northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 14 May 2007
The Assembly met at 12.00 noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Mr Speaker: It would be useful if mobile phones could be switched off, or even left outside the Chamber.
Ms Lo: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it in order for me to thank the First and Deputy First Ministers for the civic reception that they held in Stormont last Wednesday for ethnic minority communities? I congratulate both Ministers on a very successful event that sent out a strong message that the Assembly values the contributions of ethnic minority communities and will not tolerate any form of racism against them.
Mr Speaker: That is not a point of order, but I have been very liberal in taking it. I am sure that the First and Deputy First Ministers have heard the Member’s statement.
Mr Speaker: I must inform Members that I will not be available for plenary business tomorrow because I will be representing the Assembly at a function in Westminster.
Private Members’ Business
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow one hour for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have a maximum of 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to wind up. All other Members will have five minutes.
Rev Dr Robert Coulter: I beg to move
That this Assembly agrees to re-apply for admission to membership of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, such membership to be effective immediately on approval of the application by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and to abide by the provisions of the constitution of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association; that the required membership fee be paid to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association; and that this motion be communicated to the secretariat of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association immediately following agreement.
Mr Speaker, this is my first opportunity to address the House since your election to the distinguished office of Speaker. Therefore, I congratulate you on your election and wish you well in the post. As I have known you well for many years, and we have been friends for a long time, I know that you will be a worthy holder of the post. I can already see that you are bringing a dignity and presence to the position and I believe that you will serve the House with great distinction.
The motion is an important milestone for the Assembly. In rejoining the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA), the Northern Ireland Assembly will re-enter the largest association of free and democratic Parliaments across the world. It is an important statement for the Assembly to make. It says that Northern Ireland is back on a sound democratic track and, once again, is a distinct part of that great democratic worldwide community.
This is a good time to reflect on the objectives of the CPA, so that Members can appreciate the importance of the shared democratic values that it represents and why it is important that the Northern Ireland Assembly belongs to it.
The CPA exists primarily to promote knowledge and understanding of parliamentary democracy and respect for the rule of law and the individual rights and freedoms that it represents. Active CPA branches exist in 169 national, state, provincial and territorial Parliaments across the Commonwealth, with a total membership of approximately 16,000 parliamentarians. Those figures must make it one of the greatest democratic forums on earth.
The CPA was founded almost 96 years ago, on 18 July 1911, when a group of parliamentarians from the United Kingdom and the five then self-governing dominions of Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, New Zealand and South Africa agreed to form an association. That meeting constituted the first formal conference of the British empire’s parliamentarians. One month earlier, those members had gathered in London for the coronation of King George V.
Although it was originally known as the Empire Parliamentary Association, in 1920, membership was extended to all of the former colonies of the British empire and to states within the then dominions. With the end of the British empire, the association reconstituted itself in 1949 as the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and all the newly independent states of the Commonwealth joined as they achieved independence.
The CPA comprises the national, provincial, state and territorial Parliaments and legislatures of the countries of the Commonwealth. It is a lively and developing body and is constantly renewing itself. The CPA discusses relevant and important topics and, by bringing together countries across the Commonwealth, it enables parliamentarians to develop new and original perspectives on many problems of the day.
It is interesting to note that the CPA’s fifty-third plenary conference is discussing delivering democracy and sustainable development; financial scrutiny across the Commonwealth; global environmental protection; gender equality; and the financing and administration of Parliaments.
Those issues are real and relevant. Membership of the CPA would ensure that parliamentarians in the Northern Ireland Assembly were well informed and aware of best practice on all those issues across the globe. Indeed, this month, the CPA is holding a joint conference with the World Bank in British Columbia. There are also ongoing study tours and attachments, Government and Opposition workshops, post-election seminars, study groups and staff development activities, all of which enhance the effectiveness of parliamentarians.
In 2004, for example, a joint venture by the CPA and the World Bank Institute explored the setting of benchmarks across a broad range of parliamentary activities and, in so doing, assessed the effectiveness of all the Parliaments in the CPA. Technical assistance programmes have helped local legislatures to address issues that increase parliamentary operational effectiveness, such as modernising Standing Orders.
Other workshops have tackled issues such as the relationships between Speakers, Clerks and other parliamentary staff, financial controls, service delivery, the provision of information, security and human resource management. Those issues are all relevant to this Assembly. Issues such as electronic governance and the relationships between central and local government are also explored within the association. It all adds up to better legislatures and, by extension, to a better and more enduring quality of democracy.
Membership of the CPA also provides the opportunity for participation in plenary and regional conferences, seminars, visits and delegate exchanges. Special seminars are often arranged at the request of local Parliaments, especially those that have been elected following significant constitutional changes. That is an excellent description of our own situation, and such a conference could afford the Northern Ireland Assembly the opportunity to network with other legislatures across the world.
The UK branch of the CPA is hosting the annual conference of the British islands and Mediterranean region in the Stormont Hotel in Belfast from 13 to 17 May. Delegations from all the branches in the region — Alderney, Cyprus, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, Jersey, Malta, St Helena, Scotland, the UK and Wales — will be present.
In essence, membership of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association will bring real and tangible benefits to the Members of this Assembly. It will put them in the mainstream of a worldwide association and embed this Assembly where it rightly belongs — alongside other democratic legislatures. Our sister legislatures in Scotland and Wales already belong to the CPA, and the Northern Ireland Assembly first joined the organisation in 2001.
The time has now come for our Assembly to take its place once again among our parliamentary friends and among the great community of nations and free peoples that make up this truly international body, spanning all continents and income levels and bound by a common heritage of democracy, liberty, justice and freedom under the law.
The First Minister (Rev Dr Ian Paisley): It gives me the greatest possible pleasure to support the motion. It is nice to know that our Queen is the head of the Commonwealth; through this motion, we salute Her Majesty. We look forward to the continuance of her good health, because one needs that blessing when one is over 80 years of age.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
The First Minister: The motion emphasises that the Ulster that we love is part of the Commonwealth and part of the United Kingdom.
I do not need to emphasise that matter because the world knows exactly where we stand.
The Commonwealth teaches us that unity is possible amidst diversity. Everyone knows that there is diversity in the House; it remains to be seen whether there can be unity, and the testing days of the future will decide the strength of that unity. I cannot think of a better job at such a time than to address the CPA conference tomorrow, and I look forward to it.
I congratulate the hon Lady who made herself heard in such wonderful circumstances and who put one over on the Speaker. From time to time, I may take a leaf out of her book.
Mr McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.
Mr Speaker, I want to add Sinn Féin’s congratulations on your appointment last week. The party shares the confidence of other Members that you will bring the qualities of dignity, integrity and fair play to the office.
Sinn Féin Members will listen with great interest to the debate; the party recognises that the work of this body is of particular significance to many Members. Sinn Féin acknowledges that this legitimate motion should have been tabled. Inevitably, our history will mean that, from time to time, we will deal with matters that do not sit comfortably with all Members. However, we are living in a time of change and, in the context of current politics and, in particular, in the light of last week’s remarkable developments, it behoves us all to recognise the fact that our community is shared. There is diversity, which is quite legitimate and has significant and sizeable support in the community. If Members are to make politics work, they must strike a balance between all those clashing and competing issues. If we acknowledge that diversity is legitimate, it is within the combined creative talent and genius in the Chamber to chart our way through the issue.
Sinn Féin will not vote against the motion. As Members will understand, although the issue is not a matter of primary interest to Sinn Féin, it will not set up any obstacles or cause difficulties for Members who feel that the motion reflects their cultural, political and social affinities.
Go raibh míle maith agat.
Mr A Maginness: Congratulations, Mr Speaker, on your appointment. It is good to see a Donegal man in the Chair. I also share some Donegal blood; my mother comes from Rathmullan, so we have that bond in common.
The SDLP supports the motion that has been tabled by Rev Robert Coulter. It is important to establish international links with other democracies throughout the world, and the motion is a step in that direction.
The previous Assembly, of course, was associated with the CPA. Indeed, some Members of that Assembly were involved in various exercises and conferences that the CPA promoted.
However, a central point to remember is that membership of the CPA should not be an exercise in junketing. It should be taken seriously, and our membership should have a serious purpose: the promotion of parliamentary democracy throughout the world. Our contributions to whatever CPA forums we attend should be fearless in their support for parliamentary democracy and human rights. We should not remain mute when those who violate human rights and undermine democratic principles appear at those conferences. We should fearlessly say to them that they are wrong; that they are undermining democracy; that they are attacking human rights; and that they have no place in the civilised world of parliamentarians.
Therefore, we should take our role in the body very seriously. We have spent many years building democracy here, and it seems that we have at last agreed to share the democratic institutions and the Executive and to build a new society based on shared values. It is important for us to present those values to the rest of the world. It would be wrong for us to remain as isolationists and say that although the outside world is interesting, we will not participate in it because we have enough work to do here. We do have enough work to do here, but we should make our contribution nonetheless and share with the rest of the world our experiences in building peace and democracy. If we take that approach, we will make a solid contribution to the deliberations of the CPA.
Some see the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association as some sort of old imperialist organisation. It is not: it is a multinational organisation comprising parliamentarians from all parts of the world. It is important that parliamentarians mix together and learn from one another. We should remember that.
Mr Donaldson: In the light of what the Member for North Belfast has said, would he and his party welcome an application from the Republic of Ireland to join the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association?
Mr A Maginness: I would welcome the deepening of Members’ relationships — and not just the nationalist Members, but the unionists as well — with the Members of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann, who share this island as parliamentarians.
Mr Speaker: Your time is up.
Mr A Maginness: Mr Speaker, I thought that we had a bond; obviously, we do not.
Mr Neeson: Like those Members who have already spoken, I congratulate you on your elevation, Mr Speaker. I am delighted that, for once, we have our full quota on the Floor.
I support the motion. The Assembly was previously a member of the CPA, and it was a successful experience. It is useful to work with democracies throughout the world.
Many issues are now dealt with on a global basis, and it is important to remember that not only Members but the Assembly’s staff would benefit from membership of the CPA. I welcome the fact that the CPA is meeting in Belfast this week, and I will certainly attend that conference.
Mr Donaldson rather pre-empted what I was going to suggest. In the present political climate in Northern Ireland and the British Isles, and with improved Anglo-Irish relations, it is time for the Government of the Republic of Ireland to consider joining the CPA in order that they can interact with the other major nations throughout the world.
I support the motion.
Mr Wells: I had the privilege, along with Dr Coulter and Mr Maginness, of being a member of the CPA during the Northern Ireland Assembly’s first mandate. The Northern Ireland branch of the CPA was extremely active.
I am sure that all Members are proud of our Commonwealth background. I am sure that they are all proud that Northern Ireland was once part of the empire. We are all bound by our links to Her Majesty The Queen and the English language. This is not just semantics. We are dealing with being part of an organisation that represents two billion citizens.
Two billion people live in the Commonwealth, and that opens up vast economic development opportunities for Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. Therefore, Members should not scoff at the CPA. As Dr Coulter said, the membership of the CPA includes 169 legislatures, ranging from state parliaments to small municipal authorities. The CPA is a huge organisation that could give so much to the people of Northern Ireland.
As we speak, a subgroup of the CPA — the British islands and Mediterranean region — is meeting in the Stormont Hotel. It is wonderful that we have been able to link that visit to Northern Ireland with the Assembly’s application for readmission to the CPA. I must emphasise that this is an application for readmission. Between them, the Northern Ireland Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly have been members of the CPA on and off for decades. However, the collapse of devolution meant that the Assembly’s membership lapsed. In 2001, with Rev Coulter and the then Speaker Lord Alderdice, I had the privilege of reapplying for membership. The CPA unanimously agreed that application. Therefore, it is appropriate that the Assembly reapplies once more while the CPA is having its conference in Northern Ireland.
Membership of the CPA offers a marvellous opportunity to meet with those in Governments in countries linked by their English language and heritage, ranging in size from India, with 1·1 billion people, to Montserrat, with a population of only a few thousand. Membership also offers the Assembly wonderful opportunities to learn from those Governments and legislatures, and, perhaps, for the Assembly to give advice and assistance to emerging democracies.
The CPA is linked to the Commonwealth Association. A clear rule of the Commonwealth Association is that any member Government that does not meet normal democratic standards, such as Zimbabwe recently, and Pakistan more latterly, is removed, with its membership suspended until democracy is restored. A set of standards< is applied. The CPA applies similar rules. A country’s membership is suspended if the country concerned does not adhere to normal democratic standards.
Northern Ireland could benefit enormously from membership of the CPA. Mr Dallat, a Member for East Londonderry, attended one of its conferences in 2002 and made an important input.
I am very enthusiastic about the CPA. The Northern Ireland Assembly should play a full part in it, and all Members should attend and support the meetings of this very important association.
Mr Donaldson: Mr Speaker, I add to the words of other Members and congratulate you on taking up the office of Speaker of the Assembly. I trust that you will enjoy your term of office.
The hon Member for North Antrim the Rev Dr Robert Coulter has already mentioned that the members of the British islands and Mediterranean branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association are holding their conference this week in Northern Ireland for the first time. I bid them a very warm welcome. I know that you, Mr Speaker, will be attending the formal opening of the conference.
Members have already highlighted some of the work of the CPA; I want to mention other aspects of its role. One relates to conflicts around the world. The CPA works in partnership with the international community and with individual Parliaments and their Members to apply the expertise of Commonwealth parliamentarians to the task of managing conflicts.
On that issue, we in Northern Ireland have something to give back to the international community, from which we have received support and encouragement over the years — and sometimes interference, as the First Minister suggested in his speech at the opening ceremony here last week. Nevertheless, we have the opportunity to contribute to conflict management in the Commonwealth.
The range of the CPA’s programmes reflects its commitment to human rights and the widest possible democratic participation in governance. I echo the Member for East Antrim Mr Neeson in saying that it would be good to see the Irish Republic joining the Commonwealth of Nations. There is a place for the Republic there, and I hope that in this new environment we will see it coming forward and joining the Common-wealth, bringing the Irish Parliament into the CPA so that it too can make a contribution in that forum.
In 1996, the CPA became one of the sponsor organisations of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, collaborating closely in order to further the Commonwealth’s human rights and democracy agenda.
The CPA works with the World Trade Organization, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the European Parliament and the parliamentary network of the World Bank to raise awareness of international trade issues. Although Parliaments and parliamentarians have long been asked to support their Governments’ trade policies and to enact legislation implementing the results of trade negotiations, until recently, MPs and MLAs had virtually no involvement in, or knowledge of, the international trading system that determines the future of their communities. That began to change in 2003, largely through the work of the CPA.
The CPA is also involved with the tragic impact of HIV/AIDS, particularly in Africa. The CPA works with the international community and parliamentarians, analysing the impact of HIV/AIDS to determine what Parliaments can do to alleviate its effects. Members of the CPA have regularly discussed the issue with experts at Commonwealth parliamentary conferences since 2000, and the CPA has convened a study group on the role of parliamentarians in combating the HIV/AIDS pandemic. It has also sent parliamentarians to inter-parliamentary workshops in Pakistan and South Africa to discuss ways to strengthen Parliaments’ role in combating issues related to HIV/AIDS. A survey of Commonwealth Parliaments is under way to establish what parliamentary activities have been undertaken and what legislation has been passed to deal with the disease.
It is appropriate that on this day, when Northern Ireland hosts a CPA conference for the first time, we as an Assembly should reapply for membership of the CPA. It will help the Assembly to take on a role in the wider international community and allow us to give something of our collective talents towards international development and co-operation. I support the motion.
Mr Kennedy: Mr Speaker, I join with other Members and extend my warm congratulations to you on your election as Speaker. I look forward to a happy relationship with you, and I wish you all the very best.
I am heartened by the level of agreement on this motion. As the Assembly establishes, or re-establishes, its membership of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, it is appropriate to remind Members that the association’s overall aims are to:
“promote knowledge of the constitutional, legislative, economic, social and cultural aspects of parliamentary democracy, with particular reference to the countries of the Commonwealth of Nations.”
Those are laudable aims, and Members should be very happy to be associated with them.
I have taken great comfort from the level of agreement among the Members who have spoken. I pay particular tribute to my colleague, Rev Robert Coulter, who moved the motion, not only for his background knowledge of the issue, but for his ongoing and long-standing commitment to the work of the CPA. That commitment has been widely known and is now widely respected.
Currently, 169 Parliaments, Assemblies and legislatures are associated in some shape or form with the CPA, and, as Members of the Assembly, we want to play a more active part in that organisation.
I also welcome the remarks of the First Minister. As well as wishing good health to himself and Her Majesty The Queen, in what might be called the over-80s’ club, I had rather hoped that he would extend wishes of good health to all Members of the Assembly. However, I am sure that that is the case.
I was interested in the contribution made by the representative from Sinn Féin, Mitchel McLaughlin, who accepted that Members of the Assembly are genuinely interested in the CPA and see benefit for all from renewing the Assembly’s membership. It was a helpful contribution, as was that of Alban Maginness.
In the past, members of the SDLP have been very active in attending meetings and conferences organised by the CPA. Mr Maginness made the important point that membership of the CPA should not be an opportunity, or should not be seen to be an opportunity, for Members to indulge in junkets. That is not the intention. There is important business to be transacted, including the exchange of information and ideas among parliamentarians. Indeed, membership gives the staff of the Parliaments and Assemblies the opportunity to engage with, and learn from, one another. Under no circumstances should it be seen simply as an opportunity to get additional stamps on one’s passport.
I also welcome Mr Neeson’s contribution. He made the good point that politics is happening increasingly on a local basis. It will assist all of us greatly if the Assembly re-engages with the CPA.
I pay tribute to Jim Wells for his contribution to the work of the CPA during the Assembly’s first mandate. He was always very enthusiastic, and one hopes that he will be given the opportunity to re-engage in the work of CPA. However, at the moment, he may be under a cloud in some quarters, and there might be punishment involved that might not allow that to happen immediately. Jim, hopefully, it will happen soon. [Laughter.]
I echo the comments of Members —
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mr Kennedy: Thank you very much for your indulgence, Mr Speaker.
Mr Moutray: Mr Speaker, I join other Members in congratulating you on your elevation to your post. I look forward to working with you in your capacity as Chairperson of the Assembly Commission.
I welcome the opportunity to debate the possibility of the Assembly’s rejoining the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the work of which is varied. Through participation in Commonwealth Parliamentary Association programmes, parliamentarians are able to champion socio-economic reforms and promote good governance, not only in their own jurisdictions but in the international community. Parliamentarians can contribute to shaping poverty-reduction strategy papers that can be implemented in poorer Commonwealth — and other — nations through the World Bank Institute and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Those parliamentarians can improve the conservation of scarce Government financial resources through advances in parliamentary scrutiny and public spending, and they can implement and reinforce effective measures to curb corruption so that valuable resources go to where they are most needed — the poorest in all societies.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)
CPA programmes link parliamentarians with poverty-reduction strategy papers through the World Bank Institute. Workshops on public spending and poverty reduction have been held in west Africa, with funding from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development. In partnership with the World Bank Institute, national workshops in Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria were followed by a regional workshop to strengthen participating Parliaments’ capacities to deal with poverty issues.
Poverty reduction is now commonly part of CPA post-election seminars. Newly elected members can learn directly from experienced parliamentarians and World Bank Institute officials about what their countries are doing to reduce poverty and about how they can participate in that process. Commonwealth members have debated poverty-related issues such as: achieving the millennium development goals of the United Nations; eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; how Parliaments and civil society can work together to achieve poverty reduction; and the link between poverty and human security.
CPA programmes have ensured that scrutiny of public spending has now been recognised as playing a crucial and practical role in the fight against poverty. Members, Governments, international aid donors and global financial agencies now acknowledge that better parliamentary oversight leads to better policy formulation and programme delivery.
The CPA has focused parliamentary and international attention on the vital role of public accounts committees in strengthening Parliaments’ scrutiny functions. In discussions with the experts in the field, members have learned more about scrutiny techniques, including the presentation of budgets and their processes through Parliaments, and the role and status of poverty-reduction policies and their impact on the budgetary process.
Various matters of importance for increasing efficiency in oversight and financial scrutiny have been highlighted. Those include adequate resourcing for oversight institutions, collaboration with departmental parlia-mentary committees, the relationship between public accounts committees and auditors general, and the opening of committee meetings to the public media.
The CPA and World Bank Institute are developing a programme to ensure that all parliamentary committees are equipped to deliver effective financial oversight of Executives. Allied to its work on the oversight of public spending is the CPA’s programme to help parliamentarians — and, through them, their Governments — to develop effective ways to curb corruption and to ensure that civil services have a culture of providing efficient and ethical governmental services. It is for those and many other reasons that we should support the Assembly’s rejoining the CPA.
Rev Dr Robert Coulter: It is encouraging to hear support from all sides of the House for the motion, and I welcome the understanding that there will be no opposition to it. I thank all Members who have spoken in support of the motion. I ask that the relevant bodies expedite this matter so that the Assembly can rejoin a great and distinguished body as soon as possible.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly agrees to re-apply for admission to membership of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, such membership to be effective immediately on approval of the application by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and to abide by the provisions of the constitution of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association; that the required membership fee be paid to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association; and that this motion be communicated to the secretariat of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association immediately following agreement.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate, the Member proposing the motion having a maximum of 10 minutes to propose and a further 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
One amendment has been published on the Marshalled List. The Member proposing the amendment will have 10 minutes in which to do so and five minutes for the winding-up speech.
I remind Members of the procedures and protocol regarding maiden contributions, as Ms McCann is about to make her maiden speech.
Ms J McCann: I beg to move
That this Assembly expresses serious concerns about the under-representation of women in the Assembly and calls on all parties to commit themselves to addressing the situation; and for the establishment of an all-party working group to discuss these and other issues that have a negative impact on women; and further calls on an incoming Executive to fully implement and resource a comprehensive strategy to tackle the under-representation of women in political life.
Ba mhaith liom an rún a mholadh.
I welcome the opportunity to take part in this important debate on the under-representation of women in the Assembly. In Ireland today, women are still not fully represented in either national politics or in local government decision-making structures. Men continue to dominate all our cultural, social, economic, legal and political institutions.
The following statistics graphically illustrate that inequality. In Ireland as a whole, women make up 51% of the population, yet in the North of Ireland only 16·7% of MLAs and 21·3% of local councillors are women. In the South of Ireland only 13% of TDs and only 15% of elected councillors are women. In this Chamber, only 18 out of 108 MLAs are women — all of whom have been elected because of their abilities and their contributions to political life.
The statistics show that women are seriously under-represented at all levels in the decision-making process. Such under-representation does not happen by accident but is caused by inequalities of power, which are deepened by other factors such as poverty, educational disadvantage, lack of access to housing and appropriate healthcare, violence, rural isolation, inaccessibility for people with disabilities, racism and ageism. It will take political vision and will to change that, but it can be done.
The primary benchmark in relation to women’s engagement with, and representation in, politics is the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women, which took place in 1995 in Beijing. That conference identified two key strategic objectives: to ensure women’s equal access to, and full participation in, power structures and decision-making; and to increase women’s capacity to participate in decision-making and leadership. It also proposed actions to be taken by Governments, political parties, all other concerned parties and the United Nations itself to facilitate those objectives.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that:
“Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country”.
The Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women also seeks to progress women’s rights in respect of politics. However, women are still largely under-represented at all levels of government. Furthermore, they have made little progress in attaining political power in legislative bodies.
All political parties have a responsibility to ensure that more women are elected to the Assembly and other political institutions. Political parties can and should adapt strategies to increase the number of successful women candidates by using positive action in their recruitment and selection processes to ensure that we are all working towards achieving 50:50 parity. The playing field is not even at the moment, and we should not pretend that it is.
Political parties can engage with women’s organisations that work at encouraging and supporting women to enable them to become more involved in political life. However, there is real need for an all-party group to examine all the issues that lead to under-representation.
All of us in this Chamber can reflect on at least one woman who has had a positive role in shaping and directing our future. Our mothers, sisters, wives, partners and daughters have at some stage contributed towards making us into the people we are, yet despite all the strategies and policies adopted by Government to promote gender equality, extensive discrimination against women in all areas of life still exists. Women bring a great contribution to the development of society. It is incumbent on all agencies to ensure that all possible mechanisms for advancing gender equality are used rigorously.
The under-representation of women in politics and public life has a negative impact on politics and on society as a whole. Women constitute a diverse group with many talents, life experiences and positive attributes to bring to the world of politics. Equality and human rights are at the core of the Good Friday Agreement, and we must ensure that equality for women is a priority. An Ireland of equals can be achieved only in the context of full equality for women.
The female MLAs in this Chamber can be positive role models for women to become involved in politics, but it is not their responsibility alone. Everyone in the Chamber has a responsibility to ensure that the barriers to women’s participation in all aspects of political life are removed. Gender discrimination and equality for women are issues of concern for us all. Therefore, I call on the Assembly to support the motion.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I have received one amendment to the motion —
Ms Ní Chuilín: Le do thoil, a LeasCheann Comhairle. On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. If the gender equality strategy has indeed been adopted by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM), it will cut across all the Departments and the Executive. However, if it has not been adopted, is the amendment competent?
Mr Deputy Speaker: We do not have any advice from OFMDFM. That will be sought, but at this stage I am advised that the Speaker has accepted the amendment as being a competent amendment.
I remind Members that this is Miss McIlveen’s maiden speech, and that therefore it should be heard uninterrupted.
Mr McNarry: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. In the light of what you have just said, is it your intention that, if a vote should be taken, the information that the Speaker requires as to the amendment’s competence will be relevant to the vote? On this side of the House we should like to hear from Miss McIlveen, and it is a relevant amendment, but if uncertainty exists as to its competence, is it fair to put the House through the strain of hearing it? Is it not possible to give advice now as to the relevance of the amendment?
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Speaker is satisfied that the amendment is competent, and we will continue with the debate.
Miss McIlveen: I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “situation” and insert
“; recognises the commitment of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to implementing the Gender Equality Strategy; and believes that individuals should obtain positions on merit, otherwise the argument for greater representation from women can be diminished.”
In order that the Assembly can truly represent the views of Northern Ireland’s electorate, it should be reflective of the demographics of that electorate. That is a truism. Sadly, however, only 16·7% of the Members of the Assembly are women. If this were an accurate refection of the electorate, the human race would be approaching extinction.
I welcome this debate. Like many others in the Chamber, I am concerned about the under-representation of women, not only in the Assembly but in each stratum of political life, and this is an opportunity to express those concerns. The motion proposes the establishment of an all-party working group to discuss the under-representation of women in this Assembly, along with other issues that have a negative impact on women. That is duplication rather than additionality. Such issues are within the remit of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister through the gender equality strategy.
Indeed, four Members of this Chamber spoke at a conference in November 2006 at Hillsborough Castle, organised by the Secretary of State and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, that specifically addressed the issues faced by women and the problems in the political system in Northern Ireland. We still await the report pertaining to that conference.
What more would the establishment of a working group hope to achieve? If it is the hope that a quota system be imposed on the parties, I find such a proposal an insult to my gender. As a female representative, I feel that the honour of being selected by my party to stand, and my subsequent election to this Assembly by the Strangford electorate, would be tarnished if that selection were the result of an enforced quota system and not on merit. I wish to be judged on my abilities and not on my gender.
Over the past two years, I have been actively involved in the Women in Local Councils initiative, which has placed the issue on the agenda, and I have been encouraged by the progress that has been made. As a woman, I am conscious of the difficulties that can be faced. That said, however, those same difficulties are faced by many of my male colleagues. We need a working environment that encourages new people to enter local government and retains them once they have been elected. It is from local government that future MLAs can be cultivated. The current working environment is too inflexible; it needs to be able to accommodate a life outside of it.
The traditional role of the woman as the sole carer for the family while the man is at work has long since gone. Those responsibilities are now shared. We do not assist the cause of converting more women to the idea of running for civic office by continually concentrating on negatives, particularly when those negatives, such as conflict with work and time away from the family, are the same for men as they are for women.
There has been much talk of the problem of getting women selected, of old-fashioned attitudes and of the need for mentoring and capacity-building. However, the primary problem is that women do not seek elected office; it is overthrowing that obstacle that is most important. Society is now willing to accept and elect female politicians, if only more could be encouraged to appear on the ballot paper. Forcing them onto the ballot paper is not the answer. Parties need to look within to address any lingering prejudices that may persist. The DUP has a growing female representation, and we are proud of the achievements in our party. Our challenge is to highlight the talents of candidates, irrespective of gender, and promote on the basis of merit. Furthermore, parties must assist with fluidity of movement throughout their ranks by implementing the correct supportive measures. For those reasons, I ask the House to support the amendment.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I call Mr Basil McCrea. I remind Members that this is Mr McCrea’s maiden speech and should therefore be heard without interruption.
Mr B McCrea: I am grateful for this opportunity to address the House. I listened with some interest to Miss McIlveen’s speech, and I concur with much of what she said. The real issue is one of equality of opportunity, but selection on merit. There is no doubt that this is an issue for all Members.
The Ulster Unionist Party, in common with many other parties, has sought ways of dealing with the issue. One need only look at what Mr Cameron has tried to achieve with his A-list. Apparently, he has managed to identify the key criteria that make up ideal political candidates of either gender. Perhaps something that we ought to consider for future reference is that all political representatives should go through that kind of test. Of course, even though Mr Cameron has been successful in getting women selected in 43 out of his 107 most winnable seats, it has not been without its difficulties.
The Labour Party also tried to deal with this issue. It has had all-women lists, twinning of constituencies and zipping, yet its disappointment at the Blaenau Gwent by-election result shows that the public do not take kindly to having candidates foisted upon them.
Returning to the local situation — and there was the sad demise of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition — research was carried out on this issue, and some notable statistics emerged.
First of all, 70% of men and women do not care about the gender of the person who represents them. Secondly — and this point was touched on earlier — 70% of people thought that women either chose not to put themselves forward or chose to put their family before a career in politics. In other words, we are talking about female choice. We have a challenge: we have to encourage a greater number of qualified women to come into politics.
I want to pick up on a point that my colleague made earlier. It is a little strange that other parties whose members have already contributed to the debate have actually deselected sitting female MLAs and replaced them with men.
Some Members: Who?
Mr B McCrea: This issue is one for everybody, and we do not intend to duck it — and to answer the MLAs who are interrupting, Norah Beare MLA was deselected and replaced by an all-male constituency slate, and in Newry and Armagh, Pat O’Rawe was deselected and replaced by a man. If we get to a situation — [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Let the Member speak. I remind Members that this speech should not be interrupted.
Mr B McCrea: We want to attract more women into politics, but we have to consider the political system that is in place. Under the system, we have seen vote management and a very impressive display in West Belfast. It does not matter who is selected, because the vote is a vote for the party. It is therefore difficult to understand why the gender of candidates is important.
The Ulster Unionist Party believes in selecting people in a less draconian way than other parties present in the Chamber. [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind Members that Mr McCrea is making his maiden speech. As such, it should be uninterrupted, yet we have had several interruptions.
Mr B McCrea: We have to encourage more people to take an interest in politics. That will be a challenge, because 50% of people out there have no interest in politics, and the other 50% believe that they were conned over the past four or five weeks. People in this Chamber were elected on a manifesto that they are not now keeping to. If we want to encourage women into politics, we have to show them that politics actually works.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Your time is up, Mr McCrea.
Mrs D Kelly: It appears that the Member for Lagan Valley touched something of a raw nerve among Members on the DUP Benches.
I have been in local politics for the past 14 years, and it has not been easy. It has involved many sacrifices. I am sure that some of our male colleagues will have made sacrifices too, but the fact remains that women continue to bear the brunt of family responsibilities — caring for children and for others who depend on us for their healthcare and social care.
Mr McCrea spoke about the electorate, and the proposer of the motion pointed out that 51% of the population of the island of Ireland is female. Mr McCrea suggested that people would vote for whomever they wanted to. However, the electorate is increasingly disengaged from democracy. Why is that? Well, when people look at their political role models, they see far too many men. Positive action is required to bring women into politics, because there are not enough opportunities or support mechanisms for them. In Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and right across Europe, we have seen that positive action works.
The SDLP does not support the amendment. For several years, we have adopted a policy of affirmative action and have put forward more female candidates in previous Assembly elections than any other party. Women make up over 40% of our representation at local council level and in SDLP party structures.
What is the case for gender equality? An increase in the number of women elected to the Assembly would lead to a higher quality of decision-making, reflecting the greater diversity of experience of those making decisions. Evidence from the newly devolved institutions in Scotland and Wales highlights that a relatively high number of people have had a discernable impact on shaping their policy agendas.
We should be mindful of that point, particularly today, when it has been revealed that 100,000 children in Northern Ireland are living in poverty. That represents a huge challenge to us all. That is one good reason why more women should be engaged in local politics.
Representation plays a greatly symbolic role. It is important for decision-makers to be effective role models and to be truly representative of their electors. Women make up 51% of the electorate. There are far too few women in this Chamber, and too few parties are taking the matter seriously. The SDLP supports the motion.
Mrs Long: It is a sad state of affairs when the only maidens on the Ulster Unionist Benches are their maiden speakers. That is something that the party should consider — that we have better representation.
Mr Kennedy: Would you like to join?
Mrs Long: I shall decline that kind invitation.
Mr Kennedy: You lot have changed parties before.
Mrs Long: The Ulster Unionist Party tends to shed, rather than gain, Members during any Assembly term. If any of that party’s members would like to come in our direction and join a party with better representation, we would certainly welcome them.
Democracy is best served when the elected cohort reflects wider society. I do not believe that the current cohort does that in respect of gender representation or in respect of people with disabilities, people from ethnic minority backgrounds, young people and, indeed, many other groups in society who look at this Chamber and do not see anyone who reflects their individual interests and concerns. The Member for Strangford said that if the Assembly were an accurate reflection of society, society would become extinct. Dare I suggest that there are people outside the Chamber who would say that, if that were the case, it would not be a bad thing?
I am disappointed with the motion in that it is very narrow and considers only the issue of gender, whereas representational democracy needs to look at a much broader range of subject matters. The amendment is also extremely narrow, which I will talk about later.
Most people agree that there is a need to have a more representative democracy. However, the debate will centre not on the wording of the motion — which I am quite comfortable with — but the wording of the speeches that have taken the debate a step further. We have now entered the realms of saying that, rather than needing to investigate whether barriers exist to women entering politics, we accept that those barriers do exist and that the way to get around them is so-called positive discrimination.
I do not believe that discrimination can ever be positive; if someone is promoted for the wrong reasons, it will always have a negative effect on someone else. Discrimination is therefore always negative. In that sense, the amendment is very strong on the fundamental principle of merit — that people should be promoted on the basis of ability and nothing else. However, the amendment stops short and cuts across the original motion at the wrong point by eliminating any sense of responsibility for taking forward the work to create a level playing field. It is that aspect of the amendment that makes me uncomfortable.
Many things that stop well short of engineering equality of outcome can, and should, be done to create equality of opportunity. That is where attention should be focused.
I have some issues with regard to the speeches so far. I agree with the proposer of the amendment about the language that is used and the gender stereotyping. For example, at meetings where getting women more involved in politics is discussed, much of the time is spent talking about childcare responsibilities. Although that is not an issue for me, as I am not a parent, it is for many women, and it is a huge issue for some of my male colleagues, who are parents. Therefore, in our language and in how we address such issues, we must base our examination of the barriers to people’s participation in politics on the issue rather than on a presumption that is based on a gender-biased approach.
Furthermore, we should examine societal change, and I do not agree that, at the moment, parents share full responsibility for their children or for wider caring responsibilities in the family. That is where we should be heading; however, we are not there yet, so those societal issues must be addressed.
Parties should also examine such matters as succession planning. Many of the people in this Chamber have been here for a long time. Change through those parties is more difficult to see, because there is no natural turnover.
My sympathy lies with the amendment, but I cannot support it for the following reason. The last sentence says that:
“the argument for greater representation from women can be diminished.”
I do not believe that that is true. The argument for better representation of women is a democratic imperative. The credibility of female Members can be undermined as a result of discrimination, as can the democratic process. I should prefer to see a move away from politics based on patronage, financial status, class and gender bias; however, I do not believe that simply by reversing the direction of discrimination we will achieve that end.
Mr Weir: I support the amendment, and I am glad that the motion has been brought to the Assembly. Contributions to the debate have, so far, been good, although the Ulster Unionist Party was, as far as I am aware, the only party in the Chamber to reduce the number of female candidates in the last election to the Assembly. The words “kettle” and “pot” come to mind, therefore, when the hon Member for Lagan Valley from that party decides to lecture the rest of us on the issue of encouraging more female representation.
As someone who, through the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) and the Women in Local Councils initiative, has been involved in the issue for some time, I welcome this debate. It should not be pigeon-holed as “female Members of the Assembly”. It affects all of us, whether at council or Assembly level. If we do not have a system, and if we are not fully representative of the community as a whole, we do not harness the full talents of that community. Consequently, the ability and the opportunity, at Assembly or council level, to ensure that we have the best possible solutions to problems are diminished.
A joint survey by NILGA and the National Association of Councillors (NAC) was carried out in 2005 at local council level. It indicated that female representation in Northern Ireland, although lower than in England, was similar to that in Scotland and in Wales. It was said earlier that 21% of our councillors are female.
Although the figure for those returning to local government who had previously been councillors was around 17%, one encouraging statistic from that survey was that the figure for new councillors in Northern Ireland was approximately 30% to 31%. Although that does not reach equality, it does show that things are at least moving in the right direction. However, we must be on our guard to ensure that women, particularly those who were brought in at the last election, are encouraged to remain in the system.
In the brief time remaining, I wish to address two matters, one in relation to the motion and the other to the amendment. In encouraging women into either local government or the Assembly, as was indicated by the proposer of the amendment, quota systems will be detrimental if women are not selected solely on merit. That may prove to be successful in obtaining some seats for women, but if those women are selected, and are seen to be selected, only to reach a party quota, what kind of message does that send out?
Tokenism will cause more harm to the furthering of women’s careers, and their selection should be purely on merit. As has been mentioned before, the Labour Party got a lot of PR out of the “Blair babes” in 1997, but, 10 years on, the number of female MPs in the Labour Party is fewer than it was in 1997. Many of those women were brought in, and were seen to be being brought in, on an unequal basis. Consequently, that diminished their opportunity for authority.
Mention has also been mention made of the all-party group. As someone who has been involved with women in local councils, I have seen various organisations, such as Women Into Politics and the Northern Ireland Rural Women’s Network, all of which do a very good job. However, we must move away from the idea that if we need to do something about an issue, we need to form a committee. Instead, we need action and practical measures. Encouraging women into politics is more about delivering than constantly forming strategies.
Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?
Mr Weir: Unfortunately, I will have to decline that kind offer as I have only five minutes.
The Member who spoke previously mentioned the need to look at childcare facilities, for example, but that is not the be-all and end-all. Sometimes, particularly with female representation, people tend to look at the matter as at one stereotype, as has been previously indicated. We have to cater for the fact that if we are to encourage as many women into politics as possible — indeed, encourage many people into politics — we have to have flexibility to cover everyone’s personal circumstances. Therefore, for example, simply adopting family-friendly hours may create a situation in which those involved in a career opportunity — and this is particularly true at council level — find themselves excluded from joining councils. We have to ensure flexibility so that all are covered.
The priority has to be assisting entry — not legislating quota systems to make the numbers look good. We have to look beyond a candidate’s gender and get to the root of the problem of how we can put in place a strategy that encourages women. We should not be distracting ourselves with quotas; rather we should be highlighting the potential needs of everyone.
I support the amendment.
Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
Before I address the amendment to the motion I would take this opportunity to congratulate you on your elevation to the post of Deputy Speaker on this your first Assembly sitting as Deputy Speaker.
I am speaking in favour of the motion and against the amendment, because the latter does not go far enough. It negates the original proposal in that it stops a working group being formed. That is what is important about this. We can have this one-hour debate today, and we can present anecdotal evidence and studies before us. We can go away saying that we had a debate around women in politics and that we have passed a party strategy that will come through the Executive. We can say that we are not sure when it will coming but that it is there. The responsibility to ensure that women can get into politics on a fair and equitable basis rests with each and every one of us. That is what the working group should be about. The working group should go away, study the issues and look at all the various opinions in this Chamber. Sinn Féin has its own views on how to move forward on the matter, as do the Alliance Party, the DUP and the Ulster Unionists, apparently. Those views should go to the working group, and we should return to the Chamber and debate reports on the way forward that emerge from that group.
If we neglect 51% of the population on the island of Ireland, in terms of political representation, we will have failed. We can go no further. We have spent many years trying to ensure that we enter a parliamentary body here that is as representative of the people as possible. We now have to ensure that it is as representative as possible of both the genders on the island of Ireland. My mother often told me after I was elected that it was she who drummed my social conscience into me — and she was right. She often reminded me that her generation did not have a chance to have a voice. She was correct in that. We have to ensure that this generation of women has a voice. People should not be standing up on their behalf, but women should be speaking in the Chamber not only about women’s issues but on all the complex issues that will be raised in the Assembly in the weeks and months ahead.
Why do women not seek elected office? Is it because they do not want to be politicians, because they do not have ideas, or because they do not have thoughts and principles on the way in which society should be formed? Of course they do. However, we cannot stand over a statement that says that women do not seek elected office, and then move away from that statement; nor can we say that quota systems do not work because women do not seek elected office. Sinn Féin’s view of the quota system is that every women on the list is there through merit and not because they are women. Sinn Féin ensures that those women are then placed in winnable seats.
The SDLP makes much of the fact that it had more women candidates in the last election than any other party. The vast majority of those women stood in constituencies where there was no chance of their being elected. There must be a responsibility to ensure that women are placed in constituencies where they will be elected and eventually end up in the Chamber to make a contribution.
I am not making a case for dismissing the amendment because it does not come from Sinn Féin or because it comes from the DUP. The amendment has fundamental flaws. It would cut out a working group, and the gender equality strategy does not particularly refer to women in politics. The motion proposes that we ensure that we get women into politics. The gender equality strategy covers a much wider remit and has its own place, but it is not specific to the issue. Therefore, I support the motion and oppose the amendment.
Mr Beggs: I support the amendment. The principle of equality of opportunity must be maintained, and Members must be appointed on merit. The Ulster Unionist Party does not want quotas. I was disappointed at the number of female Assembly candidates put forward for election and the number that have been elected. The Ulster Unionist Party is already addressing that issue by carrying out a major review.
Several Members have had a go at the Ulster Unionist Party and its all-male Benches. The Ulster Unionist Party could easily have had a female Assembly Member if its MP for North Down had stood, and I have no doubt that she would have been elected. However, would that have been good for her constituents? She cannot be in Westminster and in the Assembly at the same time, and I respect her decision not to stand. I hope that people will appreciate that and stop using that fact as an opportunity to have a whack at the Ulster Unionist Party.
The Assembly must be more gender-representative of the community. I will give Members an example of an area in which males, for some reason, have not become involved, which can be easily overlooked. In my constituency, I am involved in children’s and young people’s issues. I am involved in a Sure Start scheme in the Carrickfergus and Larne area, and frequently I am the only male member attending committee meetings, as males overlook those issues. Females are more aware of those important issues and could bring them to the Assembly at a higher level than males. That is just one example.
What can be done? Individual parties must address the issue. Some female candidates have been reluctant to put themselves forward for election, and all parties must address that issue. Parties should provide training and support, and encourage more women to put themselves forward for election to councils, the Assembly, Westminster and the European Parliament.
I agree that quotas are not the way forward and would be demeaning to women, and many women political activists to whom I have spoken agree with that viewpoint.
I agree with other Members that the next local government election should be seen as the most likely launching pad for many new female careers. Undoubtedly, local government is the level at which new people can become involved more easily, and if, in two years’ time, there are many more successful female candidates, I have no doubt that in the two years after that, the make-up of the Assembly will change. To have more female candidates at council, Assembly or whatever level should be a target for all those involved in politics.
Mr K Robinson: Does the Member agree that the Ulster Unionist group on Newtownabbey Borough Council is an example to follow? The majority of UUP members on the last council were female, including the leader and, in 2000, the mayor. On the current council there is 50:50 gender representation in that group, with the chief whip and the leader both being female. Surely that is an example for all to follow.
Mr Beggs: I agree. That is a very good example that should be replicated throughout Northern Ireland.
To return to the issue of double-jobbing, which is a big issue affecting gender balance, there are 18 Northern Ireland MPs, of which 15 are male and three are female, including one female who has decided not to stand again. What happens when an MP stands for a local council or for the Assembly? One can weigh the votes. Double- and treble-jobbing is one of the greatest issues creating gender imbalance in the Assembly and at local government level.
Mr Weir: Will the Member give way?
Mr Beggs: I need to continue, as I am nearly out of time.
It is important that the issue of double-jobbing be addressed so that constituents can be properly represented in the Assembly and at Westminster. It is impossible for one person to properly represent several bodies at once.
If we are serious about the problem of the under-representation of women in politics, the practical issue of double- and treble-jobbing provides one way to address the problem. I see that some Members are touchy about that issue. What happens when a male Member of Parliament stands for the Assembly with an all-male team? Often, three or four of that team will be elected. A debate on the mechanisms that allow MPs to stand for multiple bodies could improve the gender balance by leading to the creation of vacancies.
Ms Purvis: As the only female party leader in the UK, and perhaps the British Isles, I support the motion over the amendment. Members have spoken about equality of opportunity, against the issue of quotas and in favour of the merit principle — I would like to see equality of outcomes.
In the community that I come from, women are still the main carers; they still have responsibility for looking after children or elderly relatives who may be ill, along with children or other relatives who may have severe learning disabilities. In my community, women still have the main responsibility for domestic chores — looking after the house, cleaning, washing and cooking. They still earn less than men: it was recently reported that, on average, women earn 80% of a man’s weekly wage. We have not even achieved equality of opportunity, never mind outcome.
Certain Members have talked about the “presumption” that women are still the main carers. It is not a presumption but a fact that women are still the main carers right across the board. It is a fact that they still have responsibility for housekeeping, and it is a fact that they still earn less than men.
Even though women make up more than 51% of the population, we do not have 51% representation in this Assembly. In fact, I do not believe that we have 51% representation in any of the Houses across the United Kingdom.
I do not particularly agree with quotas, but they could be useful where there is reluctance to examine the barriers that are faced by women. The use of quotas could be an important measure to make people look at the structural difficulties that women face. The introduction of quotas may come about. They could always be revised once equal representation has been achieved.
I would like to see this Assembly endorsing politics as a real career choice for women, because currently it is not. In my community, women would run a mile in the opposite direction at the mention of politics as a career. That is because they face many barriers when it comes to having a career in politics.
They face emotional and practical barriers. I am a great believer in the idea that if the practical barriers are sorted out, the emotional barriers that prevent women from taking their rightful place in the politics of this country will also be removed.
Lack of confidence is one emotional barrier that women face. Moreover, their role as children’s main carers means that they feel guilty about leaving their children in order to go to work. That happens not only in politics but across the board. However, if we remove the practical barriers that women face daily, those emotional barriers can be overcome.
The House has gone a long way to dealing with the practical barriers that women face in becoming involved in politics. The Assembly holds its plenary sittings and Committee meetings during the day, not at night. It provides childcare facilities and ensures that women can afford childcare that is of a proper quality. That provision helps to ease the emotional barriers that women encounter when they have to leave children or elderly dependants in order to attend meetings.
Mr Weir mentioned the “Blair babes”. He said that for the Labour Party to get so many women elected in 1997 had been a great achievement, but he went on to ask where they are now. Where are they now? They are no longer in Parliament because the structures necessary to support them did not change. It was great, then, to get women into Parliament at Westminster, but no support mechanisms were set up to ensure that they remained there. The Assembly has support mechanisms in place to ensure that women stay here. We must do more, however, and that is why I support the motion. The Assembly should support projects that encourage women to follow a career in politics, such as Women in Politics and Girls into Government (GIG). GIG works with working-class teenage girls to give them an opportunity to learn what politics is about. It exposes them to politics, and it plans to bring them up to the Assembly to see what is happening.
Mrs Foster: Although I understand the frustration that some of my female colleagues have expressed, we must recognise that devolution holds out the prospect not only of more females becoming involved in politics but of more young people becoming involved, and, as my Friend Naomi Long has said, more people from ethnic minorities and people with disabilities. That positive exists now that devolution has returned.
A low percentage of women may have been elected to the Chamber, but we must remember that the percentage of women Ministers compared to the number of MLAs is much higher. That is a tribute to the party leaders. Of the five main parties, it is notable that it is my party leader who is the only one who has been present for the entire debate. I therefore thank him for taking an interest in the debate on female participation in politics.
We have a comprehensive strategy to tackle the under-representation of women in, as has been said, all parts of life — the gender equality strategy that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister introduced some time ago. I welcomed that strategy at the time, and, as far as I understand, the Executive have not resiled from the commitment to that strategy that parties made during suspension. I see no prospect of their resiling from that commitment — a point that was raised at the beginning of the debate. We should not use finite resources to reinvent the wheel when we have a gender equality strategy already in place.
I wish to touch briefly on some points that were raised during the debate. Basil McCrea talked about equality of opportunity and selection based on merit. After that, his speech descended into a farce of Monty Python proportions. Dolores Kelly talked about support mechanisms to allow women to come through the system, and she also talked about comparative figures from other Administrations. Naomi Long dealt with the fact that the elected cohort here does not represent women in the way in which it should do. She also stated that women should be promoted on the basis of ability. She felt that language needed to be looked at, and, as a result, she felt unable to support the amendment.
My colleague Peter Weir reflected on his experience as president of NILGA and its Women in Local Councils programme. I commend his leadership in that area. He also mentioned the need for action instead of simply setting up committees or working groups.
John O’Dowd spoke in favour of the motion and against the amendment. He felt that because the gender equality strategy covers all issues, it is not focused enough to deal with the issue of the under-representation of women in politics.
Roy Beggs supported the amendment and tried to defend his party’s lack of female MLAs by pointing to the fact that Sylvia Hermon had decided not to run for an Assembly seat. I acknowledge that, although 100% of the Ulster Unionist Party’s MLAs are male, 100% of its MPs are female. [Laughter.]
Dawn Purvis is the only female leader in the House, and she supported the motion. She focused on equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity. She does not agree with quotas, and she talked about some of the barriers women in politics face.
There are many reasons for women not getting involved in politics, and Dawn Purvis dealt with some of them. Some obvious reasons are the aggressive nature of politics, the misogynistic attitudes of some male politicians, the long hours involved and women’s lack of self-belief. Many women feel that they do not have all of the necessary skills and therefore take a back seat. That does not seem to prevent our male colleagues — I am not looking at anyone in particular. [Laughter.]
All those issues can be overcome, but I genuinely do not believe that a working group will encourage more women to get involved in politics. More DUP female voices are being raised at every level. I know that colleagues in the Assembly, both male and female, will continue to encourage and sustain those women who put themselves forward. As a party, we take the issue of female participation very seriously. I genuinely believe that now that the Assembly is up and running, more women will enter political life.
However, Members must face the fact that not everybody wants to get involved in politics. Just as some mothers want to stay at home, others will go out to work. We must facilitate choice, so that everyone has equality of opportunity to come forward. Yes, we should make it easier for women to participate in political life, but setting up working groups is not the way forward.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. This motion is about setting up a working group. Many Members have commented on gender equality and gender imbalance, and some of those comments have been relevant and interesting. However, this is not a debate about gender equality; this is a debate about establishing a working group. At this very moment, the International Development All Party Assembly Group is meeting, and, in the past, working groups have focused on children and young people, disability, autism, and so on. Thus, when Members felt strongly enough about an issue, the Assembly decided to establish a working group to examine the issue further on a cross-party basis.
I understand that some parties feel that promoting the idea of a working group — and any actions that may arise from it — might be a bridge too far. I can reveal, without fear of contradiction, that, at the last Business Committee meeting, one of my male colleagues made an underhand remark about a woman’s place being in the kitchen. Therefore, I am not surprised that some Members do not support the establishment of a working group. However, Members must take seriously their role as leaders, and political parties have a responsibility to make the first move. The establishment of a working group, and the implementation of any other initiatives that may arise from the work of this Assembly, can only complement that effort. However, such initiatives must not become a substitute for work that should begin in political parties.
Unless the Assembly shows leadership, initiatives such as the Women in Local Councils and the Women into Politics programmes will be put under even more pressure.
As far as I am aware, Belfast City Council is the only institution in which female members and female officials work together to resolve the issue. The council’s cross-party working group has worked well and has led by example.
Last week’s events mean that many people will look to the Assembly to see what type of leadership it will provide and whether its Members will act as positive role models. I welcome the opportunity to assist the Ulster Unionist Party in encouraging more women into politics. I and other Members do not want to look constantly at Benches that are male, pale and grey. Therefore I support the motion and reject the amendment.
Mr Kennedy: That is an accurate representation!
Ms Ní Chuilín: Take a wee lie down, Danny. [Laughter.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Ciúnas. Order.
Question put, that the amendment be made.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 44; Noes 43
Billy Armstrong, Roy Beggs, Allan Bresland, Lord Browne, Thomas Buchanan, Gregory Campbell, Trevor Clarke, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Jonathan Craig, Nigel Dodds, Jeffrey Donaldson, Alex Easton, Tom Elliott, Sir Reg Empey, Arlene Foster, Samuel Gardiner, Simon Hamilton, David Hilditch, William Irwin, Danny Kennedy, John McCallister, Basil McCrea, Ian McCrea, Dr William McCrea, Michael McGimpsey, Michelle McIlveen, David McNarry, Adrian McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Stephen Moutray, Robin Newton, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, George Robinson, Ken Robinson, George Savage, Jim Shannon, David Simpson, Jimmy Spratt, Mervyn Storey, Peter Weir, Jim Wells, Sammy Wilson.
Tellers for the Ayes: Arlene Foster and Michelle McIlveen.
Martina Anderson, Alex Attwood, Cathal Boylan, Dominic Bradley, Mary Bradley, P J Bradley, Mickey Brady, Francie Brolly, Thomas Burns, Paul Butler, Willie Clarke, John Dallat, Mark Durkan, Dr Stephen Farry, David Ford, Tommy Gallagher, Michelle Gildernew, Carmel Hanna, Dolores Kelly, Anna Lo, Naomi Long, Fra McCann, Jennifer McCann, Kieran McCarthy, Raymond McCartney, Dr Alasdair McDonnell, Barry McElduff, Claire McGill, Patsy McGlone, Daithí McKay, Mitchel McLaughlin, Alban Maginness, Alex Maskey, Conor Murphy, Sean Neeson, Carál Ní Chuilín, John O’Dowd, Declan O’Loan, Michelle O’Neill, Pat Ramsey, Sue Ramsey, Margaret Ritchie, Brian Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Paul Butler and Michelle O’Neill.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly expresses serious concerns about the under-representation of women in the Assembly and calls on all parties to commit themselves to addressing the situation; recognises the commitment of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to implementing the Gender Equality Strategy; and believes that individuals should obtain positions on merit, otherwise the argument for greater representation from women can be diminished.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one and a half hours for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to speak and 10 minutes to make the winding-up speech — [Interruption.]
Order. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes. Two amendments have been received and are published on the Marshalled List. If amendment No 1 is made, amendment No 2 will fall. The proposers of the amendments will each have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make their winding-up speeches.
Mr Dallat: I beg to move
That this Assembly calls upon the Department for Regional Development to bring forward their plans for upgrading the rail network to provide attractive inter-city services between the principal centres of population within Northern Ireland and onwards to the Republic of Ireland.
I am grateful for the opportunity to bring the motion before the House. It is some time since the previous Assembly found the money to invest in the new train sets that now serve the public in a style that was not previously possible. The public response to that investment has been encouraging, with the number of passengers using the Belfast to Derry line having doubled from half a million to one million a year. On other lines, business has increased by 30% or more, clearly indicating that when the level and reliability of rail transport improves, the public responds positively.
However, it would be a gross exaggeration to suggest that anything close to a proper intercity service that is capable of attracting a huge number of passengers away from road to rail transport has been achieved.
Since those new trains were introduced, interest in rail transport has increased to a new level in both parts of the island. Indeed, as the election campaign heats up in the Republic, it is clear that rail transport has become a major green issue — in the environmental sense, of course. Pipe dreams about extending rail facilities beyond Derry to Letterkenny and Sligo, thereby opening up the west, have become a possibility; indeed, dare I say, a reality.
That is good news for the whole island. Rail transport functions best when the network is comprehensive.
I acknowledge the co-operation of the councils served by the Belfast to Derry line, including Derry City Council and the Limavady, Coleraine, Ballymoney, Ballymena and Antrim borough councils, which encompass all the political parties.
Mr K Robinson: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I think that Newtownabbey Borough Council should also be included in that grouping.
Mr Deputy Speaker: That is not a point of order.
Mr Dallat: I gladly acknowledge Newtownabbey Borough Council’s contribution to the work.
By working together, the councils played a significant role in ensuring that plans to cut the line at Ballymena were not carried through, and some additional money was made available to carry out modest improvements — although not on the scale required to create a frequent, high-speed service. Translink is conducting an internal review, but that will not generate the kind of new money that is required to deliver what we now know will attract big numbers of commuters out of their cars, away from the roads and onto the railways.
In the future, unlike the past, the rail transport infrastructure must not be forced to compete with the day-to-day running expenses of the Assembly. The serious deficit will not be solved in the short or long term if it has to compete day and daily with, for instance, education and health. That is what happened in the past. Money for infrastructure — be it road, rail, sea or air — must come from separate ring-fenced resources, otherwise we will repeat the mistakes of the past and the deterioration will continue.
The motion is not only about the Belfast to Derry line, where, as I have said, there are huge opportunities for creating a new joined-up network in the west of Ireland that would bring about not only a positive contribution to the environment and a meaningful reduction in road fatalities but an enormous boost to our tourism industry. The rail network tangibly symbolises a new economic revival; it is a public statement of new confidence in the future. Let us use it to tell the world that we are on the move — advancing — and leaving behind the shackles of the past that prevented investment and encouraged decay.
A man once told me that there will be those who will be remembered for what they built, and there will be those who will be forgotten for what they neglected or destroyed. Let the Assembly belong to the former category.
The reopening of the mothballed Antrim to Lisburn line must be high on the agenda. We must insist that the Department for Regional Development takes phrases such as “non-core lines” and “lesser-used lines” out of its vocabulary, and we must encourage its officials to accept that the entire network is critical to the future of public transport. The same applies to Belfast’s rail network, and for that reason the SDLP will have no difficulty in accepting the amendment proposed by Mr Beggs.
We have recently received renewed offers of financial help from the European Union. We must put concrete proposals for the renewing of the Belfast to Dublin Enterprise service before the European Union as a trans-European project, and in so doing emphasise that the eastern corridor is not the only route to the Republic and that the western corridor must not be ignored.
In the past, we have encouraged both Governments to work together to ensure that our relationships with the European Union are maximised to the mutual benefit of both parts of the island. We are now in a strong position to ensure that that happens.
Reviews and appraisals are a necessary part of any new venture, but this part of the Assembly’s business must not be unnecessarily held up by bureaucracy and red tape.
Mr S Wilson: I take the Member’s point about reviews and appraisals, but assessing the costs of a proposal is part and parcel of any decision-making process. Is the Member aware of the possible costs of his proposals, and, if not, does he believe that it will be necessary to have an appraisal of any investment project like this?
Mr Dallat: Of course I am aware of the need for appraisals. I wish that the appraisal of the refurbishment of the Belfast to Bangor line, on which there was an overspend of £20 million, had been done better. I am sure that that is of concern to the Member.
If the Assembly has confidence in its ability to make this part of the world economically viable, the £500 million investment that is needed in the north-west could be recovered within 10 years. In the past, the Assembly has encouraged both Governments to work together to ensure that relationships with the European Union are maximised to the mutual benefit of both parts of the island. The Assembly is now in a strong position to do that.
I am sorry to repeat myself, but reviews and appraisals are necessary. However, my point is that we must not get bogged down in so much red tape that nothing happens. The campaign for renewal began long ago: the arguments were made and were won. Action is now needed to demonstrate that the Assembly has the will and the determination to begin the march towards a new confidence and to acknowledge that the past failed us all and must, therefore, be addressed in a positive and practical way.
Rebuilding the infrastructure is vital. However, it must be immediate and decisive. That infrastructure will attract inward investment, international tourism and, in particular, the confidence of the people whom we serve. In the past, the need to maintain the railways was not fully understood. They were ripped up all over the island of Ireland. In Britain, the railways were systematically destroyed after the Beeching Report. The price that is now being paid for that is choked motorways everywhere.
At present, railways in the Republic are reopening, particularly in the west, where there is an acknowledge-ment that the issue of public transport infrastructure is not just about the existing volume of use but the need to deliver equality and target social need in those areas that have been disadvantaged in the past. That is particularly true in the north; hence the need to end the use of discriminatory terms such as “non-core” and “lesser-used” as criteria for investment.
I hope that the debate provides the opportunity for those who take part to support the motion and send a clear message to both the British and Irish Governments, and especially to the European Union, to acknowledge the deficits of the past and to participate in building anew in everyone’s common interests, offering no threat to anyone.
Finally, I would have liked to embrace both amendments. Unfortunately, the partitionist philosophy is still present. I have no doubt, however, that, in time, now that we have realised that we belong to a global village, and that people in Europe can move from one part to another without hindrance or regard for political borders, we will have the confidence to follow suit.
Lord Morrow: I beg to move amendment No 1: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert
“notes the positive impact that a devolved Minister was able to have on rail previously, including the acquisition of new stock and the provision of free transport for senior citizens; and calls upon the Department for Regional Development to bring forward its plans for upgrading the existing rail network and further development of the network throughout Northern Ireland.”
I have listened intently to Mr Dallat’s speech. It was a good speech until it reached the last paragraph or two, which is regrettable. Even on issues such as that which is being debated, there are those who seem compelled to politicise everything. I can see Mr Dallat smiling because he knows that what I have just said is the perfect truth. He has been caught offside. However, that will be dealt with at another time.
It is fitting that the debate should take place in the early stages of the new Assembly. Transport is a key issue for the future well-being of Northern Ireland. I acknowledge that in the past — even under the failed Belfast Agreement — considerable progress was made in that field. The previous Minister for Regional Development Peter Robinson took strident steps to enhance the rail network throughout Northern Ireland. However, much still needs to be done. We look forward to that progress.
Northern Ireland’s railway network plays a key role in transportation. New trains that were purchased during the first mandate are now in use on key routes. Senior citizens are able to travel for free, not only on railways, but on other modes of public transport. It is important that that is acknowledged.
Members should examine the possibilities for developing the railway network, but our view should be holistic in the wider context that a huge area of Northern Ireland does not have access to the railway. The road network is the main transport system in those areas and, unfortunately, is likely to remain so. Nevertheless, I hope that, in any review, the Minister will take a wider view than simply examining the existing railway structure.
Those who come from the west must travel a considerable distance to even see a train, never mind receive the services to which they are entitled. In the part of the world that I come from, the last railway system was known as the Clogher Valley Railway — and that is long departed. It cannot be right that a large geographical area of Northern Ireland should never be considered for a railway network.
It is important that the Assembly takes those points seriously when it considers the way forward on this important matter.
Dr W McCrea: Does the hon Member agree that areas that were previously mothballed, such as the Lisburn and Antrim lines, must be put into operation again? Furthermore, it cannot be acceptable that there is no link between Belfast International Airport and the city of Belfast. That must be addressed.
Lord Morrow: I thank my colleague Dr McCrea for making that excellent point, which is poignant and significant.
It is in the nature of Mr Dallat that, when he speaks, he likes to get a sting in at the end —
Mr Campbell: He is a scorpion.
Lord Morrow: He is a wee bit like that. Mr Dallat thinks that the Members on this side of the House shrivel up every time the Irish Republic is mentioned. There may be good reason for doing that, but the DUP comprises forward-looking people. My party believes that there should be a proper and workable rail infrastructure that links Northern Ireland, for which Members are responsible, and the rest of the island. I suspect that Mr Dallat is surprised to hear me say that. The DUP has good reasons to put up a Great Wall of China, and it does not forget how the Republic of Ireland allowed its territory to be used to house and offer security to those who committed all sorts of crimes. However, Members must make an honest effort to establish a rail network that will be fit for purpose.
With the restoration of the devolved Assembly, Members are told that tourists will flock in by the planeload, trainload and any other means that will convey them. Members will all say “Hear, hear”, because that is the way that it should be. It is only with a proper rail network and transport system that those issues can be taken forward.
I hope that the House will support the amendment that is tabled in my name, because it does not take anything away, but adds to what Members are trying to achieve in Northern Ireland — a proper, functional, fit-for-purpose railway infrastructure. I hope that Mr Dallat and his colleagues will see the wisdom of that and, when they think it through, will resoundingly support the amendment.
I hope that the same progress is made with railways and transportation under the present Minister as was seen under the previous devolved Minister for Regional Development.
Rail travel should be developed and enhanced — but in conjunction with the other transport links in Northern Ireland, to provide a truly integrated system. That is the challenge for the new Minister, who I hope will soon give us plans that will benefit all travellers right across Northern Ireland. That can only create an enhancing spin-off for the whole of Northern Ireland.
Mr Beggs: I beg to move amendment No 2: Leave out all after “attractive” and insert
“commuting options and also inter-city services between the principal centres of population and the neighbouring regions.”
I thank Mr Dallat for indicating his support for this amendment. I propose it because some of the language in the motion causes me some concern. “Inter-city services” and “principal centres of population” are not clearly defined. “Inter-city” could mean narrow benefit to only the long-distance traveller; for example, someone travelling from Londonderry to Belfast or from Belfast to Dublin. It is important that commuters throughout Northern Ireland benefit from improvements to the service. I want local commuting options to be included.
Although it is important that there be good regional transport networks throughout Europe — and that means transport links from Belfast to Dublin — there are also important transport links on the Trans-European Network, and from Belfast to Larne and Stranraer, and on to other European destinations. It is also important that everyone is considered when encouraging investment in railways. The student who needs to travel to college and who values rail transport where it is available needs to be included, along with the tourist and the business traveller.
Senior citizens also value the service, but there must be accessible points where they can enter the network. That is why local railway stations are important and need to be upgraded. We must improve our park-and-ride facilities, and walking and cycling access to stations, so that as many people as possible can be included in the regional transport plan that was presented to the previous Assembly to try to encourage a modal shift from road to rail.
There is another reason why I thought that it was important to widen the scope of the motion, and many Members will be unaware of this. Northern Ireland got 23 new train sets; everyone said “Hurrah”. None of them came to East Antrim or the Larne line. We still have all the old sets.
Therefore there is an issue of rail equality in Northern Ireland. Why do the East Antrim commuters have to be second-class citizens? The new trains are much more disabled-friendly, and therefore the use of rail could be widened to a much bigger community. At present, East Antrim and Larne do not have those disabled-friendly facilities, so it is important that further rail investment should allow other parts of the rail network to experience the uplift in rail transport that results from the introduction of those new, quality services. If we really want a modal shift —
Mr S Wilson: Does the Member accept that the issue is not just about the quality of the trains, or whether they are disabled-friendly, but the fact that those trains, being so old, break down regularly? Therefore, people will not use them, because they cannot be sure of getting to work on time or getting back from work.
Mr Beggs: I agree that punctuality is one of the biggest issues, and I am thankful that punctuality has been improving on the east Antrim line. It is important that we do not scare rail commuters away, because the Member’s prophecy could become self-fulfilling. We must recognise that punctuality has improved. Even the older trains that, on occasion, were cold and damp have been improving. Recent surveys of passenger numbers in the area have indicated that that is the case.
However, the number of passengers using the service could increase greatly if new trains were provided. It is unfair that one section of railway in Northern Ireland does not have these new high-quality trains; and it is that very section that is part of the Trans-European Network. Tourists coming to Northern Ireland by train, or wishing to travel onwards from Belfast to Scotland must think that we are part of a Third World economy, since we use these ancient trains that are not of a quality expected by modern travellers.
I hope that all Members are able to appreciate the wording of my amendment, which does not rule anything out, but seeks to improve the travel of local commuters, to improve opportunities and to promote improvements in regional travel throughout the United Kingdom and onwards to Dublin.
Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an rún agus tacaíocht a thabhairt dó. Phléigh an Tionól an t-ábhar seo cheana féin, agus tá a fhios agam go bhfuil an-suim ag an Chomhalta John Dallat sa cheist seo agus go bhfuil cuid mhór oibre déanta aige uirthi. Ba mhaith liom a aithint go bhfuil an tAire Conchúr Ó Murchú inár measc inniu. I welcome and support the motion proposed by the Member for East Derry. He has consistently raised this subject in the Assembly and elsewhere. I acknowledge the presence of Conor Murphy, the relevant Minister.
Sinn Féin remains committed to building an Ireland of equals. I emphasise the word “building”, since we must build the physical transport infrastructure to deliver that Ireland towards which we strive.
The project that lies ahead is developing rail travel with all its associated benefits, putting in place a fully integrated, accessible and multi-modal transport strategy. That is the task that we have set ourselves.
Today’s debate serves as a timely reminder of how much we have been deprived in the past of the ability to develop, socially and economically. It is not my intention to concentrate on the past; Sinn Féin looks forward in the coming months and years with optimism to delivering, with all the parties, what we have set out to do.
As many Members know, in travelling to carry out public responsibilities, there is an over-reliance on the car, and that that has now reached breaking point. The status and overemphasis that we place on the car is incompatible with the approach of our European neighbours. As was once said, one cannot build one’s way out of congestion by building roads.
Ós rud é gurb as Doire mé, tá a fhios agam nach bhfuil an córas iarnróid sásta ag daoine atá ina gcónaí sa chathair agus sna ceantair máguaird. Bhí mé ar chruinniú i dTír Chonaill an tseachtain seo chaite — contae ina raibh dhá chéad míle iarnróid tráth ach nach bhfuil oiread agus míle amháin aici anois. As I am from Derry, I am only too familiar with the poor rail connections of our city. Last week I attended a discussion in Donegal town. At the beginning of the last century, County Donegal had some 200 miles of rail network, with four rail operators. Today, it has not a single rail track. That meeting accepted that the argument for rail in Donegal is enhanced by the retention and upgrading of the line to Derry, and that Derry should be linked to Sligo, and so on. The motion represents a real opportunity for these institutions to work with our friends and neighbours in border counties.
In recent times, Donegal County Council has commissioned a feasibility study on the development of railway systems and links to Derry and beyond. Working with the Irish Government, and exploiting the European Union platform, to establish that, should not be viewed as cross-border or all-Ireland infrastructure; however, we should be seeking the establishment of an internationally recognised rail route from Derry to Kerry, and from Dublin to Belfast, in a loop. The amendments, as tabled, seek only to reduce the scope of the problem.
Dr Deeny: I ask the Member and the Member who moved the motion whether they refer to the counties of Tyrone and Fermanagh, mentioned by Lord Morrow? There is huge tourist potential there. In Tyrone there are the Sperrins and the Ulster Amercian Folk Park; in Fermanagh there are the lakes. In addition to that, from Omagh alone some 250 cars travel to Belfast daily, and a similar number travel from Fermanagh.
If we are talking about the north-west, my concern is that the Member is excluding County Tyrone and County Fermanagh — I hope not.
Mr McCartney: Absolutely not. My reference to the western corridor includes those border counties, as well as Cavan, Monaghan and elsewhere.
Inserting partitionism into the debate is wrong. It was said at last week’s meeting in Donegal town that stopping the Derry line would undermine the need for other networks. The result of confining rail development to the six Northern Counties would be that we would have a railway only in and around Belfast. We all agree that that should not happen.
There are obvious environmental, social and economic benefits in having a proper rail network. The deaths on our roads over the weekend highlight the undoubted safety of rail travel, and that should not be lost on our policy-makers and decision-makers.
The previous Assembly brought forward several options; in particular, the viability of the Derry to Belfast line. As regards Dr Deeny’s point, if the Derry to Belfast line were lost, there would be no possibility of extending the rail network to Tyrone and Fermanagh. It is important — and this is not from a parochial standpoint — that when it comes to promoting new rail networks, we ensure that the existing network is upgraded in order to protect any addition.
I, and my party, support the motion. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
Mr Ford: I welcome the debate, and I thank Mr Dallat for initiating it. I also welcome the near unanimity among all Members who have spoken, and I look forward to hearing what the new Minister will say on the matter. It is time for him to establish that his Department has ceased to be the Department for roads development and that it actually does a bit of rail development as part of its functions.
However, Lord Morrow’s self-congratulatory speech about his party was out of line with the near unanimity achieved. I remember some of the issues he mentioned — in particular, the day that Mr Campbell, the then Minister for Regional Development, came to Crumlin to announce that the Knockmore line was to remain in operation for a year. I also remember that he did not show his face in south Antrim a year later when he closed the line.
If we hope to increase our rail infrastructure, we must ensure that we do so completely and in all places. Although we should celebrate the success of the Assembly, in its first guise, in maintaining any kind of railway system — without the Assembly, we probably would have been reduced to having the Enterprise line and nothing else — we should not be too self-congratulatory, as a lot needs to be done.
It has been highlighted that the Bangor to Portadown line is providing a service and attracting passengers but at a considerable cost overrun. If the Assembly is to ensure that it gets best value for money, it must ensure that that does not happen again.
Mr Beggs highlighted a particular issue, and I know that Sean Neeson would not forgive me if I did not mention the failure to provide new rolling stock on the Larne line and that the decision to order 23 train sets was inadequate for the needs of the existing rail lines. There is also a need to improve timetables because they are a major disincentive to people to use trains. They are difficult to read when compared with bus timetables, which tend to be much simpler on some key routes. In retrospect, the decision to purchase 23 new train sets represented not nearly enough investment. Another 18 to 20 sets should have been ordered.
The lack of railway infrastructure north of Ballymena was highlighted — John Dallat is keenly interested in that matter. That must be addressed if the Assembly hopes to link the main population centres.
I welcome the fact that the amendment proposed by Mr Beggs refers to some significant key areas in respect of rail use — for example, commuter services into Belfast. That is why it is so unfortunate that the DUP, in a past life, closed the Knockmore line and thereby made it more difficult to reinstate services that could have linked to Belfast International Airport, which Dr McCrea, as the local MP, spoke about enthusiastically. Perhaps, rather than addressing the rest of us, he should speak with Mr Campbell and link up the inconsistencies in the DUP’s position on that point.
We need to develop those commuter services to ensure that people in places such as Crumlin and Antrim — which has a growing population — Mossley and Ballyclare get a decent transport service. We must follow through on Translink’s plans — which have not yet been funded by DRD — to get a rail and bus interchange beside the M2 at Templepatrick. Implementing those plans would do far more to decrease congestion at Sandyknowes than any plans to widen the motorway.
If development of the rail network is to be taken seriously, it must be at the heart of DRD policy. The Department must establish the circumstances in which trains can begin to substitute for use of the private car. The Alliance Party is not sure that that point has been reached.
When discussing option appraisals and research, it is easy to look at the financial factors involved. However, factors such as social inclusion — mentioned in the debate in relation to who has access to private vehicles — have not yet been taken into account. Other factors include the growing environmental problem that is now recognised across the world. Only public transport will solve our problems in commuting on the current mass scale, and commuting into Belfast in particular.
The motion and amendment No 2 highlight some key issues that must be addressed. However, many problems will not be solved without a significant and serious input. There is no way that the Assembly will be able to resolve the environmental problems around Belfast if it continues to allow the private car to eat up 60% of the investment in transport. If the motion is to mean anything, Members must accept that the rail network is a key part of our transport infrastructure and not just as an option for a few extra visitors.
If I may digress into your own county, Mr Deputy Speaker, I believe that Mr McCartney and his colleagues will have to determine what the key development in the west of the Province will be. They will have to decide whether a railway line through Donegal will be better than one through west Tyrone, which I once used on my summer holidays and look forward to using again.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Thank you for including us in the debate.
Mr Wells: Mention has already been made of the successes of previous devolved Ministers in delivering free transport for the elderly and improvements to rolling stock. Of course, those previous Ministers were Mr Peter Robinson and Mr Gregory Campbell.
Mr Beggs: Does the Member accept that the previous Ministers for Regional Development made those successful changes with funding approved by the Executive, and that it was the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister that provided funding for free transport?
Mr Wells: Yes, but the two Ministers made very wise use of that money, and I am far from confident that other Ministers would have had the ability to do so.
Before any strategy is examined, Members must remember that rail travel is not accessible by everyone in Northern Ireland. People living in west Tyrone, Fermanagh and, indeed, large parts of south Down, have no access to rail transport unless they are prepared to travel considerable distances by private car. However, the Assembly should be doing all that it can to ensure that those who do have access to a railway line are encouraged to use it.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
Encouraging greater use of the rail network would reduce congestion — an increasing problem in Belfast and across many parts of the Province — and there would be environmental benefits. Financial costs must always be included in any assessment, but environmental impact is becoming more important. Northern Ireland has to meet the targets set down in the Kyoto protocol, and the draft Climate Change Bill is putting strict limits on carbon dioxide emissions. One way of reducing those emissions is to move people off private transport and onto trains and buses.
Northern Ireland’s transport policy is built on the regional transportation strategy. Longer-serving Members will remember that in 2002 the strategy was passed in the Chamber unanimously. However, there is some way to go before implementation will be completed.
A start must be made on improving the rail experience of passengers in Northern Ireland. Ministers began the process by purchasing new C3K trains, but there is much room for improvement. Obviously those trains are used on the busiest lines, but Northern Ireland Railways still has a high percentage of rolling stock that could not be described as modern. As a student at Queen’s University in 1980, I cleaned trains at the old station at Sydenham — 27 years ago. The sad reality is that some of the trains that I cleaned all that time ago are still being used to convey passengers.
David Cairns, the former Minister with responsiblity for regional development, in a reply to my colleague Iris Robinson, who was showing a concern for public transportation through a parliamentary question, stated that a number of C3K trains were used on the main lines, and that there were nine Class 400 units that were between 19 and 21 years old, six MK2 coaches that were 33 years old and three Class 80 trains that were between 28 and 32 years old — those were some of those that I cleaned in Sydenham. Obviously, trains that are approaching 30 years old do not provide the best experience for passengers.
It is important that an attempt be made to increase the number of people making use of our railways and that passengers have the most pleasurable journey possible. The main purpose is not to drive people off the road but to entice them on to the trains, because public transport is so much better — a more enjoyable journey to and from work. Certainly some of the trains that are in service at the moment would not entice anyone to use them.
The biggest single feature of a journey is the train on which people are travelling. That is obviously backed up by making sure that services run on time and do not break down en route, and I know that this is a big problem with the Larne line.
I hope that the Minister will bring forward plans to improve rail travel for passengers in Northern Ireland. However, there is no doubt that he will realise that if one searches the Ulsterbus and Northern Ireland Railways website for an example of travel time from Belfast to Londonderry, it is evident that it takes longer to travel by train than by bus. I hope that there are going to be further improvements in areas such as Dungiven that will make it faster to travel by bus from Londonderry to Belfast. That will also deter folk from travelling by train.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister intends to introduce to improve the situation. An integrated public transport system in Northern Ireland that offers a first-class service to the travelling public should obviously be one of his priorities. It is important that that is done in the most efficient manner possible. However, that will still leave many thousands of people in Northern Ireland without access to trains, and we must also, commensurate with that decision, improve our bus service as well.
Mr Campbell: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I join with others in congratulating you on the elevation to your new position.
I also congratulate Mr Dallat on bringing this motion before the Assembly on a matter that both he and I, and many others, have shared concern about for some considerable time. There is no doubt that this debate will ensure that there is quite a bit of expansion of contributions and, hopefully, of the rail network as well. However, it also appears to have allowed for some expansion of revisionism by Mr Ford from South Antrim who, as I recall, when I was faced with the imminent closure of the Knockmore line, courtesy of the statistics that he referred to, congratulated me on keeping the line open for a year. I notice that the congratulations have now evaporated.
Mr Ford: Will the Member give way?
Mr Campbell: No, I will not give way. I did not ask him to give way when he made his inaccurate comment, so I will not give way to him when he attempts to try to retrieve the operation. [Interruption.]
Mr Ford: Mr Speaker, can a Member make an inaccuracy and not accept the correction of it?
Mr Speaker: All in this House should know that it is up to the Member whether or not to accept an intervention, and quite obviously Mr Campbell does not wish to accept.
Mr Campbell: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I want to get to the substance of the matter. It is clear from the statistics, which I hope we are all in possession of, that car ownership is growing at the rate of 4% a year. This Assembly comes into being now in 2007. In approximately 10 years, if there is not a development of the rail network, there will be approximately 50% more car usage in Northern Ireland than there currently is. Therefore, all the problems that we hear about every morning on ‘Good Morning Ulster’ — the congestion at Sandyknowes, on the M1 and on all the other bottlenecks — will be 50% worse in 10 years’ time if action is not taken. It is blatantly obvious to everyone that provision should be made for expanding the rail network and that an attempt should be made to try to deploy whatever resources that we can in order to ensure that people see that transport by rail is economical, advantageous environmentally, affordable and comfortable.
If people are faced with such an option, they will be more likely to forsake their love affair with the private car. However, if they are not faced with such an option, they will not forsake the car. That is blatantly obvious.
Let us consider Europe, where the expansion of the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) network in France is an obvious consequence of governmental attempts to ensure that investment and resources are ploughed into the development of the rail network. They have seen, and continue to see, the results of those extra resources. It will be the same in Northern Ireland; if the rail network is starved of resources, passenger figures will stagnate. Mr Dallat and one or two other Members mentioned the increase in patronage on the lines where development has occurred. Mr Wells mentioned my introduction of free travel for the elderly. That measure resulted in increased rail usage — it would be difficult to see how it would not.
Those Members from north of Ballymena will be aware that, without a passing loop at Ballykelly, one is restricted to one train from Ballymena through Coleraine and onwards to Londonderry, and one train back. However, if there were a passing loop, there would immediately be the potential to double the number of people who use that line. Departmental officials have informed me through answers to parliamentary questions that I have tabled that a passing loop could cost several million pounds; they said that it would cost almost £10 million. I would like to see a business case made for that. I hesitate to say that I do not think that it would cost that much, but I do not think that it would cost that much. However, that it what they tell us. The passing loop is absolutely essential for the possibility of doubling the number of people who use the Londonderry line.
Mr Dallat referred to travel beyond Northern Ireland. I am sure that we can address that issue, but let us get this country’s rail network sorted out before we take advantage of another’s.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr K Robinson: I welcome the fact that this debate comes so early in the life of this Assembly. I shall resist the temptation to ask Members when they last travelled by train. I have already written to the Minister for Regional Development to ask him to address urgently the problems currently encountered by passengers who use the Londonderry and Larne lines.
My interest in the possibilities presented by rail travel goes back to my early days as a newly elected member of Newtownabbey Borough Council, as far back as 1985. Since then, I have continued to lobby consistently for the reinstatement of the Bleach Green to Antrim line, and I am glad that we have achieved that. I also lobbied for the modernisation of the Trans-European Network route to Larne Harbour, which has been only partially achieved. We have witnessed a slow but steady realisation that rail travel represents an eco-friendly alternative form of transport for those who are fortunate enough to live along the few remaining rail corridors in Northern Ireland.
The first Northern Ireland Assembly had the foresight to set aside money for 23 new trains, a complete relaying of track on the Bangor line and an upgrade of the routes between Belfast and Whitehead, and between Belfast and Ballymena. Together with a modernised signalling system, those measures enabled sufficient improvements to persuade a loyal section of the travelling public to continue to let the train take the strain. However, as evidenced by the frequent bulletins on local radio, in some instances the reliability of the service left much to be desired. In fact, sometimes, there were shades of ‘Are Ye Right There, Michael?’ on the West Clare Railway.
On the Larne line, I, like many other passengers, have sat on a train, almost willing it to start up again and make it to the next station. That is no way to run a railway. I must, however, pay tribute to the engineering staff of Northern Ireland Railways, who have managed to keep those antiquated trains running over the past number of years. As Members have said, some of those trains are up to 30 years old. It is incredible that we still tolerate that situation in this day and age.
It is now a matter of urgency that the Minister for Regional Development completes the process begun by the Assembly. The Northern Ireland travelling public have proved on the line between Bangor and Portadown, and on the cross-border line to Dublin, that a modern railway system can compete with, and reduce, the carbon footprint of the motor car. I call on the Minister to enter discussions with his colleagues in the Executive and with Northern Ireland Railways officials to bring forward a scheme to purchase and introduce new rolling stock so that the long-suffering rail travellers on the Larne and Londonderry lines can experience the benefits in speed, comfort and improved frequency that the Bangor to Portadown passengers have enjoyed for some time.
I simply refer Members to the timetables, where the graphic differences between the different sections of Northern Ireland Railways’ system can be seen.
The House can fully appreciate the environmental benefits of expanding the park-and-ride provision along those rail corridors, thereby reducing many needless car journeys through already congested towns and cities — the Sandyknowes roundabout was referred to, just as it is unfortunately referred to in traffic bulletins every morning.
I urge the Minister to bring forward at the earliest opportunity a comprehensive package designed to increase the intercity potential between Londonderry and Belfast, maximising the benefits of the new track and signalling that will enable the rolling stock to travel at speeds of up to 90 mph over greater stretches of the track on the commuter line north of Ballymena.
I urge him to build upon the increasing passenger numbers on the Larne line by encouraging a greater willingness between various Departments to transfer land. For example, in Carrickfergus one Department holds a piece of land that would enable the creation of another 80 park-and-ride spaces, but for years there has been a difficulty in transferring that land to the relevant Department. I ask the Minister to consider such simple matters to allow the expansion of the successful park-and-ride schemes.
The possibility of 30-minute train frequency between Larne harbour and Belfast should also be explored, together with a reduction in the journey time, which currently stands at approximately one hour and seven minutes between Larne and Belfast. Likewise, the current journey time of two hours and 15 minutes between Londonderry and Belfast is not acceptable in this day and age.
Faster, frequent and passenger-friendly trains have proved successful on the Bangor to Portadown commuter corridor and on the Enterprise service between the two capital cities on this island. Those benefits must be made available to a wider section of potential rail travellers than is currently the case.
I urge the House to use its influence to ensure that our internal rail system is further developed and that commuters on the Larne and Londonderry routes share equally in the benefits of the new rolling stock and enhanced track engineering. I also support efforts to enhance the service between our two major cities and onwards to the neighbouring state.
Mr P Ramsey: Mr Speaker, I congratulate you on your appointment. It is well deserved, Willie, and I wish you good luck.
I support John Dallat in his call for the Department for Regional Development to bring forward detailed plans for the modernisation of the rail network in Northern Ireland. In conjunction with the Irish Government, let us work together for all the people of this island to provide a public service that we can all be proud of. It can be achieved, and such an all-island network makes sense on social, economic and environmental grounds. For my constituency and the surrounding area, it would give a tremendous boost to the north-west, which has been starved of regeneration money for years.
Three years ago, there was a major campaign, which was successful to a certain degree, where the Department for Regional Development was forced to give £24 million to upgrade the track between Derry and Ballymena. However, we have not yet seen that in action. The Minister must investigate that in order to find out whether the money has been spent on that stretch of rail track.
The campaign must take on a more serious and sustainable case for a continuous welded track to be laid. In simple terms, we want, and demand, the same action as the lines between Belfast and Dublin and Belfast and Bangor received. John Dallat commented on core and non-core lines. There must be an end to such terminology; it is nonsense, and it is degrading to the sub-regions.
At present, the standards of service are poor to such a degree that few people use the service, although I agree that the new trains have led to an increase in passenger numbers. However, I ask the Minister to visit the terminal in Derry. We have a terminal in Derry, but he will not be able to get a cup of tea or to buy a newspaper in it. Indeed, at times, he will need an umbrella to protect himself from the rain — it is that bad. How can we expect people to use the railway in such substandard conditions?
When the Belfast to Dublin line was improved and the Enterprise service was introduced, passenger numbers doubled. If our railway network were modernised and a decent service were provided, particularly between Derry and Ballymena, there would be a similar or greater increase. An upgraded rail service in the north-west would increase tourists’ use of trains, and a rail service that met commuters’ standards would also create an economic boost. At present, businesspeople, professionals and commuters are not willing to use the trains, but say that they would be more inclined to do so if the service were fast, reliable, and relaxed — free from the risk of delays and traffic jams.
Raymond McCartney said that there had been discussions in Donegal about bringing back the Derry to Sligo railway line. If that were the case, there would be immense encouragement, if not financial help, from the Irish Government to advance that matter.
There is evidence of a link between poverty and social exclusion, and access to transport. The upgrading and modernisation of the railway network must therefore be viewed as one of many elements with which to combat poverty and social exclusion in the north-west. As roads become overcrowded and car ownership increases, the likelihood of traffic jams rises considerably. A journey by train is safer and healthier than by road and, according to the Railways Task Force, 162 more people will die on the roads by 2010 if there is no improvement on Northern Ireland Railways lines. Trains cause less air pollution than cars and other forms of transport. Fuel emissions from road vehicles seriously damage the health of those living nearby. If existing railway lines are not modernised and upgraded, the cost will be great to our health, our economy, our environment, our region, and society in general.
Mr Shannon: Ivery yeer Translink Bus an Rael tak heer an ther 75 million trevellers, they hae £100 million turniver an provide tae the Province iver 3,500 joabs.
We hae no sae lang ago haud improvements tae tha Benger line alang wi Bilfast – Antrim Bleach Green line which is bein re-apened tae provide journeys intae oor capitol.
Thees figures speek weel o’ tha system but they dinnae paint aa richt pictur o- whut we hae richt noo. Hense tha amendment an they daenae pit fort what shud be ther an whut cud be in place.
Every year, 75 million passengers use Translink services. That company has a £100 million turnover and provides the Province with 3,500 jobs. Recently, improvements were made to the Bangor line, and the Belfast to Antrim line was opened to provide quicker journeys to our capital. Those statistics speak well of the system, but they do not paint an accurate picture of the current situation, hence our amendment. Long before I came into this world, there was a very active railway line in Comber and Donaghadee. I would not say that Comber was ever the Swindon of Northern Ireland — far from it — but it formed an integral part of the railway system. Something similar is now required. Due to people’s moving to Strangford, we need a system of transport to take them from their homes to the capital, where they work.
The importance of the rail network is underestimated in Northern Ireland. Try driving from Bangor to Belfast in the mornings to get to work: it will take over an hour of stopping and starting, revving and losing one’s patience, as traffic lights ensure that only three cars get through any green light. On the flip side, there is a service whereby one can take a seat, read the morning paper, have a cup of coffee, and look out the window and think about the day, without the stress of travelling by car. That service is provided by Translink. It takes less than half the time and helps the environment — there has been great talk about carbon footprints. There are regular trains to suit most schedules, but there are gaps in the system, as my colleague Lord Morrow and other Members have said.
One needs to look objectively at the two options. There seems to be no contest, yet, of the millions of commute journeys made by workers, morning and evening, only a small percentage makes use of the rail network. We must ask why that is the case. The main reason is that people recognise that in their own cars — although they are still at the mercy of other road users — they have more control. In the event of unexpected delay, they can choose to turn around or to take a different route; they cannot do that if they use the rail service. On the train, they do not have the same measure of control; rather they are at the mercy of the driver and the system. To be frank, the majority of people in Northern Ireland do not have the trust in the rail service that would allow them to use it. They hear too many horror stories and prefer to drive their own destiny, in their own cars.
Much has been made, rightly, of the £80 million investment in 23 new trains. Some Members talked about 23 train sets — I had a train set when I was five years old — but those are new trains, which were approved by the former Assembly in 2000. Those trains are built for comfort, can reach speeds up to 90 mph and can carry 200 passengers. However, they are not always full. What is the reason for that? It may have something to do with the fact that three out of the four lines do not meet the punctuality targets set by the Consumer Council. Although it would be better for the environment if they took the train and they would get more exercise by walking from the station to work, small matters such as that make people think that, if they are going to be late anyway, they would prefer the independence, and sometimes the solitude, of their own cars.
The cost of a month’s travel between Portadown and Belfast is £145 and between Bangor and Belfast it is £120·50. However, it is possible to travel from London to any one of 26 European countries for £292 a month. Travel between Londonderry and Belfast costs about half that amount. Therefore, cost is an important factor, and I ask the Minister to look at that matter as well.
I ask Members to support Lord Morrow’s amendment.
Mr Speaker: I call Mr Declan O’Loan. This will be Mr O’Loan’s maiden speech, and I remind Members that it should be heard without interruption.
Mr O’Loan: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am pleased to have the opportunity to make my first speech in the Assembly on an important matter for North Antrim. As a new Member, I would like to add to the congratulations that have been extended to you on your appointment as Speaker.
I am honoured to have been elected to represent North Antrim, particularly at this time of promise for all of us. I want to say a few words in tribute to my predecessor as the SDLP representative in North Antrim, Dr Seán Farren, who is known to many — probably all — in this House. Seán Farren gave great service to his constituents, including on the matter under discussion today, and to the Assembly, including two periods as a Minister. History will record his massive contribution, often behind the scenes, to political progress here over many years.
Turning to the motion, I wish to refer in particular to the line from Ballymena to Derry, although, as has been rightly pointed out by many Members, the system has to be examined as a whole. However, there is real concern over the threat to that section of line, which makes a very important social and economic contribution to North Antrim. Rail provision depends for success on frequency of service and journey time. The new rolling stock, as has been pointed out, is capable of reaching 90 mph. If that rolling stock were able to express its own concerns and emotions, there would be much frustration at the line on which it has to operate, which does not allow it to operate at the speed of which it is capable. Massive investment is required, and a business case must be established for that. There will be many competing interests in this Assembly. I agree with Sammy Wilson that economic appraisal is an important factor.
I want to make three points about the business case. First, the social benefits must be fully reflected, which can be difficult to do in economic appraisals. Secondly, it must be acknowledged that usage increases when services improve — a point that has been made by other Members. Thirdly, and of particular importance, we must remember that we are planning for the future. I think that all Assembly Members would agree that future plans must include a huge enhancement of our private-sector economic activity, which will involve a greater movement of goods and people. That will have significant implications for any economic appraisal.
I end with a general point. Any discussion of major physical infrastructure issues can be held only on an all-island basis. I am aware of the protocol that a maiden speech should not be controversial, and perhaps there has already been a little controversy in maiden speeches today. However, if we look behind people’s words — or even if we look directly at them — there is common ground on the need to consider the whole island. I welcome Lord Morrow’s remarks about that, although I qualify what he said when he referred to two systems that could be linked. We need look beyond that: the entire system must be planned as one system. We have to consider all the economic activity and all the social use. We must also consider not only where we are and where we have been but where we want to go. We can all agree on the need to take that perspective.
I congratulate John Dallat on this important motion. I support him fully.
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Murphy): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I congratulate you, Mr Speaker, and wish you well in your job. I noticed that some Members were trying to curry favour with you earlier. If it will be of any benefit to me, I point out that my grandfather was from Letterkenny. I look forward to suitable favours in future.
Ar dtús, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a thabhairt do John Dallat as an rún seo a chur chun tosaigh. I thank John Dallat for tabling today’s motion. I am pleased to have the opportunity to hear Members’ views on this important public transport issue so early in the Assembly’s restored existence. I have been encouraged by the passion with which Members intend to support any budgetary applications that my Department will make in relation to public transport. I hope that the support will extend into the Budget debates.
John Dallat has been an enthusiastic supporter of the railway network. I have listened carefully to his points and to the points that other Members added. There were so many that to answer them all would eat into my time allocation so much that I would not be able to make any general points. However, some of the points were of great interest.
John Dallat spoke about ring-fencing money for infrastructure. The idea might be very attractive, but the Minister of Finance and Personnel — notwithstanding his previous experience at the Department for Regional Development — might have something to say about it.
Mr Dallat also spoke about the terminology used to distinguish between lines; he spoke about non-core and lesser-used lines. Of course, with roads, we talk about motorways, A-class roads and B-class roads. I appreciate that terming lines as “non-core” or “lesser-used” can suggest that the lines are less valued, but it is inevitable in any system that some lines are more important than others and must take priority. However, I welcome any suggestions that Mr Dallat or others might make on how to improve the language and to arrive at an agreed terminology.
Maurice Morrow made a number of points. I agree that any review of public transport and the rail network will have to look beyond what exists and consider what is possible. All Members expressed their support for improvements and offered clear opinions on what is wrong and on what they desire. As we all know, improvements require substantial investment. As I have suggested, I look forward to Budget debates this year and in future years.
Regarding William McCrea’s intervention when Maurice Morrow spoke about the rail link to Belfast International Airport at Aldergrove, it is anticipated that the airport needs a throughput of 10 million people a year for such a connection to be considered. Unfortunately, throughput at Belfast International Airport falls far short of that, but I am willing to listen to any argument concerning the matter.
Maurice Morrow, and several other Members, mentioned the need for integration in the transport system, such as park-and-ride facilities, to ensure that the networks can be linked. Translink is developing a programme to improve both the number and capacity of park-and-ride facilities attached to railway stations, so I hope that we will see some improvements in that regard.
Roy Beggs and others — and I shall return to the issue of the stock on the Larne line — referred to a major modal shift, which is the sort of terminology that we will have to consider in order to advance the debate. Other Members, including Gregory Campbell, mentioned the increase in car usage. This debate is not merely about the existing stock or improvements to timetables but about changing the way that society moves around. David Ford mentioned bringing the Lisburn to Antrim line back into use, and that is being assessed as part of the current review.
Gregory Campbell, who is not present, made a case for the passing loop on the Derry line. I am told that a large proportion of the cost involved is not the track itself, but the charges incurred as a result of changes to the signalling system.
I hope to address in writing some of the other points that Members made. I apologise for those that I miss, but I will endeavour to answer them after reading Hansard.
I shall outline the current position in relation to railways and the steps that we intend to take. During the last period of devolution, the Assembly endorsed two important strategies: the regional development strategy (RDS), and, flowing from that, the regional transportation strategy. The RDS recognised that quality, mobility and accessibility for people and goods were basic, everyday needs for successful regions in the twenty-first century. The regional transportation strategy developed that approach into a vision, which was:
“to have a modern, sustainable, safe transportation system which benefits society, the economy, and the environment and which actively contributes to social inclusion and everyone’s quality of life.”
A good public transport infrastructure is therefore important for the promotion of competitiveness and sustainable development. It is critical that the workforce has access to a reliable and efficient means of public transport for the economy to function at its optimum level. A good public transport system also assists the delivery of an environmentally sustainable economy. The growth in population and employment in tandem with the environmental imperative to reduce carbon emissions means that a major modal shift in passenger transport from private car to bus and rail is required.
In the area of public transport, railways comprise a substantial asset for the region by connecting people with jobs and providing accessibility for communities and services. In addition, the rail network represents a means of reducing harmful emissions from transport, which is of increasing importance as concerns grow about the prospect and impact of climate change, and as more people subscribe to the need for sustainability to be a key consideration in decision-making.
The regional transportation strategy set out two main targets for rail. The first was that all current trains would be replaced by new ones, with the exception of those providing the Enterprise service between Belfast and Dublin. Secondly, services were to be retained on single-track sections of the network, north of Whitehead and north-west of Ballymena, subject to successful results from the introduction of new trains and improvements to the infrastructure on the rest of the network. That review was to take place in 2007.
In 2004, the then Minister with responsibility for transport, John Spellar, held a public consultation on the extent of funding to be put into the railway network in advance of the 2007 review. Three options were put forward, with the 2004 Budget subsequently allocating funding to the option that involved maintaining services on the single-track sections and maintaining the lines at the current standard. The funding offered little scope for improvement in the quality of the infrastructure on those sections.
There have been positive developments. There has been major capital investment in improving sections of track on other lines. In addition, thanks to the funding decisions made by the Assembly and the previous Ministers, NIR has been able to procure 23 new train sets to replace 70% of its fleet.
That cost £76·7 million and allowed the oldest and least reliable trains to be withdrawn from service. All of the new trains are in service and operate successfully. They have transformed the travelling experience of passengers, providing them with more comfortable and reliable journeys, a point made by several Members. Some of the older trains have been retained and extensively upgraded at a cost of £3·5 million.
The use of new trains is not limited to the core commuter network. They are also used for services to Coleraine and Derry. Given the amount of single-track running on the line to Derry, it is important to use the most reliable trains. The older trains have only one engine. Should that fail, the line effectively closes and all other services suffer extensive delays. Each new train has three engines, so that if one fails the others allow the train to continue its journey, albeit at a reduced speed.
Roy Beggs made the point — and I am aware that travellers are disappointed — that new trains are not in regular use on the Larne line. However, the trains are needed on the line to Derry for operational reasons. The Derry line is single track, with passing loops; therefore overall punctuality is particularly sensitive to the need for each train to keep exactly to time. The deployment of the new trains on the Bangor, Belfast and Portadown corridor permits maximum use of the 90-mph track sections and works well with the higher speed Enterprise services. Moreover, the Class 450 trains that operate on the Larne line have been refurbished to a high standard. In due course, it will be necessary to replace them. That need has been factored into current work to assess future investment needs.
Mr Kennedy: Will the Member give way?
Mr Murphy: I will give way if the Member is brief; I have only a short time left.
Mr Kennedy: I thank the Minister. I appreciate that he has outlined improvements to tracks and other measures. Will he comment on stations, particularly Newry railway station, about which he knows much? Perhaps he will advise me at some stage — even in writing, after the debate — on the current plans to upgrade that station. In addition to the network of tracks, and the trains themselves, there is the important issue of upgrading stations.
Mr Murphy: One would think, from the length of time that I have known Danny Kennedy, that I would not have let him cut into my time in a debate.
I was minded that my experience, and Mr Kennedy’s, of Newry station is similar to that of Pat Ramsey, when he talked about the Derry railway station. No one can buy a cup of tea or a newspaper. There are plans to improve and upgrade Newry station, and I shall speak to officials and advise Mr Kennedy in more detail.
NIR has introduced new timetables, and the frequency on much of its network has increased. Changes to both the quality and frequency of the service have led to an impressive increase in the number of journeys made by rail. In 2005-06, the overall number of passenger journeys by rail was almost 20% higher than in 2001-02. Last year alone, patronage on the Bangor, Belfast and Portadown line rose by approximately 16%.
Since the introduction of the new trains and the refurbishment of the Class 450 trains, NIR’s performance has markedly improved across the network in punctuality and reliability, as well as in general passenger satisfaction, which reached historically high levels. I appreciate, from the comments of others, that there is further work to be done in that regard.
I referred to capital investment in the railway network in recent years. Railways are costly to provide, maintain and operate, and that is the case in every country in the world. Our railway already receives substantial funding. In 2005-06, NIR had a capital allocation of £36·2 million. Moreover, it received a revenue fund of some £23·6 million, which was needed to bridge the gap between revenue collected as fares and the NIR operating costs.
I understand the wishes of Members for further investment in the railway network, including those sections of single track, which tend to be referred to as “the lesser-used lines”, whether it be the line to Larne, or Coleraine or Derry. I understand the aspiration to have a top-quality, cross-border service linking Belfast and Dublin and to greater frequency of service and capacity in the commuter network around Belfast. Towards the end of 2006, the Department for Regional Development set up a steering group to begin the review envisaged for 2007. The group has examined a wide range of options for the future provision of rail services and is close to providing me with its findings. It has examined the entire rail network; that is, the commuter lines around Belfast, the line from Belfast to Dublin and the single-track sections. Importantly, it has been able to take account of recent changes in the use of our railways.
I shall examine the findings of the steering group and investigate the case for further investment in the rail network. I shall want to consider all available options, and it will be necessary to seek the resources for future funding in a priorities and budget exercise and in the investment strategy. I look forward to support at that stage.
There is a process that will allow me to put forward my case for funding and to have that case considered when the Executive begin the work of agreeing a draft Budget. My ministerial colleagues and I will have important decisions to make on how best to allocate the available resources.
We are all aware of the competing claims for investment in a wide range of public services — health, education, economic regeneration, rural development and, in my own Department, roads and water. Transport services — including public transport, of which railways form a part — must show that they represent good value for money. Resources are limited, and we must use them in a way that brings the greatest benefit to our society and is in line with priorities for development. Before that process comes to a close towards the end of the calendar year, it includes a period of consultation and consideration by the Assembly. At that stage, I expect that there will be clarity on the way in which the railway network is to be shaped for the years to come, together with the levels of investment that will underpin that development. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Mr Beggs: I wish Members to consider the original motion and the amendments. There is a need to ensure that the debate concerns more than just intercity travel. With careful listening, it is clear that the debate was much wider than that. Members have been interested in improving the modal shift to public transport by enabling as wide a range of people as possible to benefit from the rail service. I hope that, with the proposer of the motion having indicated his acceptance of my amendment, everyone will be able to accept it. The amendment respects the ability to improve local services in Northern Ireland and to improve regional network services outside Northern Ireland, with improved linkages to any region. I hope that Members will accept my amendment.
Mr S Wilson: This is the first opportunity that I have had to speak since the death of my colleague in East Antrim. George Dawson campaigned fiercely for the railway service in his constituency, and I know that he will be greatly missed in the Assembly.
I address the point that was made by the proposer of the motion — that he rejected the DUP amendment because he said it epitomised, or was a symbol of, the partitionist philosophy of the DUP. With that phrase, he tried to cast aside what was a considered amendment. The DUP’s amendment is designed to, first, focus attention on what is realisable when it comes to the debate, and, secondly, focus attention on the immediate needs of improving the rail network in Northern Ireland.
The proposer of the motion talked about his hope that the motion would not be held up by appraisals, debates and reviews. We have come to expect that cavalier attitude from the SDLP when it comes to spending taxpayers’ money. I went through three days of motions that had been proposed by the SDLP during the Transitional Assembly at the beginning of the year. In those three days alone, it spent the block grant — on the issues of water charges, affordable houses, the transportation strategy, victims’ forums, the final closure of old people’s homes, rural schools, and so it went on.
Mr Kennedy: Do you oppose all of that?
Mr S Wilson: No. However, there is a bit of sense in deciding what one’s priorities are. In his speech, Mr Dallat slipped in that he thought his proposal would cost about £500 million— but he was unsure. He did not want any appraisal of it anyway. First of all, since the Assembly will have to work within finite resources, people should look at what is deliverable. That means that the Minister for Regional Development will have to carry out very severe appraisals of proposals that come forward from the Assembly.
A second reason for the DUP’s amendment is that any appraisal of expenditure should be directed towards the immediate needs of people in Northern Ireland. As Roy Beggs, Ken Robinson and others have outlined, there is a severe need for resources to be spent in East Antrim, and, of course, that applies to other rail lines in Northern Ireland.
Jim Wells talked about carriages that he cleaned 20-odd years ago. I was in one of those carriages, and there it was, written on the wall, “JW was here — 1700 or 1900 whatever it was”. — [Laughter.]
Those carriages are still in use today. I have received emails from commuters who travel on the Larne line, and they refer to rain coming through the roofs and to there being no heating in carriages, yet we expect people to travel in those carriages.
Not only are the carriages in poor condition, but, as a result of the old engines, the service is poor. One email said that it took one and a quarter hours to go from Carrickfergus to Great Victoria Street. That distance could be walked quicker.
Mr Kennedy: What is wrong with that?
Mr S Wilson: A pushbike would have been quicker.
A lady who emailed me was on her final warning at work because she relied on the train to get her there each morning. Even though she caught a train that should have got her into Belfast at 8.00 am, cancellations, delays, broken trains, etc — all of which were beyond her control — still left her late for work at 8.30 am. Such events will put commuters off using trains.
Mr Dallat should focus his priorities on improving the rail links in Northern Ireland first of all. Then, and only then, should we consider international rail links.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle, as an deis labhartha seo a thabhairt domh. Ním comhghairdeas leat as do cheapachán mar Cheann Comhairle agus guím gach rath ort.
I support Mr Beggs’s amendment. Many Members have spoken during the debate, and most referred to the folly of the destruction of the Irish rail network, which at one time interlinked every town and many villages throughout the length and breadth of Ireland. Members agreed that the short-sightedness of the past is now catching up with us, as our roads become more and more dangerous, our towns and cities more and more congested, and our atmosphere more and more polluted.
We have moved from an era when almost every possible cargo was carried by rail, to the present day, when most rail lines are devoted to passenger services only. What an advantage the previous network would be to the environment, trade, industry, commerce and tourism on this island if it still existed.
Members, in general, agreed that rather than bemoan the passing of a former age, we should do what we can with the present rail infrastructure to ensure that it is the best that it can possibly be, and, where possible, augment it where that makes good sense.
Members proposed the extension of the rail network into counties Tyrone, Fermanagh and Donegal, with an interlink to Sligo. Members also maintained that we must ensure that the existing network is upgraded to the highest possible standards for both track and rolling stock. They also said that we must ensure that timetables are synchronised in such a way that travel by rail, where possible, is the preferred option of as many people as will make a difference to our environment, the atmosphere, the economy, and, most importantly, public safety.
Mr Dallat reminded us that investment in rail pays. He said that the number of passengers on the Belfast to Derry line has doubled since the purchase of new trains. Investment in railways encourages more and more people to leave their cars behind and travel by rail. The Belfast to Dublin line is an example of that point. After the new Enterprise service was introduced in 1997, the number of passengers on the Belfast to Dublin line doubled.
We need further investment in, and development of, the Belfast to Dublin and the Belfast to Derry services. We need cross-border commuter trains that service all major towns, as well as a fast and efficient intercity service with limited stops.
The Enterprise service is a great intercity success, but it boasts neither the time nor the timetable to suit commuters crossing the border. It simply will not get them to work on time. Every morning, one can witness the spectacle of travellers racing by car from Dundalk to get the 7.35 am commuter train from Newry to Belfast, while travellers from Newry head in the other direction to get the 7.15 am Dundalk train to Dublin. There is no good reason why the Belfast-bound commuter train cannot start from Dundalk, and the Dublin-bound train from Newry. The only reason is a lack of rolling stock.
We need at least four new trains on the Belfast to Dublin route to ensure the hourly service that is needed. North/South economic activity is booming and will continue to grow, so the infrastructure must be adjusted to take account of that reality and to make it easier for the increasing number of cross-border workers.
My colleague Pat Ramsey mentioned the primitive state of the terminal in Derry, and Danny Kennedy, my colleague from Newry and Armagh, underlined the inadequacies of the railway station in Newry. I add my voice to Mr Kennedy’s concerns: Newry’s station facilities are primitive to say the least. There are a mere 60 parking spaces, which has the effect of discouraging people from using the rail service to Belfast, and to Dublin. We need a modern intercity station in Newry with state-of-the-art passenger services and a 300-space car park. The authorities have been vested with the land, and there is no reason why work on the station should not begin this year.
The fundamental message, as emphasised by Member after Member, is that where there has been investment in our railways in recent years, business has grown by 30%. That figure is true of the Portadown, Belfast and Bangor corridor, and indeed of other lines.
Mr Dallat mentioned that £500 million was needed in the north-west. Contrary to what Mr Sammy Wilson said, Mr Dallat is not opposed to an appraisal, but to the red tape that is sometimes involved in appraisals, because that can stop rather than facilitate a project. Mr Dallat also mentioned the need for EU involvement.
Lord Morrow adopted an extremely conciliatory attitude to Mr Dallat’s motion, and I am sure that he will agree that the motion and Mr Beggs’s proposed amendment cover all aspects of the debate. I encourage Lord Morrow and his colleagues to fall in behind the rest of us and support the motion and amendment No 2.
Mr Beggs: He is off the rails.
Mr D Bradley: Lord Morrow or me? [Laughter.]
Lord Morrow suggested that the Minister should take a wider view, stretching into counties Tyrone and Fermanagh, and, indeed, across the border, and that there should be an interlinkage between the Northern and Southern rail systems. Therefore, I fail to understand why he bothered to table an amendment to what was a perfectly good motion.
Roy Beggs Jnr said that as many people as possible should be encouraged to travel by rail. He mentioned the importance of access at local stations for tourists, students and senior citizens. He complained about the neglect of the Larne line and its rolling stock.
Sammy Wilson interjected that breakdowns with older trains are discouraging passengers from using the rail system. Raymond McCartney quite rightly praised my colleague Mr Dallat for proposing the motion. He acknowledged the presence of the Minister for Regional Development in the Chamber and made the point, as many other Members did, that a fully integrated transport strategy is needed in Northern Ireland. He said that over-reliance on cars is causing congestion and pollution. He also bemoaned the demise of the Donegal rail network and hoped to see a link through Derry and Letterkenny to Sligo.
David Ford wanted to hear more from the Minister on his future plans. He mentioned Gregory Campbell’s mysterious disappearance from south Antrim when Minister and his own difficulty with reading rail timetables. He went on to point out the need for improved commuter services into Belfast, and he underlined the inconsistencies in the DUP’s attitude on that issue. He also said that rail must be considered as a major alternative to the private car, which eats up 60% of transport investment.
Jim Wells said that access to rail travel is far from widespread in Northern Ireland and that as much as possible should be done to encourage people to use rail where it is available. He also said that his intimate knowledge of Northern Ireland’s ageing rolling stock tells him that people would not be encouraged to use rail travel in some areas. Once again, he underlined —
Mr Speaker: I remind the Member that his time is up.
Mr D Bradley: He underlined the need for an integrated public transport system for Northern Ireland.
Mr Speaker: I ask the Member to take his seat.
Mr D Bradley: I support Mr Dallat’s motion and Mr Beggs’s proposed amendment.
Mr Speaker: I remind Members that if amendment No 1 is made, amendment No 2 will fall.
Question, That amendment No 1 be made, put and negatived.
Question, That amendment No 2 be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly calls upon the Department for Regional Development to bring forward their plans for upgrading the rail network to provide attractive commuting options and also inter-city services between the principal centres of population and the neighbouring regions.
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to wind up, with all other Members having five minutes.
May I have the attention of Members as we go through the business of the House? A number of Members are moving in and out of the Chamber.
Lord Morrow: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it not the custom in the House that when a Member is on his or her feet, other Members should be in their place?
Mr Speaker: It is very much the custom. Some Members have been Members for a number of years, and they should know that. Irrespective of who the Speaker is, now or in the future, the protocol is that Members do not move in or out of the Chamber until the next item of business is started.
I want to comment on the motion before it is read out. The motion was tabled in the Business Office shortly before the Business Committee met last Wednesday. It was selected for debate with other motions to be debated today and tomorrow. On further reflection, but after the Order Paper had been issued, I had some concerns that the final sentence of the motion raised some doubts about its competence. The Members who tabled the motion were alerted to the difficulty and have tabled an amendment, which I have accepted for this debate. If this amendment is made, it will address the competence issue of the motion. Two other amendments have also been tabled, and they appear on the Marshalled List. If neither of the first two amendments is made, I will not put the Question on the third amendment or on the original motion. On that basis, we shall proceed.
Mr P J Bradley: I beg to move
That this Assembly expresses its deep concern about the plight of the “undocumented Irish”, including many young people originally from Northern Ireland currently living, working and paying their way in the USA. Furthermore, that this Assembly agrees to make a donation towards the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, to support the campaign to legitimatise resident arrangements for, and create legal status for, the “undocumented”.
I also beg to move amendment No 1: Leave out all after “agrees” and insert
“to support the campaign by the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform.”
Mr Speaker, like other Members, I congratulate you on your appointment and wish you well in your role as Speaker. I also thank you for explaining the scenario that occurred last week and for your acceptance of the amendment.
It might be worthwhile for the Executive to examine the issue that has arisen, because some day a situation might arise whereby all 108 Members wish to donate to a crisis fund or a charity, yet because of the legislation, or the lack of legislation, would be unable to do so. That matter should be examined.
At the weekend, I checked out the situation regarding the “undocumented” in the United States. I found that there is much ongoing political activity on Capitol Hill in relation to immigration reform. So intense is the debate and so hectic the activity that it is practically impossible to tell what is happening in Washington at the minute. No draft Bill has been prepared as yet for a debate in the Senate that was supposed to take place tomorrow. Even this afternoon, discussions are taking place between the two political parties and their legislators. Some believe that the President himself will have to do something, but his approval rating in the Republican Party is so low that it makes it difficult to be optimistic. The situation is so uncertain that even the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, will not have a Bill debated in the House unless she gets a guarantee that at least 70 Republicans will vote for it so that it can be seen as bipartisan.
I also learned that those members of the Republican Party who support reform for the illegal residents of the United States believe that more time is required for the parties and administrators from President Bush’s office to continue the bipartisan negotiations. The Bill that they are working on would clamp down on illegal immigration and create a guest worker programme, while providing a way for illegal immigrants to become citizens eventually. Naturally, having President George Bush’s support is important to the entire debate, and it is the belief of some supporters of reform that if President Bush and senior Democrat Ted Kennedy can put something together, their agreement would have a reasonable chance of success.
A further scenario could possibly emerge if there is a failure to agree. An option to return to the Bill passed in the Senate in May 2006 might be pursued. Indications are that some of the pro-reform politicians would be prepared to look at a modified version of the 2006 agreement.
No one could have foreseen the time factor becoming the issue of the day, but it is, and, at the weekend, Republicans were so adamant in their claim that more time is required that they threatened to block efforts by the Democrats to start the debate.
On the other hand, the Democrats, the vast majority of whom support reform, are concerned that any delay could severely damage the chances of enacting legislation this year. They maintain that legislators in Washington will soon be concentrating their efforts on the process leading up to next year’s presidential election.
My opening remarks are full of possibilities and probabilities; it is fair to say that uncertainty reigns. Meanwhile, an estimated 35,000 to 45,000 Irish couples, boys and girls currently living, working and paying their way in the United States are caught in a debate that is not of their making. Whatever the outcome of that debate, it will have a tremendous bearing on all of their futures.
The Irish represent a very small minority of those caught up in the debate. There is a great human tragedy involving 11 million illegal residents, all of them living in fear. It is a widespread problem, most prominent in California, New Mexico and Arizona. It involves, in the main, access from Mexico and South American countries. Most of these immigrants are unable to speak English.
I have sympathy and understanding with the two amendments that have been tabled, as they refer to the overall situation in America. However, they overlook the point that Alasdair McDonnell and I are making. We are concentrating on the work of the members of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform (ILIR) on behalf of the undocumented Irish. To add the plight of the 11 million others would weaken what the ILIR is about. I ask the proposers of the two amendments to consider withdrawing them, because we can best serve the undocumented Irish by supporting the group that is best aware of the specific issues and how best to deal with them. In the ‘New York Times’ on 16 March 2006, the chairman of the group, Niall O’Dowd, said that the Irish Lobby will push for any special arrangement it can get for the undocumented Irish.
In March 2006, and again in July, I was privileged to join with 3,000 undocumented Irish in Washington, where they lobbied Senators and Congressmen as part of their campaign for legal status. The events, and the huge numbers who attended, were the climax of an intensive campaign organised by the ILIR. Incidentally, it was nice to meet up again last week with the group’s president, Grant Lally, and its chairman, Niall O’Dowd, who were both here for the reinstatement of our Assembly.
Since the autumn of 2005, the ILIR has organised rallies in most major Irish-American cities and called for the undocumented to come out and support the campaign to legalise the Irish. Many were, understandably, afraid to openly declare their lack of official status, but I pay tribute to the many that did. Thousands filled halls in New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and cities on the west coast, including Los Angeles and San Francisco. They followed that by making long journeys to Capitol Hill to join their Irish contemporaries from across the United States. This grass-roots mobilisation of the Irish-American community by the ILIR is to be complimented and is worthy of support from all elected representatives.
As I mixed with the undocumented in Washington and listened to their stories regarding their respective situations, I could only attempt to imagine the ordeal that many of them are living through. Two County Fermanagh sisters told me of their sadness at being unable to travel home for the funeral of a relative. Others remain afraid to travel home for family weddings or christenings, or to visit their parents and family members back in Ireland. The fear of being caught on re-entry to the United States and facing automatic deportation leads many of them to simply avoid travelling, so they suffer that heartbreak.
In the absence of the Assembly, many of our local authorities, community organisations, sporting bodies and elected individuals made the American ambassador in London and the Belfast-based American consul aware of their concerns and of their support for the campaign to afford the undocumented Irish legal status in America. It is therefore important that the diplomats be further advised that the Assembly is also concerned at the threat to the current and future generations that work or might wish to work in the United States.
As stated in the motion, many of the illegal exiles come from our jurisdiction, and this was very much in evidence when the ILIR visited Dublin on 14 April to meet the Irish relatives of the undocumented Irish in America. Almost 2,000 people attended the Dublin event, and it was estimated that around 30% to 35% of them were from Northern Ireland.
I referred in my opening remarks to the fact that the Assembly has no authority to make financial contributions to charitable or lobbying groups. Thankfully, for the campaign organisers in America, the Government of the Republic of Ireland is not equally restricted.
At the event in Dublin in April, all political parties were present to support the undocumented and their families. During the event, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern, endorsed the campaign by announcing that his Government were offering an additional $50,000 to the ILIR to assist its campaign. The money was additional because the Irish Government had contributed $85,000 to the campaign in 2006.
Like all Members, I am pleased that the Assembly is once again up and running, because it gives us an opportunity to raise the many and varied concerns of the wider community. Concerns such as that expressed in the motion are shared in many homes across Northern Ireland. Many parents would love to see the return of a beloved son or daughter, or, in some cases, to meet their grandchildren — currently caught up in the immigration debate — for the first time.
As elected representatives, we should express our gratitude to the dedicated and energetic group of professionals that makes up the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform. They are so fully committed to the cause of the undocumented Irish that we must demonstrate our appreciation of their work to the maximum of our ability.
Mr Speaker: I call Simon Hamilton to propose the second amendment to the motion. This shall be Mr Hamilton’s maiden speech, and I remind Members of the convention relating to such contributions.
Mr Hamilton: Mr Speaker, I begin by congratulating you on your appointment to the office of Speaker, and I wish you all the best in your endeavours.
I beg to move amendment No 2: Leave out all after the first “Assembly” and insert
“recognises many young people originally from Northern Ireland currently living, working and paying their way in the USA are included amongst the millions of undocumented immigrants to that country from various parts of the world; welcomes bipartisan approaches to address this issue which emphasise strong border controls; and urges the US Government to enhance efforts to resolve this matter.”
When the good people of Strangford did me the honour of electing me to serve them at Stormont —
Mr McNarry: Hear, hear.
Mr Hamilton: Thank you. When they elected me, I did not envisage that my maiden speech would address an issue that affects people living in New York rather than Newtownards. Although I am pretty sure that, of the estimated 50,000 illegal immigrants of Irish origin living in the United States at the moment, very few are from Strangford and even fewer support me or my political party, I am nonetheless interested in the subject.
Anyone who knows me well will affirm that I have a long and abiding interest in the United States, particularly in its politics. My love for that country is surpassed only by that for my own. Irrespective of the level of our interest in the US, we all know that it is a nation founded upon wave after wave of immigration spanning several centuries. People of all persuasions from our Province have played a pivotal part in shaping the history of America. All of that, however, was long before visas or green cards. As is the case everywhere in the Western World, immigration into the US today is a wildly different and much more complex issue than it was 100 or 200 years ago.
The lure of the wealth of the world’s biggest economy has subjected the United States to what its Department of Homeland Security suggests is an influx of as many as 12 million illegal immigrants. Others argue that the actual figure might be as high as 20 million immigrants. However, regardless of the real number, there are undoubtedly millions of individuals who illegally cross the US border, overstay their visas or violate the terms of their legal entry, thus placing a strain on the US. Indeed, some states, such as Arizona and New Mexico, have had to declare states of emergency as a result.
My desire for a resolution of the issue is as much influenced by global economics and my aforementioned affection for the US as it is by the desire to offer assistance to people originally from Northern Ireland. Those illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States who are, as the original motion says:
“living, working and paying their way”,
generally do so in low-paid, heavy-labour jobs in the agriculture, hospitality and construction industries — jobs that many Americans do not want to do. Removal of in excess of 10 million workers from an economy such as that of the United States could bring that country to the brink of economic collapse. There is an old adage that whenever America sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold.
I would never condone the wilful flouting of the immigration laws of another state, just as I would condemn anyone who ignores our laws, and I have little sympathy for anyone whose “plight”, as the motion described it, is self-inflicted. However, I understand the problem, its consequences and the need for a resolution. To that end, at local government level, I supported a Bill that was before the United States Congress in 2005. It has already been mentioned; it went by the names of its major co-sponsors, Senator Edward Kennedy and Senator John McCain. The Bill was widely recognised as an attempt to reach compromise between the diametrically opposed positions of a total amnesty for illegal aliens and enforced deportation — something that resources would not permit.
The Bill offered undocumented workers entry to a guest-worker programme and a pathway to possible legalisation if they paid a fine and any unpaid back taxes. That was backed up by proposals for stricter and stronger border controls. I am sure that we could all see some merit in that approach.
No doubt, some will say that the Assembly should not spend its time debating such issues. When we stand back and survey the despairing legacies of direct rule, such as the chronic underfunding of education and the creaking infrastructure and chaos of the Health Service, those people may have a point. Of course, there are several other legacies of the Troubles, one of which, the onset of parochialism, came as a result of being feted by Prime Ministers and Presidents who sought to solve our problems.
I hope that last week’s events allow us to take our own place in the world instead of having it defined for us. Instead of having the world watch us, we must lift our vision and view the world around us. If, from time to time, like all other democratic institutions, we debate issues that affect people beyond our shores, it will be of benefit to us all.
Mr Speaker: Mr Cathal Boylan will move amendment No 3, which is published on the Marshalled List. I remind Members that Mr Boylan is making his maiden speech.
Mr Boylan: I beg to move amendment No 3: Leave out all after “Reform” and insert
“and this Assembly, in a public expression of its support for the undocumented Irish in the USA, contact the US Administration and all US Senators, urging them to reach a compromise which would secure residency for the Irish undocumented as well as the many immigrants living in the USA deemed illegal by the present system.”
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle, and I wish you well in your new post. Given that I have family in New York and I understand the problems that they have faced in the past, I am grateful for the opportunity to move the amendment.
Sinn Féin has consistently supported and highlighted the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform’s campaign for legal status for the estimated 40,000 — and more — undocumented Irish people who live and work in the United States. The hardships faced by many of our brothers, sisters, family members and friends in America — who are known as the undocumented Irish — have had an impact on a great number of families throughout Ireland. Therefore it is an issue that must be resolved.
On a recent trip to the USA, I met ILIR activists and heard of the many problems faced by the undocumented Irish whom the present Administration have deemed illegals, and, therefore, lawbreakers. People from my own town of Keady live there, as well as people from Middletown, Ballymacnab, Granemore and throughout the Newry and Armagh constituency. Indeed, people from many parts of Ireland live there. I was made aware of a young mother who could not take her child home to its grandparents in case she would not be able to return to America — a place she has made her home. Some of the stories were from families who were unable to travel to family occasions such as weddings, or, most poignantly, the funerals of loved ones.
Many Sinn Féin elected representatives, including Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, and Dublin South-West TD Seán Crowe, have travelled to the US to lobby and support ILIR representatives and to stand shoulder to shoulder with their fellow countrymen and women. They have also heard at first hand the difficulties that those people face. Many of them are young people who work and contribute to the financial well-being of the USA and make a positive impact on that society.
Granting legal residential status to the undocumented Irish would not only lift the constant daily pressures that they face and ensure that they can plan for the future, it would benefit the USA as a nation and those of us who are back in Ireland. With that status, those people could travel freely to visit family and contribute to the economy through tourism and investment, now and in the future. This is a crucial time for the more than 40,000 undocumented Irish who live and work in the US. The matter must be resolved; citizenship must be granted to those people. The elected representatives in the US Administration who are involved in brokering a deal to solve the problems of immigration should seize the moment. I appeal to them to act now. They should not scuttle what many believe is the best chance in a long time to secure comprehensive immigration reform and to finally resolve all the outstanding issues.
The time has arrived for concerted lobbying to solve the problem of the undocumented once and for all. I ask the Assembly to champion the cause. A public expression of its support for the undocumented Irish would add significant weight and, I hope, help to encourage all those involved in the decision-making process finally to resolve the matter. Therefore, I ask that the Assembly contact the US Administration and all its Senators to urge them to reach a compromise that would secure residency for the undocumented Irish and the many immigrants who live in the US and whom the present system deems illegal. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Kennedy: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Have any representations been made to you, your officials or the Deputy Speakers about either the acoustics or the heating system in the Chamber today? Both are unsatisfactory to varying degrees. I ask that you take those matters on board as quickly as possible. You could hang beef down here.
Mr Speaker: Mr Kennedy, neither issue has been raised with me, but I will address both of them as soon as possible.
Mr Elliott: Mr Speaker, I also welcome you to the Speaker’s Chair. I hope that Members on this side of the Chamber will not give you too much difficulty. Best wishes to you in your new role.
The first thing that struck me when I saw the motion was that I — and I am sure that Members of the House agree — do not want to support any illegal activity in the United States of America. I am concerned that by supporting the original motion, we may do so. I also appreciate the difficulties faced by the US Administration in deciding to whom they should issue visas or grant occupational rights in their country and jurisdiction.
I am sure that many people have exploited those difficulties, and I would not like to think that the Assembly should condone what might be the exploitation of legislative powers in the United States. It is clear that the issue must be addressed in the USA. Happily, the current President recently said that one of his priorities is to address the matter and try to move it forward, perhaps not speedily but to a satisfactory resolution.
The motion also states that the Irish people concerned are “paying their way”. I wonder what that means. Does it mean that the 50,000 Irish exiles who have been mentioned pay all the taxes and levies imposed by the United States Government? If so, I would have thought that they were living in the country legally. I want some clarification on what exactly is meant by “paying their way”.
I understand that about 15,000 of the 50,000 undocumented Irish that have been mentioned are from Northern Ireland. Perhaps the Assembly should try to grasp what their particular circumstances are. Members need to get a general feel for their difficulties, how long they have been in the US and why they face such problems.
The number of Irish people being deported from the USA is falling, but there remain many who live in fear. The ‘Los Angeles Times’ recently reported a fall in the USA’s Irish-born population. In 1970, there were 251,000 Irish-born people living in America, but that has dropped progressively over the past 34 years to 127,600. Much of the decrease in Irish immigration in recent years has been attributed to the Celtic tiger economy and economic growth that has encouraged more people to stay in Ireland. There are also difficulties with the lottery-type competition that is used to grant legal residency in the USA.
I recently read a report that highlighted problems in the USA’s Irish neighbourhoods that were associated with the decline in the Irish-born population. The report stated that Irish community newspapers were losing advertising and that the number of GAA teams in traditional Irish neighbourhoods was falling. However, I am pleased to inform the House that the membership of the Orange Order in America is increasing — something of which, I am sure, Members will be proud and glad to hear. Since 1998, when a new lodge was formed in California, the membership of the Orange Order in America has risen steadily. I am sure that Members will be pleased about that and, at a time when there are problems within the broader Irish dimension in America, I am glad that I have something positive to offer.
Mr Speaker: I call Dr Stephen Farry. I remind Members that this is Dr Farry’s maiden speech.
Dr Farry: Mr Speaker, before I address the substance of the motion, I congratulate you on your appointment as Speaker. We share a common predecessor in Eileen Bell, and in my maiden speech I wish to pay tribute to her as my predecessor as the Alliance Party MLA for North Down. Many tributes have been paid to her for her role as Speaker, and I put on record my thanks, and those of my constituents, for her work on behalf of all the people of North Down over the past eight years.
I thank the proposers of the motion for bringing the important issue before the Assembly. Of the estimated 50,000 undocumented Irish citizens living in the United States, a considerable number of those are from Northern Ireland, so it is right that the Assembly turns its attention to their welfare. The majority of those people will have legally travelled to the United States on tourist or work visas, but, for various reasons, they will have overstayed the terms of those visas. Many of them are now well established in their communities, where they have homes, have got married and have had children. Some are running businesses; indeed, some have enrolled in the army and are now fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
However, they are living in fear of being found out and deported. They experience major difficulties in accessing driving licences, social security numbers and health insurance, and they often live in fear of having a major accident or illness. They cannot risk returning to Ireland for fear of not gaining re-entry to the United States and often miss out on important family occasions.
As someone who legally spent most of the past year in the United States on a J-1 visa, I can testify to the bureaucracy involved in establishing oneself there. I can imagine what it would be like without documentation.
As a liberal, I believe in open borders for trade and labour. The USA has prospered as a nation of immigrants; essentially, it had an open-door policy until 1920. Since then, it has regulated its borders — as any country is entitled to do. However, the USA is a country in which many people aspire to work and live, and those people are often driven by lack of economic opportunities in their homeland. The Assembly must address that.
The Irish in America cannot be separated from the wider debates on immigration, and I hope that there is a good prospect of comprehensive reform being put in place for the first time since 1965.
The fact that the debate is occurring in the United States is encouraging. To put that in perspective, it is not happening in either Britain or Ireland. Outside the context of EU migration, economic migrants from other parts of the world are routinely deported from both of those jurisdictions. Although there are some elements in the USA who want to erect walls and fences, take a protectionist economic line and criminalise undocumented immigrants, there are many others who recognise the social, economic and cultural benefits that those immigrants bring to the United States. Indeed, there are many areas of the economy that could not function without them. In many big cities such as Washington, the service industry is dominated by immigrant workers.
Last year, I was present on the National Mall when over 500,000 people, most of whom were Latin American, were holding a rally in favour of immigration reform and were chanting in Spanish. The discipline and order among the crowd were remarkable. The police were required simply to direct traffic and people. It was a refreshing sight.
It is hoped that the views of progressives will eventually win out and that some form of compromise will be reached that involves tougher border security, a scheme to legalise undocumented immigrants and the introduction of a new immigration policy that has a heavier emphasis on skills. Ultimately, however, it is for the United States to resolve the matter, not the Assembly.
I largely support the SDLP’s proposed amendment to the motion, although I have concerns about the way that it has been phrased and about the tone of some speeches, which suggest that the issue of the Irish can somehow be separated from the wider issue of the 12 million undocumented immigrants from different countries. It would be wrong to highlight one nationality above others and to imply that their case is most deserving. For that reason, I have sympathy for the Sinn Féin amendment, which addresses the broader issue more comprehensively.
Although Mr Hamilton’s amendment also addresses the issue, I am concerned about its overemphasis on border security. Border security must be one element of a comprehensive solution; however, it is not the only solution. I would hate for the Assembly to go down the line of endorsing higher walls and security fences, which most people in the United States do not recognise as being the main part of any solution. People in the United States want the issue to be dealt with properly. Business and labour organisations want immigrant workers to be properly documented so that they can contribute fully to the economy.
Mr Speaker: I call Mr Ian McCrea. I remind Members that this is Mr McCrea’s maiden speech to the Assembly and should be heard without interruption.
Mr I McCrea: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I congratulate you, as other Members have done, on your elevation to Speaker of the House.
The debate is timely for the new Assembly, as, over the weekend, negotiations took place among United States Senators to try to forge a long-elusive compromise on the immigration issue. They are working towards a deadline of Wednesday 16 May, which was set by the Senate majority leader Harry Reid — a Democrat from Nevada — for a vote to determine whether the Senate will begin to debate immigration.
With House Leaders insisting that Senators take the lead on the issue, the Senate’s failure to move forward this week could derail hopes of overhauling immigration laws in 2007. President Bush has made immigration reform one of only a few major domestic issues that he has pledged to resolve before the end of his term. Two months of intense negotiations involving a bipartisan group of Senators and two Cabinet Secretaries did not yield a compromise.
There is strong consensus on continuing to improve border security. Both sides agree on the creation of a foolproof system to verify that employees are legal. They back tough punishments for companies that hire outside the legal system. Both sides have also accepted that certain goals to tighten the border and immigration practices must be realised before further reform can proceed. They agree that the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the US should be given a way to earn citizenship. Although the criteria is yet to be fully ironed out, illegal immigrants who qualified for citizenship would probably have to learn English, pay taxes retrospectively, show that they have established roots in the United States and have held a job.
There has been disagreement over a temporary worker programme. Democrats want participants to be able to gain permanent resident status, which is a step towards citizenship. However, Republicans prefer a programme that is purely temporary. Republicans also want to reconfigure the basic underpinnings of US immigration, shifting it from a system that seeks to reunite families to one that gives preference to immigrants who have the education and skills that are sought by American businesses. Democrats are bitterly opposed to that.
In his weekly radio address to the nation, President Bush urged Congress to continue to press for an overhaul of the immigration system. He said that any final package must include improved border security and hold employers accountable for verifying the legal status of employees. It must also include a temporary worker programme and:
“must resolve the status of millions of illegal immigrants who are already here, without amnesty and without animosity.”
News reports have suggested that a possible deal could centre on legislation aimed at securing the US border with Mexico and establishing a high-tech identification system for immigrant workers. Only then would millions of illegal immigrants be given an opportunity to gain legal status after meeting certain criteria.
Members’ sympathies are with those from this part of the world who are contributing positively to United States’ society, many of whom have done so for decades. However, in arriving at a settlement, cognisance must be given to future implications and how those who seek to enter the United States will be dealt with.
Unfortunately, I cannot support the SDLP amendment. The difficulty is with the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform. One of its events was concluded to rapturous applause, with tiocfaidh ár lá from the Democratic Senator Charles Schumer. I cannot support a body like that. However, the DUP has tabled an amendment, which proves its desire to resolve the matter.
Mr Speaker: Mr Mickey Brady will give the winding-up speech on the third amendment. I remind Members that this is his maiden speech.
Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I have listened with interest to what has been said by previous Members who spoke, and I commend Mr P J Bradley and Dr McDonnell for tabling the motion.
There are varied views on the undocumented Irish, and it has been pointed out that there are approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants in the USA. I am not sure how many of them are from Strangford. However, if Members look at the figures that have been quoted, approximately 15,000 of the undocumented Irish are from the North. It is incumbent on the House to give all the undocumented Irish from the island of Ireland, regardless of which part they come from, the support that is required to make them legal.
Dr Farry stated that the Irish are well established in America and contribute to that community by marrying or joining the army, etc. That has been the long-term position. The undocumented Irish require the support of Members.
I, and others from Newry and Armagh, recently had the opportunity to meet a group of influential high-profile US Congressmen and Congresswomen, including Carolyn McCarthy, who visited the area. In that group were Richard Neal and Jim Walsh, both of whom have long-established contacts with Ireland and have had input on issues relating to the island. Congressman Neal serves as the chairperson of the Friends of Ireland (FOI).
I met the delegation along with the former mayor of Newry and Mourne District Council Councillor Pat McGinn and discussed the present situation concerning the undocumented Irish. We conveyed the deep concern of local people about the potential implications if arguments made by the anti-immigration, restrictionist lobby are accepted. Members have already mentioned many examples of the impact on the lives of undocumented people, such as not being allowed to return home for funerals and weddings. There are cases of people who have had children in America and are married to Americans who are not allowed back.
I commend the motion to the House. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Simpson: I congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on your elevation to the office of Speaker. I trust that Members will not give you too much of a hard time.
I support my colleague’s amendment. There are thought to be approximately 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States. Each year, between 500,000 and one million more enter the country, mostly through the 2,000-mile southern border with Mexico. Many of these people are poorly educated, unskilled workers. However, in their thousands, they fill the sorts of jobs that most native-born Americans will not take — at least not for the same wages.
For example, much of California’s agriculture industry relies on migrant workers. However, some argue that those jobs could be filled without illegal immigrants. Most people agree that, at present, the US system is failing all its stakeholders: foreigners who want to enter the country; citizens who expect the US Government to prevent illegal border crossings; and employers who need workers to fill jobs. Strength of feeling on the issue has been characterised by huge marches to protest against the discrimination of undocumented workers.
The United States was built by immigrants, many of whom were seeking a new life in a new land. Until 1882, anyone could move to the United States. Throughout most of the twentieth century, the federal Government fine-tuned their immigration policies to answer the specific concerns of their citizens. In recent years, an increasing number of Americans have come to believe that the country is being overwhelmed by immigrants, and they have asked policy-makers to create laws that discourage both legal and illegal immigration.
The debate on immigration offers a modern-day reading of the principles on which many people feel America was founded: providing newcomers with freedom from oppression and the opportunity for prosperity. Some Americans think that immigrants are a burden on the US economy, while others believe that they have benefited it. In addition, critics of immigration are concerned that the country is splintering along racial and cultural lines, because immigrants are not being assimilated properly into US society.
Historically, many went to America to escape war, poverty, famine or religious persecution. Some went seeking fortune, and others were taken against their will to work as slaves. Early immigration laws were aimed at preserving the racial, religious and ethnic composition of the United States, which was then largely European. Soon, however, Americans were complaining about European immigrants as well.
During the latter part of the twentieth century, US immigration policy addressed specific modern-day problems. In some instances, the federal Government have set limits on the number of immigrants who fall into certain classifications, such as refugee, who are allowed to reside in the country.
The United States admit close to one million legal immigrants every year, and, annually, immigration is swelling by several hundred thousand others who illegally cross its borders. Both legal and illegal immigrants contribute to dramatic changes in the racial, ethnic and cultural composition of the country.
Some US citizens think that immigrants have revitalised many American cities, but, in some communities, there has been a backlash against their growing presence. Many Americans support restrictions on immigration because they think that the illegal immigrants take low-skilled jobs away from American citizens.
The negotiations that have been mentioned, which are ongoing among the political leaders in Washington, have the potential to resolve the current difficulties. This Assembly should play its part in encouraging agreement on the issue.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Dr McDonnell: Mr Speaker, like other Members, I congratulate you on becoming Speaker. I did so privately in the Business Committee, but this is my first opportunity to do so publicly and put on record my best wishes to you. I hope the role is a happy and successful one for you.
I wish to pick up on a couple of threads. I am delighted at the broad consensus of opinion on this subject. Members may differ in the detail, and on some of the outcomes, but I am delighted that so many from all parties have shown interest, attended and engaged in this debate. That is what P J Bradley and I had hoped for when we tabled the motion. We believe that it is an issue for us all.
I am doubly delighted that five or six maiden speeches were made. I wish to thank all those Members for their contribution to the debate.
Most of the points have been made, and I do not want to repeat them or bore people. However, there are strong ties of history and blood relationships between the people of the United States and the people of Ireland, particularly with those of Northern Ireland. It is important to me that those ties are strengthened, and a number of Members have articulated a similar interest. It is in that context that the motion was tabled.
The motion is not about broad issues of the security of the United States or its border. It was not my intention to engage in heated debate on the detail of how the Americans protect their borders — whether they build big walls or mount guns on the border, and so on. Those are issues about which we can do nothing. The 15 million, 16 million or 18 million estimated undocumented in the United States are not my concern, and I make no apology for that; rather it is the estimated 40,000 to 50,000 from the island of Ireland who are in difficulties there and not enjoying undocumented status. Of those, some 15,000 to 18,000 — almost half — are presumed to have come from Northern Ireland. There are various ways of estimating that figure.
Those people have been in the United States, making livelihoods, for as many as 15 years. They have put down roots there; some have married; and some have set up businesses. However, the motion refers to those who are “paying their way”, and that reflects the fact that the vast majority of those people, as I understand it from people who have briefed me, are earning a living, working, contributing and paying taxes. They have been doing so for a long time. Some are on the margins and not operating through the books but the majority are paying taxes, because it is not possible to be a builder or a tradesman without doing so.
I visited San Francisco last week. It is estimated that there are over 3,000 undocumented Irish in that area. A disproportionate number of them are from Northern Ireland. I am told that 2,500 of the 3,000 are northern. These figures are only guesstimates. A significant number of those — perhaps 600 — are of a unionist background. I mention that not to be divisive but to illustrate that this is not simply a problem for nationalists. There are unionists involved.
A couple of months ago, I met a young man who works in the Irish Immigration Center in Boston, who proudly told me that he is a unionist from County Down. He is equally concerned that many people seeking help from the Irish Immigration Center in Boston are from a unionist background, and that they often find it more difficult to get help because they are in many ways the forgotten people in that situation.
Mr P J Bradley and I appeal to our unionist colleagues to be aware that the motion is not exclusively nationalist or Irish. Americans do not see much difference in unionists who cross the Atlantic — they are treated as Irish. We are all Irish, when we get that far.
I do not wish to dictate immigration strategy to the United States; I want to highlight the plight of 40,000 people, particularly those from Northern Ireland, who have been driven to the United States because of circumstances, economic or otherwise, that were often beyond their control. I plead with the Assembly to assist those people in whatever way possible.
I congratulate Mr Hamilton on his maiden speech and I welcome his general support. However, we would be splitting hairs by broadening the issue. He asked about the strain on individual states. Last week, people in San Francisco told me that the economy would collapse in some states because, for example, every gardener in California is Mexican, and around 80% of them are undocumented. However, I am not concerned primarily with that issue. I am concerned about the 15,000 people from Northern Ireland. Although some constituencies are represented more than others in that figure, by and large, all constituencies and backgrounds are represented.
Mr Boylan mentioned several details of the campaign and highlighted family problems, such as the people who are not able to attend a parent’s funeral or a family wedding. His point was that guest-worker status is required in order to allow people time. People do not want to be forced to leave the country in order to become documented and receive clearance. If they were allowed to register in the United States as undocumented and be given a year, 18 months, or whatever time it takes to clear their status, and were then rejected, let them come home. Let them not be in a twilight zone, where they are neither fish nor flesh, where they are unsure for months, and where those who have businesses would have to fold them.
I assure Tom Elliott that I am neither condoning nor encouraging illegal activity. However, I would not agree to registering those people as having committed a crime. They may have bent, or broken, immigration laws by working while undocumented; however, that is a fact of life, and the Irish dimension represents a very small percentage of the 15 million people involved. I would like a fuller debate on the bigger problem. However, our intention today is to highlight one issue.
Mr Elliott made my point very well when he raised the issue of the Orange Order in California. I welcome the formation of an Orange Lodge in California because it confirms my point that there is a substantial slice of unionism caught up in the debate. Although some of those people may be very successful, some may be undocumented.
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Dr McDonnell: Thank you Mr Speaker. I would have liked to address the comments made during the other maiden speeches. I support the SDLP’s amendment to the motion, and I appeal to all sides of the House to do the same. Let us dissect the other points at another time.
Mr Speaker: It has been a while since we started to debate this motion. I will try to recap and explain how the voting on the amendments will work. You might all be the wiser for it.
I remind Members that the first amendment is from the proposers of the motion. The second amendment is from Mr Hamilton, and the third is from Mr Boylan.
I will clarify how the amendments will operate. Whether or not the first amendment is made, I will put the Question on the second amendment. However, if the second amendment is made, then the third amendment will fall. If neither the first nor the second amendment is made, I will neither put the Question on the third amendment nor the Question on the motion as it appears on the Order Paper. After that explanation, this should be clear to most Members. [Laughter.]
The Question will only be put on the third amendment if the first amendment is made and the second is not made. I know you all understand that.
Question put, That amendment No 1 be made.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 42; Noes 43.
Martina Anderson, Cathal Boylan, Dominic Bradley, Mary Bradley, P J Bradley, Mickey Brady, Francie Brolly, Thomas Burns, Paul Butler, Willie Clarke, John Dallat, Dr Kieran Deeny, Mark Durkan, Dr Stephen Farry, David Ford, Tommy Gallagher, Michelle Gildernew, Carmel Hanna, Dolores Kelly, Anna Lo, Naomi Long, Alban Maginness, Alex Maskey, Fra McCann, Jennifer McCann, Kieran McCarthy, Raymond McCartney, Dr Alasdair McDonnell, Barry McElduff, Martin McGuinness, Daithí McKay, Mitchel McLaughlin, Francie Molloy, Conor Murphy, Carál Ní Chuilín, John O’Dowd, Declan O’Loan, Michelle O’Neill, Pat Ramsey, Sue Ramsey, Margaret Ritchie, Brian Wilson.
Tellers for the Ayes: Dominic Bradley and John Dallat.
Billy Armstrong, Roy Beggs, Allan Bresland, Lord Browne, Thomas Buchanan, Gregory Campbell, Trevor Clarke, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Jonathan Craig, Leslie Cree, Nigel Dodds, Jeffrey Donaldson, Alex Easton, Tom Elliott, Samuel Gardiner, Simon Hamilton, David Hilditch, William Irwin, Danny Kennedy, John McCallister, Ian McCrea, Dr William McCrea, Alan McFarland, Michael McGimpsey, Michelle McIlveen, David McNarry, Adrian McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Robin Newton, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, George Robinson, Iris Robinson, Ken Robinson, Peter Robinson, Jim Shannon, David Simpson, Jimmy Spratt, Mervyn Storey, Peter Weir, Jim Wells, Sammy Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Jim Shannon and Mervyn Storey.
Question accordingly negatived.
Question put, That amendment No 2 be made.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 43; Noes 42.
Billy Armstrong, Roy Beggs, Allan Bresland, Lord Browne, Thomas Buchanan, Gregory Campbell, Trevor Clarke, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Jonathan Craig, Leslie Cree, Nigel Dodds, Jeffrey Donaldson, Alex Easton, Tom Elliott, Samuel Gardiner, Simon Hamilton, David Hilditch, William Irwin, Danny Kennedy, John McCallister, Ian McCrea, Dr William McCrea, Alan McFarland, Michael McGimpsey, Michelle McIlveen, David McNarry, Adrian McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Robin Newton, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, George Robinson, Iris Robinson, Ken Robinson, Peter Robinson, Jim Shannon, David Simpson, Jimmy Spratt, Mervyn Storey, Peter Weir, Jim Wells, Sammy Wilson.
Tellers for the Ayes: Jim Shannon and Mervyn Storey.
Martina Anderson, Cathal Boylan, Dominic Bradley, Mary Bradley, P J Bradley, Mickey Brady, Francie Brolly, Thomas Burns, Paul Butler, Willie Clarke, John Dallat, Dr Kieran Deeny, Mark Durkan, Dr Stephen Farry, David Ford, Tommy Gallagher, Michelle Gildernew, Carmel Hanna, Dolores Kelly, Anna Lo, Naomi Long, Fra McCann, Jennifer McCann, Kieran McCarthy, Raymond McCartney, Dr Alasdair McDonnell, Barry McElduff, Martin McGuinness, Daithí McKay, Mitchel McLaughlin, Alban Maginness, Alex Maskey, Francie Molloy, Conor Murphy, Carál Ní Chuilín, John O’Dowd, Declan O’Loan, Michelle O’Neill, Pat Ramsey, Sue Ramsey, Margaret Ritchie, Brian Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Martina Anderson and Raymond McCartney.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly recognises many young people originally from Northern Ireland currently living, working and paying their way in the USA are included amongst the millions of undocumented immigrants to that country from various parts of the world; welcomes bipartisan approaches to address this issue which emphasise strong border controls; and urges the US Government to enhance efforts to resolve this matter.
Adjourned at 4.58 pm.