colleges and universities are linked to the SuperJANET network. Therefore, we already have links in the further and higher education sector. In the information-age initiatives we are seeking to encourage the same links through the enterprise agencies. If that is encouraged, I believe that it will result in increased demand.
Telecommunications are paramount in our economic and social structure, with so many users now being online. Does the Minister envisage cross-border links, especially in border regions, with other servers to provide a service for the rural population? Households in West Tyrone cannot avail of ADSL or affordable broadband services.
Sir Reg Empey:
Mr McMenamin, like Mr Gibson, has availed of the opportunity to draw my attention to his constituency, as he has done on several occasions.
There are undoubtedly cross-border issues. Through INTERREG III there is potential for co-operation where there is currently no broadband availability. There are also opportunities through InterTradeIreland, which has the potential to invest in particular business-to- business projects. However, there is a wider issue here. Currently, we have only one major cross-border link, which runs down the eastern corridor. If anything goes wrong with that link, there are major difficulties — for example, if a digger breaks the link. There is, therefore, merit in having an alternative route to reinforce the service and provide a security of service. That is being considered.
There is also the roaming call problem, where the situation could arise, under the Eircom link, of having to make an international call from one part of a town in Northern Ireland to another part of the same town. That is not so much a governmental issue as one for the private companies to resolve, but it will have to be dealt with on a bilateral basis. Regulators may become involved in that problem.
The cross-border dimension has been reflected in discussions between my Department and the Department of Public Enterprise. There is also a huge east/west dimension. The world is a big place, and this is a relatively small geographical area. Companies are operating in both jurisdictions, and there is potential, especially in the rural areas, to extend the availability. The right answer for all situations will not always be ADSL — there are alternatives. We want to have test runs with satellite and wireless telecommunication for rural application.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
Does the Minister agree that this technology sets the boundaries for technological and economic development for the future? Does he agree also that the key issue is local access, because it will determine inward investment in the future?
I wrote to the Minister about the situation in Ballymoney and the issue of remoteness — a subject that other Members have addressed. In that area, broadband is available only to users in a 5 km radius of the telephone exchange. There is a capacity of only two megabytes per second (MBPS), and that allows only 60 concurrent users at any one time. Does the Minister agree that such limited availability will make it difficult to attract inward investment to that area?
Will he address that problem by ensuring that the pilot and feasibility schemes that he has announced will look sympathetically at Ballymoney and other rural areas that are off the main hub connections, and that such areas will get a fair crack of the whip of technological advance?
Sir Reg Empey:
Yes, I will. The main focus of the initiative is local access. Mr Paisley has drawn the Ballymoney issue to my attention. It is true that there are several ADSL-enabled exchanges in Northern Ireland, but there are none at Ballymoney. The closest ADSL exchanges are in Ballymena and Coleraine. No one beyond about 4 km or 5 km of the exchange has access to the technology, because of the technical issues. That reinforces my point that ADSL may not be the solution in every circumstance. Access to the service is the key issue. How the service is provided is a secondary issue.
I assure Mr Paisley that consideration will be given to the interests from that area. I do not know whether we have had applications from that area; perhaps it is too early to say. I said that there have been about 60 applications; the actual number may be over 70. I am confident that we will reach the target of 250 applications, although the programme has been running for only a few weeks. A range of technological solutions can counter the problem of remoteness that Mr Paisley mentioned, and I assure him that applications from the Ballymoney area will be given full consideration.
Telecommunications infrastructure is now as crucial as any physical infrastructure. I welcome the e-solutions centre at IRTU, which will greatly benefit small and medium-sized enterprises. Can the Minister tell us how the regional organisers will operate? Where will they be based, and will their budget be adequate to engage effectively with small and medium-sized enterprises? Given that public service agencies and Government Departments could make greater use of that type of technology, does the Minister believe that decentralisation of Civil Service jobs could be facilitated in regional towns?
Sir Reg Empey:
Mr Byrne never misses an opportunity to raise that issue. I did not expect it to be raised in this round of questions, so he did very well to squeeze it in. My Colleague Seán Farren is dealing with the matter of decentralisation of Civil Service jobs, and he has the report on it. The availability of appropriate telecommunications, which are crucial for the operation of any Government Department, is a significant issue. Undoubtedly, it will be easier to facilitate decentralisation where such facilities exist.
I said that there would be five special advisers. They will be able to work from the LEDU client list, and will have those connections. The LEDU client executives will be able to direct the special advisers to their customers so that they can update them. That does not mean that only LEDU clients can avail of the service. Anyone who contacts the e-solutions centre to seek advice or help can be facilitated through regional LEDU offices. However, I suspect that the LEDU client list will be the main source of clients. Those companies must be stimulated to avail of the appropriate technology, or at least to test it. It may not be suitable for everybody. However, we would like to see whether companies improve their business after using the technology for a year, or whether they gain or learn something from it and feel that it adds genuine value to their activities. There are no guarantees, but there will be results in many cases. Those results will be measured and tested, and that is how we intend to proceed.
I have received notice from the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure that he wishes to make a statement on the Golden Jubilee celebrations.
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr McGimpsey):
I feel proud and honoured to be the Executive Minister with responsibility for co-ordinating Her Majesty’s Golden Jubilee celebrations in Northern Ireland.
The year 2002 is a historic one for the entire United Kingdom and Commonwealth. However, it is tinged with sadness following the death of Her Royal Highness, The Princess Margaret. The Assembly will know that it was in respect of the wishes of the palace that I did not make any public statements on that event last week. Members know that others did not show the same respect. That was regrettable and, indeed, shameful, because the disrespect came from those who loudly and at every opportunity profess their fidelity to Her Majesty. Although I kept a silence that was motivated entirely by my determination to comply with the wishes of the palace and Whitehall Departments, I had to listen to my actions being described, from the DUP Benches, as "obnoxious, revolting and scurrilous". — [Official Report, Bound Volume 14, p257].
Disgraceful scenes took place in the Chamber last week. However, the Assembly can get over that. It can and must raise the Golden Jubilee from the output of petty minds in the House to a higher level. The Assembly must demonstrate that it can rise above that and show that it can work together for the people of Northern Ireland in a mature and civilised manner. Let us show Her Majesty what we are capable of.
It is typical of Her Majesty that she will not allow personal circumstances to disrupt her duties as Queen and head of state. She is currently fulfilling several Commonwealth engagements around the globe. That is hardly surprising, as her life has been dedicated to her nation and the Commonwealth. That devotion and unselfishness are traits that have made her such a remarkable person. She has earned the admiration, respect and affection afforded her throughout the world. She has done that for the past 50 years — only the fifth monarch to do so in the past 1,000 years. Her Golden Jubilee is a milestone in our history and is worthy of appropriate recognition.
Not everyone in Northern Ireland will share those sentiments. However, the fact that we sit in the Assembly shows that the Province is entering a new era. Together we have broken new ground across society. People realise that we must work together for the sake of our children and for future generations. Now, more than ever, there is greater appreciation that the histories of all the people of these islands are linked inextricably. The monarchy is part of our shared heritage. I am not so naive as to expect that all sections of society will share in the celebrations. However, I believe that all people will recognise that the jubilee is a significant event in our history.
The celebrations that my Department will help to fund will not be about defeating foes. They will not be about domination of one section of society by the other. They will not be about judging others’ values and beliefs. They will not seek to achieve any ends other than that which they purport to commemorate — 50 years of hard, unstinting duty fulfilled by Her Majesty The Queen on behalf of all UK citizens. Different cultures can live and work side by side as full partners. Other countries have proved that that can be done; Northern Ireland can prove it too. I believe firmly that the promotion of one tradition does not mean the diminution of the other. The Golden Jubilee year provides a platform for the communities in Northern Ireland to come together in celebration. It provides a non-threatening opportunity to look to the future as well as a chance to look back at the events and changes of the past 50 years. I wish to see the Golden Jubilee celebrated in style throughout the Province.
The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure has publicised the occasion widely. Although it is still early days, I am pleased with the response so far. More than 450 events have already been planned. Those will be published in a special booklet, titled the ‘Golden Jubilee Diary of Events’, which will give an overview of the celebrations taking place across Northern Ireland.
A small sample of those events includes a festival of evensong in Armagh, conducted by the Archbishop of Armagh, Lord Eames. A special garden in Newtownards designed for curriculum-based activities will also cater for a diverse range of community groups, such as people with special needs, the elderly and pre-school children. The Indian community will also contribute to the festivities by performing dance routines and music in its own colourful and unique way.
Many events can be expensive to run. Therefore, financial assistance is being made available from both National Lottery sources and my Department. The Awards for All scheme, run by lottery distributors, invites applications from organisations and groups that are planning events to celebrate the Golden Jubilee.
My Department has also initiated a small grants scheme for groups unable to accept lottery funding. A budget of £200,000 has been set aside for that. More than 260 applications are being considered, which demonstrates the high level of community interest and shows further evidence of the high esteem in which the Queen is held in Northern Ireland. In the light of that enthusiastic take-up in the Province, I am investigating the possibility of securing moneys to enable another funding round. Meanwhile, the Awards for All scheme remains open.
Among the planned events that my Department supports is a tour of Belfast for 70 senior citizens, which will provide an opportunity for the less mobile and those on limited incomes to take a nostalgic look at the changes that have taken place in our capital city in the past 50 years. A one-day event will be held in County Down, featuring a historic exhibition that will include a display of wedding dresses that are more than 50 years old, farming practices, the community, local bands and the royal family.
A book of memories is being compiled that will include personal recollections and photographs for publication and posterity by senior citizens in a day care centre in County Antrim. The Ulster Museum will display 10 of the finest drawings by Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci, which are on loan from the royal library in Windsor Castle.
Members will agree that all those projects fit neatly into the themes that Her Majesty has suggested are appropriate to commemorate the occasion, especially the theme of celebrating the community. In addition, several local schoolchildren have already participated in a nationwide poetry competition. The winners will visit the palace in the summer. District councils are also playing their part. Many are organising events and assisting financially.
The idea of giving every schoolchild a commemorative memento has been floated. I am considering that idea. However, its cost would be substantial, and inevitably there would be waste. No matter how accurately the likely take-up of the offer was determined, some schools would decline to participate. Medals may be an option, but they are only one option.
I do not see why our planning should be constrained by what has happened previously; we can allow ourselves to be more flexible. I am keeping in mind Her Majesty’s wish that there should be no undue expenditure from public funds on the programme of celebrations.
Among the options that I am investigating are ways in which children might become involved in celebrations that could also benefit their educational or personal development, and at the same time be fun and memorable. In other words, we can approach the subject creatively and imaginatively.
It would be inappropriate for me to go into detail now. However, initiatives that I am considering include small bursaries for schools or the production of CD ROMs, which all schoolchildren might enjoy and from which they would benefit. I shall continue to investigate options, and I shall keep the House informed.
Northern Ireland is progressing on many fronts, at a time when the monarchy is also undergoing a transitional period regarding its public perception. Therefore, it is a time of change both for the people of the Province and for the monarchy. I do not fear that. Times of change are a challenge and a test, and the monarchy is facing this time of change with resolve, confidence and courage.
By so doing it sets an example for every person in the Province. The Golden Jubilee celebrations give us a wonderful opportunity to celebrate an illustrious past and an exciting future. We can all play a part in that, and I am proud to play mine.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr ONeill):
The Minister’s statement gave a considerable amount of detail on the plans for the Golden Jubilee, and I thank him for that. Coming from a Nationalist tradition, and from one of the oldest families in Europe with its share of princely and kingly involvement, I recognise that the jubilee is a significant event for many British people, especially those from the Unionist tradition in Northern Ireland. This is an opportunity for Nationalists to show their commitment to the Good Friday Agreement by ensuring that all those who wish to celebrate the jubilee are not only free to do so but are encouraged and supported. In that context, has the Minister any plans to liaise with district councils so that every opportunity exists for a cohesive approach?
All district councils will play a role. Many have set aside budgets for small grant schemes, and programmes of events have been planned. The role of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is to liaise continually with all interested parties. District councils, with local representation, have an important role to play, and that will supplement perfectly the lottery’s Awards For All scheme, which I have mentioned, and my Department’s scheme for non-lottery funding. Wider celebration themes are emerging regionally, nationally and internationally. Major events have been planned by almost 50 countries, and a prime way to feed information to district councils has been to set up a local government forum to brief their Golden Jubilee officers.
May I remind Members that we have a substantial number of questions, and the limit of time for questions on the statement is one hour. I remind everyone to be as concise as possible.
As an Ulster Loyalist, an Irish Royalist and a British Unionist, I commend the Minister’s statement to the House. On 4 May 1977, in the year of her Silver Jubilee, the Queen said of Nationalist aspirations:
"I number kings and queens of England and of Scotland and Princes of Wales among my ancestors, so I can readily understand these aspirations. But I cannot forget that I was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Perhaps this Jubilee is a time to remind ourselves of the benefits which union has conferred on the inhabitants of all parts of the United Kingdom at home and in our international dealings."
As the Minister said, the year 2002 still sees the monarchy held in high esteem throughout the world. Imbued with the established wisdom of an ancient civilisation —