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northern Ireland assembly

Tuesday 11 September 2007

Assembly Business

Private Members’ Business
Football Offences Act
Attacks on Orange Halls
National Minimum Wage

New Visitors’ Centre at the Giant’s Causeway

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

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Assembly Business

Mr Speaker: I want to say something about the statement that the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development made yesterday. Mr Ford raised a point of order, asking why two members of the Executive were called to ask questions of an Executive colleague. The Deputy Speaker Mr McClarty was in the Chair at the time, and he undertook to raise the matter with me. I have given it some consideration.

Members will be aware that Standing Orders do not preclude Ministers from asking questions of other Ministers. However, page 36 of the ‘Northern Ireland Assembly Companion’ — I am sure that everyone has a copy with them — shows that such questions were not the usual practice in the previous Assembly. However, I believe that ministerial statements offer Members an important opportunity to hold the Executive to account. In future, therefore, I intend to call members of the Executive to ask questions following a statement from a ministerial colleague only in special circumstances. I may still call them as private Members, referring to them by name rather than by their ministerial office.

I hope that that clears up that matter. It was a very good point of order, and I must say that points of order of that nature are scarce in the House.

Private Members’ Business

Football Offences Act

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes to speak. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech.

Mr McCarthy: I beg to move

That this Assembly congratulates the Irish Football Association on its campaign against sectarianism and, in order to strengthen powers of sporting bodies to deal with sectarianism and violence in sports grounds, calls on the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to commence consultation, with a view to introducing to Northern Ireland an Act similar to the Football (Offences) Act 1991.

I want to begin by stating clearly that the Alliance Party’s position is that any legislation designed to address the conduct of spectators at sporting events should not simply consider association football but must cover all sports that are played competitively in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland has a long and proud tradition of achievement in all sports. All sections of the community can be justly proud of that legacy. Sport can be a unifying and positive force for good in our society. Northern Irish football, for example, is currently on the crest of a wave — if we ignore Saturday evening’s performance against Latvia — and it brings a tremendous sense of pride and enthusiasm to everyone. As with all sporting success, the football team represents an opportunity for this country to be seen in a positive light across the world, helping us to demonstrate that we are emerging from a troubled past, working towards a brighter future and welcoming people from all religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds into our society.

I stress my understanding that the vast majority of spectators and supporters want nothing more than to enjoy the atmosphere of a competitive event and to support their chosen team, or player, in a peaceful manner. Indeed, I wish to recognise and commend the Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs on its outstanding work and, in particular, its Football for All ethos, which is promoted by the Irish Football Association (IFA) and encourages participation by everyone, regardless of political affiliation, cultural identity, gender, religious background or disability. I congratulate the amalgamation on being awarded the Brussels International Supporters Award 2006 for this vital work and also its efforts for charity.

I note remarks made by Michael Boyd, the IFA’s head of community relations, that efforts to combat abuse have had a positive impact on the number of spectators attending Northern Ireland football matches, with regular sell-out games. The Northern Ireland shirt is now flying off the shelves, which is good news; let us hope that the shirts are manufactured locally.

The Gaelic Football Association (GAA) and other sporting bodies in Northern Ireland have also made positive outreach efforts, which is a welcome step. We congratulate all those organisations. However, we must sadly acknowledge that all too often local sporting events have been hijacked by groups of individuals and used as an outlet for disturbing expressions of bigotry, hatred and intolerance. Those allegations have also been made against individual players.

The Government have acknowledged the need for movement in their action plan on a shared future; a specific action point in that plan is that, after a consultation period, the provisions of the Football (Offences) Act 1991 would be introduced to Northern Ireland. Although any legislation should cover all spectator sports and will require tweaking to address specific Northern Ireland issues, the 1991 Act is the best place to start.

That tough legislation has helped to stamp out a culture of hooliganism and hatred in English club football.

Northern Ireland’s recent past has witnessed a catalogue of shameful incidents in which there have been actual and alleged instances of sectarian threats and abuse. The result has been that talented young sportspeople, such as Neil Lennon, who plays soccer, and Darren Graham, who plays GAA sports, withdrew from sporting life in the Province, leaving it the poorer for their absence. However, I am delighted to report that Darren Graham has now returned to play the game that he loves.

Players who come from ethnic minorities have also been subject to outrageous abuse. That should not — and cannot — be tolerated. The excellent work of the IFA in tackling such issues has been encouraging, particularly its campaign to kick sectarianism out of football. I also welcome its Football Without Frontiers initiative, which has been designed to combat racism and sectarianism and which brings together experts from the UK and Ireland to work on those issues.

International bodies such as the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) have disciplinary regulations on discrimination. Those measures are welcome and should be introduced in Northern Ireland. The Assembly should support those measures through its legislative process. The Football (Offences) Act 1991 provides a useful template for any legislation, as its remit covers any act that occurs at a ground, including events that take place in the two hours before the advertised start of a match and up to one hour after it has ended. The 1991 Act also makes offences of indecent racial chanting, throwing missiles and entering the playing area.

The football banning orders that have been imposed in England, Scotland and Wales can guide us when we come to devise penalties for offences. Such is the seriousness of some offences that, in certain cases, a lifetime ban from domestic and international events would not be inappropriate.

Positive steps to eliminate discrimination in sport have been proven not only to have real societal benefits but commercial benefits. I understand that society must also address discrimination, but that is a longer-term objective. However, with the prospect of a multi-sports stadium being built in Northern Ireland — I use the word “prospect” deliberately — sport here is entering a new era. We should do everything that we can to support it.

I recognise that discrimination in sport is dealt with by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the NIO, given that the latter’s remit encompasses public order and incitement to hatred. However, I encourage the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, who, I am glad to see, is with us today and is paying particular attention to what I am saying, to take the lead on this important issue. As elected representatives, we must send the clear message that there is no place for hatred in any part of society in Northern Ireland and that competitors and true fans should be allowed to enjoy and participate in sporting activities, free from persecution of any kind.

To date, legislation that our Executive have made has been sparse, to say the least. Our new Assembly now has an opportunity to begin to do what its representatives were elected to do, which is to legislate. I ask for Members’ support for the motion.

Mr McNarry: I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after the first “sectarianism” and insert

“, urges all sporting bodies in Northern Ireland to undertake similar initiatives against sectarianism; and calls on the Northern Ireland Office to commence consultation with a view to introducing legislation to address sectarianism, racism and violence associated with all sporting events.”

The Ulster Unionists welcome the opportunity to debate sectarianism, racism and violence in sport. I am sure that the House joins me in thanking the three Members in whose names the motion stands.

Our amendment is intended to do nothing more than strengthen the motion, and, in doing so, it will inject into the debate an immediate sense of bounce and vitality by tackling the ability of legislation to correct at source. We must, therefore, lay responsibility at the door of the Northern Ireland Office and say to it that a serious problem exists, which it must approach with a clear objective. That clear objective is to introduce quickly the legislation that is necessary to support those who are working to stamp out the evils of sectarianism, racism and violence. As ever, I am pleased to see in the House the Minister who is responsible for sports. No doubt, however, he will confirm that such legislation is a reserved matter.

Moreover, I hope that he will confirm his willingness to encourage the NIO to act swiftly to introduce the legislation that the Assembly requires.

10.45 am

That legislation, in the words of our amendment, would take Northern Ireland beyond a single sports Act to distilling an all-embracing law that caters for multiple sports events. Regrettably, however, that legislation carries with it evidence of our society’s inability to overcome sectarianism and racism without resorting to, and depending on, new laws — evidence that points equally to failings in society itself.

We cannot be proud to admit that laws are now required to deal with the yobs and louts who give sport a bad name. It is a pity, too, that bias, ignorance, intolerance and downright bloody-minded unwillingness prevent some from appreciating the talent and great skills of sportsmen and sportswomen, let alone serve to obstruct others from the pleasure and pride of competing for the team because they love, and want to play in, a game of sport.

The Ulster Unionist amendment was tabled to widen the scope and impact of new laws, and to ensure that they will contain a decisive mechanism to remove sectarianism, racism and violence from sport. The motion singles out one sport through a call to introduce legislation similar to the Football (Offences) Act 1991; our amendment, however, intends the same law for all sports, because none should, or can, be excluded — not even tiddlywinks in the leisure centre or croquet on the public lawn — as long as sectarian, racist louts can, and do, stalk even that kind of sports event.

Our amendment asks the House to send a serious and significant signal to all sports. That should first be done by highlighting and complimenting the Irish Football Association’s magnificent efforts. Secondly, all should be alerted to the fact that no sport can be complacent, because none is free from sectarianism and hatred. Sectarianism, racism and associated violence are not confined to soccer, nor are those problems only for the IFA to address.

To call for legislation is correct; however, let us do it properly, by covering all sports, including Gaelic games, which are among the highest spectator sports in Northern Ireland, and at which recent appalling incidents of sectarianism made headline news. Those headlines shocked and rocked the sport, and caught the attention of those with little interest in, and knowledge of, Gaelic sports. They were a timely reminder of the brutality of sectarianism — a wake-up call to knock us out of complacency, highlighting how a young player can be harmed to the extent that he stated a desire to quit the hurling game that he loved so much, because he could take no more sectarian abuse.

Such incidents have no place in sport or society, and must be stopped. Although I support the introduction of legislation to stop the ugliness of sectarianism and racist abuse, I suspect that enforcing such laws will not be an easy task. That must be examined in the consultation that will follow this debate.

Earlier, I mentioned sending a signal to the NIO. I trust that today the House will couple that with a strong message to the louts and yobs that they are not wanted at sporting events. It would be better for both sport and society if there were no need to bring in new laws to protect against sectarianism, racism and violence in sport, both on and off the field.

However, the harsh facts of reality tell us otherwise: there is a need. Today, that need has been strongly identified, just as the demand for a sporting culture free from sectarianism and yobbish behaviour has also been made, and, I sense, just as strongly.

As with all matters where change can make a positive difference, we may not see an immediate improvement, but we can content ourselves in the knowledge that tomorrow’s young players and tomorrow’s supporters will surely benefit from the decision that I trust Members will take today.

There is not a great difference between the motion and the amendment; however, the difference is sufficient. The motion does not refer the issue of legislation to Northern Ireland, where ultimately the responsibility will rest for the foreseeable future. The amendment is, therefore, more suitably prescriptive and more exacting in its representation of the Assembly’s views. I ask the sponsors of the motion to consider fully the merits of the Ulster Unionist amendment and the House as a whole to support it.

Mr McCausland: Today’s motion addresses sectarianism in sport, which is but one facet of a problem that surrounds us — sectarianism in our society. I am happy to support the amendment, because it broadens the debate from just sectarianism to include racism and the violence associated with all sporting events. The IFA is to be commended for the good work that it has done in tackling sectarianism. There is also a recognition that the two other main sports — rugby football and Gaelic games — must be considered when dealing with sectarianism.

I support the introduction, through the Northern Ireland Office and Westminster, of a sports offences Act that would cover all the principal games. It should cover not only violence, sectarianism and antisocial behaviour in and around the grounds, but address the involvement of alcohol in some of that antisocial behaviour.

Today, we have been able to commend the IFA. However, I want to focus on something that Mr McNarry touched on — the situation regarding Gaelic games. The case of Darren Graham highlighted a problem with Gaelic sports. His presence shows that the GAA is not a totally Roman Catholic organisation; clearly, there are people from the Protestant community who take part in Gaelic games. However, although the organisation is perhaps 99% Roman Catholic, it is 100% nationalist. That is the key issue. The GAA introduces something to sport that should not be there. It has, built into its constitution, a nationalist ethos, ambition and aspiration. A careful reading of the GAA’s constitution shows that very clearly to be the case.

That nationalist, and, in some cases, republican, aspiration is reflected in several ways. Many GAA grounds are named after republican heroes or, as people from my community would certainly view them, terrorists. In addition, there are not only grounds — I have a long list, but I would not be able to cover them all in five minutes —but clubs named after republicans. There are also competitions named after republican terrorists. Even the two premier trophies in the Gaelic world — for Gaelic football and hurling — are named after men who were members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

It is often pointed out by propagandists for the GAA that Sam Maguire came from a Church of Ireland background in County Cork. In fact, Sam Maguire was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a gunrunner, a terrorist —

Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?

Mr McCausland: I have one minute and 20 seconds remaining, so I do not have time. I can discuss matters with the Member later. I have a long list with which to deal.

It is important that we deal with this issue. The premier GAA trophy is named after Sam Maguire, and it was taken around this Building by one of the leading Sinn Féin Members. Indeed, the Deputy First Minister has had that trophy in this Building in the past.

It is not surprising that one finds a difficulty with the republican ethos in the GAA when the premier trophy is named after someone who was implicated in the murders of members of society in London and elsewhere. Sam Maguire was an intelligence officer in the Irish Republican Brotherhood who set up people to be murdered. He used his position in the Post Office in London to bring guns into Ireland. All of that tells me that there is a problem that is peculiar and unique to the GAA. That is not an issue that arises in football, where clubs tend to be named after the local town or a particular place. That is perfectly normal practice elsewhere in the world. In rugby football, a similar situation prevails, but the GAA is an organisation that is 100% nationalist, and I hope that when dealing with the wider issue, that matter will be addressed.

Mr P Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom cúpla focal a rá sa díospóireacht seo. I wish to commend and congratulate the Members who brought the motion before the House. However, I am disappointed with the remarks of the previous contributor. We are supposed to be discussing a motion that covers sports, but the Member went into history in great detail. Fair play to him for his knowledge and his learning of history. However, it is a shame that his speech addressed just one particular sport.

I take this opportunity to wish both the Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland soccer teams well in their European Championship qualifying endeavours. I hope that both teams qualify for the championships.

I hope that, one day, we will see an all-Ireland football team. We should look at the example of rugby, which has shown great leadership and courage in the past. An all-Ireland football team would show great leadership and courage to all the fans on the island of Ireland, would further reduce the level of sectarianism and would help the integration of newcomers to our society.

I wish to commend the IFA on its campaign against sectarianism. I congratulate Michael Boyd and the community relations department on its achievements. That department has been proactively out in our communities, delivering programmes to reduce sectarianism and to make football a more inclusive sport. Unfortunately, there are still individuals who chant sectarian songs and fly flags in the grounds. That deters some sections of the community from attending games.

I visited the IFA’s website at the weekend and read its Football for All section. The IFA’s community relations policy statement states:

“The IFA respects and values diversity. We endeavour to provide an environment which values and enables the full involvement of all people, in all aspects and at every level of Northern Ireland football, regardless of perceived cultural identity, political affiliation or religious beliefs. We believe in the philosophy of Football For All.”

That is an important statement, which shows that the IFA is taking the matter seriously.

I also wish to congratulate the GAA on its response to the incidents in Fermanagh, to which other Members have referred. Both the IFA and the GAA deserve congratulations. However, the fact that this motion is before the House is a clear message that there remains sectarianism, racism and violence in sports grounds. We must stop that.

The Football (Offences) Act 1991 makes it an offence for fans to throw missiles or to chant indecent or racial slogans. That is good, and we can support that. However, sporting bodies, associations and clubs have a responsibility to stamp out such behaviour. Sectarianism and racism come in many forms and must be stopped immediately. If it comes to the attention of clubs or associations that someone — a fan, a player, or a club official — is acting in a sectarian or racist manner, officials should act immediately and bar that person from future games.

11.00 am

We must ensure that sport is open to everyone and that everyone is made welcome whether they are taking part or are just spectators.

In concluding, I support the motion and commend the Members who tabled it. However, it must be recognised that reducing sectarianism will not be achieved by just introducing legislation — indeed, if we had our own justice powers, we could make such legislation ourselves and not have to invite outside bodies to do so. A lot of hard work will be required by the sporting bodies to introduce anti-racism and anti-sectarianism programmes, education programmes and other initiatives to their members, players, officials, fans and associations, and to show real leadership in stamping out racism and sectarianism. Let us all give racism and sectarianism the red card. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr P Ramsey: I commend Kieran McCarthy for tabling the motion. If it were not for him, we would not have had the amendment that was moved by David McNarry. The SDLP will be supporting the motion and the amendment because there are clear reasons for doing so.

It was extremely disappointing that Nelson McCausland used almost four and a half minutes of his speech to have a go at the GAA. The GAA’s presentation to the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure was, without doubt, the most extensive with regard to raising young people in a holistic way in areas such as discipline, health, education and social engagement. That view was accepted by the Committee, and that language was used by the DUP. I did not think that his speech was fair given the approach that he took during the presentation to the Committee.

The Football (Offences) Act 1991 deserves serious consideration in Northern Ireland. Despite the considerable efforts being made at association level in soccer, rugby and Gaelic, sectarian, racist and abusive chanting is the reality at sports grounds across Northern Ireland week in and week out. The Act makes it an offence to make indecent or racialist chants at a football ground. The Act also defines indecent or racialist chanting as being such that is abusive or insulting to a person by reason of his colour, race, nationality or creed.

Central records of prosecutions under the Act in Britain have only been kept since 2001. According to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, 93 people were convicted for racist or indecent chanting between the beginning of the 2001-02 season and 2005. Unfortunately, that figure would have been considerably higher had the legislation been introduced into Northern Ireland during that period. However, simply extending the Act to Northern Ireland may not be adequate for two reasons: first, it does not specify sectarian chanting; secondly, it only applies to soccer.

I welcome the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure’s announcement yesterday to market Northern Ireland as a region in which athletes can prepare for the 2012 Olympics. That will be hugely important for the quality of life here. However, the negative impacts of sectarianism, as reported in the press, do not go down well, particularly at international level.

The IFA, the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) and the GAA deserve to be supported in their ongoing efforts to stamp out unacceptable behaviour. Over the past decade, significant steps have been taken to address sectarian perceptions. The GAA has abolished rule 21, and the IFA’s Football for All campaign has been rightly praised by Members and has gone a long way towards putting an end to sectarianism. The IRFU introduced ‘Ireland’s Call’ as a unifying common anthem for Irish rugby.

There is no acceptable level of abuse in society, and there can be no place for it in sport. It is the Assembly’s job to provide legal protection to those who are tasked with enforcing the standards that we set for ourselves. Had appropriate legislation been in place during the summer, those who taunted Darren Graham, a young Protestant who had played football and hurling for Fermanagh at under-21 level, could have expected to face prosecution, and the Ballymena supporters, who, in the words of Linfield manager David Jeffrey, hurled abuse at his Catholic players, would be facing the prospect of not seeing an Irish league match for quite some time.

Young people are not born bad, and they are certainly not born with sectarianism in their blood. As politicians, it is our job to set an example. However, unfortunately, at times, we have heard sectarian comments and chants in this Chamber, which is not a good example for the leaders of the community to be setting.

The Minister should issue a consultation document at post-primary level and at all-spectator level for discussion in the community. The community wants the leadership that such consultation would provide. Young people, irrespective of background, should feel free, content and comfortable when playing whatever sport they want in Northern Ireland.

Lord Browne: I support the amendment. The majority of sporting events in Northern Ireland pass off without any trouble, and only a minority of fans, on a few occasions, are involved in sectarian abuse or violence. Unfortunately, there have been occasions when religious sectarianism has come to the fore in every sport, along with sporadic outbreaks of hooliganism — no sport has been immune from antisocial behaviour. Recently, in rugby, Welsh players allegedly suffered racial abuse from spectators and players, and in GAA, a Down player was abused at Casement Park. Tackling this deep-seated problem is not easy, and legislation will not provide the whole answer. We must all take action and work in partnership, using educational and promotional methods, with sports governing bodies, local clubs, the police and the community itself.

Major steps have been taken in Great Britain as regards legislative controls, investments, and improvements in infrastructure. Unfortunately, those steps have not been taken in Northern Ireland, and a principal difficulty for clubs here is that legislation making it an offence to carry drink on supporters’ buses or bring alcohol onto the terraces applies in other areas of the United Kingdom, such as Scotland, but does not apply here. The police here are powerless to act in such circumstances.

It is important that the safety legislation introduced in 2006 is fully enacted, as well as ancillary public order legislation, which regulates spectators’ behaviour in relation to hooliganism and excessive drinking. That legislation should apply to all major stadiums: rugby, GAA, football and so on.

The Glentoran Community Trust is an organisation in my constituency that may provide an example of how the problem can be tackled. It is the first trust of its kind to be set up in Northern Ireland, and during the short time that it has been established, it has enrolled 400 members and launched an initiative to encourage cross-community interest. The trust has involved Glentoran Football Club, which has established good relations with the principal of St Joseph’s Primary School in St Comgall’s parish, Ballyhackamore, with a view to encouraging pupils to visit the local football club. The school has an enrolment of 160 pupils, of which 40% are from the Filipino and Polish ethnic minorities. Glentoran Community Trust and Glentoran Football Club have brought pupils to the club and published information in both languages. Such educational initiatives encourage people to take an active part in tackling sectarianism. The trust has also obtained grants and replaced paramilitary murals in east Belfast with portraits of the Glentoran greats.

However, I must declare that I am a member of Linfield Football Club. That club is to be congratulated on its scheme, Support for Sport, through which it has attempted to address the issues also.

Linfield Football Club has allowed the local ladies’ camogie team to practise on its ground under floodlights. Belfast Harlequins Rugby Football Club has also been encouraging in that area, and all those actions help to promote a love of sport.

Linfield — the current Irish League champions — have undertaken a great deal of hard work. Some Members already have congratulated the IFA on its Football for All programme, which has been very successful because of its community relations officer. I am happy to support the amended motion.

Mr Brolly: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I will be brief as I do not want to repeat anything that has already been said. An important point that Wallace made is that action on the issue should start at club level. Legislation is not the answer to any of the problems. We must get to a point at which nothing happens that makes us think that legislation may be necessary. Linfield Football Club has done great work, as has the IFA, and I appreciate that great work.

However, of all the sports played in Ireland, soccer is the only one that is not played to any extent on an all-Ireland basis. Although not a panacea, it might remedy the problem of sectarianism to some extent if soccer followers were exposed to more all-Ireland competition.

The Setanta Sports Cup is an important competition that has had a big influence on the more successful teams in the North, particularly Linfield. To leave the cocoon of the Six Counties may help supporters to broaden their minds and see sport as sport, rather than as a means of exhibiting narrow-mindedness and sectarianism.

Miss McIlveen: I am in favour of the amendment. Some Members who spoke mentioned the possibility of one team for the island. Were they to attend, or even watch, a Northern Ireland match, they would realise that there already is only one team in Ireland — that being Northern Ireland, of course.

Since 1998, the IFA, in partnership with the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council, the Sports Council for Northern Ireland — now Sport Northern Ireland — and the Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs, has worked to remove sectarianism from football through the Football for All community relations programme.

As a Northern Ireland supporter who has attended home internationals in Windsor Park since the late 1980s, I have witnessed first-hand the change in atmosphere at the stadium, where there is now an inclusive, family-orientated, football-focused environment. That is due in no small part to self-policing by the Northern Ireland supporters clubs. I congratulate them on the work that they do in that regard.

Anyone attending Windsor Park will be serenaded throughout the 90 minutes with such modern classics as ‘Away in a Manger’, ‘We’re not Brazil, We’re Northern Ireland’ and ‘Stand up for the Ulstermen’. Fans now recognise that we are the twelfth man, and the positive atmosphere and support that we generate has helped our national team to famous victories against England, Spain and Sweden.

However, as supporting the team becomes more fashionable, a danger exists of attracting a thuggish element. I had the great pleasure of accompanying the green and white army on its excursion to Latvia at the weekend. Although the result did not go our way, the noise and carnival atmosphere generated by Northern Ireland fans in Skonto Stadium was reminiscent of the wonderful nights that I have experienced at Windsor Park.

Speaking to fans before and after the game, I was made aware of scattered incidents of clashes with local police. That was a result of a combination of heavy-handedness by the Latvian authorities and of drinking and stupid behaviour by a small proportion of Northern Ireland fans. That is a worrying development. Northern Ireland fans are proud of their title of best fans in Europe, and they do not want that kind of behaviour to tarnish their good name.

The Football (Offences) Act 1991 introduced several offences aimed at removing missile throwing, indecent and racialist chanting, and pitch invasions.

11.15 am

Other legislation has been promulgated since then to strengthen the football authorities’ grip on the hooligan element. The Football (Offences and Disorder) Act 1999, which amended the Football (Spectators) Act 1989, not only concerns itself with domestic football, but gives the courts the power to impose banning orders at domestic and international games. Coupled with that are tighter controls on ticket touting, which are contained in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. The Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc.) Act 1985, now amended by the Licensing Act 2003, prevents drunk people from entering a football ground when a designated football match is taking place; the consumption of alcohol on certain coaches, trains and motor vehicles travelling to a designated football match; and the possession of fireworks, flares and similar items at designated matches.

Sadly, although the IFA has sought to deal with the problems that were evident in domestic football and at international matches, the GAA is perceived as an inherently sectarian organisation. Several Members have mentioned the recent example of Darren Graham, a young Protestant who simply wants to play the sport that he loves. Had he not highlighted the bigotry that he faced, does anyone believe that he would have been given the apologies and assurances that it would not happen again? I do not.

Rule 7(b) of the GAA’s constitution states that the association should be non-sectarian. However, supporters are led by example. What chance do they have when GAA grounds and competitions are named after IRA volunteers who murdered their way through decades of sectarian violence? Sectarianism must be stamped out of all sports. Perhaps the GAA will follow the IFA’s lead. I look forward to a “GAA for all” initiative and a “kick sectarianism out of the GAA” campaign.

Mr McCausland: Will the Member agree that it is not simply a matter of tackling sectarianism on the terraces, but of tackling the institutionalised political sectarianism that is embedded in the constitution of the organisation to which she has just referred?

Miss McIlveen: I absolutely agree with the Member and I thank him for his intervention. A wide range of legislation must be introduced in order to be effective. I, therefore, support the amendment, which calls for a package of legislative measures. Furthermore, I agree that such legislation should encompass all sports so that all sporting bodies are given the tools to deal with sectarianism, violence and all forms of antisocial behaviour.

Sporting events should be about what is happening on the pitch or field and about the pleasure and anguish of competition, not abuse and intimidation.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Tá sé in am dúinn uilig an cárta dearg a thaispeáint do sheicteachas sa spórt. Tá mé ar aon intinn le Paul Maskey ar an ábhar sin. I agree with Paul Maskey, who said that it is high time to give sectarianism and racism the red card in sport. At the outset, I wish to say that Armagh supporters are not in any way biased: they do not care who beats Tyrone.

There are great rivalries and battles in sport. I commend Wallace Browne for being able to transcend that great divide between Linfield and Glentoran football clubs, which must have taken huge effort. I also commend Kieran McCarthy for proposing the motion and David McNarry, who said that there is no room for complacency on this matter. The motion specifically refers to the IFA. I acknowledge the good work that has been done by its Football for All campaign.

During the summer, I visited Whiterock leisure centre in west Belfast for an imaginative and well-organised fun day. I went there in the company of Professor Eric Saunders, who is the Cathaoirleach of Sport NI. We witnessed a great occasion during which young sport stars were introduced to their own community; people such as Jane Adams, who is a camogie all-star several times over. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there are young people from that community who are on the books of, for example, St Paul’s Gaelic Athletic Club and Linfield Football Club at the same time. Apart from anything else, those young people are extremely busy making a positive contribution to sport. I found it significant to learn that young people are on the books of both a Gaelic football club and Linfield Football Club. Good work must be acknowledged and commended.

Sport can be a tremendous unifier. It is no excuse for abusive behaviour of any kind. Like Francie Brolly, I pay tribute to those clubs that, at local level, exert hugely positive influences on young people — which are clearly seen — in the areas of health and responsibility. I witnessed those influences when I met the GAA’s Ulster council and learned about all the work that is carried out at a local level. The introduction of defibrillators in clubs throughout Tyrone and Armagh is a good example of those clubs’ influence on health matters. The extent of that scheme is being widened.

The GAA, the IFA, and all the responsible bodies, have a lot of work to do. They do good work. Members know that Gaelic games are my code. One issue that has not been raised in the Assembly, and which I feel strongly about, concerns international soccer. Darron Gibson has recently come under a lot of pressure because he opted to play for the Twenty-six Counties team. Darron comes from Derry. He made the choice to play for that team. I hope that FIFA will catch up with the Good Friday Agreement in respecting the right of any individual to determine his or her own national identity, and not to penalise anyone involved in those matters.

Basically, action must be taken to ensure that sectarianism is given the red card, as Paul Maskey has said. There should be no equivocation in the matter a Cheann Comhairle.

Mr Shannon: The issue of sectarianism in sport is one that I feel strongly about. I support the amendment put forward by the Ulster Unionist Party. I have been an avid fan of Northern Ireland’s football team since my youth, which was not yesterday: I go back a few years. I have travelled to foreign lands to watch the Northern Ireland team play. I did not go to Latvia, which was just as well. I have stood in rain and shine to cheer on my team. I have remained proud of my home team throughout all their efforts.

Some Members may know that I watched the Northern Ireland team play in Spain in the 1982 World Cup. That was one of the best teams that Northern Ireland has ever had. I also supported my home team in Mexico in 1986. Therefore, I have been around when it comes to supporting Northern Ireland’s teams. I have watched many players come and go. I have seen some of the greats wear green and white — and manage the team.

In recent years, I have seen a change in the way that things are handled. It has been a good change. Since 2001, there has been a concerted effort by team members and fans alike, facilitated by the IFA, to stamp out sectarianism and to go back to the roots of team support — a love for the team and the beautiful game. No longer are songs like ‘The Billy Boys’ resounding throughout Windsor Park. We cheer songs such as ‘We’re not Brazil, We’re Northern Ireland’, which I do not intend to sing. I suspect that, like my colleague, Michelle McIlveen, I would not sound very melodious. I would probably bring the rain on.

Mr McElduff: The slogan ‘We’re not Brazil, We’re Northern Ireland’ could have been applied to the foot-and-mouth crisis as well.

Mr Shannon: I do not think so. Obviously, Barry has a different sense of humour from me.

We no longer leave our children at home, but bring them with us to support the country. My sons, who are now young men, no longer have to leave the game early in case of violence, as they did when they were wee boys. We can now watch to the glorious or the bitter end, depending on the score. That change has also been remarked upon by others. That is why Northern Ireland’s fans are the best fans in Europe. That is not me saying that — it was attested by the award of the Brussels International Supporters Award of 2006. The Football for All initiative has reaped its reward.

However, only so much can be achieved by the IFA. The motion has been proposed to put powers into place that will back up the Football for All initiative. However, I do not believe that the motion goes far enough, in two respects. The first is that the three main offences under the Football (Offences) Act 1991 — pitch invasion; indecent or racialist chanting; and the throwing of missiles — do not fully address all the issues. The obvious omissions begin with sectarian chanting, alcohol control, ticket touting at matches, and the important football banning order, which would ensure that our team falls into line with legislation that governs other European football teams.

Our Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure Mr Poots is making an effort to address that issue. He is working with the NIO to introduce those measures so that sporting bodies, in their efforts to stamp out the nonsense in the matches, can have the backup of the PSNI and the Home Office. Thus the game can once again become one that father and son, mother and daughter, and so on, can enjoy the victory and spoils of the event.

The IFA has achieved a fan base that realises that to support a team means to do exactly that — support it, not drag others down. Those fans want the prerequisites for attending matches to be a simple love of the game and a desire to create a family atmosphere — and not the fact that a fan comes from a particular background. Those efforts need to be backed by further legislation — and more than simply the Football (Offences) Act 1991.

There is no doubt that sectarianism in GAA sports is very much in the spotlight following the recent revelations about the young Protestant, Darren Graham. My colleagues and other Members have already mentioned the matter, and the young man’s experience has been well documented, so I do not intend to dwell on it. However, it is unacceptable that he should feel that he has to leave the sport, and the GAA’s attempts to ensure that such an incident does not happen again must be given power by backing up the PSNI and legislation to ensure that the sport is player-friendly and supporter-friendly and can be enjoyed by those from all backgrounds.

Many young men of my age — I say young men, but perhaps the word “young”is not entirely accurate — would have enjoyed watching a Gaelic match in years gone by, but yet would feel uncomfortable doing so now. Most Protestant young people do not know how the game is played or what the scoring rules are. Those issues must be addressed.

The IFA has brought Northern Ireland fans from a dark place into a brighter place. The GAA should take note and apply the same principles so that it can achieve the same result. Our children need to support all sports in which we as a nation participate. They should enjoy the victories of Northern Ireland and view them as a way of letting others see that we are more than a small country — we are a small country with a big heart and soul.

The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr Poots): Mr Speaker, I thank you for giving the Assembly the opportunity to have this debate. I welcome the opportunity and appreciate the fact that the motion and amendment have been brought forward today, while recognising that there is a need to address issues of sectarianism, violence, racism and antisocial behaviour at sporting venues across Northern Ireland. However, sectarianism and hooliganism are not simply a problem for the world of sport and football; they are societal problems that sometimes find their voices at sporting venues. It is, therefore, a complex matter that requires the introduction of a wide range of measures if it is to be successfully combated.

Against that background, I wish to pay tribute to the IFA’s excellent work to tackle sectarianism and hooliganism in soccer as part of its Football for All campaign. Since 1998, the IFA has had a full-time community relations officer who works in partnership with the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council, Sport Northern Ireland and the Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters’ Clubs. Tribute should also be paid to the amalgamation for the support that it has given to the IFA in dealing with those issues. Members should be aware that, last year, delegates from UEFA and the European Union awarded the amalgamation the Brussels International Supporters’ Award 2006 for its efforts to stamp out sectarianism.

It is widely accepted that the work of the IFA, supported by the amalgamation, has gone a long way towards reducing the incidence of sectarianism and hooliganism in soccer. That work strongly complements what the Government are trying to achieve through their ‘A Shared Future’ initiative, particularly with regard to promoting equality and good relations across all communities. The IFA’s Football for All initiative continues to reaffirm my belief in the contribution that sport can make to the promotion of the objectives in ‘A Shared Future’. I have sought to reflect that belief in the new draft strategy for sport and physical recreation, which should be published in the near future.

However, if we want to maximise the contribution that sport can make to those objectives, we must also examine closely the problems that it faces. All our major sporting venues are dated and fall short of modern standards for safety and comfort. That situation is not conducive to encouraging either good attendance or acceptable standards of behaviour among spectators. That is one of several issues that must be addressed if we are to tackle successfully problems of violent and disorderly conduct among spectators.

11.30 am

In response to those issues, my Department has already introduced an initiative on safety at sports grounds, including new legislation in the form of The Safety of Sports Grounds (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, which is designed to promote safety at major sporting venues. Over the past three years, my Department has also provided £9 million to Sport Northern Ireland to assist with the introduction of its stadia safety prog­ramme, the aims of which are to help clubs improve the standard of facilities at their venues and to promote responsible management of major sports events.

The improvement of the physical infrastructure of sports grounds is, of course, only one dimension. The human dimension is equally important. Since my appointment as Minister for sport, I have received representations on the need for legislation to deal with hooliganism and sectarianism at sports grounds. Having given those matters careful consideration, I am now satisfied that offences must be created around unauthorised pitch incursion; offensive chanting and missile throwing; bringing bottles, flares and fireworks into grounds; the carrying and drinking of alcohol on special public transport on the way to and from designated matches, and during such matches; and ticket touting. The introduction of a football banning order regime for Northern Ireland will be critical when we qualify for next year’s European Championship finals tournament.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Poots: Members will, however, appreciate that those measures, although related to sport, are in fact public order measures. The power to introduce them into Northern Ireland, therefore, does not lie with this Assembly. Those are reserved matters, and remain the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Office. In light of that, I wrote recently to the Minister with responsibility for criminal justice at the Northern Ireland Office, Paul Goggins, informing him of my keenness to make early progress in this area, in the interests of both sport and public safety. I have also asked Mr Goggins for his co-operation in taking these matters forward as expeditiously as possible.

I am pleased to report that I have received a letter from Mr Goggins in which he says that he will be happy to work with me to agree an appropriate package of measures. I intend to meet Mr Goggins later this month with a view to taking the issue forward with the Northern Ireland Office.

Mr Campbell: The Minister has mentioned some of the responsibilities of the Northern Ireland Office and said that he wants to make pitch incursion an offence in the proposed legislation. Is it not the case that many people in Northern Ireland believe that a similar Order could and should have been introduced by a previous incumbent in the Northern Ireland Office — Mr Peter Hain, the Secretary of State? Had he introduced such legislation, however, a great deal of attention would have been paid to his past activities, including pitch incursions at sporting events many years ago, and embarrassing questions might have been asked.

Mr Poots: The Member knows that Ministers are not privy to the papers of their predecessors, but I understand his point.

In conclusion, I welcome the Assembly’s interest in this matter. I assure the House that I am doing all in my power to ensure that early progress is made in the introduction of new public order offences relating to sports grounds. I firmly believe that they have a key part to play in improving safety at sports grounds and in combating sectarianism, racism and violence in sport and in society at large.

Progress in this direction will also go a long way towards making our major sports venues more attractive to a larger and wider audience, which is critically important for the development of sport in Northern Ireland.

Mr K Robinson: It will be difficult to amend the motion in the light of the Minister’s statement, which was very welcome, and which described the work that his Department and the Northern Ireland Office are doing to grasp the nettle of sectarianism and racism in sport.

I will summarise Members’ contributions. Members across the Chamber have co-operated on the issue, and I welcome the fact that all parties appear to support the UUP amendment, which was designed to add breadth to the original motion. Everyone has recognised that sectarianism and racism are problems in our community but that those issues do not reside only around sports grounds, of whatever code. Unfortunately, sectarianism and racism are endemic, and they must be treated in various ways by all sections of society. Legislation may play a role in defining some of the necessary moves, but, for progress to be made, the clubs must make the real moves with individuals and associations across the cultural divide.

Most Members have taken a modern approach, but Jim Shannon almost stole my thunder. I think that I am one of the oldest Members present today —

A Member: You are.

Mr K Robinson: I admit to that.

As a schoolboy, I went to the infamous Northern Ireland versus Italy match, when the referee and linesmen failed to turn up. Sixty thousand people in Windsor Park were waiting for the match, so a local referee and linesmen were thrown into the den. The match took place and finished up in a riot because of some Continental tactics that had never been experienced in Northern Irish soccer. The match was eventually replayed, and Northern Ireland won, going on to play in international competition in Europe. In those days, the facilities were non-existent, and the toilets were medieval. As a young fellow, my feet were lifted off the ground, and I was carried out through the gates on the backs of thousands of people who were squeezing their way out of the grounds. Fortunately, grounds and safety levels have improved over the generations. The Minister’s comments this morning indicate that his Department will prioritise the future safety of grounds.

Over the past 16 years, the Northern Ireland Office failed to grasp the opportunity to address the problem of sectarianism and racism. The initiative shown by the IFA and its supporters is to be welcomed. The GAA’s moves to address sectarianism in County Fermanagh are also to be welcomed. The behaviour that is reported in the media seems to focus on soccer and, sometimes, on Gaelic sports. However, there are also problems with other sports, either before or after the match, which are referred to as a “bit of laddism”. I wonder whether hotel proprietors, who have to put their premises back together after certain festivities, see that sort of behaviour as laddism or as vandalism. Are the working-class followers of soccer, in particular, being singled out for attention? Sometimes the offences are blown out of proportion by the media. I am not saying that such incidents do not, or should not, happen, but a knee-jerk reaction sometimes follows those incidents.

An in-depth consultation is needed. The University of Leicester has produced a good paper, which attempts to identify the social problems of young males and problems in sports grounds in England. There is much useful information in that report.

I thank the Minister for his statement, which is helpful and encouraging. There should now be a widespread and meaningful consultation, with no point scoring. If the problems can be solved, everyone can enjoy attending sporting events with their families — in my case, with my grandchildren. Sport provides a good public image, and I wish the Northern Ireland team success in tomorrow’s match in Iceland; I was most disappointed that the team lost its match against Latvia on Saturday. I want a continuation of a positive approach to sport.

Mr B Wilson: As a long-standing and long-suffering supporter of Bangor Football Club and of Northern Ireland, I also wanted to mention the riots after the 1957 Northern Ireland versus Italy match, but Mr Robinson beat me to it. Riots are not particularly new.

Mr K Robinson: Was the Member at the match?

Mr B Wilson: Yes, I was.

Mr K Robinson: Was the Member at both matches?

Mr B Wilson: Yes, I was. I have been to thousands of matches over the past 50 years.

Therefore, I can speak with some authority on football. I do not have the same level of experience of GAA and rugby, because I have attended only a few matches. However, the legislation that the motion proposes the introduction of should not be restricted to football. Although Members have referred to the Football (Offences) Act 1991, any new legislation should not be restricted to that one sport. The 1991 Act is a template on which that legislation should be based, but it should apply to other sports.

The situation faced by Darren Graham has already been mentioned. However, there is also, as far as the news is concerned —

Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?

Mr B Wilson: Yes.

Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Member for giving way. I am pleased that those who delivered the winding-up speeches on the motion and the amendment have acknowledged that we all have a responsibility to tackle sectarianism in sport. I am sure that the proposers of the amendment and substantive motion did not intend to allow the DUP to engage in its favourite pastime of GAA bashing. It is a pity that Mr McCausland failed to reflect on the timing of the formation of the GAA. It was formed after centuries of ethnic cleansing of all things Irish, including our language and our culture.

Mr B Wilson: I thank the Member for her inter­vention. I agree that there was a tendency to GAA-bash during the debate. There has been quite a number of attacks on referees at GAA matches, and so forth. However, the legislation could be useful to all sports. Therefore, the motion is not trying to tie any new legislation to football, other than its stating that the Football (Offences) Act 1991 could form the template for that legislation.

I first became aware of football in 1948, when Jimmy Jones’s leg was broken during rioting at Windsor Park. My father was at that match, and he was in quite a state when he got home. Belfast Celtic withdrew from the league as a result of that incident.

There has been sectarianism and violence at Irish League matches for the past 50 years. As a Bangor supporter, I remember once being surrounded by a group of fans. They were not Linfield supporters, but they started singing ‘The Sash’, and so forth, to try to provoke us good Protestants into attacking them, or something along those lines — I am not sure what their exact intention was. However, there was certainly a need for change then.

Mr McNarry’s amendment is fine, and we can go along with it. Several points that he made may delay legislation, however. Mr McNarry said that our motion was specific to football — its intention was to include all sports in any legislation. The tendency for other Members to attack the GAA during today’s debate is counterproductive.

Pat Ramsey said that there was sectarian chanting at sports grounds across Northern Ireland “week in and week out.” I have attended quite a few matches recently, and I think that Mr Ramsey was exaggerating. There is some sectarian chanting, but the situation has changed dramatically in recent years.

Michelle McIlveen talked about the change in atmosphere at the IFA. That change has actually been happening since the 1980s. During the early 1980s, I used to take my two sons to Windsor Park to see all the international matches, and I was pretty disgusted with some of the fans’ behaviour. When the Irish Republic beat Northern Ireland 4–0, I had never felt so intimidated at a football match in my life, even though the fans causing the trouble were supporting the same team as me. I had to take the children home halfway through the match.

Since then, the IFA has done wonderful work and brought about dramatic changes, for which it has not been give full credit.

11.45 am

Mr McElduff and Mr Brolly said that local clubs should become involved in promoting anti-sectarianism. Ten years ago, I did not think that I would ever give credit to Linfield Football Club, but it has done a good job in trying to promote anti-sectarianism. In fact, the team now probably has more Catholic players than Protestant, which it would not have done 20 years ago. The club has links with the GAA, it has hosted camogie training sessions and it is also involved in the Dunfield initiative, which is a cross-border youth league bringing together football teams from Northern Ireland and the Republic. That initiative has been successful in changing the fans’ attitudes. Fans who attend internationals at Windsor Park now do not recognise it from 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago.

Ms Lo: I wish to add my congratulations to a local club. I do not go to football matches very often but, last week, I went to Donegal Celtic Football Club in west Belfast. The club opened its grounds and turned them into a mini Chinatown to welcome the Chinese community. The team played a friendly game with a Chinese football team. I do not want to tell Members the score, but it was a huge humiliation: 5-0 to Donegal Celtic. Everyone enjoyed the game, and it was a wonderful night. I also pay tribute to Linfield Football Club, because it has also worked with the Chinese community. Donegal Celtic said that it hopes to play a Polish football team next. I hope that they also have a good night.

Mr B Wilson: That illustrates the progress that those clubs are making in tackling sectarianism and racism. I also recall a Northern Ireland match against the Republic where black players from the Republic team received horrible racial abuse.

The violence must also be tackled. FIFA is now getting much stronger on violence. In the past couple of years, two international teams have had matches cancelled because of violence in their stadiums. A football offences Act would benefit the IFA, and Howard Wells of the IFA has said that he would support it. We must get rid of sectarianism, racism and violence.

Turning to the amendment, it is true that criminal penalties for football offences would have to be introduced in Westminster legislation. This is a cross-cutting issue, and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure has the lead on anti-racism and anti-sectarianism in football. In England, while the Home Office leads on the criminal side of football offences legislation, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport leads on anti-racism and on building a culture of tolerance and inclusion in sport.

I am glad that the Minister intends to meet his NIO counterpart later this month to discuss the possibility of introducing legislation. I find it hard to imagine that the NIO will rebuff a unanimous view from the Assembly and the Executive that action is required on such an important issue. There is no reason why the Minister and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure cannot drive this issue forward and get the NIO moving. The general public are always asking what politicians do to earn their money. This is an issue where recent events have shown that action is necessary now, and passing the buck to the NIO will not endear us to them.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly congratulates the Irish Football Association on its campaign against sectarianism, urges all sporting bodies in Northern Ireland to undertake similar initiatives against sectarianism; and calls on the Northern Ireland Office to commence consultation with a view to introducing legislation to address sectarianism, racism and violence associated with all sporting events.

Attacks on Orange Halls

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes for the winding-up speech.

Mr Easton: I beg to move

That this Assembly condemns all attacks on Orange Halls and calls on all political parties to use their influence to stop such sectarian attacks.

In proposing the motion, I wish to make it clear that I am a proud member of the Orange Order in north Down. The Orange Order is a religious organisation that is dedicated to the promotion of civil and religious liberties for all. It is, of course, an exclusively Protestant organisation that honours the memory of all those who, through many centuries, cherished the pursuit of liberty, equality and freedom to worship, according to one’s conscience.

The Orange Order bases all its teachings and actions on the teachings of holy scripture, which it accepts as the supreme authority on all matters relating to Christian life and teaching. It supports and seeks to uphold the constitution and monarchy of the United Kingdom, and is no more political or exclusive in nature than the Roman Catholic Church or the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

Throughout Northern Ireland — and indeed in the Republic of Ireland — there are many Orange Halls, which perform an important social function. They are not only used for lodge meetings, but as an important resource for a multitude of community groups, clubs and organisations. It is reprehensible that those buildings — which support activity at the heart of Protestant, unionist and Ulster-Scots life — should be subject to constant and apparently organised sectarian attacks. Often, during those attacks, vandals and arsonists destroy priceless historical records, artefacts, lodge banners and memorabilia. Such attacks do not destroy the spirit of Orangeism — on the contrary, they make members more determined than ever to develop their distinctive culture and heritage.

In a recent letter from the PSNI, I received statistics that showed that, in 2005-06, there were 62 recorded attacks on Orange Halls. In the past year, that number has escalated to more than 70. By contrast, in the past two years, there has been only one recorded attack on an Ancient Order of Hibernians building.

Mr Irwin: In my constituency of Newry and Armagh, there have probably been more attacks on Orange Halls than anywhere else in Northern Ireland. In the run-up to the Twelfth of July period this year, there were three such attacks. Does the Member agree that many Orange Halls are used by community groups and religious organisations, and therefore the attacks on them are seen locally as attacks on the wider Protestant community?

Mr Easton: I concur with my colleague on all those points. Attacks on Orange Halls and on churches have cost taxpayers £4 million in the last five years. It is also reprehensible that any organisation — orange or green, Protestant or Roman Catholic, unionist or nationalist — should be on the receiving end of wanton destruction and damage. However, to the unionist community, it seems that Orange Halls are being singled out as a target by members of the nationalist/republican community.

It has not been an easy road for the unionist people over the last 40 years. They believe that they have been on the receiving end of a vicious, violent and sectarian assault on the physical and commercial infrastructure of the Province, the institutions of Government, and their lives. In those years, unionists have always found it difficult to imagine what perceived or real problems existed in Northern Ireland that could have justified such a prolonged and determined campaign of terror, which resulted in the loss of so many lives. It has been difficult too that, in the cause of peace, we have to sit in Government with Sinn Féin /IRA. We have reluctantly accepted that that is part of the price that we must pay to shape a peaceful and prosperous future for all our children. However, it is vital in this new dispensation that there is tolerance and respect for all our distinctive Orange, unionist and British culture.

Today, we will hear much about equality, justice, respect and a shared future. We are often lectured by Members opposite on those very principles — almost to the point that one might think that nationalists and republicans subscribe to such principles.

Parity of esteem is a two-way process. It is incumbent on all nationalist and republican politicians and community leaders to use their influence to stop elements of their community from directing sectarian aggression against the Loyal Orders. The displays of violence and hatred directed against Orange Halls in particular must be stopped.

Perhaps someone from Sinn Féin can explain why a member of that party was caught on the roof of an Orange Hall in Newcastle in recent weeks. Did he think that he was Spiderman or Superman, or did he merely want to admire the Union Jack? What action will Sinn Féin take against that party member? Sinn Féin has failed to educate its people, and it has failed to stop those in its community carrying out attacks on Orange Halls. Furthermore, its MLAs have failed in their duty as public representatives to deliver on the matter. It is time for them to deliver. It is easy to talk the talk, but it is not so easy to walk the walk. Actions speak louder than words.

Although I support the content of the Sinn Féin amendment, I feel that it was tabled to detract from the motion and the debate on attacks on Orange Halls. The amendment is a means to detract from the point that the DUP is trying to make. If the amended motion were tabled as a substantive motion, I would have no problem supporting it, but I notice that the amendment does not call on politicians to use their influence to stop sectarian attacks.

Unionists have given much to further the cause of peace in our Province. There is a huge responsibility on the nationalist people — especially on the republican community and its leaders — to show that they can respect our rights as British citizens in Northern Ireland to pursue our culture, cherish our identity and celebrate our distinctive heritage in an atmosphere of tolerance and respect. Sectarian attacks from any side of the community on a community facility or hall are wrong. They must stop now, and republicans must stop them now.

Mr O’Dowd: I beg to move the following amend­ment: Leave out “all attacks on Orange Halls” and insert after “condemns”

“attacks on all homes, property and community facilities, including Orange Halls,”.

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I do not agree with everything that Mr Easton has said, but I welcome the measured way in which he has approached the opening to the debate. It is, understandably, an emotive issue for Mr Easton as a member of the Orange Order, and I hope that the debate continues in that tone. Today, Members want to work out a way in which to ensure that sectarian attacks against Orange Halls stop.

The Sinn Féin amendment was not tabled to dilute the DUP motion. I have no difficulty with the content of the motion. The amendment is to ensure that we encompass sectarianism in society and that Members, as political leaders, bring it all to an end. We do not want Members to engage in “whataboutery” during or after the debate, and ask about incidents that happened in their area. Today should see the start of a debate on the issue among Members, as political leaders, and among wider society on how to stop sectarianism. I agree with Mr Easton: there has been a sustained increase on attacks against Orange Halls, and those attacks must be condemned and stopped.

Mr Easton mentioned a newspaper report that alleged that a member of my party was caught on the roof of an Orange Hall. If anyone produces substantive evidence that proves that that incident took place, the party will deal with the person involved. The DUP has its disciplinary procedures, and it has recently had to deal with several high-profile cases. Matters relating to those cases were before the judiciary, so the DUP could not proceed with any action until the court cases had concluded. Mr Easton, therefore, must look at the alleged incident in Newcastle with an open mind. Sinn Féin cannot deal with the matter until substantive evidence is brought forward, and the allegation proven. The PSNI may also conduct a criminal investigation into the incident, and that would mean that Sinn Féin could do nothing until the investigation’s completion. The DUP has had to do that in many instances.

Mr T Clarke: Would the Member support any PSNI investigation into that matter?

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair)

Mr O’Dowd: I certainly would. I urge everyone who has information on anyone who is involved in criminal activity against Orange Hall property to give it to the PSNI. I have no difficulty in saying that. As I said previously, political leaders have a responsibility on such matters. Mr Easton spoke about tolerance and respect, and that is what we all must display.

12.00 noon

We must understand each other better. Sinn Féin, the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party must engage with each other to change the nationalist and republican community’s views of the Orange Order.

I learnt more about the Orange Order, and what an Orange Hall is used for, from listening to a five-minute interview on ‘Talkback’ than I have from spending 20 years in politics. The interview was with a young woman who runs a youth centre and a child’s crèche in an Orange Hall in Kilmore, which is in my constituency. That hall was burnt down and was attacked again recently with paint. She spoke for those five minutes about what she used that Orange Hall for. I came to understand that it was more of a community facility that had been attacked than a place that housed the Orange Order. If, after 20 years of being involved in politics, I can learn that information in five minutes, what could we learn if we spoke to each other about such matters?

I ask Members on the other side of the House not to entrench themselves in the politics of the past. They clearly remain suspicious of Sinn Féin’s motives and lack of leadership where attacks on Orange Halls are concerned. Although Sinn Féin has major difficulties with the Orange Order and its marches, such as that on the Garvaghy Road, which is also in my constituency, I tell the House sincerely that my party is serious about stopping attacks on Orange Halls. Mr Irwin, a DUP Member, intervened to say that such acts of aggression are seen as attacks on the Protestant community. The halls are used as crèches and youth clubs, and they are used to host dinners for pensioners. Orange Halls are used for all those activities that we in the wider political circles have not provided. Everyone in the House who represents a rural community knows that no council, or anyone else, provides community facilities in those areas — it is either the GAA or the Orange Order that provides them.

I appeal to Members to understand that Sinn Féin is serious about stopping attacks on Orange Halls. Members can remain suspicious, but they should take the extra step of sitting at the table with us so that we can all discuss — and find a way to resolve — the issue. Sinn Féin’s amendment does not serve to undermine the motion; instead, it encompasses the problem of sectarianism. We do not have to get involved in “whataboutery”, but we must tackle sectarianism and the attacks on Orange Halls head on. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Kennedy: I welcome this important debate. At the outset, I am proud to confirm that I am a member of the Orange Order in County Armagh.

It cannot have escaped the Assembly’s attention that the motion is being debated on 9/11, the anniversary of the appalling attacks in the United States of America that ushered in a new, and very terrible, age of world terrorism. That new age began at a time when we thought that our own Troubles were coming to an end. That is why the clear evidence of continuing sectarian bigotry that manifests itself in attacks on Orange Halls is so unacceptable.

Attacks on Orange Halls represent an attempt by republicans to intimidate, bully and threaten the unionist and Protestant cultural tradition. Those attacks are entirely out of place in an age — and in a new dispensation — when all cultural traditions should be mutually respected and equally valued. It is a “Brits out” policy taken to one of its most extreme forms, and it is just not on.

No tolerance should be shown to those who carry out such attacks. It does not take much common sense to see that they could cost the Province the prosperity to which it is entitled after so many hard years of conflict. We must not — and cannot — give the mindless cavemen and women who carry out those attacks any opportunities to jeopardise the relative peace that we now enjoy. Their actions have no place in any decent society. That is why there is no reason to protect the people who carry out those attacks. They are dangerous people who must be apprehended and convicted by being given long prison sentences. Communities must not shield them, and republican political leaders must demonstrate their credibility as peacemakers by making every effort to have those responsible handed over to the lawful authorities — the PSNI. That means that all the community influence that a political party wields, which, in some cases is considerable, must be used in stopping for good attacks on Orange Halls.

None of us can be half in or half out of the process — an à la carte approach to law and order only when it suits, and when it does not upset any of our supporters. There is nothing more insidious and damaging to the whole political process here than a partial application of the principles of law and order. Make no mistake: the world is watching. Every attack on an Orange Hall and every sectarian incident is logged by overseas investors and reported in the world’s press in the most unlikely places. The eyes that are scrutinising those events are not casual observers — they are potential investors. We had better take notice and listen when they ask whether the Troubles have really stopped.

We cannot afford to have a society frayed around the edges, with the residue of lawlessness hanging over it from its troubled past. Our potential to attract inward investment must not be harmed. The best way to effectively marginalise individuals or groups who indulge in attacks on Orange Halls is to inform the police — that is the way to deal with these activities. If the nationalist and republican communities were to do that, it would help to build a lasting peace and to convince the unionist-minded community that nationalists and republicans are sincere about a shared future.

I heard what Mr O’Dowd the Member for Upper Bann said, but actions are needed at this stage, not words. No one who wants peace and order in a new shared-future society will want these attacks to continue. The many hundreds of attacks over the years, which bizarrely accelerated after the original IRA ceasefire, leading right up to the attacks this summer, do nothing to create a just or lasting peace.

There are few things that really annoy the unionist people more than the deliberate act of malicious damage against their Orange Halls, which effectively serve as community halls, whether in Carnagh, Crosskeys or Mullintur — halls attacked this year in my constituency — or in Seagoe, outside Portadown, which is home to the most recently destroyed hall in County Armagh.

I say to those in the House, particularly republicans: stop burning our Orange Halls and start building real peace.

Mr O’Loan: The SDLP chose not to table an amend­ment because it felt that the proposers of the motion had a valid point to make and we did not want to dilute that in any way. However, since an amendment has been tabled, the SDLP will support it, because we recognise the range of attacks on various community premises.

Like other Members, I have spent a fair bit of my political life standing at the scenes of attacks on private houses, schools, churches and sports grounds — including GAA grounds. They were often premises owned by Catholics or related to the Catholic community, but that was not always the case. I am aware of the full range of attacks on many community premises. However, I accept that a genuine and valid issue has been raised by the proposers of the motion in relation to attacks on Orange Halls, and the figures speak for themselves.

Lavin Orange Hall, which is not far from Ballymoney, is in my constituency. It was burned out on 12 July 2006 and, until recently, it remained as a burned-out shell. I have driven past it many times. The more I drove past it, the more I thought that the burned-out shell of the hall was a very eloquent statement of how wrong it is to burn down such premises. It highlighted the fractured state of the community. Politicians have a job to do to put that right, and I will talk about that later.

I am glad to see that site work recently started on Lavin Orange Hall; however, the period of time during which the ruin stood served as a statement of significant value. Members must not forget that message.

In the nationalist community, we can see that there is more of a two-way problem with sectarianism than we might have conceded in the past. Largely, sectarianism was seen as something that Protestants did to Catholics. That overview was not without some validity. However, when Members consider recent events in their local communities, many incidents have given cause for concern. In many cases, those acts are committed by young people with antisocial motives, who often attach labels to themselves — almost as flags of convenience.

There is no doubt that some of those incidents are deliberately sectarian and specifically anti-Protestant by nature, and are a cause of shame to those of us who come from the Catholic community. Significant as they are, there is a danger that people can read in too much of a conspiracy theory, or attach a republican label to those incidents. I am aware that antisocial elements in my area have attached republican and dissident republican names to themselves that have little basis in reality. However, there is a problem with sectarianism that all Members must face.

I commend the recent work of the Orange Order, which is changing significantly, and Members must allow it space to continue to change.

In this debate, Members utter a message to the community, but we must, furthermore, utter a message to ourselves. Members of the Assembly are important leaders of the community, and what we do here will send important signals to the rest of the community.

Mr Lunn: Naturally, the Alliance Party supports the motion. In doing so, it expresses mild disappointment that it goes only as far as mentioning Orange Halls. However, Mr Easton is entitled to make that specific point, and the Alliance Party does not disagree. At the same time, it supports the amendment, because it — correctly — expands the demand for condemnation to all types of community facility, including homes and property. I note that the amendment does not call on all political parties to use their influence. The Alliance Party’s amendment did that, but it was not accepted.

Mr O’Dowd: To clarify that point, I have checked with the Speaker’s Office, and the Sinn Féin amendment includes the last line: “all political parties to use their influence to stop such sectarian attacks.”

Mr Lunn: I am glad that the Member clarified that point. That is good news.

The amendment extends to all homes and property. It is not necessary to specify every type of property, but, by implication, churches are included.

Attacks on Orange Halls are disgraceful, not only in the damage that is done, but in the outrage, hurt and tension that they cause. That is precisely what is in the minds of the perpetrators when they do such things. Physical damage can be restored. I acknowledge the point concerning banners and memorabilia, which are much more difficult to restore — some are lost for ever. However, the damage to the community is long-lasting. That applies whether the attack is on an Orange Hall, GAA hall, church, chapel or any other type of facility, including a home.

A few days ago, in my area of Dunmurry, an attack, involving a pipe bomb, caused substantial damage to a small Housing Executive home. The fact that the house contained only female adults, one of whom is in the advanced stages of dementia, and a child who suffers from cerebral palsy, did not make any difference to the attackers. They probably regarded it as a bonus, because it increased both the publicity generated and community tension, which is what they wanted.

12.15 pm

Since 2000, the Alliance Party has pushed for the NIO to introduce comprehensive hate crime legislation similar to that in England and Wales, and it was finally introduced through the Criminal Justice (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order 2004. I am sure that Members are familiar with it, but its main provisions are: first, where an offence involves hostility based on religion, race, sexual orientation or disability, on conviction, the court must take that into account when sentencing; and secondly, the court’s sentencing powers in relation to specified crimes of violence are increased. For example, the maximum sentence for putting someone in fear of violence increases from five years to seven years and the maximum sentence for criminal damage increases from 10 years to 14 years.

Such legislation, I am told, has been widely used in England, Wales and Scotland and is highly relevant to the type of attacks that we are talking about. Members may correct me if I am wrong, but I cannot remember a case in which that legislation has been specifically invoked. Has anyone who has been charged with criminal damage also been prosecuted for it as an aggravated offence under the hate crimes legislation? The Assembly should be looking at that as a matter of urgency. If we cannot stop the attacks, much as I wish that we could, at least we might be able to properly punish the perpetrators when they are caught.

The Alliance Party condemns all attacks, whether they are against Orange Halls, Hibernian halls, GAA clubs, churches or homes. I am sure that all Members will agree. However, I hope that the proposers of the motion might now be inclined to accept the amendment. It does not dilute the motion in any way; it simply, and correctly, adds another layer to it. The Alliance Party supports the motion and the amendment.

Lord Morrow: By bringing this motion before the House, the proposers have attempted to focus directly on Orange Halls. We are not saying or implying that there have been no attacks on private homes or other properties. We have sought the opportunity to bring a specific issue before the House. Unfortunately, Sinn Féin has tried to thwart that — not for the first time, I suspect; nor the last.

I have a list in my hand, which reads as a litany of attacks on Orange Halls. It details 276 attacks on Orange Halls across Northern Ireland, and it dates back to that infamous day in 1975 when five members of the Orange Order were murdered in their Orange Hall in Tullyvallen.

I have another list of 32 attacks of a different nature, but, ultimately, they are all attacks on Orange Halls, which can be read as attacks on the Protestant comm­unity. I suspect that if such attacks were happening on the opposite side, there would be a cry to high heaven. However, Orange Halls are just not that important.

I listened to Mr O’Dowd. He went to the trouble of tabling an amendment; he sought to colour the whole debate by saying that attacks are not only carried out on Orange Halls. That is correct; other properties are being attacked and destroyed also.

However, we are specifically dealing with Orange Halls, the list of attacks on which is endless. That does not happen by accident. Headlines such as “Shinner falls off Orange hall roof”, in the ‘News Letter’ of 31 August, hardly instil confidence in the unionist and Protestant communities and in those who hold to Orange culture.

I fully accept that there is a due process that has to be gone through. However, actions will always speak louder than words, and Sinn Féin has not come up to the mark on this issue, but has deliberately dragged its feet. It strikes me, as it strikes others who come from the same culture and background as I do, that Sinn Féin sees this matter as not being that important. Yes, Sinn Féin will condemn attacks — but it must do more. It must show, in an emphatic way, that it is against such behaviour, and it must totally support the police in bringing to court and to justice those who indulge in such attacks.

Mr O’Loan said that the SDLP had not tabled an amendment. I took heart from that, but he discouraged me immediately with his next phrase, in which he said that the SDLP was going to support the Sinn Féin amendment. I thought that, for once, the SDLP was going to show a bit of courage, distance itself from Sinn Féin for a turn, and stand out as different. Mr O’Loan went on to cite an Orange Hall that stands as an epitaph to hatred. It has been burned out, and the remaining shell is a striking testimony to what is going on in our society. What a pity that he did not say that, for that very reason, the SDLP would support the motion.

The motion deals directly with attacks on Orange Halls. Here is an opportunity for all those who feel that they cannot come out and say that this must stop. Of course it must stop, along with all attacks on church halls and other such buildings. I do not care what side of the community those attacks come from; I have never been lacking in my condemnation of attacks on church halls, GAA halls, or any other community halls. I have stood up and sought to give leadership. I say to the nationalist representatives in the House that this is their chance: their golden opportunity to give real leadership and acknowledge that it is Orange Halls that we are dealing with, and the attacks must stop.

Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom tacaíocht a thabhairt don leasú. I support the amendment.

Sinn Féin condemns all sectarian attacks utterly and without reservation. I want to make it clear that attacks on Orange Halls are wrong. Attacks on Protestant and Catholic homes are wrong, and attacks on places of worship are wrong. There is no equivocation; all sectarian attacks are wrong. I want to make that clear so that there is no confusion in the Assembly today. Anyone who has information about sectarian attacks should go to the PSNI. Whether sectarian attacks are made directly against young people, old people, their homes, or families who wish to live in peace with their neighbours or pray in their respective churches, they are equally wrong, and destructive of all that we are trying to build through the institutions of power sharing.

Sinn Féin condemns sectarianism as the cancer that lies at the very root of the injustice and impoverishment of our communities, which our Executive are, above all, dedicated to changing. However, condemnation is easy and cheap. Sinn Féin has long declared that political parties must give leadership in their communities. When members of political parties attempt to approach all issues along sectarian lines, they are creating the conditions that fuel sectarianism in our community. Some people, including Members of the Assembly, have contributed to keeping the two communities apart.

The Orange Order also has a responsibility. Commit­ment to the power-sharing Executive means that we make an honest and open effort to transcend the differences that have divided us in the past and promote the interests of all people equally. We must not allow any attempt to bury sectarianism, when it stares us in the face, and pretend that it no longer exists. It is important that we face reality —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Members, please return to your seats.

Ms Anderson: It is important that we face reality and do not attempt to bury racist or sectarian crimes under a catch-all category of hate or knife crimes. We will not advance the important battle against sectarian­ism through denial.

We are all aware of a litany of sectarian crimes: the murders of the Quinn children and of Michael McIlveen, and the attempted murder of young Paul McCauley from Derry, who is fighting for his life as we sit here in the Chamber. Whether it is areas such as the Fountain in Derry that are the focus or origin of sectarian attacks, there is one question that we must all answer: how can we bring sectarian crime to an end?

Members have stated that they wish to see action. Sinn Féin has drawn up a charter for unionist engage­ment. We believe that that could allow us all to move to a humane common ground and give political leadership in the communities towards delivery for all our people. On the ground, in Derry and elsewhere, there has been dialogue among communities, politicians and Church leaders. Today, I want to extend an invitation to the Orange Order — there are many prominent members of that institution on the Benches opposite — to engage in direct dialogue with Sinn Féin.

It is the duty of the Executive and the Assembly to promote tolerance, inclusivity and equality, to eradicate sectarianism, racism and other forms of discrimination, and to promote a pluralist society in which difference is celebrated and cultural diversity is encouraged. Sinn Féin believes that that is the best way in which to achieve common ground.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member’s time is up.

Ms Anderson: I support the amendment. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Members will know that the Business Committee has arranged to meet as soon as the Assembly suspends for lunch. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm.

The sitting was suspended at 12.28 pm.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair) —

2.00 pm

Mr Newton: I was greatly surprised to hear some of Mr O’Dowd’s comments this morning. He said that he had learnt more about the Orange Order from a five-minute radio interview than he had at any other time in his life. He must think that Members on this side of the House are naive. That statement makes me wonder what sources he uses for his speeches.

The motion reflects an important issue for the Protestant community. The Orange Order represents that community’s cultural identity and embodies Christian principles such as charity and tolerance. Sinn Féin puts about a myth that the Orange Order comprises bowler-hatted bigots who just want to march down the road. However, over generations, the Orange Order has played a significant role in society, and its members have made important contributions. Such members include: Dr Thomas Barnardo; William Massey, a former Prime Minister of New Zealand; Harry Ferguson, the inventor of the tractor; and Earl Alexander of Tunis, a First World War general. Those people represent the calibre of person who underpins the character and ethos of the Orange Order and maintains its principles.

It is sad that many Orange Halls have been attacked. That is not a recent phenomenon; the trend started in, and has accelerated since, the 1960s. It had one objective: the cultural annihilation of the Protestant community. Republicans thought that such aggression against the Orange Order’s facilities and halls was the best way to attack Protestantism and Orange culture. However, that is only because republicans have perceived the Orange Order as being a major part of the British presence in Ulster. There have been numerous attacks on Orange Halls across Northern Ireland —260 since 1989. Approximately 14 halls are burnt every year, which equates to more than one a month. The Orange Order estimates that 311 of its members who are current or former members of the security forces have been targeted and cruelly murdered because they were Protestants and members of the Orange Institution.

In my own constituency, such attacks have been occurring since the 1960s. In two instances, attacks were mounted from the grounds of St Matthew’s chapel. However, I am not in any way blaming the priests who were in charge of the chapel on either of those occasions. A council colleague of mine, May Campbell, was shot and wounded in one of those attacks. Those assaults were part of a process of ethnic cleansing that culminated in severe attacks on the small Protestant enclave of Cluan Place on the Albertbridge Road. Such attacks, and those against Orange Halls, are all part of the same orchestrated campaign of aggression.

As sickening and bigoted as the attacks on Orange Order property and the murder of its members are, it is more appalling that a party whose Members sit on the other side of the Chamber glorifies those deeds by naming, and turning into heroes, those who have murdered and attacked the Protestant community. Indeed, we witnessed that a few weeks ago in Belfast city centre.

If trust is to be built, the Orange Order must receive a sincere and unequivocal apology not only for the murders of its members but for the attacks on its property. That type of bigotry must cease.

Mr Elliott: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate and, at the outset, I declare an interest. I am a member of the Orange Institution and proud to be so.

Over the past months, attacks on Orange Halls and on the orange community in general have escalated. Today we focus on Orange Halls, and I am pleased to speak about that. However, the Orange family has suffered greatly as well; over the Twelfth we witnessed flags, bunting and arches being damaged and ripped from their poles.

It was interesting to hear Ms Anderson say that people in this Chamber have contributed to keeping people apart. I agree with her on that; for a generation or more people have bombed, murdered, burned and intimidated the Protestant community and the Orange family in Northern Ireland. Yes, I agree with Ms Anderson, and if some people in the Chamber look at themselves they will perhaps recognise who has contributed to that past and that division in our community.

Orange Halls and, on many occasions, church halls are used by a huge list of organisations, such as Cubs, Scouts, Brownies and Guides, as well as the Women’s Institute and credit unions. However, that has not stopped many in our community from attempting the ethnic cleansing of Protestant communities throughout Northern Ireland. I have referred to that on many occasions. It is relevant in my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and more so in Armagh, parts of Belfast and the greater Belfast area, where people just “do not want a Prod about the place”. Sometimes it is as simple as that.

I am heartened by Mr O’Loan’s comments and by his recognition of the Orange culture and tradition in this Province.

The upkeep and maintenance of Orange Halls is often difficult enough, and represents a significant financial investment from local people. Volunteers give of their free time to ensure that the premises are maintained to a very high standard and can be used by other organ­isations which, on many occasions, have nothing at all to do with the Orange Order.

Mr O’Dowd said that he had learned about the Orange Order and the use of Orange Halls from a five-minute interview on the radio. I wonder how much effort and emphasis Mr O’Dowd put in to finding out anything about the Orange Institution and the use of Orange Halls before he heard that broadcast. Over the last few years, as a representative of the Orange Institution, I have engaged in several discussions and debates on community relations and cultural diversity. Many of the people involved were from what I call “the opposite tradition”, from such organisations as the GAA.

In the run-up to this year’s Twelfth of July celebra­tions, I, with other community representatives, worked extremely hard to ensure that the various marches in my constituency could take place as a spectacle for everyone to enjoy, irrespective of religious persuasion. I am pleased that, in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the Twelfth celebration was enjoyed by everyone who attended.

No-one should be under any illusion; these matters require further work from all parts of the political spectrum. My experience is that the Orange Order has become increasingly accommodating and willing to work with, and in, communities. That must be seen and respected by Government. On many occasions, positive plans and proposals by the Orange Institution for the benefit of the future leadership, responsibilities and community role of the Orange Order have met with a mixed response.

On a few occasions, people working for the Orange Order received a positive approach. However, on many occasions, they have not even had a reply to their request. Many of those requests and proposals would benefit the entire community, not just the Orange Order.

Mrs M Bradley: I am saddened to think that we even have to discuss such a subject, given that we are supposed to be living in a new political era that should give rise to only peacefulness, prosperity and genuine cross-community collaboration.

In this new political era, we, as politicians, must remember that we are measured not only by our actions but by our words. An attack on any community building — in this case, on Orange Halls — is an attack on the entire community. Orange Halls can be, and are currently being, used for cross-community purposes such as playschools where, in some areas, children from both sides of the community come together to learn and to play. Perhaps we should all go back to that age, where creed, colour and denomination play no part in deciding whether we participate with one another.

I feel that it is best to leave this issue with an example from Cavan in the South of Ireland. When an Orange Hall was vandalised and put beyond use, Catholics and Protestants collaborated to rebuild the hall. The Govern­ment saw fit to encourage those actions and gave grant aid of €30,000 to complete the project, as should happen in any civilised society. The Orange Hall was rebuilt and re-established.

Therefore, let us today encourage cross-community condemnation of attacks on any community building, and let us not dwell on the past. I hope that we have all learnt something about progressing the issue and that, most importantly, we learn to respect all buildings, irrespective of who owns or uses them.

I support the amendment.

Mr Shannon: I wish to declare an interest as a member of Kircubbin LOL 1900. The Orange Order stands for religious and civil liberty: religious liberty for everyone, Protestant or Catholic; and civil liberty for everyone, irrespective of political affiliation, where they attend on Sundays or where they work.

There is no doubt that the figures for attacks on Orange Halls draw a vivid, colourful and disturbing picture. Since 1989, there have been 260 reported attacks — over 14 every year. The number of attacks in 2007 is higher than in the past seven years. We are supposed to be moving forward, but some people are trying to take us backwards.

The severity of the attacks has varied, ranging from tearing down flags to vandalising halls. Sectarianism in any shape or form cannot be an acceptable part of the business of this country, and the Assembly must support the intent of the motion.

I am sure that I am not the only Member who has heard the story about the Shinner falling off the roof. As absurd as the situation was, it is understandable that some people might think that it is the first line of a joke. In reality, it is not a joke; it is a very serious matter. Tearing down a flag from an Orange Hall is an act of vandalism and disrespect. It is no laughing matter to the member of the lodge who paid for the flag or handed it down from his father’s time. It is not a joke that part of that hall’s history was torn down in a moment by an act of contempt. To the women who sewed the flag to show pride in their culture and heritage, it is nothing less than an insult — a slap in the face. That kind of action is not an isolated matter; the Orange Order and Orange Halls face the same problem, month after month.

Those events are not unconnected. Recently, there was an attack on Seagoe Orange Hall in Portadown. The hall had just been refurbished at a cost of £15,000. That is not the only instance of a refurbished hall being burnt down in order to make a statement. Such behaviour might have been expected in the 1970s, but it has no place in Northern Ireland today. The hall is used not only by the Orange Lodge but by local people for community programmes and events.

2.15 pm

How many times have we watched members of the public on television, sifting through the rubble of a hall to see what part of their history could be recovered? The answer is a very sober one: far too many. For too long the Orange Order and the halls have been used by many as scapegoats for their anger, fear and malice. For too long the Orange Order and the halls have had to accept their lot of damage and wanton destruction to their property — and even worse has been done to history. I read the words of Fr Martin McAlinden, the parish priest of Moyraverty near to Seagoe Orange Hall, and I fully agree with what he said:

“The destruction of a building that represents the culture of a particular group in this area is shameful and an attack on the Orange Order and the community of Seagoe.”

I suggest to Members who have spoken and made a commitment that they tell the police what they know and encourage their supporters to tell the police what they know. Give us the proof of the pudding by eating it. Show us what you can do. The hall at Seagoe was not a place of hate; it was a place of history. It was not a place of war; it was a place of life, and those who destroyed it destroyed a little part of their community. Such behaviour is nothing less than shameful and disgusting, and the Assembly must unite and proclaim it as such.

As well as that, those who are affiliated with the Assembly should treat it with the respect and reverence that all members of the community believe should be given. All parties must stand by their words and ensure that those who are caught in any form of attack, whether it be chanting sectarian slogans, breaking windows, tearing down flags or engaging in more sinister behaviour, are reported to the police. Terrorism in any guise will not be tolerated, and it is the responsibility of the Assembly to take steps to end that form of terrorism by more than mere words. There must be no more cowardly attacks on culture and heritage by intolerant and bigoted people determined to destroy something merely because they cannot stand, or accept, a right to the celebration of the history of this nation. I support the motion.

Mr Moutray: At the outset, I declare that I am a proud member of Corcreeny LOL 91 in the district of Lurgan.

Sadly, attacks on Orange Halls in Northern Ireland are nothing new. As figures show, the systematic targeting of halls has been to the fore of the republican campaign for many years. In the early 1990s when IRA activity was rampant throughout our land, the average number of attacks on Orange Halls each year was 15. Yet, strangely enough, after the 1994 ceasefire the number of attacks rose to an average of 40 each year, a figure that is being exceeded at present.

Brownlow House Orange Hall, in my Upper Bann constituency, the world headquarters of the Royal Black Institution, has come under sustained attack and has been severely damaged on numerous occasions. I want to pay tribute to the brethren for restoring this glorious building, part of which dates back to the seventeenth century. Last weekend Brownlow House played host to hundreds of visitors of all faiths as part of the Environ­ment and Heritage Service’s open day programme.

Eight Orange Halls have already been attacked in County Armagh this year. I think particularly today of Seagoe Orange Hall, which my colleague referred to. It was seriously damaged only a few weeks ago. I think too of Kilmore Orange Hall in the countryside near Lurgan that was gutted by fire last year. It has been there for over 200 years, and I am delighted that it was reopened on Saturday last after an intense programme of work by the brethren and in spite of a recent paint bomb attack.

Kilmore Orange Hall is used almost daily and is the hub of an isolated rural community. It is used by both sections of the community. The brethren there seek to offend no one. They want to live peacefully and enjoy their culture. Like many lodges throughout the Province, Kilmore has raised thousands of pounds for charity.

Recently, we have heard of Sinn Féin councillors turning up at Orange halls in the aftermath of attacks to sympathise with Orangemen while, on the other hand, Sinn Féin members have been reportedly falling off the roofs of Orange Halls in other constituencies in the early hours of the morning.

Members of the Orange Order do not need the sympathy of Sinn Féin politicians. We need them to take action, and after incidents such as the one at Newcastle Orange Hall the following question needs to be asked: “What sanctions will the Sinn Féin leadership take against the people involved?”

Sinn Féin’s work on the ground created the likes of Breandán Mac Cionnaith, who now single-handedly holds up progress on a resolution to the Drumcree parade dispute. The policies, actions and example of Sinn Féin made attacks on Orange Halls acceptable to some people. That is why words are not enough on this occasion. Can Sinn Féin truly live in peace with its neighbours? Only time will tell. Sinn Féin’s response to issues such as this will go a long way towards answering that question. It is entirely up to Sinn Féin to act now.

Despite the legacy of attacks that have been inflicted on it, the Orange culture is alive, strong, vibrant and here to stay.

Mr McNarry: I too declare an interest as a loyal and proud member of the Orange Institution. Only a few hours ago, the House came together to reject sectarianism and racism in sport. However, here we are, with some Members unable to reject outright the sectarianism that is under debate and which lies behind attacks on Orange Halls. Those Members are unable to stand together, as we did a few hours ago, behind the single-issue motion before the House. Going by the comments of some Members, they are, patently and regrettably, unwilling, so far, to combine to use their influence to put an end to those attacks. I hope that those Members will think again.

I, here and now, on this single issue, offer a choice to those who support the amendment. Show to my community — the Protestant, unionist and Orange community — a preparedness to demonstrate in this, the House of the people, that they will work with all parties and bring their influence to bear. The choice is theirs to take today; I make no demands of them. I ask them to be reasonable, because they ask me to swallow that which they have brought to this House: a new era of reasonableness. I honestly say that I find a lot of that hard to swallow, just yet. However, if the begin­ning that I see here — and some of it is unbelievable to many from my tradition — of a Democratic Unionist First Minister and a Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister working together is to be the way forward until the next time that the electorate meets to make its mark, I ask Members opposite to take a step forward by setting aside what I can understand they find great difficulty in letting go. Will they stand together with us and condemn attacks on Orange Halls?

We all reject attacks on homes, schools, churches — attacks on society. However, from the perspective of our tradition, attacks on Orange Halls are an attack on the Orange family. Only by being a member of that family can I ask Members to appreciate what it means to me. Attacks on Orange Halls are attacks on communities that come together in that greater family.

I have heard things said in this House that I find unbelievable. I hear a big play for corporate decisions: that is what this Assembly must bring to Northern Ireland politics. I heard junior Minister Paisley applauded by Members opposite for saying not once but twice in the House that he is representing a caring Executive. I want the House to tell everyone that, collectively, we care about attacks on Orange Halls.

This morning, there was a call for leadership. On this matter, it is over to those in republican and nationalist seats to show us in the unionist seats some real leadership.

I say: do it, and be prepared for a response from the family that I and many here are proud to represent. At this moment, the amendment smacks of begrudgery, and I sincerely ask Members opposite to withdraw it. Make today’s decision a collective one. Members can return to what they need to say about attacks on other properties, and we will join with them. This is a specific issue, and I ask Members — humbly — to stand with us and send a signal that we can take to our people and that they can take to theirs.

The Junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister) (Mr G Kelly): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I appreciate the opportunity to respond to the motion on behalf of the Executive. I unreservedly condemn attacks on Orange Halls. I was taken by the words of the Member who spoke previously. There is a unified voice from the Executive on this issue.

We are totally committed to moving society forward and to making a real difference to the lives of all our people. I am sure that all parties in the House share the vision for a future based on tolerance, equality, mutual respect and respect for the rule of law. Many Members have spoken precisely on those subjects.

There is no place for the type of behaviour that we have been discussing today if we are to build a society in which there is respect for all cultures and traditions. That applies equally to racist attacks on the houses of members of ethnic minority communities; attacks on the places of worship of those with different faiths; and on any venue with cultural purposes.

A few weeks ago, the Assembly debated a motion on the shared future framework document. During that debate, our vision of that shared future was spelled out by the First Minister, who said that the dream of people living together in harmony can and must become more than a dream; it must become a reality. The First Minister said that we need a stable society in which:

“children can play together, in which people can work together, and in which families can live happily side by side, regardless of their community or ethnic background or their religious beliefs.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 22, p295, col 2].

Go raibh maith agat.

In every society, how people live together is a major challenge for Governments and individuals. For a society that is moving out of conflict, that challenge is all the greater. However, we can draw positives as to how our society is changing from our current political dispensation. This institution and the Executive point the way forward for this society. Building an equal and inclusive society is an Executive commitment, and if we are to deliver real and equitable improvement in the lives of local people, we must deliver real and tangible change. That will mean physically regenerating interface areas, providing decent housing for those in need, and building new relationships across society.

I recognise the point that Mr Kennedy made earlier. Our desire for a prosperous society, which benefits everyone, is not helped by any sectarian or racist attack.

We all know that a more tolerant, more inclusive and more cohesive society will not happen overnight. There is no magic ointment that can be applied or pill that can be taken that will produce instant harmony. The fact remains that there are differences in our society. That is not a bad thing, as some would have us believe. In my view, differences must be recognised, appreciated and celebrated. The view of the world that, with an end to conflict, everyone here should share exactly the same values, views and aspirations is wrong. We need to create a society in which people can feel comfortable expressing their views, opinions and aspirations, and where institutions such as the Assembly can give expression to them.

In my view, everyone has a responsibility and a role to play in creating such a society. Those of us who are here through the vote of the electorate must reciprocate the faith with which the people who voted for us have entrusted us.

We must see this through. By making Government work and by building a shared society, we pledge to do all in our power to ensure that our work makes a real difference to the lives of all the people.

The challenges and opportunities that our position affords are immense in their potential, not only for us, but for generations to come.

2.30 pm

Sectarianism, racism and intolerance still exist, but they will remain only if we let them. That is why attacks on homes, businesses, Orange Halls, other buildings belonging to the Loyal Orders, GAA premises, and all other cultural and religious premises must be condemned.

The Executive have already recognised the importance of creating that new society. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister underscored their commitment to building a new inclusive society through their unequi­vocal statements that intolerance, sectarianism and racism — or violence because of them — have no place in this or any other society. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have demonstrated their personal commit­ment to supporting people who are the victims of sectarianism or racist attacks and those who assist them in the aftermath of those attacks. For example, following an attack on premises there, Martin McGuinness visited Rev Peter Thompson in St Patrick’s Church of Ireland in Donaghmore. In May, Dr Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness hosted two receptions — the first in this Building since restoration of the institutions — for representatives of minority and ethnic groups, as well as for those from the community and voluntary sectors who are involved in that important work.

Whereas it is the responsibility of the PSNI and the courts to deal with the perpetrators of attacks, there is work for us all in helping to stop attacks on premises that have important cultural value for our people and communities.

Through promoting cohesion and diversity, and through building good relations among the different sections of our community, and between communities and Government, we will tackle the root causes of the problems that manifest themselves in sectarian and racist attacks. That process will require much hard work and commitment, but it is necessary work from which, I am sure, no party in the Assembly will shy away. Attacks on symbolic premises can serve as a barometer of the state of community relations, and it is worrying that there is an overall upward trend in the number of those attacks in the six years up to 2005, and thereafter, although the number of attacks remains relatively small. The attacks were on Orange Halls, churches and chapels, GAA and Ancient Order of Hibernian properties, and schools. The Executive are closely monitoring the problem.

A clear and tangible sign of the Assembly’s commit­ment to the new future is the way in which we conduct our business to build a better future for everyone. I acknowledge the concerns that Members raised and will ensure that a copy of today’s Hansard report is sent to the Secretary of State for his information.

I repeat my opening statement that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister unreservedly condemn the recent attacks on Orange Halls. Furthermore, given that the issue was raised by Members on several occasions, I declare that there is no division in the Executive or in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) over the propriety of bringing information to the PSNI on any of those attacks.

I am confident that all the members of the Executive agree that, if we are to build a society in which there is respect for all cultures and traditions, there is no place for such behaviour. As I, and other Members, have said already, condemnation is not enough. We have a responsibility to build the sort of prosperous and equal society that will ultimately undermine the mindset that gives rise to those unacceptable attacks.

Leadership starts here. That leadership has been demonstrated by many Members. Let us continue to demonstrate it collectively. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I call Mr John O’Dowd to make a winding-up speech in support of the amendment.

Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I apologise for being on my feet as you spoke.

The debate has been most interesting. I said earlier that, although the subject is clearly close to his heart and he has good reason to be emotional, Mr Easton had opened the debate in a measured way. He opened a debate — conducted in reasonable terms, for the most part — on what we want to achieve. Sinn Féin did not table the amendment to distract attention from the issue of attacks on Orange Halls. It is clear that the vast majority of sectarian attacks on property over the past few years have been on Orange Halls. That must stop.

There is — [Interruption.] If Gregory would let me finish, he might be enlightened. [Interruption.]

Ms Ní Chuilín: Stop interrupting.

Mr O’Dowd: I am sorry. I have lost my train of thought because of Gregory’s interruptions.

What we want to achieve is a measure of action. Any Member who proposes a motion or an amendment wants action. He or she wants that issue, about which he or she cares so deeply, resolved. In this case, we need to stop attacks on Orange Halls.

For that reason, and because of the reasoned contributions from across the Chamber, Sinn Féin withdraws the amendment. Sinn Féin will not vote on its amendment, because a message must come from the Chamber today.

Mr Adams: Would the Member agree that the amendment has been withdrawn because Sinn Féin listened intently to what was being said from the Benches opposite? The attacks on Orange Halls are wrong and should stop. The perpetrators should be made available to the PSNI and be subject to due process.

If I may, and in the spirit of John’s withdrawal of the amendment, I ask the Members opposite, please, to listen to what Sinn Féin says on the issue.

Mr O’Dowd: That is an important point, and I agree with all that my party leader has said.

The First Minister (Rev Dr Ian Paisley): I know the feeling that is in the hearts of all those in the Chamber today. It is a good thing that the debate dwells on the issue of attacks on Orange Halls. We will have another opportunity to dwell on other attacks. We are just as much against the attack on a Roman Catholic place of worship as we are against the attack on an Orange Hall. The decision from across the Bench will be an encouragement to people who look to a future in which we come to an end to all of this, and to better things for our people.

Mr O’Dowd: Thank you for that contribution, First Minister. Mr Newton said that I believe that he and his colleagues are naïve. I do not believe for a second that they are naïve; if I did, then I would be naïve, and I do not believe myself to be naïve.

There are difficult days ahead for all of us involved in the new beginning for politics on the island of Ireland. To be honest, the DUP is not my first choice for a partner in Government, but the party has been elected, and I will do everything in my power to ensure that the institutions work and that the decision of the people is carried through. One Member said that because we must bring peace to this island, we must make difficult decisions. There are going to be difficult decisions today, tomorrow, and in the future, and unless all Members start working for a little bit of trust between parties, those difficult decisions will become unsurmountable.

In relation to attacks on Orange Halls, I recognise the contribution given by David McNarry. For a moment, I asked myself if the softly-spoken gentleman in front of me was David McNarry, because it is not David’s usual style, but he made a good contribution.

There is a responsibility on the Members opposite, just as much as there is a responsibility on Members on this side, to tackle sectarianism from within their own communities. Sectarianism must be tackled, and I acknowledge the contribution that the First Minister made to that in his comments. We must do it together. The end of today’s debate should not be the end of the subject. We need to work together to end sectarianism, because, whether it is in sport or society, sectarianism is the biggest hindrance to us all.

Finally, although the amendment will be read out, Sinn Féin will not vote on it, and we will support the motion as placed before us.

Mr McCausland: Like others, I declare an interest, as I have been a member of the Orange Order for more than 30 years.

In proposing the motion Alex Easton said that, in spite of the peace process, there have been more attacks on Orange Halls in recent years. The number of the attacks and their increasing frequency led to the proposal of the motion. Although the DUP condemns all attacks on places of worship, or any property, there is a need to highlight the unique situation regarding the Orange Halls.

In April 2007, in my constituency, there was an arson attack on Greencastle Orange Hall on the Whitewell Road, which followed an attack that had taken place two months earlier. The hall had also been targeted by arsonists on three previous occasions, and was destroyed by arsonists seven years ago. That situation could be repeated across all constituencies.

In his comments, John O’Dowd said that he supports PSNI investigations into attacks on Orange Halls and said that information should be provided to the police to enable them carry out those investigations. However, consideration of the cause, the nature and frequency of those attacks suggests that they are, in large measure, the legacy of decades of demonisation of the Orange Order by those in the republican community.

The other day, on the Oldpark Road — again, in North Belfast — I saw a wooden republican placard of a PSNI officer wearing an Orange collarette, underneath which said, “same old force”. If that is the message that republicans send out to their own community day after day, it is not surprising that people respond to that message by launching attacks on Orange Halls. The removal of such signs would be a positive step towards dealing with the problem. John O’Dowd asked what should be done. That is precisely the sort of action that should be taken.

Danny Kennedy talked about the need for a shared future. That is truly important. A shared future must involve a place for the Orange Order in cultural life. The streets must be spaces that the Orange Order can share with others. Declan O’Loan gave us a stark description of a burned-out Orange Hall in his constituency. Lord Morrow reminded us about how republican terrorists have murdered Orangemen inside Orange Halls or when leaving them. In the early days of the Troubles, an IRA sniper shot down the secretary of a lodge when he was leaving Ligoniel Orange Hall. Subsequently, the hall closed down and the Protestant community moved down the road. Martina Anderson condemned all sectarian attacks; although, as one of my colleagues put it, she sounded like Hans Christian Andersen in doing so. Not everyone shares that particular colleague’s sense of humour.

Pious platitudes will not suffice on this matter. I draw attention to the point that was made by Mr Newton, who told of a Sinn Féin parade that took place in Belfast several weeks ago — in the centre of a shared city — during which IRA terrorists were glorified and were depicted on Sinn Féin banners. Those are the type of issues that must be dealt with and where changes must be made.

The Orange Order faces a legacy of decades of demonisation, which had justified sectarian attacks in the minds of republicans. That is expressed in several ways; for example, in republican opposition to Orange parades. The person on the street in that community might well ask himself or herself, “If I oppose the parade of those awful people who I do not want to walk down the road in my area, what is the problem in attacking their hall?” That opposition is also expressed in nationalist criticism of the amount of televised coverage of the Twelfth celebrations. If the Orange Order should not be on television, what is wrong with attacking their hall?

The Orange Order and its culture must be brought in from the margins to the mainstream. That can and must be done in many ways; a good example of which was shown by the Smithsonian Institute’s festival in Washington, in which the Orange Order had a role to play. I also want to commend several schools in the Roman Catholic community, including Abbey Christian Brothers’ Grammar School in Newry, which has invited representatives from the Orange Order to speak to its pupils.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)

Much work must be done. The Orange Order is happy to take part in that. However, there must be an end to the demonisation of the Orange Order, which only republicans can bring about.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly condemns all attacks on Orange Halls and calls on all political parties to use their influence to stop such sectarian attacks.

National Minimum Wage

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The Member proposing the motion will have 10 minutes in which to speak, with 10 minutes being allowed for the winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will be allowed a maximum of five minutes.

2.45 pm

Mr McClarty: I beg to move

That this Assembly opposes any attempt to replace the national minimum wage with regional variants.

The issue raised in the motion has the potential to have disastrous consequences for the economic well-being of Northern Ireland. At the outset of the debate, it is safe to assume that Members in the Chamber will universally reject any attempt to have regional variants of the minimum wage.

The introduction of the minimum wage in 1998 was preceded by a debate during which fears were expressed that it would cost jobs. There is little evidence that it has done so in the UK as a whole. The minimum-wage scheme has, by and large, been exceptionally successful. However, over the summer, it has emerged that our new Prime Minister, Mr Gordon Brown, is considering implementing a strategy that would end the concept of the national minimum wage and allow the minimum wage to be regionally variable. Although that proposal has not been implemented as yet, that does not mean that it will not become a reality.

It is probably safe to assume that, going on the present Labour Government’s track record of cutting wages for public sector workers in areas where the cost of living is lower, the possibility of their varying the minimum wage may not be a long way from becoming a real probability. The Prime Minister has undoubtedly been influenced by research carried out by Professor David Smith of the University of Derby. In a report for the Economic Research Council he recommends a new variable minimum wage. He recommends that the UK adopt similar systems to those in the USA and Switzerland whereby local authorities set not only the minimum wage, but benefits and the salaries of public sector workers.

Professor Smith’s study recommends that the minimum wage set for Londoners should be increased to £6·90 per hour, while workers in the north-east would have their hourly rate reduced by 57p to £4·78 per hour. He recommends that the minimum hourly rate for those in Yorkshire should be reduced to £4·95 per hour, while in Wales it should be reduced to £4·84 per hour. He also recommends that the minimum wage in Northern Ireland should be £4·80 per hour.

Should Professor Smith’s research be acted upon it would, potentially, have dangerous consequences for Northern Ireland’s economy and our attempts to get people back to work. Northern Ireland has an exception­ally high level of economic inactivity. The Assembly has a huge job on its hands to get people off welfare benefits and into employment. Hence, if central Government in London were to introduce regional variants of the minimum wage it would make that complicated task so much more difficult.

The Member for North Belfast Mr Fred Cobain made an excellent point recently when he said:

“Getting people off welfare and into employment is good for them, good for local communities and good for our economy. It beggars belief, then, that Gordon Brown should be considering doing the exact opposite by penalising work.”

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon Friend’s comments.

It is critically important to remember that any variation in the minimum wage would have to be accompanied by variation in regional rates of benefits — particularly that of unemployment benefit. If that were not to happen then a cut in the minimum wage in Northern Ireland would lead to more people deciding that it is not worthwhile working. It is reported that Gordon Brown is now convinced that a common minimum wage — currently, £5·35 per hour, rising to £5·52 per hour in October — is uneconomic.

However, just how economic is it to have a lower minimum wage in this region of the UK, where we have the largest proportion of economically inactive people as a share of our potential workforce? The proposal merely removes people’s incentive to find work. That makes absolutely no economic sense. It is preposterous and reckless.

One of the main arguments that Professor Smith deploys in order to justify his conclusions is that the cost of living is lower in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the UK, and thus our money supposedly goes further. However, such an argument is deeply flawed as the figures used to support it are already out of date — for example, he quotes the average house price here as being about £140,000; indeed, he says that it is £45,000 less than the UK average.

I want to touch briefly on the effect that those proposals would have on our attempts to bring more jobs into the Province. Would a lower minimum wage create more jobs? In theory, anything that lowers costs should lead to more people being employed. However, the available labour market data suggest that the impact could be small, and it can legitimately be asked whether any gain would be worth the associated social cost.

Furthermore, of what quality would those jobs be, and would they be sustainable? It is important to keep in mind that pitching low labour costs as our competitive advantage could never be a long-term objective and that Northern Ireland simply cannot compete on those terms with India, China or some of the African countries. Simply put, proposals to lower the minimum wage in Northern Ireland are economically irresponsible and will do very little to improve the economic prosperity of our people. It would be a foolish move that would do little to enhance the competitiveness of Northern Ireland’s economy.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning (Ms S Ramsey): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I also welcome today’s debate and commend the proposers of the motion for bringing this timely debate to the House.

I will start by making a few points in my capacity as Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning, and then I will make a few personal remarks.

The proposal to replace the minimum wage with regional variants came to the Committee’s attention during the summer recess, in a meeting that was held on 25 July. It followed recent press reports that have already been mentioned, so I will not go into them. The Committee expressed extreme concern about the proposals for the minimum wage for several reasons. In a letter that I wrote to the Minister for Employment and Learning on 31 July, I stressed the Committee’s concerns and asked for the Minister’s views on the matter. The Minister replied to my letter on 16 August, and the Committee will discuss that reply in its meeting tomorrow.

In his letter, the Minister reminded us that the minimum wage is a reserved matter, but he stressed that it is of interest to the Executive, and I welcome that. He assured me that he strongly opposes the regional variants, and that he will raise the matter with his Executive colleagues. It is clear from discussions in Committee and from this debate that there is consensus on the issue. The Committee will work in support of the Minister — he will be glad to know that — to ensure that any movement towards regionalisation of the minimum wage will be challenged.

I want to quote Chris Franks, a Member of the National Assembly for Wales:

“This proposal should be rejected outright. Low wage levels in Wales already contribute to many of the most pressing problems that our communities face. The minimum wage is vital in lifting people out of poverty and ensuring equal opportunities are available for all.”

The deputy leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) at Westminster, Stewart Hosie MP, said:

“This proposal is barking mad. The SNP campaigned for years for a minimum wage in order to make work pay and allow people to lift themselves out of poverty.”

I hope that we will send out the same message today.

The minimum wage exists for a reason. Several reports on poverty have been published in recent times, and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has produced strategies to combat poverty. However, mechanisms must be put in place to do just that. There are people working for a minimum wage, some of whom are working to survive, rather than working to live, and we must examine that situation.

There is broad acceptance of the need to tackle economic inactivity and promote equality by using prosperity to target need and existing patterns of disadvantage. However, if that is true, how will cutting the minimum wage achieve that stated aim? The minimum wage should be increased so that people can be allowed to work to live: society and this Assembly should strive to make that change.

I thank David McClarty for proposing the motion, and the Minister for Employment and Learning for coming to the House and listening to the debate. Given the debates that we have had today and yesterday, I hope that all parties can agree on the motion and support it. The Committee for Employment and Learning will be discussing the issue tomorrow and will be presenting its proposals to the Minister. Go raibh maith agat

Mr Newton: Like the previous contributor, I congrat­ulate Mr McClarty for proposing the motion. It is timely, in the light of recent statements made by, and on behalf of, Mr Gordon Brown. It is important to recognise that back in 1999, the minimum wage, which was designed only to provide a decent minimum standard, was being used as part of the Labour Party’s election strategy. The minimum wage was an attempt to provide a degree of fairness in the workplace, and some semblance, small though it was, of equality of treatment.

In making the point about the minimum wage, it should be realised that various industries pay minimum wages that are generous, but in the context of a national minimum wage, although it is to rise on 1 October to £5·52 for persons aged 22 and over, it will not make its recipients rich or affluent. The situation is even worse for 18-to-21-year olds, who will move from £4·45 to £4·60 an hour, and 16-to-17-year olds, whose hourly wage will rise by 10p to £3·40. It is also important to note that 16-to-17-year old apprentices are exempt from the minimum wage and can be paid whatever is agreed with the employer.

Mr Gordon Brown and his Government have stated that they are committed to ending child poverty. We cannot address child poverty if, at the other end of the scale, we attack the parents of those who work in the lower-wage end of the economy, thereby reducing their wages. All we will do, as was said on the opposite Benches, is drive people into the relative poverty trap or the benefits trap, and we all know how difficult it is to get economically inactive people out of that state of mind.

Official figures show that in the United Kingdom, the wages gap between those who are earning a reasonable wage and those who are at the lower end of the wage economy is continuing to widen. We have a strong economic base in the UK, but poverty exists amongst that plenty.

3.00 pm

Reference has already been made to Professor David Smith’s initiative to reduce and regionalise the minimum wage. Northern Ireland, where Professor Smith wishes to see the minimum wage reduced, has higher levels of housing costs than other parts of the UK. Even in the privaterented sector, housing costs in Northern Ireland are equal to those in the south-east of England, for which he has proposed an increase to the minimum wage. However, Northern Ireland also has high costs for bread, fuel and travel.

Some unscrupulous employers pay below the minimum wage and get away with it, perhaps by operating in the black economy. Rather than reducing the minimum wage, I call for the Government to strengthen the enforcement of minimum-wage policy and to introduce tougher penalties for employers who break the rules. There should be a tougher enforcement plan on the payment of the minimum wage.

Mrs Hanna: I support the motion. I welcome the debate, and I thank the proposer of the motion for bringing it to the Chamber.

The SDLP is opposed to tampering with the national minimum wage. The introduction of the national minimum wage was one of Labour’s most successful and progressive economic policies. As has been said, from 1 October 2007 the minimum wage will be increased. For adults, it will rise to £5·52 an hour; for 18-to-21-year olds, it will rise to £4·45 an hour; and for 16-to-17-year olds to £3·40 an hour. Those increases will by no means make anyone rich, but they will go a little way towards meeting the ever-increasing costs of living in Northern Ireland. If a variable rate of the minimum wage were introduced, it would damage what we are trying and need to build on. Predictably, it would discourage people from taking up employment, especially those who are caught in the poverty trap of low-paid jobs. Many people who are caught in that trap have no incentive to work, given that they are financially better off on benefits. It is important to be able to encourage people to take up the challenge of employ­ment. Paid work can be a vital route out of poverty, but only when workers have access to secure jobs with decent pay and working conditions. That is particularly the case for women, who fill approximately three quarters of low-paid jobs. Women who work full time are still paid only 80% of their male colleagues’ earnings, and part-time female workers earn even less.

I am disturbed by reports that Gordon Brown’s Labour Government may be considering a dual, rather than a national, minimum wage. It has been reported that the London rate may be adjusted to be approximately 10% more than the applicable rate for regions such as Northern Ireland. It has already been pointed out that the housing costs in Northern Ireland are among the highest in the UK. Costs of light, heating and food in areas such as Northern Ireland already exceed London costs for the same products. Those costs exist in spite of the fact that pay rates in Northern Ireland are only about 80% of the average pay rates in GB.

The national minimum wage is a floor that recognises the value of doing an honest day’s work for a basic rate of pay. It is not wildly generous, but it gives a measure of statutory recognition to the value and dignity of work. Although the minimum wage is a reserved matter, the Assembly must send a strong message of opposition to any proposal to vary it. A BBC economist, who supported a dual wage, said that two thirds of income in Northern Ireland was public-sector generated — either from public sector employment or from benefits. However, that is a red herring.

Some 35,000 immigrants have come from Poland to work in Northern Ireland, often for the national minimum wage. That highlights the fact that a decent rate of pay that can be supplemented, if necessary, by family benefits for the low-paid, can reduce the culture of dependency and provide the best way out of poverty for families. The SDLP believes in creating a fair, equal society in which the most vulnerable and marginalised are protected. Those in low-paid jobs, who work hard just to survive, need support and protection. A fully inclusive society will come about only if people feel that they are contributing to it.

The gap between the rich and the poor — the haves and the have-nots — is increasing. According to the Northern Ireland Anti-Poverty Network, wages in Northern Ireland are 25% lower than the EU average. That is unacceptable, and the Assembly has both a political and moral duty to ensure that low-paid workers receive a fair deal. Put simply, they deserve a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. If the Assembly is serious about tackling poverty, a reduction in the minimum wage would be totally counterproductive.

Dr Farry: I support the motion. It is important for the Assembly to send out a strong and well-argued case, based on a sound economic rationale, for its opposition to the lowering of the minimum wage in Northern Ireland. This subject has sparked much discussion among economists. Current scaremongering may be based on the arguments of some economists that a minimum wage that is artificially higher than the market rate leads to unemployment.

On the other hand, just as many economists point out the strong basis for having a minimum wage. Not only does it benefit individual workers by guaranteeing them a solid, secure and standard level of living, but it also creates demand in society, ensures that people have money to reinvest in the economy and boosts the overall size of the public sector.

In Northern Ireland, it is clear that the minimum wage is not artificially higher than the market rate and does not, therefore, contribute to unemployment, which is at its lowest level for almost 40 years. Although that is encouraging and a major achievement, it masks some problems beneath the surface that must be taken into account. A variable minimum wage in Northern Ireland would do nothing to address fundamental problems, such as the number of people who are economically inactive. Several Members mentioned that point earlier: Northern Ireland has the highest level of economic­ally inactive people in the UK, at over 26% of the working population. That is an extremely high and unsustainable figure. The next-highest rate in the UK is about 20%. There must be an awareness of the major subregional variations in Northern Ireland; for instance, the number of economically inactive in Derry approaches almost 50%.

Carmel Hanna mentioned the increasing demand for workers throughout the economy. People come from overseas to take up posts to satisfy the demand of local companies. Those workers do not take jobs from local people, but satisfy a demand that could not otherwise be met. The large number of people who are economically inactive highlights the fact that structural problems in society keep people out of the workplace — it is not because the wage structures act as a deterrent. If anything, lowering the minimum wage will make it much harder to attract people who are out of the labour market back to work in the near future.

There must be a focus on creating high-value-added jobs in Northern Ireland. In recent years, there has been too much economic investment in low-value-added and low-paid jobs. In particular, a comparison of the level and nature of investment in Northern Ireland to that in the Republic of Ireland shows that Northern Ireland is not attracting the same calibre of jobs.

There is a major challenge ahead to ensure that we have a balanced economy that focuses on those well-paid jobs.

There is a gap of almost 20% between the average public-sector wage and the average private-sector wage. That situation is unsustainable and, therefore, we must focus on trying to improve the pay of local people. Although Members may support the motion, it is important to be sensible about it and think through the implications of doing so. Notwithstanding yesterday’s debate on tax-varying powers, most parties are contin­uing to support the call for a separate rate of corporation tax for Northern Ireland. However, we must have a clear argument as to why we believe there is a case for varying corporation tax while insisting that the parity principle with respect to the minimum wage should remain very much in place.

Equally, we should bear in mind that there is a federal minimum wage in the United States, but that individual states and cities can have higher rates. What would happen if London wanted to go for a higher minimum wage? What would be the response of the Northern Ireland Assembly to that, especially if the same minimum wage existed across the country? We would want to ensure that wealth would not be concentrated in south-east England and would argue that concentrating wealth in one area would be a backward step for the country. It is something we should bear in mind.

Mr McCausland: Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom, and workers in Northern Ireland are, therefore, entitled to the same standards, benefits and rights as workers in every other part of the Kingdom. It is noticeable, and it has been highlighted this afternoon, that politicians in every other region and nation of the United Kingdom are opposed to any plan for a variation in the minimum wage across the United Kingdom. All parties in the Assembly also agree on the matter.

Some people have argued that the cost-of-living in Northern Ireland is lower than that in other regions of the United Kingdom, but the evidence is clear that that is no longer the case. If one considers the cost of living increases in Northern Ireland and, particularly, the cost of housing, it is clear that any gap that did exist is either disappearing rapidly or has disappeared already. We want to get people out of total dependency on benefits and into work. We believe that it is good for the person concerned and for their family, for society and for the economy. We should oppose resolutely any disincentive to getting a job, or any incentive to remaining dependent on benefits. Therefore I hope that Members will give their total support to a standard national minimum wage across the United Kingdom.

Those on the economic side may argue that lower minimum wage levels would be attractive to investors, but there is a serious question over the validity of that argument; there is no strong evidence for it. While it is important to build up the economy, there are more effective things that could and should be done rather than tampering with the national minimum wage. The Alliance Party believes that the retention of the national minimum wage across the United Kingdom will be of benefit in the way that I have outlined. We welcome the fact that the national minimum wage is due to increase in October — albeit only by 17p — to £5·52, and that everyone in the country will be entitled to that.

Mr McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. There is an impressive consistency in the remarks. I, too, support the motion and thank Mr McClarty and Mr McCrea for presenting us with the opportunity to debate the issue. I hope that the Assembly will take the opportunity to express its outright rejection of the case that was produced on behalf of the Economic Research Council.

It seems that Gordon Brown was impressed by that report, which recommended that workers in northern regions should be paid a less generous wage than those in the south-east and that the unemployed in northern regions should receive less generous benefits. It seems that the one-size-fits-all policy, with which the Executive have already been confronted when seeking the necessary tools and flexibility to deliver on the Programme for Government, is not immutable. What does that say about convergence and parity?

3.15 pm

There has been a great deal of discussion about the regional variation of the minimum wage. We could all endorse many of the points that have been made that discussion, but there is little benefit in repeating them. That said, I support the comments that several Members have made. It is important to note that regional variation is a blatant attempt to drive down salary and wage levels across the board. This region already has some experience of that strategy, and it has already been marketed for many years — for too many, in fact — as a low-wage economy. Although the use of that strategy has declined, it has not been completely abandoned. Such a marketing strategy not only depresses the wages and salaries of workers, it sustains a lower-skills base and makes it extremely difficult to attract the wealth-creating, knowledge-based investments that are needed to regenerate our economy.

The regeneration of the economy is an important common ground for the political parties, given that they are divided on and need to resolve many other issues. That is work in progress. However, a common front is needed to formulate the regeneration of the economy and to provide a sound basis for sustaining the political process.

I do not want to assume the responsibility of speaking for other parties, but a consensus has been stated repeatedly. That position has been publicly recorded many times, not least in the reports of the subgroup of the Committee on the Preparation for Government. All of the parties argued that we should be attracting the higher-value-added wealth-creating enterprises that are currently investing in the South of Ireland and elsewhere.

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. I had intended to exhort him to make a clear statement that took cognisance of the correspondence that my colleague Sue Ramsey mentioned. However, that is all that I will say on that matter. No party in the Assembly could endorse a reduction of the minimum wage. We already have an underdeveloped economy, and on many occasions we have rehearsed why we need to invest in higher performance; why we seek to promote enterprise; why we need to encourage entrepreneurs; why we need to motivate our workforce; and why we need to invest in education and skills programmes. Let us move on with that more progressive agenda. We must eradicate the long-standing patterns of regional inequality. That is a challenge in itself. It will not be done by colluding with or countenancing any argument that advocates reducing the minimum wage. Growing the economy and the private sector — and creating wealth — are the means by which we will create prosperity. The introd­uction of measures such as a regional variation on minimum wages or unemployment benefits will sabotage that objective.

Mr Ross: First, I congratulate the Members who secured the debate. I am sure that many of us were surprised when we heard that the Prime Minister was giving serious consideration to reducing the minimum wage in Northern Ireland and to implementing a variable regional minimum wage. As is always the case for Members speaking at this late stage of a debate, many of the points that I wish to raise have already been made.

We were well used to Mr Brown, during his time as Chancellor of the Exchequer, giving with one hand and taking with the other, and now it seems that, as Prime Minister, he is intent on taking from those in low-paid jobs in Northern Ireland.

People who live in London have a higher cost of living than those in some other regions of the United Kingdom, and that is recognised in some part, for example, by the supplement to loans for students studying in London. However, I do not welcome a regionalisation of the minimum wage, because the result will be a lowering of the minimum wage not only in Northern Ireland, but in Scotland, Wales and the north-east of England.

New Labour boasted of the 1·5 million people who would benefit from their increased minimum wage, and, over the past decade, many of those who work in the lowest-paid jobs have at least been given some protection with regard to how much they earn. Adults working in low-paid jobs are also protected against losing their jobs to those who are willing to work for lower wages. If the current Labour Administration were to reduce the minimum wage in Northern Ireland to £4·80 — as reports have suggested — many families who survive on low wages and live from day to day on the breadline would be plunged into financial crisis. The proposed reduction can be viewed as nothing but a backward step, and it will, undoubtedly, create fear among those who already find it tough to make ends meet.

There are already too many families and children in Northern Ireland living in poverty. Low pay is widely recognised as a major factor contributing to household poverty. Furthermore, a lower minimum wage in Northern Ireland will be tantamount to labelling Northern Ireland as a low-wage economy that provides low-skilled and low-paid jobs. That will do nothing to encourage more people into work, and labelling Northern Ireland as something different will not help us in attracting foreign investment for high-skilled and well-paid jobs in the knowledge economy towards which we aspire.

Several Members have spoken of the importance of getting people into employment. The high levels of economic inactivity among adults in Northern Ireland, and the contentment of many to live off welfare, have been mentioned. Work should be viewed as a means to earn more money and to better oneself. An individual should benefit from coming off welfare and into work. Do Members think that people will be encouraged to come off benefits and into employment if the minimum wage in Ulster is slashed?

As I said previously, the fact is that a regional minimum wage for workers in Northern Ireland the minimum wage here would drop to £4·80. Are the Government saying that someone in Northern Ireland who is doing exactly the same job as someone in London has a job of less value? We should not compensate for higher costs of living in London by reducing the minimum wage elsewhere, and, based on reports that have surfaced, Northern Ireland is towards the bottom of that scale — despite the recent rise in the cost of living, as other Members have mentioned. Considering the steep rise in property prices in Northern Ireland over the last months, it could well be argued that the statistics used to formulate the variable rates of minimum wage are obsolete. The cost of living in Northern Ireland has never been higher, and there could not be a worse time to consider reducing the minimum wage. Those who would suffer already live on low wages and have a poorer standard of living than everywhere else. I hope that the Prime Minister is not seriously considering the proposal. I support the motion.

Mr G Robinson: There is no point in describing regional variance as anything other than a pay cut for those on the minimum wage. I have recently criticised the threat to reduce the minimum wage in Northern Ireland, and I will continue to do so. According to the Government’s figures, the household income in Northern Ireland is well below the regional average. That is a disgrace, and even to suggest reducing the minimum wage — not to mention it being the subject of a prime ministerial proposal — is an insult.

We are British citizens and should be treated equally to other British citizens. Northern Ireland should not be seen as an area in which the minimum wage can be reduced to pay for the raising of the minimum wage in London. The Westminster Government talk about reducing child poverty, making it worthwhile to work, and all citizens being equal. However, reading such a proposal makes one wonder if the Government are serious about any of those intentions.

The DUP and, I believe, the Assembly, find the proposed attack on the lowest paid in society reprehen­sible. Anyone working for the minimum wage does not have spare income to spend. Most of their money — if not all — is spent on keeping a roof over their heads, paying the bills and, perhaps, trying to get children through university.

All this must be looked at while remembering that the cost of living in Northern Ireland is, in some respects, greater than that in the rest of the United Kingdom: much of our clothing, food and many other products have to be imported. That, of course, adds to the price of every single item we buy and reduces the amount of cash available, for example for any recreational activity by a family.

With all that in mind, I argue that the rates for the minimum wage in Northern Ireland should be raised, not lowered. Further, it must be remembered that the Govern­ment have insisted that they will not reduce corporation tax to aid business. Is Mr Brown trying to offset that refusal by reducing the wages of workers instead?

The Varney Report hits the nail on the head when it mentions the bias towards London and the south-east of England. It looks as if Northern Ireland’s pleas for assistance to rebuild an economy deprived by years of underinvestment will fall on the same deaf ears as they have always done in Downing Street. Now we have an added insult with Northern Ireland seen as an area where wages can be cut with the Westminster Government’s approval.

My constituents are worth a lot more than the minimum wage at its present level, and in no circum­stances will I support any move that will take money directly out of workers’ wage packets.

I am happy to support the motion.

Mr Savage: I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate today.

I read Mr Hennessy’s article in ‘The Daily Telegraph’ on 23 July that said that the Prime Minister was drawing up plans to vary the minimum wage, region by region, across the UK.

The background to the story is that senior Labour sources believe that a regional minimum wage is a logical step, given the Prime Minister’s announcement four years ago when, as Chancellor, he stated that regional price indices would be published to show variations in inflation rates across the country. A report for the Economic Research Council by Professor David Smith from the University of Derby said that the minimum wage for Londoners should be boosted to £6.90 an hour. It also said that the level in the north-east should be cut by 57p to £4.78, while the workers in Yorkshire should get a minimum of £4.95. Employees in Northern Ireland should be paid at least £4.80 an hour, and those in Wales no more than £4.84. The report called for Britain to adopt a similar system to those operating in Switzerland and America, where local authorities are allowed to set benefits, the minimum wage and the salaries of public-sector workers.

That smacks of gross hypocrisy on the part of New Labour. The minimum wage was introduced as one of its flagship policies. In 2005 when Tony Blair raised the minimum wage he declared:

“This will benefit 1·4 million people… and it is a powerful symbol of how this country is changing for the good.”

Now his successor, Gordon Brown, is seeking to undo that by penalising those on low wages outside London.

The minimum wage is a powerful way of making sure that work pays and it sends out the message that society supports those who take the decision to work. The Prime Minister’s plans to reduce the minimum wage will hit hard-working individuals and families throughout the regions of the United Kingdom. We cannot allow him to do that.

We all know that Northern Ireland, like some other UK regions, has unacceptably high levels of economic inactivity. In other words, we need to get people into work. Just how are we meant to do that when the Prime Minister is planning to ensure that work does not pay? Getting people off welfare benefits and into employment is good for them, good for their communities and good for the economy. It beggars belief that Gordon Brown should be penalising work, which will have the opposite effect.

On 26 July this year I wrote to the Prime Minister to relay my concern over that ill-thought out idea. My office received the following reply from the Prime Minister dated 8 August 2007, and it shows how the Prime Minister is attempting to evade this issue.

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The letter reads:

“I am writing on behalf of the Prime Minister to thank you for your letter dated 26th July 2007.

The Prime Minister has asked me to arrange for a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office to reply to you direct.”

To date, I have yet to receive a reply, let alone an acknowledgement, from the NIO, and that is an absolute disgrace.

I am left to conclude that the Government are working to compose a cover story, no doubt with a smokescreen. It is a coincidence that yesterday my office received a response from Pat McFadden MP, the Minister of State for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs, in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform stating:

“There are no variations to the minimum wage rate between areas and no plans to set different rates.”

What is going on? The Prime Minister may have been trying to pull a fast one but was caught on.

I am in contact with my party leader, who is also the Minister for Employment and Learning, and he has been more than helpful in ensuring that the minimum wage is not interfered with.

I want to leave Members with this sobering thought: if we take the average working week to be 40 hours, the plans proposed by the Prime Minister would mean that families that rely on the minimum wage the most would have £22 less a week in their pockets, which is £88 a month — almost £90 — and we cannot simply sit back and let that happen.

The Minister for Employment and Learning (Sir Reg Empey): I am grateful to my two colleges for introducing the motion. Several Members said that the announcement from academic researchers that appeared in the press took them by surprise. Everyone has been quick to say that the research was merely carried out by an academic and that it does not have any standing. However, we are all long enough in the tooth to know that the oldest trick in the book is to fly the kite; in policy terms, that is not done directly, it is kept one stage removed, you let someone else do it, and you see what happens.

I will attempt to respond to some of the individual comments, which have been welcome. It has already been stated that the national minimum wage is a reserved matter, and that the Executive does not have direct influence or authority over it. Nevertheless, pursuing such a policy would have major consequences for the Executive. In common with most Members, I am opposed to any move to replace the national minimum wage with variations. I made that clear to Ms Ramsey, the Member for West Belfast, who is the Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning, when she wrote to me during the summer. As average wages in Northern Ireland are among the lowest in the UK, regional variations would undoubtedly lead to the lower minimum wage that some Members quoted as being part of the research.

Professor Smith’s article claimed that Northern Ireland’s cost of living was 7% below the UK average. However, that estimate was for 2004, and anybody who knows anything about the cost of living in Northern Ireland today will know that that information is wholly out of date.

In the mid 1820s, the cotton weavers of Ballymacarrett, in the heart of what is now my constituency, worked from 4 o’clock in the morning until late at night, seven days a week, and received the princely sum of four shillings and six pence.

To put the current minimum wage into context: if we, as Assembly Members, were paid the minimum wage — and I see a look of terror on the faces of Members — instead of receiving nearly £900 a week, we would get about £200 a week. That would make little difference to those Members who are of indepen­dent means, but we all know that many households are just surviving by a narrow margin. That is the difference between what Members are paid and the national minimum wage. Therefore, any cut to the modest level of the minimum wage would create a real injustice for people. Members must also carefully consider the implications of water rates and so on, which will clearly have an impact on household budgets, as we move into what will be a difficult period in the autumn.

The most dangerous and pernicious part of the proposal to lower the minimum wage — and many contributors have made this point — is that it might signify the thin end of the wedge on the issue of benefits. Currently, the benefits budget is met nationally through annually managed expenditure. I fear that if the principle were established that people on the minimum wage should be paid less, benefits could fall.

Members are trying to encourage people into work, and my Department is running several initiatives with that aim. If the basic minimum wage were lowered, particularly in the context of the large numbers of migrant workers, which we did not have in Northern Ireland five years ago, then the Department for Employment and Learning would find it exceptionally difficult to get people back to work. That is self-evident.

Sadly, there has been no significant progress in closing the earnings gap between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. I understand the argument, which Mr Ross and others have made, that there are specific issues in London. There has always been a London weighting for teachers and other professionals. However, I have great difficulty with the moves across the water to have variations between different regions — even different counties. Dr Farry made the point that there are major variations within Northern Ireland. Areas such as Strabane have had a history of high unemployment, and I cannot understand how a reduction in the minimum wage would advance things at all.

When I asked officials to make enquiries, it was made clear, as George Savage said, that the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has indicated that there are no plans to reduce the minimum wage. I have no doubt that, if the Prime Minister is contemplating an election, this issue is certainly not one that he will want to wave a flag about in advance. However, Members must be vigilant on this issue, and I welcome the fact that the Committee for Employment and Learning will discuss the matter tomorrow.

I take note of the remarks of my colleague, David McClarty, who said that lower wage costs would actually bring more people into the benefits trap than would be taken out, and Sue Ramsey quoted people from Scotland and Wales. While I do believe that the idea is probably off the table at this time, that does not mean to say that, perhaps after an election or at some future stage, it could not come back onto the table. In Northern Ireland, we are particularly vulnerable to that.

Next week the Assembly will be discussing fuel poverty. All Members know that the cost of utilities such as gas and electricity, both for businesses and households, is significantly higher than elsewhere in the UK.

Added to that mix is the cost of housing, because housing benefit only goes so far towards the amount that landlords charge, and people have to dig into their own resources to pay for accommodation.

The housing argument is over. Housing costs are higher in Northern Ireland than in most regions of the UK, with the exception of London and the south-east. Fuel and food costs are also higher. The argument that we have a lower cost of living is well off the mark and out of date.

With regard to Robin Newton’s point about apprentice­ships, yes, there are some exemptions. It may be that apprentices who are just starting out may not have the experience and training to add as much value. I will look into that and write to the Member to clarify the position, because I am not 100% clear about it myself.

Carmel Hanna — a former Minister in this Depart­ment — raised the point that women are far more likely to be in receipt of the national minimum wage than are men. As many women work part time, that is inevitable. We are still trying to improve the level of female involvement in the economy, and reducing the minimum wage would be a huge disincentive to women. It just goes to show that the range of issues that affect people grows once a policy such as this is rolled out.

Dr Farry mentioned the issue of public- versus private-sector wages. There is undoubtedly a difference. I am not sure of the precise amount, but I will look into it.

Nelson McCausland made a point about which we must be careful. He said that workers in Northern Ireland are entitled to the same standards as in other parts of the UK. I understand that argument. However, all our parties are seeking variations in the tax regime within the UK. We must be careful that that argument does not get turned on its head. We must make the point that, on its own merits, lowering the minimum wage is a bad decision in principle. That argument can stand alone.

George Robinson made a valid point about child poverty — one other Member also raised it. The UK Government’s targets for the eradication of child poverty are currently not being met. I cannot think of anything that would prolong child poverty more than not giving people the opportunity to climb out of very-low-paid jobs or get off benefits.

If we are trying to give people an incentive to get off benefits and into work, lowering the minimum wage makes no sense whatsoever. I could understand it, from an economic point of view, if there were a large variation between the national minimum wage and the market value of labour.

Immigration is another cause for concern, as Carmel Hanna mentioned. Last week I spoke to my counterpart in Dublin, and people are worried there. There has been an enormous surge of immigration. Many immigrants are skilled workers, such as welders or surveyors, but many others are receiving the minimum wage. If that was to be lowered, it would be likely that part of the indigenous population would be pushed back onto benefits. However, because migrant workers are not immediately eligible for benefits, they would take minimum wage-jobs because the wages would still be relatively high compared to those in their home countries. The net effect would be that in areas where low wages are paid the indigenous population would be driven back onto benefits, which could create tensions in the community.

That is something that we should try to avoid. I am discussing that, not only with colleagues in Dublin but also with my counterparts in Scotland, because if we do not manage that properly, it could return to haunt us. Nothing would exacerbate that situation so much as reducing the national minimum wage.

3.45 pm

I thank all the Members who contributed to this useful debate. We may be reassured by the letters received by George Savage and by the information that my Department has received. However, I urge the Committee for Employment and Learning and all Members to be vigilant, because the issue may return in the future. The Committee should consider making its views known to its counterparts in Scotland and Wales. I will do the same, so that the idea is not allowed to gather momentum, either at present or in the future.

Mr B McCrea: I am grateful to those Members remaining in the Chamber. When Members are in such agreement, it can be difficult to get a debate going. To raise Members’ spirits, I shall take the opportunity to pose a few challenges. I have listened with interest to points made by several Members.

I begin, therefore, with a few questions. If Northern Ireland has the highest level of economically inactive people and a below-average working wage, why has it only average levels of poverty? I heard several Members speak yesterday about the need to tackle poverty, yet Northern Ireland sits in the middle of the poverty league table. One of the reasons why we have a minimum wage is precisely to tackle poverty, but we do not necessarily have that problem. Why do we have a minimum wage? I have heard a lot of talk about the implications one way or the other, but what was the reason for introducing a minimum wage in the first place? If we understand that, then we have to take on board certain implications of decisions.

Ms S Ramsey: Will the Member give way?

Mr B McCrea: I am about to quote Ms Ramsey. Let me do that, and then I will give way. The question that Ms Ramsey and Mr George Robinson posed is this: if the minimum wage is such a good thing, why not raise it?

I will give way now. Ms Ramsey can make her point.

Ms S Ramsey: I have two points. First, I have a problem with the issue of the minimum wage. We have to be looking at a living wage, since some people are working merely to survive. My second point is that I am confused by Mr McCrea’s assertion that he wants to add life to the debate. When he was asking those questions, I was concerned as to whether he was actually supporting the motion.

Mr B McCrea: Obviously, if I put my name to a motion and propose it, my Minister comes forward and we are all in agreement, of course I am going to support it. However, there are some issues that we have not tackled because we have gone round and said things, and they are likely to be raised in other forums. The real reason why the minimum wage was introduced was to promote fairness in society. Some people perform very valuable jobs that do not require great skills or any formal qualifications: cleaners, security men — a whole range of other workers who have no economic strength. The minimum wage was introduced to protect those vulnerable workers. That is the key point, and that fairness is why the minimum wage should not be reduced.

The second reason for the introduction of the national minimum wage was to get people out of the benefits trap and back to work. At the moment, Northern Ireland has the lowest unemployment rate that it has had for decades: 3·6%. When one talks about taking people out of the benefits trap, one should look at the figures involved.

We do not have more students at work or more elderly people. The reason for the increase in economic­ally inactive people is that they are either sick or disabled. It is a matter of whether the genuinely sick and disabled are to be forced back into work.

Society must examine that issue and concede that, given 30 to 40 years of the Troubles, it is reasonable to expect that the population of Northern Ireland is suffering greater mental distress. Those circumstances underlie the high figures for disability living allowance. Therefore, the labour pool that some Members say will be encouraged back to work is simply not there.

Some Members have suggested that benefits could be tinkered with and pushed back up. However, a delicate balance must be reached between incapacity benefit, disability living allowance and other issues. Skills standards should be raised, but many valuable jobs do not require five GCSEs.

Carmel Hanna spoke about the general effects, and I agree that that is one benefit: a rising tide lifts all boats. I have written a half-page on Stephen Farry’s comments, but I will not go through them all. However, in relation to the type of job that we want to create, the highest gross value added, averaging £49,000 an employee, is in the manufacturing sector; that figure falls to £12,000 in the tourism industry. Well-paid jobs that give people a working life are being replaced with part-time jobs in an insecure environment.

In light of Northern Ireland’s special circumstances, I am sympathetic to achieving the best financial deal possible, but there is a danger in cherry-picking economic issues — for example, supporting a lower rate of corporation tax, rejecting the lowering of the minimum wage and expecting benefits to remain the same, and so forth. Everything forms part of a complicated system of networks, and Members must be careful that their arguments stand in their own right.

There are two key points in the argument on the minimum wage. It is fair: society should protect those who do a hard day’s work in environments that are not always enticing. Those people do a good job, and Members should strive to look after them. However, the correct incentives must be in place for those people to progress. In particular, that issue will affect the emerging group of young people who should be encouraged into work in spite of the legacy of the past 30 to 40 years.

I have sympathy with Alastair Ross, who mentioned the difficulties of a winding-up speech, because it is not easy to cover every issue. However, Members should be careful when they characterise some people as being content to live off the welfare state. Are people really content to live off the welfare state? People do that when they have neither the opportunities nor the skills to exploit those opportunities.

The question was asked: what do Members want to deliver for all the people of Northern Ireland? The answer is: an economy that recognises and fully recompenses skills.

Finally, with regard to fuel poverty and housing benefit, the answer to the question that I posed earlier is if housing costs were to be taken out of the calculation, only then would Northern Ireland have an approximately average level of poverty. I accept what the Minister has said about recent changes in housing costs. If housing costs were not taken out altogether, Northern Ireland would zoom to the top of the league of poverty and related problems. That must be taken on board.

Lest there be any doubt; the reason that David McClarty and I have moved the motion is that despite the national minimum wage’s being a reserved matter, it permeates every other aspect of a fair and equitable society — one that tries to eradicate not only child poverty, but all poverty. We want to encourage people. I commend the Minister and the Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning for the approach that they have taken on the matter. I hope that the Assembly will not only tackle the issue, but will examine its root causes. I, therefore, support the motion.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly opposes any attempt to replace the national minimum wage with regional variants.

Motion made:

That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker]


New Visitors’ Centre at  the Giant’s Causeway

Mr O’Loan: A new visitors’ centre at the Giant’s Causeway is perhaps an unusual subject for an Adjourn­ment debate. However, all will agree that it is a significant one because of the necessity of such a centre at the Giant’s Causeway, which is of crucial importance to the tourism industry here and on the island of Ireland. No other natural feature on the island of Ireland enjoys such a level of international recognition. Everyone believes that it is essential to have a world-class facility at the site.

The delay in producing that simply defined result has come to be seen as a metaphor for the sclerotic bureaucracy and the inadequate and non-delivering governmental process that we have enjoyed. Recently, I have seen considerable references to that.

As a result of two departmental press releases yesterday, the scenario for the debate is different to that which I had expected when I requested it. One came from the Minister of the Environment, which said that she was “of a mind to approve” a planning application in support of a private-sector proposal for a visitors’ centre. Although she is minded, however, she is not in a position to make a decision until she and her officials have had further discussions. A linked statement came from the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, who said that he would withdraw funding for the public-sector proposal that his Department has led for several years on account of the statement that had come from the Environment Minister. Not many Members would regard the timing of those statements to be coincidental in the light of the fact that the Adjournment debate on the subject was to take place today. Movement seems to have been rapid. I have no doubt that the Minister of the Environment would have preferred to make a final announcement on planning approval and would not have been keen to merely be in a position whereby she is only minded to take a particular course of action.

I want to make an important point about the manner in which the information was released; it was in the form of press statements and not in ministerial statements to the Assembly.

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The Deputy Speaker might like to bring that to the attention of the Speaker; he may wish to consider whether House privilege was breached by making statements of import in such a way.

I will make two points. I have no objections, in principle, to private sector solutions to public need; that is a general comment rather than one relating to the issue under discussion. Nor do I have any objection, in principle, to a Government or Department saying that it has changed its mind on an issue. There are bound to be times when that is a perfectly good and sensible thing to do.

However, there are major issues around the decision on the Giant’s Causeway visitors’ centre, two of which are crucial. The first is the integrity of our government process; the second remains the achievement of a visitors’ centre. I have spent a significant amount of time talking about the integrity of the government process, which is an issue that Members should take seriously. How the government process applies to the decision on the Giant’s Causeway visitors’ centre is something to which we should devote a great deal of attention.

Four questions arise from the issue of integrity. The first is for the Minister of the Environment. She needs to reassure me, the Assembly and the public that the decision that she will, undoubtedly, make — conferring planning approval on the private sector application — was taken strictly on planning grounds. If necessary, I will submit a question under freedom of information legislation and ask that the advice that the Minister received from the Planning Service, and the discussions that her Department had on the issue, be revealed. I do not know whether that information is obtainable under freedom of information legislation, but I can find out. The Minister can prevent me from having to force the issue by making her decision-making process transparent, and that would give the necessary reassurance to the public. I am asking that she do that.

The other three questions are for DETI. Why did it change its mind? Contrary to its press statement, DETI was leading the project. Even after the release of the ministerial statement, DETI’s website still asserted that the Department was leading the project. Its website probably still makes that claim. For years, DETI has been in no doubt that it, along with several other public-sector players, was leading a public-sector project.

A Department is entitled to change its mind. However, if there has been considerable expenditure of public money — and if the change has important consequences — a Department has a duty to explain itself. DETI led the project because there was a belief that a visitors’ centre would be better delivered as a public-sector project. DETI must explain why it now thinks that it is not better delivered as a public-sector project.

I do not agree with the reference in the statement to disagreement among the parties in the Assembly. I have talked to key parties involved in the project, and there seems to have been, for a considerable period, a lack of communication between DETI and those parties.

My next question for DETI is this: why announce the dropping of public funding for the public-sector proposal simply on account of planning approval for the private-sector project? Let us just assume that planning approval for the project has been granted, although that has not been finalised. We all know that getting planning approval for a project is no guarantee that the project will go ahead. Therefore, for DETI to say that it is now washing its hands of the public-sector project simply because planning approval has been given for the private-sector project raises a great question mark about the matter — unless, of course, the Minister knows more about the certainty of the private-sector project than anyone has yet said. If, indeed, he does know more, he is under a duty to tell the public about it.

My final question is this: can the Minister confirm that no public money will be provided to support the private-sector project? If, in a month or a year’s time, public money were to be given in support of the project, other potential contractors could rightly say: “Excuse me, was I not entitled to express an interest in delivering that project too?”

Those four questions must be clearly answered so that the Assembly can have confidence in the integrity of the governmental process. That is important at any time, but it is particularly important in this fledgling Assembly. I hope that my questions will be given consideration and that they will be answered with an openness that can give us some reassurance.

I turn to the question of whether we have a mechanism to deliver a visitors’ centre. Everyone should be very clear that no such mechanism is guaranteed. All we have is planning approval — nearly — for a private-sector project. On the basis of that alone, DETI has essentially said that it is putting no more public money into this and that it is washing its hands of the public-sector project. The Assembly should not accept that as satisfactory. DETI has accepted the lead over the years to ensure that there is a visitors’ centre at the Giant’s Causeway. That responsibility remains with DETI.

I am not privy to the business case for the visitors’ centre, but the application of even a little common sense suggests that there could be snags. We are told that one of the concerns for the Minister and DETI was that the public-sector project would cost over £21 million. It is a very sophisticated project and so too is the private-sector developer’s project. I have not seen a costing for it, but it will be a considerable sum. The private-sector developer will develop only if he believes that he can make a return on his money. Where will the income come from? The obvious sources are car parking and the sale of cups of tea and the like. Many cars would have to be parked and many cups of tea sold to get a return on a project of that nature, particularly when there is no monopoly on those services — a car park already exists there, and more than one party sells cups of tea. There is, therefore, no guarantee that this private-sector project will go ahead at all.

It will not be in anyone’s interest if we again reach the situation whereby this business runs with uncertainty for years. People will simply laugh at the Assembly, the Executive and the governmental process and say: “Come off it, you cannot even deliver a visitors’ centre at the biggest tourist attraction in the North of Ireland —” [Interruption.]

I think that I heard a Member from the opposite Benches say that that is exactly what could happen. That is what has happened and what still could happen.

4.15 pm

The responsibility remains with DETI, and I will be pleased to hear the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment say that he still accepts that responsibility.

Those are the essential points. Questions remain on the integrity of the process, and we need reassurances that there will still be a visitors’ centre at the Giant’s Causeway.

Mr Campbell: This matter is fraught with difficulty. The proposed visitors’ centre is in north Antrim, but, as several people have said today on the airwaves, it is more than just a local centre. The centre would be based in north Antrim, but would cater for more than 500,000 visitors a year, and, as such, would be Northern Ireland’s premier visitors’ resource. Therefore, it is a Northern Ireland-wide facility. Unfortunately, because of the controversy that has emerged — whether or not that is contrived — some people appear to have missed what has been happening for the past seven years, or, to be more accurate, what has not been happening. That is precisely the problem faced by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Assembly.

Previously, as the Member for North Antrim Mr O’Loan said, DETI was pioneering the project. For a variety of reasons to which I am not privy, but have observed from a short distance as a representative of an area close by, there was no end product. There is still no end product. If there had not been an announcement yesterday, there would have been no delivery on an end product today, next month, or even next year. In response to that seven-year vacuum, in which, for what­ever reason, there was no end product — the world-class facility that we all wanted to see — an announce­ment had to be made and a decision had to be taken.

It is an unfortunate fact that there is only one private-sector proposal for the site. That is the reality. My view, and that of those members of the wider community to whom I have spoken, is that we want to see a facility that meets the very high levels of expectation that are the mark of a world heritage site. People are not as concerned about the delivery mechanism, or who does the delivering, as they are about the delivery itself.

Having said that, planning applications submitted by the developer in question have caused difficulties for many people in the past. Many of them have been in my constituency, and I have represented constituents in opposition to some of those applications. However, this planning application is completely separate and different to any of those. I have never come across any planning application, either from this applicant or anyone else, of this nature. There are no similarities in that respect. Given that background and that context, however, this entire process, from today, must be subjected to the closest possible scrutiny. If it were not, I would totally and unequivocally oppose it without reservation.

The planning application must face the most rigorous examination possible in order to arrive at the conclusion that we all want. The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Minister of the Environment were placed in an invidious position. What if the seven years of inability to deliver became eight, nine or 10 years? If that happened, the Ministers would receive criticism from inside and outside the Chamber for inactivity. People would ask why the Ministers did not do something.

Mr O’Loan: Does Mr Campbell accept that DETI’s position on the Giant’s Causeway visitors’ centre is remote from saying that there was no progress? In October 2005, it was announced that an international design competition was to take place. Since then, a planning application has been worked on. DETI said, and probably still says on its website, that a planning application would be made later in 2007 and that a proposal would be complete by 2010. I am surprised that as a member of the Minister’s party, Mr Campbell says that nothing is happening, given that DETI has made a commitment to deliver the project and has said publicly how it is proceeding to do that.

Mr Campbell: I was reluctant to give way given that the Member had previously spoken; however, I will deal with the matter. I did not say that no progress has been made; I said that there has not been delivery. It is patently obvious that for seven years, for a variety of reasons, there has not been delivery on the world-class facility that everyone wants. Does the hon Member wish those seven years to become eight, nine, ten or 12 years? I presume that the Ministers are acting in the best interests of delivering that facility and that they hope to do so. The Member referred to the website, but the previous, direct rule Minister was responsible for the facility and was pursuing a particular line until 8 May 2007, when there was a change of Minister. I am sure that he will respond to the debate in due course.

Hopefully, we are all agreed on the need to deliver the facility. Provided that the local community and the wider population are content that the delivery of that facility has been done in the most appropriate manner, going through all the rigorous examinations that are necessary, I do not see a problem. That ought to be the conclusion, and I hope that nothing is said in the debate that would deviate or divert attention from the delivery of a world-class facility. Moreover, nothing should happen that might jeopardise the world heritage status of the site, including any surrounding paraphernalia that may accompany any development application. That is why rigour must be applied to ensure that every single thing that needs to be done is done to deliver that facility. The mechanism by which that conclusion is arrived at is of secondary importance.

Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the SDLP Member for North Antrim for bringing this issue forward for debate. I thank the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Minister of the Environment for their attendance.

The Giant’s Causeway was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1986, and it is, in my opinion, Ireland’s greatest tourist asset. The existing visitors’ centre caters for the 500,000 tourists who visit the Giant’s Causeway each year, and it is important that any visitors’ centre that is placed there is of world-class value.

Much time, money and effort have gone into the plans for a new visitors’ centre. The project was overseen by DETI and the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Facilities Ltd, and DETI was close to submitting plans to the Planning Service.

Earlier this week, the Minister seemed to imply that other bodies had dragged their heels. However, DETI itself had taken on the mantle of project co-ordination. Other bodies, such as Moyle District Council and the National Trust, were waiting for the Department to move the project forward, to get its act together and to submit an application to the Planning Service.

Given the number of tourists who visit the Giant’s Causeway each year, the new company would have made a significant profit. Of that profit, 25% of the surplus would have gone to Moyle District Council, 25% to the National Trust and 50% would have been left to the company’s discretion.

It is important to elaborate on the benefits of those revenue streams. For example, the money that Moyle District Council generates from the existing visitor facilities is used to maintain other amenities and tourist facilities in the area. The money from the existing visitors’ centre benefits people from places such as Bushmills, Cushendall, Ballycastle, Armoy, Ballintoy and even Rathlin Island. If a private visitors’ centre is given the green light, and Moyle District Council loses that revenue stream, which is currently more than £250,000 a year, the rates in those areas will shoot through the roof. Moreover, I am sure that the potential loss of jobs in Moyle District Council and the National Trust has not been taken into consideration.

Both DUP Ministers pulled the plug on the publicly funded visitors’ centre before the Assembly had an opportunity to debate the issue today. That was clearly an effort to make the debate redundant in the wake of Sinn Féin’s having raised concerns about the matter last Friday. It is suspicious that no DUP MLA has clarified the nature of the relationship between the party and the private developer involved.

It has been revealed that the owner of Seaport Investments Ltd, Mr Sweeney, signed the nomination papers for a Moyle DUP councillor in 2005. Mr Sweeney has today admitted that he is a member of the party. When questioned about that relationship earlier today, why did the DUP representatives not declare that Mr Sweeney is a member of their party? If everything was above board, why did the DUP consider it necessary to hide that detail?

Mr Paisley Jnr: Will the Member give way?

Mr McKay: No, I will not give way on this occasion. I have started, so I will finish. [Interruption.]

I want to place on record my concern about the conflict of interest: two DUP Ministers are involved in potentially awarding the contract to build a multimillion pound visitor centre to Seymour Sweeney, a senior DUP member and benefactor.

Does the Assembly want to hand over the multimillion-pound benefits of Ireland’s world heritage site to a private developer and deprive the people of Moyle of a vital strand of revenue? Sinn Féin will back what is good for the local tourist industry, the local environment and the people of Moyle. My party remains supportive of the publicly funded proposal for a new visitors’ centre and asks the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to reinstate his support for that project, given recent developments.

Given the approach of the two Ministers, and the DUP in general, to the subject, it will take much more than statements to address Sinn Féin’s concerns. The facts about how and why those decisions were taken must be made known. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Neeson: I am pleased that there is an opportunity to discuss the new visitors’ centre. I am well acquainted with the scheme. In 2001, Moyle District Council invited the then Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment to discuss the delays in creating the centre. As it turned out, I drew the short straw and, during the summer of 2001, chaired a series of meetings between Seymour Sweeney and the National Trust, the two organisations that had submitted proposals for the redevelopment of the visitors’ centre.

Unfortunately, nothing came of those discussions. Bearing in mind, as other Members have said, that the Giant’s Causeway is Northern Ireland’s most important attraction, I admit that I am disappointed that the Assembly is still dealing with the issue some six years later.

The Giant’s Causeway is a world heritage site, and that must be borne in mind when proposals are put forward. I, too, am concerned about the process of the past few days. The Minister of the Environment issued a statement that she was “of a mind” to approve the proposals from Seaport Investments Ltd. However, she insists today that she has not made a final decision. If that is the case, why did Nigel Dodds decide, on a whim, to pull out of the project at the Giant’s Causeway and withdraw the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment’s interest in it, based on a statement that Mrs Foster was “of a mind”?

The Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment has been dealing with the issue and has raised it with the Minister and his officials. In a briefing today from Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment officials, we learned that, so far, £1·5 million has been spent on the project. That is a considerable amount of money that will not be recovered. The fact that there was a competition to submit plans to develop the site was also raised.

I, too, have serious concerns about the relationship between the DUP and Mr Sweeney. On the radio today, Mr Sweeney said that he was a member of the DUP. He was honest about it, but he said that he had never given money to the party. The DUP is some party if its members do not have to pay membership; everyone would be queuing to join. The visitors’ centre must be replaced, as the issue has been ongoing for too long. I have no objections to the private sector’s becoming involved in the development of the project, but the sensitivities of the area must be borne in mind in any proposals — it is a world heritage site.

How was the decision reached? There are other stakeholders in the project — Moyle District Council and the National Trust, for example. What negotiations took place with the National Trust over the sensitivities of the development? The process of the past few days has set a dangerous precedent: even the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment was not consulted on the decision. Bearing in mind the importance of the site to Northern Ireland’s tourism industry, it is important that the visitors’ centre be replaced as soon as possible.

Mr Paisley Jnr: I am a member of the National Trust; I have given it money every month for more than 20 years, as has my family. It is important to put that on record, given that such relationships appear to be important to the Assembly.

The debate was tabled more than a week ago on the pretence that foot-dragging Ministers Mr Dodds and Mrs Foster had done nothing. The debate was supposed to have a different colour today: it was going to criticise two Ministers who have been in office for more than 100 days and who have failed to solve the crisis at the Giant’s Causeway. However, when Ministers remedy that crisis by setting a course of action that will resolve a decade of dilly-dallying and delay, they are condemned and criticised for all manner of things, and all types of innuendos are thrown at them.

They are condemned in a manner that is completely unjustifiable — the criticism is scurrilous. It says something about the small-minded nature of many people that, when there is an opportunity to do something good for all the people of Northern Ireland, they look for a way to kick it instead of letting it be resolved.

4.30 pm

Mr A Maginness: Will the Member give way?

Mr Paisley Jnr: The Member will get a chance in a wee minute, but there are some points that I intend to make in the debate.

This is one of the most important issues that affects my constituency, because tourism is going to be the future in Northern Ireland. Tourism projects — many of which have been announced, such as the Titanic Quarter, and various golf courses across the Province — provide an opportunity to turn Northern Ireland into a tourist destination, which will make us the envy of this part of Europe. We have an opportunity to get that right, and it is unfortunate that there are people who want to change the debate in order to prevent that progress.

There has been some unfortunate focus on the applicant, rather than the application, on the part of some of the Members who have spoken. Are Members opposite suggesting that every time an application for planning permission, or a business plan, comes before any Minister in Northern Ireland, we examine the applicant to find out whether he is a member of this or that organisation, or, worse still, whether he is a Protestant or a Roman Catholic, and then decide whether the applicant should be granted permission or given encouragement by Government? Are they seriously arguing that someone who is entitled to be a member of a lawful organisation, which has no bearing on his application, which has been at the consideration stage for some time, should have that held against them and be penalised? I hope not, because what we are hearing from the Benches opposite is an argument for discrim­inating against an applicant, rather than looking at the salient points of the application.

As some Members have said, let us focus on the fact and detail of the application and ask whether it is the right way forward for Northern Ireland to deliver a world-class centre of tourism excellence. I hope that it is.

Mr A Maginness: Will the Member give way?

Mr Paisley Jnr: I will give way very briefly, because the Member has been persistent if nothing else.

Mr A Maginness: The Member said that the Ministers have made a decision in relation to the matter, and that the purpose of this Adjournment debate — and he is correct — was to highlight the delay in making a decision. However, is it right for Ministers to make an announcement in the press, but not come to the House prior to the Adjournment debate to make a statement on this very important matter and, therefore, not allow Members to question them?

Mr Paisley Jnr: Obviously that is a very pertinent point. I understand that today is 11 September and that the Assembly was recalled yesterday after two months’ holiday. At the first available opportunity, the Ministers are in the House to take part in a debate tabled by the Member’s party.

Mr A Maginness: Will the Member give way?

Mr Paisley Jnr: No, I will not give way. The Member’s first attempt was poor, so his second will only be worse.

I will pose some questions that Members should really ask.

Mr Donaldson: It is a bit rich for Members opposite to talk about conflicts of interest in public positions when some of them have spouses who are in very senior offices in the country, taking decisions about sensitive matters such as policing. Then they point the finger at anybody else —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Let us not get into personal attacks on Members.

Mr Paisley Jnr: I am quite happy to have a cup of coffee with Mr Donaldson over that point later. [Laughter.]

Several questions must be asked today. Are the Government the developers of last resort? Are Members saying, at a time when resources are finite, that the Government have a public responsibility to build, pay for and take the risk for everything and let the private sector get away risk free? I hope that they are not. I hope that we drive forward an economy in Northern Ireland that tells people that opportunities exist here. I want to drive forward a dynamic business economy in which opportunities can be provided and, importantly, facilitated for everyone. I do not believe that the Government should be seen as a developer of last resort.

I remind Members that when the Government last thought of themselves as developers of last resort and decided that it was their duty to build tourism facilities, they did so at Navan Fort, which today is a public disaster. Had that been a private initiative, the risk would have been with the private sector and the outcome would have been different. With this project, as with many others, the Government have cleverly transferred the risk to the private sector but ensured that taxpayers — the people who really matter — continue to benefit from having a centre that has been paid for by private money. The public will be able to avail of it, and it will be instrumental in attracting tourists to Northern Ireland and encouraging them to spend their money here.

Some Members have mentioned a DETI application — the elusive alternative planning application — and work has been done in that regard. However, I remind Members that any lobbying that has been done to me by the National Trust and others has been carried out with the sole purpose of stymying and delaying the possibility of anything happening at the Giant’s Causeway. That is sad. The most damning indictment that I can put on that organisation is that it should have a different vision for my constituency. Instead of bickering about an application in the area, it should see this as a brilliant opportunity to clear the ridge of a lot of horrible buildings and Portakabins. It should have the vision to see a brand new tourist facility from which it, the public, the private sector and the public sector can benefit. We have that opportunity, and it should be taken.

I appeal to people not to be blackmailed by the threats that have been put about, the most obvious being that world heritage status will be removed from the Giant’s Causeway if the proposed development goes ahead. Over the past 10 years, I have taken the opportunity to speak to representatives of other world heritage sites when they have visited Northern Ireland from the continent. I have asked them about the accuracy of that threat. They rubbish that claim. On visiting other world heritage sites such as Niagara Falls, one will see that buildings have been developed around them, and that those sites have been developed to encourage visitors. Other world heritage sites, such as that of the terracotta soldiers in China, have been developed so that people can go right up to the artefacts and look at them closely. Visitors are able to see those spectacular tourist attractions. However, it is right that any development should be carried out practically, sensitively and in a sustainable manner.

It is wrong to say that the standing and status of the Giant’s Causeway stones would be jeopardised if a developer — no matter who — were to clear the site of the horrible buildings and build a new, state-of-the-art tourism centre. That is rubbish: it is blackmail. We should not have that threat directed at us, and it should not be held over us like a sword of Damocles that implies that the status of world heritage site will be withdrawn. I hope that the organisations and individuals who are making that threat will withdraw it and recognise that this is an opportunity for Northern Ireland to get a world-class visitors’ centre urgently, expeditiously, practically and legally. It must happen as soon as possible, and I encourage Ministers to continue taking positive, proactive decisions that will help business in Northern Ireland to flourish.

Mr Deputy Speaker: We have to leave the last ten minutes for the Minister.

Mr S Wilson: First of all, many people may be disheartened and depressed by the debate, because having listened to some of those who have spoken previously criticising the Minister, it seems that we are engaging in the petty politics of prejudice. The main thrust of the argument, certainly from Sinn Féin, seemed to be not so much about the development but rather the background of the developer. That certainly came through in the speeches from the Alliance Party and the SDLP, perhaps to a lesser extent.

On the other hand, perhaps we should be heartened that at least now we are getting down to the kind of issues that the Executive and the Assembly are going to have to deal with. When the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster did a study on tourism, it said that it could not understand why such a site did not have facilities for visitors. We have to establish how they can best be provided and what the best methods are of providing them.

Members of the Assembly, from almost every party, criticised the Department of the Environment for being slow over the planning process, and then when the Minister tries to speed up the planning process, she is thought to be engaged in some kind of skulduggery.

Mrs Foster: Will the Member give way?

Mr S Wilson: I will be very happy to.

Mrs Foster: There is some suggestion in the Chamber today that I took a rushed decision when I was told that there was to be an Adjournment debate in the House. Anyone who knows anything about the planning process in Northern Ireland knows that that is the greatest load of ludicrous nonsense that could be put to the House.

When I came into office in May 2007, I was made aware of a number of article 31 applications that would ultimately come before me for a decision. I was amazed to find that one for the Giant’s Causeway had been sitting since 2002. That is why I immediately set about looking at it to try to come to a decision.

My colleague is absolutely right — when I made up my mind, I was criticised for doing so, and that is the point that I wanted to make.

Mr S Wilson: I thank the Minister for saying that.

Let us just look at three contradictions and the arguments that have been made. Mr O’Loan said that we have a planning application that is on the point of being granted, but wondered whether it would be delivered. That is what he said. He wanted to know how profits can be made from parking cars and serving tea. Therefore, his argument is that DETI should stay involved, because the project may never be delivered.

Then we had the Sinn Féin Member saying that it was an absolute scandal to give the contract to a private developer, because Moyle District Council will be deprived of £250,000 in profits from the centre.

Which is it to be? It is not going to be profitable, so it should not go to the private sector, or it is going to be too profitable, so it should be kept in the public sector. The arguments are totally contradictory. That is one of the reasons I believe that there is something more to the objections than simply the economics.

The second contradiction is that the planning process should be transparent and totally accountable, and yet it appears Mr Neeson, Mr O’Loan and the Sinn Féin Member whose Irish name I cannot pronounce are basing their criticism on the fact that the contract has been granted to someone whose background they are suspicious of. What kind of a planning process would we have if decisions were made on the basis of who the applicant was, rather than what the application is?

Mr Deputy Speaker: Point of order.

Mr O’Loan: It is important to put on the record that I made no reference to the developer.

Mr Deputy Speaker: That is not a point of order.

Mr S Wilson: Let me make it clear that when the Minister was considering the planning application she would have had to consider the views of the Environment and Heritage Service, for example, and if there was an element of doubt at all about the impact on the environ­ment, I know what the decision of the Environment and Heritage Service would be. It would tell the Minister to have nothing to do with the application; and I speak as someone who has criticised the Environment and Heritage Service and the Planning Service on many occasions.

4.45 pm

My third point is in total contrast to what Members heard from Mr O’Loan yesterday. During yesterday’s debate on the economy, he told the House eloquently that we must find new ways of delivering for the economy of Northern Ireland and new ways of bringing in resources. However, at the very first hint of a Minister finding new ways of bringing in resources he is jumping up and down in anger. If private money is available for the proposed visitor centre, and if that private money can deliver something that has not been delivered for seven years, then let us take it. Using private money is one of the new ways of doing things. What the Ministers have decided, and the routes that they are taking —

Mr O’Loan: Will the Member give way?

Mr S Wilson: No, I have to finish soon as the Minister wants to speak.

Ministers are looking for new ways of bringing in resources, speeding up the planning process, getting decisions made and delivering, and that is what people want from the Assembly. When Ministers do that, it should be welcomed, rather than trying to find some Machiavellian motive behind such decisions.

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Dodds): I congratulate the Member who secured the Adjournment debate. I welcome the opportunity to discuss this important issue, and it is right that it should be discussed. The timing is appropriate. It has been recognised on all sides that the Minister of the Environment, Mrs Foster, who is in the House, announced yesterday that she is of a mind to approve an outline planning application by Seaport Investments Ltd for a new visitors’ centre at the Giant’s Causeway. I welcome the fact that Minister Foster has made her views known on the merits of that planning application.

The Giant’s Causeway is our premier tourist attraction, with over 550,000 visitors in 2006, 80% of whom were estimated to have come from outside Northern Ireland, and it needs world-class facilities. I endorse everything that Mr O’Loan said about the importance of the causeway and the need for world-class facilities. That is an absolute priority. I am sure that Members will agree that the current facilities are far from ideal and are, quite frankly, appalling. There is a need to improve all aspects of the facilities needed for visitors, from education and interpretation to basic amenities such as toilets. My priority, as the Minister responsible for tourism, is that those world-class facilities are delivered — not how, or by whom they are delivered; it is that they are delivered.

Much has been said about what the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is doing. In 2003, under a different Administration and different Ministers, the Department worked with key stakeholders at the Giant’s Causeway, including Moyle District Council, which owns the land on which the current facilities are built, and the National Trust, which owns the actual causeway site as well as the shop and café. At that time, the Department and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) assumed the lead in developing a proposal for a new centre, and they did so at the request of Moyle District Council and others who simply could not, unfortunately, find a way forward.

I believe that the Government’s position at that time was to be the developer of last resort: in other words, they did not want to be in that position at all, and they felt that they should not have to be in that position. The Government did not own any land at the causeway and felt that it was up to the council and other stakeholders to do the job. Central Government were not in the business of designing and running visitors’ centres. That job was best left to local stakeholders, councils, or the private sector.

Following the burning of the previous council-owned centre in April 2000, there were a series of initiatives by the council to rebuild the visitors’ centre. Moyle District Council went down the road of a process and a competition, and it was open to the idea of offers to build a centre that could have included non-public enterprises. That will be of interest to Mr McKay, who said in a weekend press report that he was against anything that involved the private element and that it was in the interests of local people that the visitors’ centre remained under public ownership. The key issue for Mr McKay is that the visitors’ centre remains in public ownership — and he takes a dogmatic view on that.

As Sean Neeson said, the previous Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment tried to find a way forward that would have allowed for the building of a new visitors’ centre. It was only in the absence of agreement that the then Moyle District Council asked the then Government to take the lead in developing new facilities. We could go into the ins and outs of whether or not direct rule Ministers made decisions and for whatever reasons, but, no doubt, they acted in good faith. They were obviously influenced by the fact that if we are to capitalise on the potential for tourism in Northern Ireland, we must develop our tourism infrastructure. I believe that they reluctantly assumed the role of developer of last resort.

Some might ask why, in 2003, the then Government did not await the determination on the Seaport Invest­ments Ltd outline planning application before embarking on an international design competition for a new centre. That is a good question, which direct rule Ministers will have to answer. Devolved Ministers may well have taken that decision, but it was more important to get a speedy answer and outcome to the planning application than to incur substantial public expenditure on something that has now probably turned out to be nugatory. That is a matter for those former Ministers to address.

When the devolved Administration took office and the current Ministers came into their posts, they inherited a process that had been long delayed, and they recognised a need for action. I commend Minister Foster for making the Causeway centre a priority issue — and she has taken the opportunity today to set out why she did that — and for making her views on that complex application known so quickly after coming into office. As Gregory Campbell rightly said, the application will be subjected to the most rigorous scrutiny — as it should be.

Mr McKay raised the issue of why the decision was taken when the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) project, along with other stake­holders, was so close to reaching the stage of a planning application being made. If only that were the case. The DETI/NITB project would have had to overcome significant obstacles. The identification of suitable car-parking provision has proved to be particularly difficult, and remains unsolved to this day. No planning application could have been lodged without that problem being solved. The consequent delays, along with construction price inflation, increased the estimated cost to £21·5 million — a considerable amount of taxpayers’ money.

It is clear from Minister Foster’s statement that she sees merit in the Seaport Investments Ltd application, and that she is of a mind to approve it. As a consequence, and in those circumstances, my Department would be reckless to take any decision other than to say that it will not be progressing with further expenditure and work on the current proposal. It would simply be wrong to commit further taxpayers’ money to a project that, it would appear, will likely not be required. The rationale for the Government’s involvement as a developer of last resort is no longer compelling. It would not be in the public interest to proceed to spend more money on working up proposals and, possibly, spend £21 million of taxpayers’ money on a centre when an alternative private-sector proposal could be developed.

Even though the Government will no longer be the developer of a new visitors’ centre, my Department will continue to take a close interest in the efforts to have a world-class visitors’ centre at the Giant’s Causeway. The objective remains to ensure that the many thousands of tourists who visit what has often been described as the eighth wonder of the world receive an experience that does justice to that description. Similar to Minister Foster, I am keen that the key stakeholders at the Giant’s Causeway — The National Trust and Moyle District Council — should work together and in partnership with the private sector investor to ensure that future visitors receive the best possible experience.

I will deal briefly with a number of points that have been raised. Mr McKay talked of the need to protect the revenue stream of Moyle District Council. That is not the primary purpose of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. Our primary purpose is to promote world-class facilities for tourism in Northern Ireland. Mr McKay may see that as his primary objective, but, in those comments, he reveals more about where he is coming from than anything else could.

Mr O’Loan talked of the need for a ministerial statement to the Assembly, and Mr Maginness, from a sedentary position, made the point that he was not so much criticising what Minister Foster had done, but the way in which she had done it. My statement, on behalf of my Department, simply explained the logical implications for the prospect of the proposal from DETI and NITB and the implications of Minister Foster’s decision on that project. I made my statement in the knowledge that the Assembly would have the opportunity to debate the matter today.

Mr O’Loan talked about the lack of communication with stakeholders.

Mr Durkan: Will the Member give way?

Mr Dodds: No, I will not give way, because I have very little time.

DETI could not communicate with anyone in respect of a statement by the planning Minister, which was issued only yesterday. As far as lack of consultation with the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment is concerned, it was not for me to deal with that matter, because the decision was taken by the planning Minister. However, when the Committee asked my officials to come here today, they made themselves available at very short notice to explain to the Committee, in great detail, the issues as my Department sees them. I made sure that that happened as soon as was possible and appropriate.

My Department’s priorities are to ensure that the site has a world-class facility; that the criteria for preserving world heritage status are maintained — that is a matter that the planners, as Mr Sammy Wilson said, will examine closely; that it is done with the best possible value for money to the public purse; and that it is done as quickly as possible. That is all I am interested in. That is all the House should be interested in.

If Members really had taxpayers’ interests at heart, they should not decry our efforts or take a dogmatic Marxist approach, which says that only the public sector can deliver. We have seen what has happened — delay, delay and delay. Action is finally being taken to deliver the project at the best possible value for money.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Time is up.

Adjourned at 4.56 pm.

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