Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 7 October 2002
The Assembly met at noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
I wish to inform Members that the Health and Personal Social Services Bill has received Royal Assent. The Health and Personal Social Services Act (Northern Ireland) 2002 became law on 4 October 2002.
It is clear that several Members wish to raise points of order, which is understandable, and I shall do my best to accommodate those requests. However, I caution Members and remind them that in criminal matters the sub judice rule applies strictly from the moment a person is charged until the verdict and sentence have been announced. Members must also be aware that as regards parliamentary privilege covering what they say in the Chamber, it applies to the law of defamation and not to other matters. It will not give them protection, for example, in matters of contempt of court, and I draw that to Members’ attention.
Several Members have indicated that they wish to make points of order and I will now try to take them. I will be unable to take them in the order that Members wish, but I shall do my best to accommodate them. I noticed Mr Conor Murphy’s hand first, then Ms Lewsley’s, Dr Paisley’s and Mr Foster’s. I shall take those points of order first, then continue.
Mr C Murphy:
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will you confirm that your Office is investigating the breach of Parliament Buildings last Friday morning by armed police who did not have a warrant? In that investigation will you address the fact that members of my party were not informed by the police or Assembly staff that our offices were being searched, sealed off and raided?
I confirm to the House that I received notice of events taking place here, and briefed the Assembly Commission, whose members were with me at the Quebec National Assembly, as soon as was possible that morning. At the end of the briefing, we agreed that an emergency meeting of the Commission would be held today, after Question Time, when a report would be made.
I also made it my business to request a meeting with the Chief Constable, and that meeting was held at 3.00 pm on Saturday. The Chief Constable has subsequently corresponded with me, and that correspondence was received this morning. I expect further meetings to take place.
Those various matters are for the Speaker and the Assembly Commission to attend to, and we are doing so with all possible speed and, I hope, with conscientiousness.
Order. I am trying to take the points of order in sequence.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Did you have any prior knowledge that the police were coming here?
As I said earlier, we must be careful about the question of sub judice. I understand that charges have been preferred, and obviously Friday’s events may bear some relation to that. Therefore, I will seek to be as open as I can with the House, but it is also my view that when there is a cliff one drives as far away from, not as close as possible to, the edge of it. I will, therefore, be careful with regard to matters of sub judice. I trust that the Member will understand if I do not give an answer on the Floor of the House.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
Mr Speaker, when you were absent, events took place at one of the Doors of the House. Two Members of the Assembly were seen on television hastening journalists and television cameras into disobeying the order that on entering the House, their machines should be checked. The Members were then seen escorting the media representatives upstairs to their room, without their cameras being checked. That is a breach of the security of the House. Anything could have been brought in inside those cameras.
The two Members, Mr Gerry Kelly and the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, then made statements, which were clearly heard. It was clear that they were justifying what they had done in advocating a breach of the security of the House. If the security of the House can be breached in that way, nobody’s safety can be guaranteed or provided for. If we do not have security of entrance to the House, then we have no protection in our offices.
The other matter I wish to raise is that the House should have the opportunity to debate the matter. Everyone is debating it — in the streets, in homes and schools, and in places that people frequent. The House should be discussing this urgent business. Mr Speaker, have you called a meeting of the Business Committee for it to advise Members when it will let us have an immediate discussion and proper, open-ended debate on the matter within, of course, the sub judice rules that you mentioned?
On the question of a breach of security and, indeed, breach of privilege that the Member referred to — an alleged breach of security and an alleged breach of privilege — I have asked for, and have received, some initial reports, which I am pursuing. I trust that it will not be out of order to say that I have received from Dr Paisley’s Colleague, Mr Peter Robinson, a specific letter in relation to the question of breach of privilege. I have met the Chairperson of the Committee on Standards and Privileges to advise him that he may expect questions of privilege to be raised, and I will forward Mr Peter Robinson’s letter to him.
There are complex matters involved. Several bodies in the Assembly may have responsibilities with regard to this matter. The Assembly Commission is one, the Committee on Standards and Privileges is another, and the Speaker’s Office is another. Those are just three examples. I take the matter that the Member raises very seriously, and it is being pursued. His Colleague has done that in writing, which is entirely proper.
I have called a meeting of the Business Committee for 1.00 pm today, and a meeting of the Assembly Commission for after Question Time this afternoon, to address the various issues. It is for the Business Committee to decide precisely how it handles the requests before it.
I have noted that there has been debate and discussion about these matters in all sorts of places and in the press. I have also noted some of the comments reported in the press to be factually completely incorrect. Some of those were in relation to the House and its staff. It is important to have an early debate, but it is also important to have an informed debate on the Floor of the House — informed by proper law and procedure and by the proper facts. I know that that is what the Member and the House in general would want. There is a balance to be found between expressing the quite proper feelings of anxiety, concern, and indeed anger, which I sense in the Chamber and the community, and ensuring that, as is right and proper, it is tempered by proper process and by the facts, insofar as we are able to discern them at this stage.
In the light of recent serious developments, particularly the implications of the potential threat to Members of the House, and being aware that the First Minister will meet the Prime Minister tomorrow, I propose that the proceedings of the Assembly —
Order. The Member will resume his seat. He knows perfectly well that what he is doing is not a point of order — it is entirely out of order, and I am not prepared to accept it. I shall say no more about that.
I will say that, when I met the Chief Constable on Saturday, I received an assurance that the security of the House had not been prejudiced, or rather, the most accurate way to put it is that there was no evidence that that was the case. I trust that that is of some small assistance to Members, in view of what the Member alleged earlier.
Mr C Wilson:
Mr Speaker, some two weeks ago, I brought to your attention my concerns about security in and around Parliament Buildings at Stormont. In light of that, Mr Speaker, and as an interim step while these matters are being considered and discussed, I ask you to approach the Police Service of Northern Ireland to ensure that it has a greater presence — or, indeed, a presence per se, because police officers are not presently in evidence — in the Building. Without any slur on the work of the doorkeepers and those responsible for internal security, given the grave situation that we face, I suggest that there should be a greater police presence.
The referral of this matter to the Business Committee and the Assembly Commission creates a dilemma, because Sinn Féin is represented on those bodies. That causes me grave concerns. Can I just say —
Order. I think that I have been reasonably flexible with regard to points of order. I am assuming that the point of order that the Member raises is in respect of whether it is in order for him to ask for some review of security.
With regard to matters of security, the Assembly Commission has responsibility, but took an early decision to devolve that responsibility to me, as Speaker. I take that very seriously. I take seriously the concerns that the Member raised with me some time ago, and the question of proper security arrangements here. That has been a matter of ongoing and regular discussion, meetings and correspondence, and substantial and energetic activity by our staff internally. I take on board the concerns that the Member raises, but it would not be proper for me to discuss security on the Floor of the House. Indeed, that would be particularly inappropriate to the Member’s point of order if he considers what he has said.
Mr P Robinson:
Last Friday’s events were dramatic and significant. They could not be justified unless there was significant cause for the police to enter the Building. I do not believe that the police would have acted without that just cause. It seems to be imperative that there is a debate in the Assembly at the earliest possible moment to consider those issues. I assume that in the interrupted attempt by the Ulster Unionists to make a contribution, there is a willingness on their part to have a special recognition of the impact of those events felt in the Assembly. Therefore, I trust that they will support the Democratic Unionist Party in the Business Committee today.
Moving to the —
Is there a point of order?
Mr P Robinson:
I wrote to you, Mr Speaker, pursuant to Standing Orders, which require a Member to indicate to you an intention to raise a breach of privilege and to give some indication of the nature of that breach.
On Friday, two Members encouraged — and indeed pushed through — several members of the press and media past a security check, without their being checked in person and the proper arrangements being made. They rushed them into a lift, took them through parts of the Building that are not specified for that purpose and engaged in activity that is not allowed to any other Member.
I must ask the Member to bring it to the point of order rather than recounting the detail of the substance.
Mr P Robinson:
I understood that in advancing a breach of privilege, I must convince you that there is a prima facie case to be referred to the Committee on Standards and Privileges.
That is true, Mr Robinson, but there is no requirement for you to do so on the Floor of the House. I have accepted your correspondence, on what I regard as a very serious matter. I have met the Chairperson of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, and the matter will be pursued. If there is a further point of order, I am prepared to take it.
Mr P Robinson:
I am content if you are saying that the Committee will consider the matter. Your earlier comments implied that you had indicated to the Chairperson of the Committee on Standards and Privileges that the issue would be raised. If you are saying that you are happy to refer the matter to the Committee, I am content to leave it there. That would be the appropriate place for it to be dealt with.
I am happy to confirm that I will refer it. I cannot guarantee that the Committee will discuss it; that is a matter for the Committee itself. However, I can confirm that I will refer it.
The Member raised one or two other points. He referred to a point of order that I aborted earlier. The reason that I did so is that it is not in order to simply stand up on the Floor of the House and propose a motion, which is what was being attempted. That is not in order; nor is it in order — as the Member knows because he has on occasion tried it in the past — for an emergency debate to be proposed on the Floor of the House. What is possible is for the Business Committee to meet and to address the question of whether it is agreeable to business being taken. That is the purpose of the meeting today at 1.00 pm. What the Business Committee itself decides is another matter entirely.
Mr Speaker, you have rightly pointed out that there are concerns inside and outside the Chamber about all the events that occurred on Friday. It is certainly serious for anyone — any organisation or any party — who plays fast and loose with the Good Friday Agreement. That extends to more than one person and to more than one party in the Chamber.
Mr Speaker, in your capacity as Speaker of the House and in your particular responsibility for security in the House, you referred to conversations that you have had and correspondence that you have received from the Chief Constable. Would it be in order for you to share further with the Assembly the content of both those conversations and any letter or correspondence you received from the Chief Constable on events that occurred in the Building on Friday? If you are not now in a position to share that with the Assembly, when will you be able to share the content of the conversations and the correspondence?
It is in order for the Member to put the point of order, but it would not be in order for me to divulge the contents of the conversations or the correspondence at this stage, not least because the matter is sub judice — as he, being a lawyer, will know — and also because there are certain conversations on matters of security which it is inappropriate to address in any case. There will be a meeting of the Commission this afternoon; I will, again, brief the Commission as fully as I am able. I have referred to an earlier briefing, and I will keep the Commission as informed as I possibly can.
It is not unlikely that at some stage, when issues of sub judice and so on are not around, it may well be that I will have to make reference to the implications of such events in my capacity as Speaker, as Chairperson of the Assembly Commission and as having responsibility as the Member describes. I trust that he will understand that I am being as open as I possibly can, but there are certain things that it is neither right nor proper for me to speak about on the Floor of the House, particularly at this time.
Will you confirm that being a Member of the House, or working in Parliament Buildings, gives no one immunity from criminal investigation, and that such persons are subject to the law within the United Kingdom?
I confirm that that is the case, and all Members would be wise to understand that. I have, by my comments at the start of these points of order, tried to draw the attention of Members to some of those points of law from which they might be vulnerable in this context. What the Member said is, of course, absolutely the case. The next Member is Mr John Kelly, and then there are a series of other Members.
Mr J Kelly:
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Since you are the first and final arbiter of what happens in the House, were you presented with a search warrant, or was a warrant proffered to you, on the morning of this search, and if not, why not? Did any member of your staff accompany those people who searched the Sinn Féin support offices on Friday morning? Was any member of your staff present when that happened?
I understand the Member’s questions and the import of them. I am not in a position to respond, because of the sub judice rule that I have already mentioned. The Member will not have to think very hard before he finds the connection between charges that have been preferred and the question of sub judice. It is not in anyone’s interests for interference in the proper due process to be embarked upon.
In respect of the second aspect of the Member’s question, he and his Colleagues will know that we have procedures when any search is taking place, either in this context or in other more prophylactic contexts. I am assured — because I have asked — that those proper procedures were followed by our staff. I cannot say further than that.
If the Member has concerns on that, or on any other score, I would welcome his bringing those directly to my attention. I did receive a formal complaint from one of his Colleagues on behalf of his party, and that matter is being taken very seriously. I have subsequently met the Member to advise of some of the actions I have taken in regard to that.
Mr J Kelly:
Further to that point of order, a Cheann Comhairle. Was a search warrant —
Order. I fear that the Member has not been listening quite so acutely to what I have said as he normally does. There are matters that I cannot speak about because they have a bearing on proceedings.
You have rightly referred to anger in and about the Chamber, and the integrity of the Chamber is in question, as is the case with the calling of a meeting of the Business Committee and of the Committee on Standards and Privileges. There is also the issue of the First Minister seeking a meeting with the Prime Minister. In the interests of good order, can I urge you, Mr Speaker, to suspend the business of the Chamber until those negotiations and meetings have taken place?
The question of a meeting that the First Minister, in any of his capacities, may have with the Prime Minister does not have a direct bearing on proceedings here. The Member knows that it is not within the power of the Speaker to simply suspend the proceedings. Standing Orders are clear on when suspensions may take place. It is not simply a matter for the Speaker to suspend proceedings of his own volition. What the Member asks as a point of order is not in order.
Further to the point of order, I did say "in the interests of good order". That is within your remit.
I trust that the Member is not implying any threat to good order. Such an implication would itself bring down the sanction of the Chair.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I note your careful handling of the situation this afternoon. Would it not be the greatest contribution that you and the Business Committee could make that an immediate motion for the removal of the gangsters of Sinn Féin/ IRA be debated immediately?
Order. First, it is not possible to have an immediate debate. That is clear. The Member’s Colleagues have explored that question substantially. Secondly, if there were any question of exclusion, there are clear Standing Orders requirements for an exclusion motion. Those relate to exclusion from ministerial office, not exclusion from the House. I trust that no one will mislead Colleagues or the public whom we serve by suggesting that the legal situation is otherwise. I trust that I have answered the Member’s point as fully as I can.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
Mr Speaker, I hope that you agree with me that it is shameful that certain Members of the House would try to turn alleged criminality onto the police, at a time when the police have tried to defend the interests of democracy. Will you confirm that on Friday the DUP sought from your Office and the Business Committee a debate on Friday’s raid of the Sinn Féin offices in the Building and the wider implications? Was that relayed to you while you were on business in Canada? Did any other party contact you at that time to make a similar request? If they did not, does that not make the claims of other parties in the House, saying that there would be dire consequences for the process, sound very hollow indeed?
I received a request and I am not prepared to confirm or deny in respect of any other parties, save when they raise the question for themselves. I can confirm that I was apprised of a request for a meeting of the Business Committee. However, when I asked for the specific motion or point upon which the Business Committee were to be recalled, I did not receive it. That is why there was no earlier meeting of the Business Committee, because a specific request on the point, motion or otherwise was not received. What was received was effectively a request to set aside business that had already been agreed and set down on the Order Paper. As Speaker, I was not at liberty to do such a thing; nor, indeed, would the Business Committee have been at proper liberty simply to disregard procedure. However, the Member and his Colleagues met me this morning to make a specific request, which has been acceded to. There will be a meeting at 1.00 pm.
In the light of Friday’s events, both here and elsewhere in the Province, have you instigated any review of security vetting procedures for officials of the Assembly, and if you have not already done that, would you consider it? Should that also be extended to cover staff employed on a temporary basis by parties here? Clearly there are grave implications if the least of the allegations made is proved to be correct.
In the light of the tremendous interest that there is in the country in relation to those issues, it is clearly the desire of some Members that we should not simply proceed in the normal way.
I therefore propose that Standing Orders be suspended, particularly Standing Order 10 and such other Standing Orders as are necessary, to allow forthwith a debate in relation to the issues which have come before us, particularly as it would make no sense to proceed with business as normal.
With regard to the Member’s first question, I do not feel at liberty to discuss all that we are doing on the security side. I try to reassure the House that we are doing all that is appropriate, but one must handle things in a proper fashion, and that is what I am trying to do. I trust that Members will, for good reason, feel reassured as to how we are handling things.
I must remind the House of what I said earlier. Simply because one finds reports in newspapers does not mean that they are the truth. There are certainly a number of reports with a bearing on recent events that I know to be completely and factually incorrect — to my certain knowledge. I trust that that in itself is of some help to Colleagues.
Mr Dodds will know that even a proposal to suspend Standing Orders is a motion which must be presented in the Order Paper — and I think that he may have done so in the past, for various reasons, in his ministerial capacity. I hear what the Member says, but the order is that it must be on foot of a motion and, therefore, it is not possible at this stage.
Rev Dr William McCrea:
Is it in order that Sinn Féin — which the dogs in the streets know is inextricably linked to a violent terrorist organisation, namely the Provisional IRA — should remain in ministerial office over the law-abiding people of Northern Ireland? The demand of the public is that action be taken now to remove Sinn Féin/IRA, and surely the Assembly has a duty to act.
The Member makes assumptions about duty, but there is also order. The Standing Order is quite clear. The Member may table an exclusion motion if he has sufficient support. If he checks the Standing Orders and he has sufficient support, he knows very well the route to my office, because he and his Colleagues take it from time to time. The provision for the presentation, and the requirements for the passage, of any such motion are present in Standing Orders. The Member is aware of it and has experience of doing it. It is all there. It is not a question of duty or anything else. It is there, and if the Member and his Colleagues wish to pick it up and run with it, they know the Standing Orders and the procedures that are there.
Rev Dr William McCrea:
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it not a fact that you have received such a motion, signed by Members of the House? In fact, the DUP is just waiting for the other Members, namely the Ulster Unionists, to sign the exclusion motion.
Order. The Member knows perfectly well that what I have received is not adequate under Standing Orders in terms of the amount of support required. If he can use his good offices and undoubted charm to encourage other Members to back him, so be it, but I cannot do anything further at this stage.
Rev Dr William McCrea:
Mr Speaker, which Standing Order states that the number of signatures is not adequate for the exclusion motion to be tabled?
The Member will resume his seat. He knows perfectly well which Standing Order it is.
Mr S Wilson:
Mr Speaker, perhaps you could confirm to the House whether the correspondence you obtained from the police was as a direct result of a request that you made to them for information regarding the events on Friday. If that has been the case, have you made a similar request to the leadership of IRA/Sinn Féin in the House as to their behaviour in the breach of security on Friday? Is it not odd that members of Sinn Féin are so concerned about proper search warrants when they do not seem to have any difficulty when their crowd break into Castlereagh and other places?
I trust that the Member has been as careful as I cautioned. I understand that many Members feel happy to sit in a judicial position, but it is not necessarily one that is backed by law.
Judge, jury and executioner across the way.
Order. I had a meeting with the Chief Constable, and I think that Members would have deemed it irresponsible for me not to have sought such a meeting. The Chief Constable was most constructive in the conversations that we had. He then responded to me in writing as an interim to further conversations that we intend to have, and I trust that they will be held soon. No one should jump to conclusions about any of these matters.
Mr S Wilson:
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you confirm whether you have had similar contact with Sinn Féin about its behaviour and about alleged breaches of security, raised by my Colleagues, on Friday?
Order. Is the Member suggesting to me that he regards these as equal matters? I have the greatest of respect for all Members, but, on security matters, I do not put any of them in the same position as the Chief Constable of the police, who has particular responsibilities in these matters. As far as questions of privilege, and breaches of privilege by anyone in the House, are concerned, I have already advised the Member’s Colleagues that I am addressing that matter. That, therefore, is not a new point of order. However, if he really wants me to regard the Chief Constable in the same light, and with the same responsibilities, as others that he has mentioned, I am afraid that he is mistaken — I will not.
Mr S Wilson:
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker.
Order. I will take this further point, and, if it is not a point of order, the Member may have some difficulty getting a further one at another stage. Does he wish to make a point of order?
Mr S Wilson:
I wish to pursue the matter further. Have you made any contact with the leadership of IRA/Sinn Féin regarding the breach of security at this place on Friday?
Order. I have already advised the Member that I was approached by Sinn Féin and have had discussions with Sinn Féin about the matter.
Mr S Wilson:
About the police?
I am not prepared to say what I have had discussions about, but the Member should not assume that that is a "No".
Mr Paisley Jnr:
Under Standing Orders 61 and 63, the Keeper of the House is entitled to take action against intruders not only to the Assembly precincts but to the Building. What steps did the Keeper of the House take to prevent the intruders who were invited in by Minister de Brún and Gerry Kelly — who appeared to break every rule in the book — from entering the Building? What investigations followed?
Order. I have been generous in my acceptance of points of order. This matter has already been addressed, and there are internal inconsistencies with what the Member raises. People are not intruders if Members have invited them in.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
According to the Standing Order —
Order. The way in which visitors enter the Building may be a breach of privilege or order, but the Member’s Colleagues have already clearly raised that, and I have advised on this. I am very satisfied that they raised it properly. The Member may not think that they have done it well enough, but I think that the matter has been addressed fairly fully.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I would like to make it clear that until the House can have a debate, and a time is announced for it, my party will not deal with the regular business of the House.
Since a staff member of Sinn Féin in the Building is now the subject of prosecution, and since Sinn Féin also has an office in the national Parliament of the United Kingdom, would it be a matter of courtesy for you to officially advise the Speaker of the House of Commons of the circumstances that arose here on Friday?
I am astonished that the Member thinks it necessary for me to give advice from this place to the Speaker of the sovereign Parliament. However, it would also be unwise for me to make any remarks about a matter that is sub judice.
There is a danger — [Interruption].
Will you confirm that the business in the House this afternoon will be as printed on the Order Paper? Will you also confirm that all the Ministers will fulfil their ministerial responsibilities and present themselves to take questions at Question Time?
The Member knows me well, but I suspect that he overestimates my capacities in those regards. The House will follow the Order Paper as best it can. However, the idea that I can control anything other than the order of business, such as Members themselves, is what I, in my professional role, would call a wish fantasy. I trust that Members will act with decorum, but I cannot ensure the presence of any particular Member.
Mr P Robinson:
Will you clarify, or reflect upon, the response that you made to my Colleague Mr Paisley Jnr about your definition of an intruder? Your definition, as recorded in the Official Report, may have implications for the work of the Committee on Standards and Privileges. Surely, anyone who enters this Building without having made proper arrangements, whether invited by Members illegally or not, is an intruder and must be so considered.
I wish the matter were so simple.
Mr P Robinson:
It is as simple as your response.
I remain with what I said: I wish the matter were so simple. Members should not forget that we are talking about pass-holders.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it the case that, under Standing Orders, the only way of excluding IRA/Sinn Féin from ministerial office is with the support of the SDLP, and that in reality the only way of removing IRA/Sinn Féin from the Government is for all Unionists to resign from the Executive and collapse this charade of government?
The Member has described one way of addressing the matter. However, I would like to think about whether it is the only way. There are many creative politicians here and many different ways in which things can be achieved.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. One expression of the creative nature of the politicians here was the view that David Trimble would be saved by the storm troopers who were put in here on Friday. Will you confirm that you will ask the head of the storm troopers — the direct descendants of the B-Specials — if their weapons were put through the Assembly’s scanning equipment? Will you treat them as intruders?
Order. I listened with care to what the Member said. I would be cautious to confirm very much, given some of the references that he made, save to say that I take seriously the concerns which underlie what he said, and they form part of our exploration of matters. As I said, an initial report will be brought to the Assembly Commission. However, it will be only an initial report because there are legal and other complexities which require further investigation.
Being patient is not a problem for me, but, in all fairness, the Minister of Agriculture has been patiently waiting to make a statement to the House.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
I have taken a substantial number of points of order. If this were more important than the rest, it should have been taken as one of the earlier points. It is time for us to move on. If the Member wishes to bring the matter to my attention outside the House, I invite him to do so. We have had three quarters of an hour of points of order, and he has been on his feet on a number of occasions. [Interruption].
Order. I am not prepared to take the point of order at this juncture. The Member has had a number of opportunities to raise a point of order. If this point is more important than the rest, he got the order wrong.
I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development that she wishes to make a statement on the North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting on agriculture held on 27 September 2002 in Downpatrick. I ask Members leaving the Chamber to do so as quietly as they may.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers):
Before I make my statement, I should like to say that I very much regret that the DUP has withdrawn, since the Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development will not be present to fulfil his duties to the Assembly, his Committee and the agriculture industry.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)
The seventh meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in its agriculture sectoral format was held at the St Patrick Centre, Downpatrick on Friday 27 September 2002. I chaired the meeting and was accompanied by Mr James Leslie, junior Minister in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, who has also agreed the content of this statement. The Irish Government were represented by Mr Joe Walsh TD, Minister for Agriculture and Food, and Mr Éamon Ó Cuív TD, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.
The recent restructuring of Government Departments in the South meant that the majority of items discussed at the September meeting fell within Minister Walsh's area of responsibility. Minister Ó Cuív's Department has specific responsibility for the item relating to cross-border rural development.
The Council considered a paper on co-operation in the field of animal health and noted that it had previously agreed to the establishment of an animal health steering group and some working groups tasked with examining specific issues. In relation to those issues, the Council noted a paper stating the principal policy differences, the possibilities of convergence and the timetable for action to achieve such convergence. The Council endorsed the paper as a further contribution to the development of an all-island animal health strategy and acknowledged that further progress on aligning policies and measures was fundamental to the development of the strategy. The Council noted the indicative timetable for convergence and also agreed that officials should seek to finalise discussions with the authorities in Great Britain before final agreement of the strategy by the North/South Ministerial Council.
The Council also considered a progress report on the work of the steering committee on cross-border rural development. In April 2002 the Council endorsed the principle of an area-based approach to cross-border rural development, and at the September meeting it was agreed that the steering committee should initiate action to invite applications from partnerships for the selection of four or five geographically defined border areas under INTERREG. The Council noted that the steering committee would have to give further consideration to an appropriate response to the recommendations arising out of the cross-border education, training and research study. The Council was pleased to note that the Rural Community Network and Irish Rural Link have been successful in their application to deliver the cross-border community development measure of Peace. The total aid being provided amounts to 970,000 euros. The aim of the measure is to provide support for the development of a cross-border strategy to address the problems of weak community infrastructure and marginalisation in border communities.
The Council then considered a paper on plant health, pesticides, diagnostics and research co-operation and noted the continued level of cross-border activity in that sector since the last meeting and new developments with the pesticides monitoring and registration review. The Council also noted the proposal to organise reciprocal familiarisation visits, workshops, training and ring tests for diagnostic purposes as a means of improving cross-border scientific and technical co-operation in plant health, including forestry.
The Council agreed that Departments, North and South, should explore the establishment of a plant health risk assessment panel and approve the identification of lead figures in each jurisdiction to initiate and develop effective cross-border action.
The Council had an initial discussion of issues relating to EU matters and areas of co-operation within each sector that could be proposed for the future North/South Ministerial Council work programme. Those discussions arose from a commitment reached at the fourth plenary meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council, which was held in Armagh on 28 June 2002.
The Council then considered salary increases for chief executive officers of North/South implementation bodies, and, subject to the approval of Finance Ministers, approved salaries and salary range increases for chief executive officers based in Northern Ireland, with effect from 1 April 2002. It was proposed that this year's annual increase for all chief executive officers based in Northern Ireland should be based on Senior Northern Ireland Civil Service pay increases.
The Council also agreed that its next meeting would take place in the South, in December 2002. The text of a communiqué for issue after the meeting was agreed upon, and a copy has been placed in the Assembly Library.
I welcome the Minister's statement. The Rural Community Network and Irish Rural Link will need the finance that is available. When will applications and schemes be assessed? When will there be real development in those rural areas of high unemployment?