Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo


Tuesday 9 October 2007

Assembly Business

Ministerial Statement:
Northern Ireland Strategy for Sport and Physical Recreation 2007-2017

Private Members’ Business:
Arts Funding
Irish Language
Sex Offenders

The future of Donaghadee High School

The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Assembly Business

Mr Elliott: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. In a reply to a question of mine yesterday, the First Minister gave what I would term a party political answer. Is it normal for a Minister to give a party political answer?

Mr Deputy Speaker: That is not a point of order. It is up to the Minister to decide how he answers questions.

Mr K Robinson: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I do not know whether other Members experienced this yesterday, but I had great difficulty with the acoustics in the Chamber. I notice already today with your good self, whose voice usually projects well, that there is an echo around the Chamber. Even during ministerial speeches yesterday, we could not pick up all the words. Is it possible to have the sound adjusted or to have the problem looked at?

Mr Deputy Speaker: Officials monitor the sound levels in the Chamber continuously. Members should ensure that they talk clearly into the microphones. I had difficulty hearing what you were saying, Mr Robinson. Officials are working on the system to try to get the sound right. Quite often, Members hold files or papers over their microphones, which cuts out the sound, so I ask Members to bear that in mind when they are speaking.

Ministerial Statement

Northern Ireland Strategy for Sport and Physical Recreation 2007-2017

Mr Deputy Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure that he wishes to make a statement on the Northern Ireland strategy for sport and physical recreation 2007-2017.

The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr Poots): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I shall do my best to help you to hear me today. I had trouble hearing the questioners yesterday, and I had to listen intently to make out what they were saying.

I welcome the opportunity to make a statement on the future of sport in Northern Ireland. It is important that the Assembly should have an early opportunity to engage on sport.

Northern Ireland has a rich sporting heritage. It has produced an impressive array of sportsmen and sportswomen of national and world renown. Many of us will have fond memories of great achievers who have become household names both locally and well beyond — Mary Peters, Pat Jennings, George Best, Joey Dunlop, Barry McGuigan, Alex Higgins, Mike Gibson, David Humphreys and Peter Canavan, to name a few. Their great tradition has been maintained in more recent times by stars such as David Healy, Andrew Trimble, Madeline Perry, Janet Gray, Jenna McCorkell, Rory McIlroy and Richard Chambers.

As well as celebrating outstanding individuals, we have celebrated the great team triumphs of Northern Ireland squads. All of us have been delighted by the endeavours of the Northern Ireland football team of late in its quest for qualification for the European Football Championship.

Many have paid tribute to Ulster’s success in all-Ireland Gaelic games in the past few years, and the recent triumphs of the Ulster rugby team have been widely celebrated in Northern Ireland. Equally, the great performance of the Irish team in the ICC Cricket World Cup in 2007 is fresh in our minds. Northern Ireland is also savouring the unique feat of the Ulster ladies hockey team in winning the inter-provincial championships this year.

Furthermore, Northern Ireland has gradually established itself on the national and international stage as a venue for major sporting events. We have hosted the IAAF World Cross Country Championships; the World Amateur Boxing Championships; the UEFA European Under-19 Championships; the Special Olympics Ireland Games; and, just lately, the IRB Under-19 World Championships; the Waterways Ireland World Water Ski Championships; and the Walker Cup.

Northern Ireland is also part of the itinerary for the 2007 International World Rally Championships, starting in November — one of the most demanding and challenging motor sport competitions in the world. Moreover, in the past few months, Belfast has been awarded the right to stage the World Police and Fire Games in 2013. All of those come on top of such well established international events as the North West 200 and the Milk Cup.

The rich sporting heritage that embraces all sections of our community underlines the value of sport to the people of Northern Ireland. Sport is an integral part of our culture and identity. We enjoy sport; we cherish it, it inspires us and creates a sense of pride. It projects a powerful, positive image of our community to international audiences.

Sport is, of course, much more than that. Taking part is fun, fulfilling and of value in its own right. Equally, sport has the potential to deliver other significant benefits. It can, for example, play a vital role in improving public health. Moreover, it can contribute to an improved academic performance from our children, as well as adding to their self-esteem.

Sports volunteers are the single largest group in the voluntary sector, both in the UK and on the island of Ireland. In addition, 12,500 people are employed in sport and physical-recreation industries in Northern Ireland.

Equally, although the benefits of sport and physical recreation to people with a disability require further research, there is an emerging indication that regular participation in sport may contribute positively to improving the prospects of disabled people in seeking employment. Sport can also be a valuable tool in the promotion of neighbourhood renewal, rural development and tourism.

Therefore, no one can doubt our sporting heritage nor question its importance, both culturally and in our wider society. However, that is not the whole picture. Today, sport in Northern Ireland faces major challenges and significant difficulties. Participation rates in Northern Ireland are among the lowest in the United Kingdom and are falling. There is evidence that some people in our community — most notably women, people on low incomes and people with disabilities — remain seriously under-represented in sport.

Our sporting and recreational infrastructures require substantial development and modernisation. In addition, Northern Ireland has a declining record of achievement in major competition. For example, the last Olympic medal won by a Northern Ireland athlete was in 1992. Despite their best efforts, the Northern Ireland team at the 2006 Commonwealth Games won the lowest number of medals since 1962.

That situation cannot be allowed to continue. We need a new long-term vision for sport in Northern Ireland, to enable it to be developed on a sounder basis and to deliver all the benefits that are potentially available. The 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in London will provide all UK regions with considerable opportunities for participation in sport, for infrastructure improvement and for athlete development.

The games have the potential to motivate and to inspire our young people to take up sport. They can also help us to lay many of the foundations for a sound and durable sporting and cultural legacy. Undoubtedly, the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, as well as the World Police and Fire Games in 2013, are an important context in which to promote sport in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, regardless of the opportunities offered by those events, Northern Ireland still needs a wider, long-term plan for developing sport and securing its future.

What issues do we need to address? First, we must recognise that we are starting from a much lower base than many regions of the UK, and many nations beyond. We want to — and we must — do better, but we must also be realistic about what can be achieved over the next few years, given the current state of sport here. It is equally important that we recognise collectively the value of sport and that we commit to take action to develop it.

Sport Northern Ireland (SNI), which was formerly known as the Sports Council for Northern Ireland, also occupies a pivotal position, given its overall responsibility for funding and development. It needs to be involved fully in — and be supportive of — any proposals that are designed to improve the state of sport in Northern Ireland. Similarly, district councils, which are vital to the development and delivery of local sport and physical recreation opportunities, must play a key role in implementing future strategies for sport.

The draft strategy recommends that the extensive network of sports facilities that exists in the education sector be used for schools and communities. Governing bodies and sports clubs have a crucial role to play, given that they are the main interface between those who play sport recreationally and those who perform at the highest levels. The community, voluntary and private sectors contribute substantial human and financial resources to sport and recreation, and they can help greatly to drive forward and support future development.

Our athletes and coaches can do a great deal to assist and inspire others in the community to become involved, and to achieve. If we are to succeed, all of us need a common purpose, a shared vision, shared goals, and an agreed structure through which we can take action. It is with those points in mind that I announce today the publication for consultation of a draft 10-year strategy for sport and physical recreation in Northern Ireland.

The draft strategy, which my Department is compiling in partnership with Sport Northern Ireland, suggests a new vision for the future of sport and physical recreation, and it envisages a new, shared sporting future. The strategy seeks to reflect the sporting aspirations of the wider public, the community, and those who work in sport. Indeed, those aspirations were expressed in earlier consultations.

The draft strategy aims to inform the direction of future investment and the way in which sport should be developed over the next 10 years. It is structured to reflect the current and anticipated needs of sport and physical recreation that were expressed during the pre-consultation stage. Those needs relate to participation, which concerns the number of people who regularly take part in sport and physical recreation; performance, which concerns the achievements of Northern Ireland athletes and teams in competitive sport; and places, which deals with the venues and localities that are used for sporting and physical recreation.

The draft offers 24 specific targets to be achieved over the next 10 years for sport and physical recreation. Those are designed to address concerns about partici­pation, performance and places. Those concerns include the need to improve participation levels in sport and the need to deal with the under-representation of certain groups. The draft strategy is also designed to address the need to improve Northern Ireland’s performance in international competition, and the question of a major multi-sports stadium for Northern Ireland. Those are all pressing issues that face me, as the Minister with responsibility for sport. Indeed, Members will be aware that a decision on the way forward for the stadium will be required in the near future.

I have no doubt that many of the targets will be regarded as challenging. However, if they are achieved, there is the prospect of injecting much-needed rejuvenation into the way in which we deliver sport and recreation in Northern Ireland.

However, change on such a scale comes at a price. The need to marshal the skills and resources of all stakeholders, including Government, SNI, local authorities and the voluntary and private sectors, is raised in the draft strategy. The document estimates that full implementation of the strategy will require a total additional investment of around £200 million over 10 years. Clearly, levels of public funding remain subject to the normal budgetary processes, including other competing priorities and the ability of all stakeholders to contribute. Already, however, work is under way to address many of the resource shortfalls that are identified in the document. For example, given the upcoming London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, plans are in train to improve Northern Ireland’s sporting infrastructure, including the provision of a 50 m swimming pool. Under that programme, there will be the opportunity to cater for the facility needs of several other sports, such as athletics, cycling, tennis, table tennis, fencing, volleyball, rowing, canoeing, basketball, sailing, gymnastics and equestrian sports.

In parallel with that, improved infrastructure will enable more people — regardless of age, gender, location, and community, ethnic or other backgrounds — to participate in sport and to achieve their full sporting potential. That is consistent not only with the objectives in the draft strategy but with the equality obligations, which have, of course, been considered while we have been developing the document.

10.45 am

I want as many people as possible to consider the draft strategy carefully and respond to it. The future of sport in Northern Ireland is at stake, so the strategy must concern us all. I, therefore, look forward to the outcome of the consultation and to receiving comments. I will be particularly interested in the views of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee. The document can be accessed from the Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure’s (DCAL) website — — and copies are being placed in the Library. The closing date for receipt of responses is 9 January 2008.

The outcome of the consultation will help to shape the final strategy, which I expect to publish as soon as possible after the consultation’s completion. I hope to make a further statement to the House on the matter then.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr McElduff): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh an ráiteas seo ar maidin ó thaobh cúrsaí spóirt.

I welcome the statement and the fact that the Minister has made it in the House. The draft strategy has been long awaited. I commend the Minister for his recognition of sports volunteers and the contribution that they make to sports development. That was a very good starting point. I, perhaps, take issue with the fact that it took the Minister a couple of paragraphs to reach the name of Peter Canavan — “Peter the Great”. Nonetheless, I shall overlook it.

The Minister said that:

“sport has the potential to deliver other significant benefits”.

He also talked about health, and community development and social cohesion could have been mentioned as well. We all know that sport contributes to wider Government objectives and priorities in the fields of health, community development and social cohesion. Will the Minister assure us that the principal governing bodies of those field sports that make the biggest contribution of all — namely, the GAA, the IRFU and the IFA — will be funded to the necessary levels, in order that they may continue to develop the work that they do to contribute to improving health, community development and social cohesion?

I have picked up messages from sports organisations that the level of consultation undertaken before the draft strategy was published was not good enough. I want an assurance from the Minister that, between now and January 2008, when the consultation closes, the afore­mentioned governing bodies will be properly and meaningfully consulted, and that any substantial changes that they may wish to suggest will be carefully considered.

Mr Poots: To take the last point first, I dealt with this matter to some extent yesterday. However, to add to the answer that I gave then, all governing bodies were invited to a special governing-body workshop in September 2005 to give their views on the state of sport and on priorities for the strategy. That was in addition to the public consultation meetings that took place at various venues across Northern Ireland.

In April 2006, DCAL arranged a special testing session on the initial draft of the strategy, to which all governing bodies were again invited. Governing bodies will also have an opportunity to submit their views as part of the consultation on the draft strategy. Ultimately, because this is a public consultation document, I want to hear the public’s views on it. However, governing bodies are key players in sport in Northern Ireland, so particular note will be taken of their views.

The Chairman of the Committee asked whether the “big three” will receive the necessary funding. Participation in sport may be at a higher level in those three particular sports, but there is a plethora of sports outside the “big three” that we must not forget about and that we must recognise.

For example, this morning, I met members of the Northern Ireland surf kayak team, which is shortly to compete in the World Surf Kayak Championships in northern Spain, and which I trust will bring home something significant. The World Transplant Games have just ended, and Northern Ireland did remarkably well in them, bringing home many medals.

There is a wide range of sports that people can choose to take up and participate in. The draft strategy for sport and physical recreation’s aim is to identify how we can best support people across a range of sports, and how we can identify areas of financial need. It will be difficult to achieve the level of finance that is required, but, nonetheless, the draft strategy identifies and makes clear what we need to deliver in ideal circumstances, and we are happy to do that.

Participation in sport in the UK is lower than in other parts of Europe. In Northern Ireland, participation is lower than in the rest of the UK. That presents a challenge. We can contribute to better health by fighting childhood obesity, in particular, and by reducing the number of children who develop diabetes from the age of 10.

Owing to current levels of childhood obesity and diabetes, this country could find itself in a scenario in which a generation will not live as long as its parents’ generation. That would be the first time that that had happened in modern times. Those matters must be addressed, and they will be addressed, not by cure, but by prevention. Sport has a key role to play in preventing illnesses.

Mr McCausland: I thank the Minister for his statement. I am glad that the draft strategy is to go out for consultation; it is very important that we have an extensive and inclusive consultation.

I wish to ask the Minister how the draft strategy for sport relates to wider social and Government agendas. The Minister explicitly mentioned the health agenda and implicitly mentioned the shared-future agenda.

It is certainly the case that sport can contribute, as has been said, to social cohesion and good relations. What will be done about the position of the Gaelic Athletic Association, which, by its constitution and ethos, is an exclusively nationalist organisation, and is, therefore, not merely a cold house but a closed house for the unionist community?

Mr Poots: I shall deal first with the point that the Member made about the health agenda. The sports strategy states that:

“In Finland, 70% of the population attain physical activity levels that are recommended by Chief Medical Officers in the UK.”

In the UK, that figure is 32%. That demonstrates a stark difference between where we should be and where we are.

In Northern Ireland, the percentage of overweight or obese boys has increased from 13% to 19%. Among girls, the percentage has risen from 20% to 27%. Those figures cover the period from 1997 to 2004. Lack of activity can contribute to diabetes, colon cancer, osteoporosis, anxiety and stress, among other illnesses. It is clear to me that we must address public-health matters, and sport plays a key role in doing that.

It has been stated in the House of Commons that for every £1 that is spent on sport by central Government, £866 is spent on health. If there were a marginal increase in sport funding, we could make a real contribution to the health of our society. People must grasp that fact.

As far as possible, politics should remain separate from sport. During my first conversations with the Gaelic Athletic Association, I raised some issues along those lines. I will continue to have conversations with the GAA on that matter. Ultimately, it is for that body to decide how it goes about things. The GAA makes a significant contribution on the sporting side. As for the political side, perhaps all of us need to move on.

Mr McNarry: I thank the Minister for his statement, which we received only an hour ago during our party group meeting. Undoubtedly, there will be an opportunity to explore the matter more fully in meetings of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure.

The draft 10-year strategy is to be welcomed in principle. With respect to participation, performance and places, will the Minister clarify the need to improve levels of participation and performance in respect of the national sports stadium? Will he be making a decision soon on the location and format of the stadium, or is he contemplating a further period of consultation and reflection?

Mr Poots: I intend to make a decision on that matter in the not-too-distant future. The final draft is almost complete. Applications from private-sector partners to develop a multi-sports stadium have been made and are being assessed. Ultimately, all the information that is required to make a decision is coming together, and when it has been brought together, and I have had time to consider it, a decision will be made. The Member should not worry about having to wait too long for that decision.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle, agus gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an ráiteas a rinne sé anseo ar maidin agus as an cháipéis chomhairliúcháin atá curtha ar fáil aige.

I thank the Minister for his statement and for providing Members with the consultation document. I take issue with the Minister’s list of sporting luminaries, insofar as he failed to include any Armagh players. I suggest that, in future, he should include the great Ciaran McGeeney and Francie Bellew in that list.

Later in the same statement —

Mr Deputy Speaker: I have given the Member some leeway because he was speaking about Armagh, but could we have a question? [Laughter.]

Mr D Bradley: I am heading in that direction, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Minister, in his statement, said that we have all delighted in the endeavours of Northern Ireland, and that many have paid tribute to Ulster successes in Gaelic games. I hope that we would not be as begrudging as that, and that, in the spirit of sport, we would delight in Ulster’s successes in Gaelic games and in rugby.

My question relates to education. In light of the importance of school facilities and policy — and after-school activities in particular — in the development of physical literacy from an early age, will the Minister outline the level and quality of engagement by the Department of Education in the development of the sports strategy? Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Mr Poots: First, I do not think that anyone could accuse me of begrudgery in relation to sport. I have always welcomed those who have achieved great things in sport regardless of their backgrounds or communities, and I will continue to do so. I will leave begrudgery to the other side of the House.

The drawing up of the sports strategy involved the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Department of Education, Sport NI, and other key stakeholders. Therefore, the Department of Education did help us to draw up the strategy. In my view, schools play a key role. One of the aims in the strategy is to ensure that children spend at least two hours in after-school activities and in physical recreation. We cannot achieve that without the Department of Education, which has bought into the strategy.

Another key point about schools is that there is an opportunity for dual use of school facilities, in conjunction with community facilities.

There is a plethora of facilities in Northern Ireland, but none is up to scratch. I want more investment in high-quality single facilities of premier league standard. It is imperative that local councils and education authorities work together to deliver a single facility that is used for the education of young people during the day and for community purposes at night. I can point to several successful examples of such usage. In fact, I recently opened a multi-sports pitch in Limavady that will be used by several local schools during the day and by the community and local clubs in the evenings.

11.00 am

Mr McCarthy: I have a special interest in a sports strategy for Northern Ireland because I chair Ards Borough Council’s sports development committee. In the Minister’s statement, he noted some well-known Northern Irish sporting heroes, of whose achievements we are all proud. However, in order to reach that status, people must start at grass-roots level, and Members must never forget those sportsmen and sportswomen who participate in their chosen sport, week in and week out. I take this opportunity to congratulate Ballycran hurling team, which clinched all this season’s championships. Also, Kircubbin Football Club —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Can the Member please ask his question?

Mr McCarthy: I am coming to my question.

The sports development committee that I chair has a budget of a mere £4,000. Here is my question: will the Minister direct sufficient funding through local councils to encourage more people in the community to become involved in sporting activities, thus helping to promote the sports strategy. Sport Northern Ireland has lost some £4 million because of lottery funding being diverted to the 2012 Olympic Games. How will the Minister replace that lost funding? Does the Minister share the opinion of his colleague — who is not in the Chamber — that the GAA is a nationalist organisation? I am a GAA member, and I certainly do not have any labels hung around my neck.

Mr Poots: Last night, the Executive discussed the Budget, and I was absolutely and abundantly clear about what is needed to deliver a sports strategy in Northern Ireland. I spoke about how the loss of lottery funding would affect arts and sport, and that that shortfall must be made up. If that is not done, we will enter the next financial year with a deficit, and there will be a break-even situation the following year. The sports strategy cannot be delivered unless there is sufficient funding. Members’ Executive colleagues will confirm my position.

It is not for me to interfere in the internal affairs of Ards Borough Council, but I would suggest that if the Member’s council colleagues can be persuaded to give the sports development committee only £4,000, perhaps that is a reflection on the committee’s chairman.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Several Members wish to ask questions of the Minister on this important document. Can Members please ask short questions? The Minister will then be able to give brief answers, and we will get through more Members’ questions.

Mr McCarthy: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I did not get an answer to my third question.

Mr Deputy Speaker: It is not for me to rule on how the Minister answers the questions. The question was asked and the Minister answered.

Mr Shannon: I thank the Minister for his positive statement and for the way in which he has encouraged sportsmen and sportswomen to be successful. In the past, Northern Ireland people have shown their prowess at various Olympic Games, including winning a silver medal, so perhaps now is a good time to promote sport and support young people. We have the talent and we should promote it for the future.

I have two questions, and I will come to them very quickly. The first is in relation to the Olympic Games. How will Northern Ireland benefit clearly and directly from the London Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012 and the World Police and Fire Games in 2013? Secondly, the draft strategy refers to those who are over 60 — and I am still a few years away from that category; some in this Chamber fit into that category, but I do not. However, is there any strategy for the participation in sport of people who have attained that age. The reference is on page 34 of the draft strategy.

Mr Poots: It is important that more older people participate in sport; that has been identified as one of the areas where there is not enough participation. The opportunity needs to be there and the facilities need to be readily available and have a welcoming environment. Clubs should provide opportunities for people to participate when they may be past their physical peak but still wish to participate — I am not looking at Mr Campbell in particular — and enjoy physical recreation and sport.

We are bidding for elite facilities for the Olympics. We have sought £53 million for the delivery of that in Northern Ireland, and that sum will be topped up by those who are making bids for the money; in general, that will mean local authorities. There had been 29 bids: that is now down to 15. The facilities will have premier Olympic status, and they will be excellent facilities. My desire is to have 10 Olympic teams training and participating at such facilities in Northern Ireland. Those groups will attract young people to watch them training, and the facilities will be available thereafter, so there is a huge opportunity for people to go and get involved.

I want to stress how important it is that we fully engage on the Paralympics. There are many individuals who have physical disabilities but love sport and want to participate in it and enjoy it. We need to ensure that people who have disabilities have equal access to opportunities to participate in sport.

Mr P Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle, agus comhghairdeas ar an ráiteas ar maidin. I congratulate the Minister on his statement. He said that the evidence shows that people in our community, most notably women, remain seriously under-represented in sport. Does he agree that camogie and ladies’ Gaelic football somewhat address that issue? Will he ensure that there is a proactive approach to female sports in the 2007-17 strategy?

Mr Poots: Camogie is a Gaelic sport and falls under the governance of the GAA. I am happy to work with all governing bodies in the delivery of sports and access to sports. Obviously, women are a key target, because of their level of under-participation. The strategy will enable governing bodies to work better and to bring people with disabilities, women and other under-represented groups into sport.

Lord Browne: I also congratulate the Minister on his statement. The draft strategy is detailed and ambitious. Is the Minister confident that the additional money required to implement it in full will be available? It is important that young people engage in sport: how does the draft strategy go about retaining young people’s participation in sport and physical education?

Mr Poots: One would need the wisdom of Solomon to answer your question on confidence and money because one does not know what the future will hold. The Chancellor, Alistair Darling, will reveal the CSR at some point today, and final decisions in Northern Ireland cannot be made until the implications of that are known. However, an excellent case can be made that sport deserves greater funding, and I am hopeful of achieving more funding for sport within the CSR bids.

The best way of encouraging young people to participate in sport is to get them involved at an early age and to let them find sports that they enjoy. There are different sports for different people, and identifying which sports are best suited to individuals will help to ensure that young people continue to participate in those sports even after they leave school and college.

Mr K Robinson: I note the ministerial statement and the many expressions of motherhood and apple pie that it contains. Will the Minister assure me that he has the full support of his party and the total backing of the Executive for the draft strategy? I also note that the name of the famous Sammy Hughes was omitted from the list of greats, and I am sure that the Minister will join with the rest of the House in congratulating Glentoran Football Club on achieving its one-hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary at the weekend.

Mr Poots: I thank the Member for that. The problem with starting a list of names is deciding where to stop. There are many great sporting people from Northern Ireland who have not been mentioned today but would have been worthy of mention.

I do have the support of the Executive for the draft strategy.

Mrs M Bradley: Will the Minister outline whether the priority of the strategy is to ensure the greatest participation in sport across all sectors of our community, including Gaelic games, rugby, soccer, hurling and hockey, rather than to improve the level of performance at competitive international level? I could go on listing sports, but participation by disabled people in sport is particularly important.

Will the Minister also give an overview of the level of expected cross-border and all-Ireland investment and partnership that will be developed over the period of the strategy?

Mr Poots: Obviously, we want our sporting performances to be at the highest levels because that will provide inspiration for others to get involved in sport. However, sport is also about people getting out and enjoying physical recreation. People in areas of social need do not achieve and participate to the levels that are expected in sport. The strategy targets those people.

There is substantial investment in sport in the Republic of Ireland. During various meetings, the Department will be discussing that matter with Ministers from the Republic of Ireland. A number of sporting bodies are organised on an all-Ireland basis. Many of those arrangements pre-date partition, and it is not a good idea to involve politics in sport. It is fine that some governing bodies operate on an all-Ireland basis, but it is important that people can fulfil their desires to participate for the team that they wish, whether that is the Great Britain team or the Ireland team.

Mr Brolly: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I will break with tradition and merely ask a question. How hopeful is the Minister that he will get the estimated £200 million required for the sports strategy over the next decade? Will he assure Members that, if he is successful, it will be entirely new money, or will it be partly, or fully, old money that has been recycled or redirected?

Mr Poots: An additional amount of £200 million is required. It cannot be old or recycled money.

Central Government must make a substantial contribution. However, others who are involved in sport, such as local government, sporting bodies and the private sector, have a sponsorship role to play. I am confident that more money will be invested in sport over the next 10 years and that the levels of participation and performance can be raised. All sides must pull together: the Department will take the lead, but I trust that others will join it.

11.15 am

Mr Ross: I thank the Minister for his statement, and I welcome the launch of the draft strategy. As the Minister said, sport has the ability to lift not only the individual but a nation.

Members have referred to the importance of equipment and facilities. However, does the Minister agree that a high level of coaching is, perhaps, the most important factor in improving the overall performance of athletes in Northern Ireland, at elite and grass roots level?

Given the timescale for the proposed strategy, is there scope to review and update the document, and who is responsible for implementing the strategy?

Mr Poots: The document identifies that DCAL wants to appoint an additional 900 accredited sporting coaches between 2007 and 2017. People with the ability to train and teach others how to maximise their skills and abilities at their chosen sports will make a considerable difference.

DCAL intends to review the document around the start of 2011. The Department will assess how the strategy is developing and consider how to reach those targets that are not being met. DCAL will take the lead responsibility for the strategy’s implementation.

Ms S Ramsey: A LeasCheann Comhairle, I also welcome the Minister’s statement and his commitment to taking action to develop sport.

As Kieran McCarthy said, the cut in lottery funding to Sport NI is due to the diversion of money to the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. I wrote to the Minister recently to request a meeting to discuss a project for which the Lenadoon Community Forum submitted a bid for funding. The forum has recently been told that a final stage letter of approval is not forthcoming because of the cut in funding. Has the Minister any plans to put in place alternative arrangements to offset that reduction?

Mr Poots: Yes, I have. Lenadoon is one of several clubs that find themselves in the same position. They have gone through the process of submitting bids and meeting all necessary requirements, only to find that they are unable to obtain funding because of the cut in lottery funding related to the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. For the clubs involved, that is a most regrettable situation. They put in a great deal of effort, and I understand their huge disappointment.

As part of the strategy, DCAL has identified capital development needs and has made bids for capital in ISNI 1 and ISNI 2. The Department awaits the outcome of the comprehensive spending review to identify how that can be taken forward.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members to switch off their mobile phones, as a phone is interfering with the recording.

Mr Storey: I welcome today’s statement and particularly the Minister’s reference, in his opening remarks, to the late Joey Dunlop, who came from my constituency.

On page 38 of the draft strategy, there is a reference to the:

“reduction in the number of district councils from 26 to seven by 2009.”

Will the Minister confirm that that is a printing error rather than a DCAL policy statement? Will he assure me that that mistake will be corrected and, with reference to the 2012 London Olympics, that he will not forget the famous son from Dervock? The anniversary of Kennedy Kane McArthur’s winning gold at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm will be marked in 2012.

Mr Poots: I thank the Member for pointing out a clear error in the document. The document is in draft form and is open to correction. A consultation process will be carried out before the final document is published.

I am sure that many people will highlight other deficiencies in the document. With no disrespect to those who were involved in drafting the document, they cannot think of everything. Ultimately, others will make contri­butions to the strategy, and it is important that people respond and bring forward their ideas and proposals. I encourage people to read the document and to identify its shortcomings and bring them to the attention of the Department and Sport Northern Ireland.

Joey Dunlop from Ballymoney was a great sportsman who was in a league of his own, but other people have also made significant contributions.

Mr Elliott: I thank the Minister for his statement. However, I will reserve judgement until I see the effectiveness of the strategy’s practical outworkings.

Does the Minister share my disappointment that Northern Ireland’s part in the 2007 World Rally Championship itinerary, which he noted in his statement, is very small, considering the earlier indications from Rally Ireland that it was likely that one of the two rally hubs — either the headquarters or the service park — would be based in Northern Ireland? Both are now to be based in Sligo in the Republic of Ireland.

Mr Poots: I inherited the World Rally Championship from the previous Secretary of State, who was a great motorsport enthusiast. He was keen for the event to take place in Northern Ireland, and the plans had been put in place before I took up office. Nonetheless, we should not totally decry the event because of disappointment in Fermanagh over one aspect of it. Over 300 million people will watch the event live on television. In case Members do not know, it is to take place on 15 November in the grounds of the Stormont estate. That will send out a positive message that Northern Ireland is a good place to be. With the backdrop of this Building, 300 million people will watch a world-class event taking place in Northern Ireland, and I am encouraged by that.

Mr O’Loan: I welcome the statement and the important draft strategy. The Minister referred to sport for the disabled. What was the level and quality of engagement with disabled people in formulating the strategy? How will the strategy be promoted to the disabled? Will a budget and funding be provided for sport for the disabled? How will disabled people be enabled and encouraged to participate in sport at a local level?

Mr Poots: Some 90% of disabled people who engage in sport are also in employment. Representatives from Disability Sport have said that sport has given disabled people the confidence to do well in other aspects of life. That 90% is a higher percentage of disabled people who are in employment than is normally the case. Therefore, what sport can do for people with disabilities is significant.

Janet Gray is an inspirational character. She is a world-class blind waterskier who has won many gold medals. She trains at the sports institute in the University of Ulster at Jordanstown. That involves making a taxi journey, two train journeys and a walk from the train station to the university. Those are the efforts that she makes in order to maintain her physical fitness levels. She is a tremendous inspiration to everyone in sport and, in particular, to those who are disabled. Sport can do great things for those who are disabled. We engaged with those people, and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety took the lead on that.

The Department is very keen — and it is a priority in the strategy — that people with disabilities can participate in, and be able to enjoy, sport.

Mr McHugh: A LeasCheann Comhairle, I welcome the Minister’s statement, particularly the 10-year strategy for the provision of physical-activity facilities. The Minister mentioned the benefits of participating in physical activity and sport, and the need for young people to begin at an early age in order to progress in sport.

The Minister also mentioned the issue of neighbour­hood renewal and the fact that, in many towns and villages, private developers are building on as much green land as possible — as is anyone else who can get their hands on such land. In many of our towns and villages, there is very little for young people aged nine and older to do. Antisocial activity is seldom perpetrated by young people who play GAA sports, soccer or other sports. Has the Minister consulted with other Departments and local councils, to prioritise the provision of facilities for sports and other physical activities for our young people so that they are not forgotten as they are at present?

Mr Poots: Planning Policy Statement 8 deals with the provision of open space. It states that, in any given area, there should be four acres of open-space land for every 1,000 people. PPS 8 also stresses that the Planning Service and DOE must work together to ensure that that ratio is adhered to. When new area plans are published, it is important that the provision for open space is identified in them. That is even more important nowadays, due to issues such as town cramming and houses being built on small plots of land, which mean that many gardens are not big enough for young people to play. It is essential that adequate open space be provided, and that is an issue for the Planning Service. Planning Policy Statement 8 states that plans must make provisions for adequate open space.

Private Members’ Business

Arts Funding

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up 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 speak will have five minutes.

Two amendments have been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of each amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to wind up.

Ms Lo: I beg to move

That this Assembly recognises the critical role that the arts can play in promoting a positive international image of Northern Ireland, attracting visitors and growing the local economy and the contribution that community arts make to social cohesion; expresses its alarm that the arts are relatively underfunded per capita in Northern Ireland compared to all other regions in the United Kingdom; and calls upon the Executive to raise the level of arts funding to at least the United Kingdom average within the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review.

The Alliance Party is against the two tabled amend­ments. The first amendment considerably weakens the motion’s request for increased funding. The second amendment, although it supports an increase in funding, does not go far enough; £10 per person is not enough, and the Arts Council is now calling for £11·55 per person.

I thank the Arts Council, the Ulster Historical Foundation, the Invest in Inspiration campaign and others for sending me their briefing notes, which have contributed to this speech. Northern Ireland has a wealth of talent in art, music, drama, film, poetry and many other forms of artistic expression.

Both of our major traditions provide us with rich culture, and that is enhanced by the different people who come to live among us in this beautiful land. We should have a flourishing arts sector of which we can be proud, but the arts sector is facing a serious funding crisis with low morale and job threats. For too long, citizens in Northern Ireland have been denied access and entitlement to the arts at a level that is enjoyed by other parts of the UK and Ireland.

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Over the past 10 years, Northern Ireland has moved from a position of near-parity in arts funding with other regions to bottom of the league. The trend over that period shows a widening gap in per capita public funding and the lowest level of growth compared with elsewhere in the UK and Ireland. We invest £6·13 per head of population in the arts sector, which is in stark contrast to the £8.39 that is invested in England, £8·80 in Wales, £11·93 in Scotland and £12·61 in the Republic of Ireland. Not only has the arts sector sustained three successive years of standstill funding, but the decline over the past two years in National Lottery income has been further compounded by the decision to allocate lottery funds from the good causes fund to the London Olympics 2012. As a result, the Arts Council faces a reduction of £4·5 million over the next few years in its lottery-funded arts projects.

Arts funding is not only about funding the Grand Opera House or the Belfast Festival at Queen’s — it enables organisations such as the Belfast Community Circus to instil values and transferable life skills to young people. The new Belfast community arts initiative has programmed workshop activity for more than 10,000 individuals — mostly young people — and employs more than 240 artists. Some 84% of its participants come from the most deprived wards.

The development of a social dialogue through the arts offers a real-life demonstration of a shared future in action. However, the proof of need for additional arts funding is not only found in and around disadvantaged urban communities, but throughout urban and rural areas in Northern Ireland. A range of arts activities are promoted in Northern Ireland through such organisations as the Share Centre in Fermanagh, which works with disabled and able-bodied children; the Nerve Centre in Derry, which works in music, film, animation and new media; Altnaveigh House in Newry which celebrates Ulster-Scots culture; piping and drumming schools; and touring theatre companies that ensure that quality theatre is available to the network of new art centres that have been supported by local councils and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

Cutting arts funding year in, year out is a short-sighted strategy to save money, whereas investing in the arts brings a multitude of economic, social and health benefits to society. Investing in the arts brings about a vibrant creative industry sector to boost the local economy by generating revenue and providing employment and business opportunities as well as attracting inward investment.

Investing in the arts promotes rural and urban regeneration. Examples of that were seen in Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool in the 1980s, when they turned to the arts to drive urban regeneration following the decline in manufacturing industries. If they can do it, so can we. Everyone would love to see Belfast crowned as the European Capital of Culture.

Investing in the arts stimulates tourism, and Northern Ireland is already attracting more and more visitors. A high, international profile for the arts, and well-developed cultural and heritage projects and centres, will help the growth in cultural tourism.

Investing in the arts has been well proven to increase confidence, improve behaviour and generate more positive attitudes to learning in children and young people.

Investing in the arts enhances social cohesion by promoting the integration of minority groups, tackling sectarianism and racism and contributing to a more inclusive society. The arts sector is calling for an increase in arts funding from £6·13 to £11·55 per person per year, which is an increase of approximately £26 million for the 2008-10 funding cycle. It is a modest request that represents less than a quarter of one per cent of the annual spend on hospitals and community health, or less than half of one per cent of the education budget. The Executive need to take a strategic view of the overall development of Northern Ireland.

Investing in the arts is like investing in business, in that everyone will reap its benefits in economic and social gains.

Mr McCausland: I beg to move amendment No 1: Leave out all after “cohesion;” and insert

“and, while recognising that economic growth must be the Assembly’s main priority, encourages the Executive to explore means of enhancing promotion of the arts in Northern Ireland.”

There is much in the motion with which I agree. Its basic thrust is that we should seek to increase expenditure on the arts, which I support. I will come to my amendment in due course, but there are many reasons for increasing arts expenditure, and the Arts Council has highlighted a range of them in a number of its documents. One is increasing the positive international image of Northern Ireland, and a good example of that was Northern Ireland’s contribution to the recent Smithsonian Festival in Washington, where expressions from the whole range of cultures in Northern Ireland were on display, including very colourful contributions from the Orange Order and the Ulster Scots. That was an example of how we can use Gaelic, Ulster-Scots and Orange cultural life, in mainstream, high or community art to give a positive international image to our country.

The arts are also a way of attracting visitors to Northern Ireland, and cultural tourism will certainly be one of the main thrusts for tourism in the coming years. Whatever happens with climate change, people will not normally come to Northern Ireland for sunshine and sandy beaches, but they often come to sample the interesting and diverse cultural life of the country.

There are many ways in which the creative industries can help the growth of the economy, and the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure has spoken of them. Only yesterday, there was mention of the importance of creative industries to the local economy. It is an area in which there is particular local expertise, such as in the film industry.

We can also consider the benefits of community arts and the role that they have in social cohesion. Many communities find the arts a means of expressing their aspirations, hopes and fears. That is a way of bringing people together, in a shared experience, as a community. Community arts, in all their various forms, represent a sector that needs encouragement and support.

The voluntary arts sector is of particular value and importance, and it does not get as much attention as it should. There are many folk who may not wish to engage in a group activity in community arts, and they may not want to join a theatre group or play in a local band. However, those people can participate in the voluntary arts as individuals, and the benefits include social experience, opportunities for expression and improved self-esteem.

The expression of cultural identity is another aspect of the arts that is often talked about. It is important for people to have an opportunity to express their cultural identity. If we are to create a stable and coherent society in Northern Ireland, all cultural traditions should be treated on the basis of equally and diversity, whether that is Ulster-Scots, Irish or Orange culture — they all deserve the opportunity and equality of support and expression.

The figures that are often quoted refer to the money that flows into the arts via the Arts Council. However, it is important to remember that money also goes into the cultural tradition aspects of the arts through bodies such as Foras na Gaeilge or Tha Boord o Ulstèr-Scotch. There­fore, there are other funding streams into the arts sector that may not be automatically included in those figures.

The aim and aspiration of the Arts Council is that the arts should be:

“at the heart of our social, economic and creative life”.

That is a good aspiration and one that I hope that we could all endorse. The arts should not be seen merely as an add-on or an optional extra, but as something that is at the heart of every aspect of Northern Ireland society.

People’s views of the arts can, sometimes, be a bit narrow. The Arts Council not only involves the arts, but architecture, the built environment and the craft sector. There is a tremendous opportunity for local businesses and the local economy. If we are to invite tourists to Northern Ireland, we should provide goods for them to purchase when they are here. The greater the range and diversity of those goods, the higher the spend, resulting in more money coming into our economy and to the artists who are involved in various creative arts.

My colleague the Member for East Londonderry Gregory Campbell has highlighted the fact that when one arrives at our ports, harbours and airports, the items for sale reflect one cultural tradition only — and not very well at that. Quite often, one finds a cow with a green shamrock stuck on the side, made in China or somewhere. Nevertheless, we want to see goods that are available from the whole range of cultural traditions in Northern Ireland, so that when one arrives at the airport and sees, “A Taste of Ulster”, it really is a taste of Ulster and not a taste of Killarney or Galway.

The biggest community arts sector in Northern Ireland, and one of the areas often neglected, is our bands. There are in the region of 100 pipe bands, although not all of them take part in competitions. We have several hundred accordion bands and an even greater number of flute bands. All those bands have around 20, 30, or more members.

11.45 am

Folk are also involved in a wide range of associated activities in support of the bands. The involvement of all those people means that bands, which do not get the attention that they should, are a large and key sector in community arts. In that sense, I hope that the Arts Council will review its provision of funding.

Lottery funding is tight, but, considering the large number of people who are involved with bands, that provides only a modest amount of money for instruments. Therefore, I hope that consideration will be given to increasing that funding.

I have mentioned various aspects of culture and the arts and their importance to society. In my final two minutes, I want to concentrate on amendment No 1.

Importantly, the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure is about to consider funding for arts and culture and will want to study what is currently being spent in Northern Ireland compared with the rest of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Therefore, to tie ourselves to any target figure at this time would be premature. I prefer amendment No 1, which:

“encourages the Executive to explore means of enhancing promotion of the arts in Northern Ireland.”

It is not only a matter of direct Government funding, a culture of sponsorship must be encouraged in Northern Ireland. In addition, local authorities must be encouraged — borrowing the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure’s phrase from yesterday’s debate — to step up to the mark.

I am pleased to refer to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s publication, ‘Local Authority Arts Expenditure Survey 2003-2004 and 2004-2005’, which I will not wave around because that would be inappropriate. In 2004-05, Belfast City Council did step up to the mark by setting aside £9,228,487 for the arts. It was the highest figure by far when compared with councils that only set aside about £3,000. People may say that the figure relates to the size of population; however, North Down Borough Council, headed by one of the proposers of the motion Stephen Farry, gave £2·68 per capita to the arts, compared with £33·27 from every citizen of Belfast. Amendment No 2 is tabled by Barry McElduff, whose council gave just £5·83 per capita. One way to increase spending on the arts would be for Omagh District Council and North Down Borough Council to step up to the mark in the same way that Belfast City Council has done.

Mr McElduff: I beg to move amendment No 2: Leave out all after the first “Kingdom”, and insert

“and Ireland; and calls upon the Executive to raise the level of arts funding to at least £10 per person, in the context of the Comprehensive Spending Review.”

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I take issue with Nelson McCausland, not on his final point, but in that he may inflict damage to the tourism industry by suggesting that we do not have sandy beaches. We do have sandy beaches, and, furthermore, Mr Brolly told me that the sun was shining the day before yesterday.

A LeasCheann Comhairle, cuirim fáilte roimh an rún seo, ach tá mé ag moladh leasú don rún seo ag an am céanna. Is maith an rud é go bhfuil muid uilig ag déileáil leis an ábhar seo - tacaiocht do na healaíona. I welcome the Alliance Party’s motion —

Mr McNarry: On a point of order. If a speech is made in a language that is not English, does the Speaker not have a mechanism to interpret what has been said in order to assuage my fears that nothing was said that I did not want to hear? I did not notice that you used any such mechanism, Mr Deputy Speaker. Will you satisfy me — because you were not even paying attention to what the Member was saying — that you understood what the Member said in a language other than English?

Mr Deputy Speaker: That is not a point of order. Rather, it is a correction of the Deputy Speaker, which I do not accept. I was attending to several different matters at the same time; however, I understood what Mr McElduff said.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat. I hope that the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Mr McNarry, will support the procurement of a simultaneous translation system to benefit all 108 Members. He could then rely on that system and no one else. That would be a quare good idea.

It is important for the Assembly to hear the case for increased revenue funding for the arts, and the Alliance Party, by tabling the motion, has done a service for the Assembly and the arts.

We should debate the critical role of the arts in driving the economy; in job creation and, crucially, job retention; in improving people’s social lives and uplifting communities; in attracting visitors to our sandy beaches; and in improving the health and well-being of the wider community.

To some degree, everyone is aware that investment in the arts contributes greatly to achieving a range of Government priorities, as does investment in sport, which was mentioned in the previous debate. I wish to re-emphasise that fact.

A key message in the Arts Council’s proposal to the comprehensive spending review for more revenue funding is that every £1 currently invested in the arts gives a return of £3·60 to the local economy. That cannot be disregarded, and the implications must be understood across the board.

Sinn Féin’s amendment seeks to strengthen the motion and add to the case, not take away from it. The amendment proposes to add the words, “and Ireland”, not only because of the North/South dimension to the political architecture, but because, crucially, in 2006–07, the Twenty-six Counties spent £12·61 per capita on the arts. That is over twice the amount that is spent on the arts in the North. A lesson can be learned from the Twenty-six Counties.

I was surprised that the Alliance Party omitted that fact, because it would be common sense to include it if one wishes to reflect accurately the scale of arts underfunding in the North. I ask the proposers of the motion to accept amendment No 2, particularly the financial dimension, because it highlights further the substantial difference in investment. That is the missing part of the jigsaw, which is why Sinn Féin tabled amendment No 2.

The bottom line is that Sinn Féin wants to secure an increase in revenue funding for the arts in order to avert further funding crises and prevent crucial arts projects having to pull down their shutters. The case is best served by presenting a comparative picture of arts funding throughout these islands.

The amendment suggests spending at least £10 per capita as an endorsement of the Invest in Inspiration campaign, which was launched in January 2007 by the Arts Council with the support of the Forum for Local Government and the Arts. That campaign outlined 10 great reasons to invest in the arts.

I acknowledge what Anna Lo said about the lottery funding crisis. The double whammy of decreased lottery income and the diversion of funding to the 2012 Olympic Games has caused the figure for average spend to be recalculated. The new figure deemed necessary to invest in the arts will be £11·55 per capita over the period of the comprehensive spending review.

As Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, I can tell Minister Edwin Poots that if, or when, he goes to the Executive to seek greater revenue funding for the arts, the Committee will support him. Edwin Poots and I might not always agree on everything, a LeasCheann Comhairle, as you might appreciate, but we have a common purpose in seeking greater revenue funding for the arts.

Society must demonstrate how it values the arts and show that they matter. The arts enrich everyone’s lives and help to provide a more inclusive and cohesive view of society. Nelson McCausland talked about a narrow view of the arts, and we must note that some people feel that the arts are elitist. However, they are not elitist — they are for everyone.

When members of the public are asked when they last attended, or participated in, an arts event, they often tend to shy away from the subject, saying that they are not involved in the arts. They then realise that they might have attended a community play the night before, a concert in the recent past, even a painting class, an exhibition, a scór, a fleadh competition, a céilí, or a dance class. Therefore, everyone is involved in the arts; sometimes people are a bit slow to acknowledge that.

In my community, in mid-Tyrone, my introduction to the arts, in a formal sense, was through the Mid Ulster Drama Festival, which was held in the Patrician Hall. We were always treated to nine nights in a row of theatre. I commend organisations such as the Mid Ulster Drama Festival committee.

It is important that we acknowledge what the Minister talked about yesterday. He also previously stated that:

“Having quality arts facilities … to showcase creative and cultural talent builds confidence and a sense of pride in local people.”

In the West Tyrone constituency, people are proud of facilities such as the Strule Arts Centre in Omagh, the Alley Arts and Conference Centre in Strabane, and the Patrician in Carrickmore.

Our amendment draws attention to the more complete picture of per capita spend on the arts in these islands. The amendment also adds to the context of the motion because the £12·61 per capita being spent on the arts in the Twenty-six Counties during 2006-07 is a significant figure that must be analysed and taken note of. People in the North have the same cultural entitlement as everyone else on this island — in this country. We want to assert that fact.

Sinn Féin notes that the deepening crisis in arts funding means that the amount that is being asked for has had to be recalculated to £11·55 per capita. It is intolerable that, during the comprehensive spending review period, further reductions are planned in funding for the arts. Those cuts total £4·5 million — that is not acceptable, especially considering what was originally and previously planned.

We want funding returned directly to the arts sector. We also want increasing democratisation of how that money is managed and spent. However, in a general sense, we are supportive of the motion that has been tabled.

Mr McNarry: On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I express our sincere gratitude to Ms Anna Lo and Dr Farry for tabling the motion, which highlights the significant comparative underfunding that exists between our region and England, Scotland and Wales.

We readily identify with the proposal to increase arts funding to, at least, the United Kingdom average. It is with eager anticipation that we await the response of the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, whom we welcome once again to the Chamber. We look forward to the Minister’s giving his view on the scope that he may have to secure extra and additional funding through the comprehensive spending review, which is likely to be in the news today.

Although I accept that Northern Ireland is playing catch-up, and clearly has, from its current position, a long way to catch up on England, Wales and, massively, per capita, on Scotland, the differences in funding among the regions may not be able to be narrowed in one leap. If the case to realise parity of funding with even one of the United Kingdom regions is to succeed, there would have to be much more money than is in the kitty at present, and likely to be in it tomorrow.

I hope that neither the proposers nor the Minister see this proposal as an ultimatum, but as the beginning of a realisation through negotiation to reach — in as short a time as possible — a situation whereby funding for the arts in Northern Ireland is on an equal footing with other regions in the United Kingdom. Of course, if the Minister tells us today that he can meet the increase of funding that is called for in the motion, let him intervene now as the bringer of great news. If not, let us hear what news, if any, he can bring us today.

The Ulster Unionist Party firmly believes that our country’s culture, including world-class events, the community arts, and the cultural riches available in our libraries and museums, enrich our common lives as a society. As such, they require support and strengthening, with no dithering.

We see investment in the many facets of arts and culture as investment in people and in their quality of life. My party is pleased, therefore, to support the motion. The House should set down some markers for the Minister and the Executive, at least to give a target to meet or beat and to put Northern Ireland in touch with other United Kingdom regions.

12.00 noon

Amendment No 2, as its proposer indicated, is effectively out of date, and I will leave it at that. Amendment No 1 would pass the initiative back to the Executive, as its proposer said. However, it would do so without putting down a marker. That would weaken the case for an increase in arts funding. My party, therefore, prefers to support the motion and to send the message that the House wishes to give the Minister on this important issue.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá na healaíona iontach tábhachtach ar fad, iontach tábhachtach do shláinte na sochaí ina bhfuilimid inár gcónaí. Téann said i bhfeidhm ar shláinte, ar shaol sóisialta, ar oideachas agus ar mheon an phobail, agus téann siad i bhfeidhm fosta ar eacnamaíocht na tire seo.

I declare an interest as an amateur actor. I am aware, however, that there are many more professional actors and limelight-grabbers present in the House today. I do not put myself in the same category as them.

The arts are extremely important to the well-being of society. They impact directly on our social lives, education and health. Art also contributes to our economic well-being. It is an indictment of historic governance that the arts have fallen behind so badly in this part of the world. The arts are considered very important in the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. Why were we unworthy of proper invest­ment under direct rule? We now have the opportunity to correct that, and I hope that the Minister will take appropriate action.

The increase asked for by the Arts Council is modest: less than £10 million per annum. A relatively small increase can produce substantial leveraged income for the arts, and the economy generally, through other investment opportunities, box office receipts and so on.

In direct economic terms, in 2005 the arts and creative industries employed nearly 35,000 people in over 2,500 enterprises in Northern Ireland. In indirect terms, the economic impact is more difficult to quantify. There is no doubt, however, that regions with a successful high-value-added tourist industry also have a thriving and dynamic arts industry. There is a positive, synergistic relationship between tourism and the arts. One relies on the other.

In a global economy, where this region competes with thousands of others for direct foreign investment, the arts are extremely important. When location decisions are being made, companies consider whether employees will locate and remain in the region in question. Often, senior managers and key personnel are required to move to the investment location. In high-value-added industries, key employees are extremely mobile. If they do not like a region, they will not stay; they will quickly move on. It is no accident that highly successful economic centres also have vibrant and properly-funded arts industries.

Economic advantage is gained through industrial and product innovation. It is often the case that market advantage is gained through aesthetic aspects of product design and marketing.

Often, technical functionality is expected as a given, and competitive advantage derives from the look and feel of a product. Such design is carried out by designers who live and work in centres where there are high levels of creativity. It is not by accident that Italian, French and Japanese products have distinctive and attractive aesthetic attributes that give them an advantage in the marketplace.

Most importantly, it is great for our children and grandchildren, our parents and ourselves to have the opportunity to enjoy the uplifting experience provided by music, art and drama. The arts are life-enhancing — often life-changing — and open up new ways of thinking. They take us from the mundane to the fantastic. The arts are most limited when they reflect our world, and most inspirational when they influence and shape our relationships with each other and how we view the world around us. I support the motion, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Lord Browne: It is only right that the Assembly:

“recognises the critical role that the arts can play in promoting a positive international image of Northern Ireland, attracting visitors and growing the local economy and the contribution that community arts make to social cohesion”,

as the motion states. However, I support amendment No 1.

For over 200 years Northern Ireland has been a centre of cultural and academic excellence. From the mid-nineteenth century on, cultural activity, coupled with a proud tradition of academic excellence, has earned Northern Ireland many accolades. There is no doubt that, in more recent times, there has been a resurgence in cultural and academic achievement in Ulster.

It can be difficult to define what Northern Irish culture is, but there is no doubt that Irish culture, as epitomised by the Irish language, music, dancing and art, is a strong influence. Similarly, in the last 15 years Ulster Scots has undergone what can only be described as a revival, with more than 200 groups in existence throughout the Province.

There are other cultures in Northern Ireland that have not been tapped into or explored to their full potential — I refer to the new immigrant communities that have come into Northern Ireland, from central and eastern Europe, for example, bringing with them their cultures and traditions. Those communities must be cherished and built upon as a potential way of drawing visitors to Northern Ireland.

There is high culture and there is popular or mass culture, and the British Isles successfully displays a shared heritage of both, which can be enjoyed by people of all affiliations. Border and regional identifications are no barrier to the enjoyment of this common British culture. Equally, we must also recognise modern culture, as epitomised by artists such as Van Morrison and Snow Patrol, who are enjoyed by millions of people throughout Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Culture is a big business, and it can be turned to economic advantage. That said, art and culture help many people, and it must be encouraged at a local level, where money could be well spent. In my constituency of East Belfast, there is the Beat Initiative, which is a carnival and a community arts organisation that promotes art across the city and the communities, and seeks opportunities for young people.

There is a problem with arts funding. I say, with a little regret, that prudence must be exercised. Members could cite many projects that would benefit from an increase in their budget allocations. Sport has been mentioned in the debate; it, too, could benefit from an increase in budget per capita. In Northern Ireland, the expenditure per capita on sport between 2005 and 2007 was £5·31. Compare that with the amount that is spent on the arts, which is £6·13. Therefore, a little prudence is needed.

All methods of increasing the arts budget must be considered. That is why I support amendment No 1, which calls on the Executive to, at least, explore the means by which the level of arts funding could be increased. Society benefits from culture and the arts, and would be less well off without them.

Mr P Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I commend Ms Lo and Dr Farry for bringing the motion to the Floor. I also want to commend the arts community, which has worked tirelessly for many years with a miserly budget. Without its vision, communities in some areas would be much worse off through deprivation and antisocial behaviour. That is why I proposed to the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure several months ago that an inquiry be held into expenditure on the arts and on what the arts mean to communities. Fortunately, the proposal was supported. I hope that the Committee will work on that process soon.

I disagree with Mr McNarry, who said that amend­ment No 2 is out of date. Barry McElduff and I tabled the amendment in the hope that this matter will be taken seriously and that additional funding can be made available to the arts community, because we are all its beneficiaries.

The figures that I am about to quote have already been mentioned in the debate. However, they are vital to the winning argument. The current spend per capita on the arts in the North of Ireland is £6·13, which is around 50% of what is spent in the rest of Ireland and Scotland, and two thirds of what is spent in England and Wales. I want to see expenditure here being brought into line with what is spent in the rest of these islands. Sinn Féin wants the spend per capita to increase to at least £10 per person.

There would be many benefits to society from a little extra investment in the arts. In my constituency of West Belfast, organisations such as Féile an Phobail have contributed to regeneration. The féile attracts many visitors every year, including the Culture Minister in 2007, and has generated millions of pounds to an area of high deprivation. Despite that, its funding has been cut over the past several years. The Dubbeljoint Theatre Company has presented many award-winning plays, and many of its young acting stars who were given their first breaks on the stage on the Whiterock Road are now regular faces on television. Consider what could be achieved if such organisations were given proper funding.

The murals throughout Belfast attract many thousands of visitors every year. Mr Bradley said that people visit from Italy and from elsewhere around the world. Visitors come to West Belfast from China and Japan to look at the murals. The murals must also be supported.

Many arts organisations assist with economic regeneration and social cohesion throughout the North of Ireland. It is essential that they are able to continue to do so in a properly funded environment. It is often left to the Arts Council to tell groups the bad news that the amount of money that is needed to deliver all of their projects is simply not available. The Arts Council has done an excellent job with the limited resources that it has. According to the Arts Council, projects have had to work during the past three years with a budget shortfall of £5·6 million.

Mr McElduff mentioned earlier that for every £1 that is spent on the arts, there is a return of £3·60. It is, therefore, hard to fathom why there is not more investment in the arts. With more investment, that return would be enhanced. More investment would mean more income for all areas, including those of high deprivation. It would mean more jobs and more tourists. It would mean that pride is instilled in communities and that more children are given the opportunity to take part in the arts.

It means more international recognition and possibly more acclaim for literature — for example, in the form of the Nobel prize. Work must be allowed to continue in the arts sector, but it is clear that more investment is needed. It is important that the arts budget for the North of Ireland is brought into line with budgets in the rest of these islands. That will allow the arts sector to grow and thrive, ensure that all of our communities can go from strength to strength and that we leave a legacy of which future generations can be proud. Go raibh maith agat.

12.15 pm

Mr K Robinson: While I have some reservations regarding the wording of the motion — due in no small part to the budgetary pressures that will shortly face all Members of the Assembly — I recognise, and fully support, the aspiration to reach funding parity with that of the other devolved regions of the UK. That is clearly stated in the Ulster Unionist Party’s policy manifesto.

We all bathe in the reflected glory of international recognition when “one of our own” makes it to the big time. Liam Neeson, Seamus Heaney, Barry Douglas, Van Morrison and Sir James Galway have held up the banner of excellence and focused the attention of the world on the positive, constructive side of Northern Ireland. At that same time, others were intent on giving their own version of Attila the Hun, by bombing and shooting over 30 sterile years, when the flame of artistic endeavour in the Province was in danger of being snuffed out.

The grotesque spectacle of the Grand Opera House, in the aftermath of bombing, was flashed around the world. Yet, the raw talent, enthusiasm and determination of this society to resist the philistines, triumphed. I pay tribute to the work of those in the performing and creative arts who weathered that stormy period.

Many Members have quoted various financial figures that highlight the dire situation of the arts sector, in its broadest sense. I will not go into those now. However, I call on the Minister, Edwin Poots, to apply maximum pressure on his colleagues in the Executive, to find the necessary moneys to raise the level of arts funding towards the shibboleth of parity. If any of them should be tempted to play the role of Scrooge, let him highlight the fact that, for every £1 invested in the arts, £3·60 is generated for Northern Ireland’s economy.

With an employment figure of over 2,000 active in the arts, the sector is too important to neglect. Its growth potential is enormous. For too long the arts have been viewed, by many, as the domain of a select few. In the ranks of the chosen few, the temptation was to look down on the rest of society, who did not share their rarefied view of artistic worth. Such an attitude did nothing to achieve widespread sympathy and understanding for further arts funding.

Thankfully, today, outreach projects — and the development and appreciation of community-based arts projects — have helped to demolish those walls that needlessly divided the world of art and the world of creativity. That approach has helped to build confidence in communities and enabled them to discuss and explore their experiences. That, in turn, has further enabled them to tackle other more thorny issues.

I echo Lord Browne’s appeal that the ethnic cultures, which are now present in Northern Ireland, should be supported. I referred, in my speech yesterday, to the successful Mela festival that was held in Botanic Gardens, which was attended by Anna Lo and me. Again, I commend it as a template for community involvement.

The most recent blow to arts funding occurred in March 2007 when a reduction of £4·5 million was sought in order to divert money to the Olympic Games in London. That, on top of the historic lack of adequate resources for the arts, under the direct rule regime, has led to a crisis in that crucial sector.

Minister Poots noted on 19 September 2007:

“Public funding is needed to support and sustain our arts organisations which form the backbone of our creative economy.”

He went on to state:

“Investment in arts and culture strengthens the economy and fuels economic regeneration by supporting local jobs and stimulating consumer spending.”

Therefore, we must all play our role in relation to funding so that we can all enjoy those benefits.

I support the Minister’s sentiments, and so does the House. It is now up to the Minister, not to rob Peter, but to persuade him to invest in the growth potential of our existing talent.

I support the motion.

Mr O’Loan: I strongly support the motion. The figures very much speak for themselves. Spending per capita in the year 2006-07 was as follows: in the Republic of Ireland, £12·61; in Scotland, £11·93; in Wales, £8·80; in England, £8·19; and in Northern Ireland, £6·13. It is not good to be at the bottom of that league table.

Sometimes what we get back more than compensates for what we spend. That is the case with the arts, both in social and economic terms. Take, for example, the success of tourism in the Republic of Ireland and Scotland — their tourism sectors input greatly to the economy. By contrasts, we lag hugely behind. It can be no coincidence that those areas spend the most on the arts.

The Arts Council is requesting an increase in funding of £26 million over the CSR period, which would bring our per capita spending up to £11·55 per annum, similar to that in the Republic of Ireland and Scotland. We should aim at getting that level of spend.

The arts have a huge role to play in society and in tackling social disadvantage. The motion rightly outlines that role, and other Members have mentioned it, too. I welcome the recent shift towards funding for the community arts, although the high-level arts must not be neglected as they have a significant role to play. In England, the simple creation of a choir in a disadvantaged run-down estate did a huge amount to turn around that community’s lack of confidence. Sometimes non-typical approaches to problem-solving can be adopted, and, just like that approach, they can be very successful. Here, drama and film have been used to explore and spread an important message about domestic violence. Therefore, there is the potential for major payback. We know that a lack of social cohesion results in huge costs, and that can often be addressed by developing well-targeted arts programmes.

Recently the chairman of the Ulster Bank, Dr Alan Gillespie, made important comments on what attracts foreign direct investment to a country. He mentioned four or five factors on which investors reflect when making their investment decisions, and among them was the presence of a rich cultural environment. Thus, our flagship projects, such as the Lyric Theatre and the Ulster Orchestra, play a part in creating that environment, as does the local provision of music and drama education for children, and so on. We must build on that if we are serious about playing an important role in the international community.

I welcome Ken Robinson’s remarks about Liam Neeson. I hope that the day will come when we properly recognise what Liam Neeson has done for Ballymena, and for Ireland as a whole. Work on a new museum, arts and civic centre in Ballymena is nearly completed, and some £20 million has been spent on it. I welcome the departmental contribution to that project, to which the Minister referred yesterday. I have no doubt that that will encourage a huge flood of community arts activity; in fact, such activity is already starting to happen.

For example, a Ballymena Chamber Orchestra has recently been formed. That classical orchestra comprises a small number of professionals and a large number of ordinary community members. They have enhanced their standards beyond all recognition. There is nothing airy-fairy or ivory tower about this orchestra — it works in the community and in disadvantaged areas and visits schools, getting youngsters excited about music that they might not have been excited about before. That is all marvellous.

There are other significant community arts projects in the areas. Ballymoney has a strong and continuing tradition of involvement in drama. There is also has a strong interest in traditional music, which is promoted by groups such as Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and others. Interestingly, the music played in north Antrim is very influenced by Scottish traditional music, and there is a great deal of interaction between those two areas. Thus, the arts have a crucial role to play with regard to their contribution to quality of life and potential contribution to the economy. We must therefore invest more money in them.

The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr Poots): I thank those Members who tabled both the motion and the amendments for demonstrating their interest in such an important subject. I agree with the points that have been made about the positive role that the arts can play in society, which is not always highlighted when funding for the arts is debated in the media or elsewhere.

Since taking up office in May I have spent a great deal of time in meeting a wide range of arts providers, from community-based voluntary arts groups to the professional arts organisations. I have listened and learned, to get a feel for the issues that have an impact on the arts sector, and to see for myself the positive benefits that are derived from the arts. I fully appreciate that, for some considerable time, there has been a historical deficit in arts funding in Northern Ireland. Arts Council funding has been pegged at about £11 million since 2002 without much change. Other Members have already highlighted the disparity with other parts of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. In some places, Northern Ireland funding for the arts amounts to only half of that provided elsewhere

We are already behind, and the 2012 Olympic Games will further reduce lottery funding available to the arts. We will lose £1·5 million per annum from 2008. The Arts Council’s income from the national lottery will have dropped from a high of £10·3 million in 1997-98 to only to £4·5 million in 2011-12. That represents a significant loss to the local economy.

Following the last two rounds of national lottery applications, requests from arts organisations totalled over £10 million against available funds of just under £3 million. That gives an indication of the funding shortfall. Inevitably, many good projects and organisations will be disappointed as a consequence of not obtaining funding, because the Arts Council simply does not have the money to distribute.

The per capita figures that have been quoted relate to revenue funding, and do not include the recent investment in capital funding in the arts infrastructure. In the 2004 comprehensive spending review, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure secured £18 million in ISNI 1 (investment strategy for Northern Ireland), which was primarily intended to address the deficiency in Belfast’s arts infrastructure that was identified following the unsuccessful bid to be European Capital of Culture. Including arts lottery funding, the Department has invested £6·3 million in the redevelopment of the Grand Opera House; £8·25 million has been allocated to a new Lyric theatre, and a further £8·25 million to the new Metropolitan Arts Centre which will replace the Old Museum Arts Centre (OMAC). Almost £4 million was earmarked for the refurbishment of the Crescent Arts Centre, and £2·7 million for the Ulster Hall. Therefore, there is potential to improve the arts infrastructure in our capital city and it should be an exciting time.

As I said yesterday, however, we require support from other sources to ensure that those capital projects go ahead. I have to make it abundantly clear that if that support is not forthcoming, it is likely that some of those projects will fall. That is for others to consider. There has been some success in the regions. Capital infrastructure has been well supported; for example, Ballymena Borough Council paid for 66% of the cost of a new arts centre, and Omagh District Council invested £3 million in its new arts centre — 28% of the total cost. In my own constituency of Lagan Valley, Lisburn City Council contributed 94% of the cost of the Island Arts Centre. There is investment to be made in capital infrastructure for the arts, and benefits to be derived from that investment.

I want to comment on where the arts come into the scheme of benefits and other Departments. Some people see the arts as the cherry on top of the icing. I do not even see the arts as the icing on the cake, but as part of the mixture that makes up the fabric of Northern Ireland, and what it can deliver.

12.30 pm

With regard to economic development, for example, some 33,500 people are employed in the creative industries and in arts-related occupations. That represents about 4·6% of the population. If we were to emulate what has been achieved in the rest of the United Kingdom, we could create another 11,000 jobs in that industry. If we want to attract high-quality jobs to Northern Ireland — and we do — the arts have a key role to play. People who are employed and have a good disposable income will want to spend that income on attending quality events. The arts have a key role to play in that. In the not-too-distant past, I was aware that a company that was considering coming to Belfast chose in the end to locate in Edinburgh simply because the arts infrastructure was better there. The people that it employed had a very strong disposable income and wanted to go to a city where there were plenty of events in which they could participate.

The arts sector improves the attractiveness and image of Northern Ireland and provides a key product that contributes to tourism development. Major arts and cultural events supported by the Northern Ireland Events Company in 2005 generated 25,000 additional bed nights. It is my desire that venues such as the Grand Opera House — and the Lyric Theatre, when it reopens — should be open all year round. However, they cannot do that if they do not have the funding. Ultimately, if we want to make Northern Ireland a tourist destination for 12 months of the year, we need the arts to make that contribution.

The arts support learning, education and training, and that contributes to economic development as well. The Arts Council of Northern Ireland has used the arts to promote education among children and young people. In particular, the creative youth partnerships have involved over 13,000 children and young people and 130 artists in Northern Ireland. That initiative has helped to strengthen links to the curriculum and provide high-quality educational experiences. Projects such as the Nerve Centre, AmmA and Studio ON provide real benefits to education as they demonstrate to our young people the opportunities that are available in the creative industries.

The arts sector promotes improved health outcomes and can often act as a preventative measure. I talked about how sports can contribute to health; however, art can contribute to health as well, particularly for older people and those with disabilities or mental-health issues. People’s mental health can be assisted and improved as a consequence of having the opportunity to engage in the arts. In a survey carried out by the Mater Hospital, 88% of patients described arts activities as beneficial.

As well as promoting general economic develop­ment, the arts can act as a driver for local regeneration in both urban and rural areas. Over the past 10 years, funding to the arts has helped to establish nine new cultural buildings in towns and cities across Northern Ireland, with plans for further developments. The Cathedral Quarter in Belfast city will largely be successful on the back of the arts.

The arts sector has high levels of participation across a range of social groups and ages in Northern Ireland and contributes towards addressing issues of social inclusion and participation. Statistics show that, between April 2005 and March 2006, 47% of residents aged 16 and over had participated in or attended an arts event. The arts sector has high levels of participation among people with disabilities, and, according to research carried out by the Arts Council, 82% of the population with disabilities have expressed interest in one or more art forms.

That is a demonstration of the benefits that the arts can provide to the wider community, and that is critical. Mr O’Loan referred to Alan Gillespie’s comments, and that ties in quite neatly with what I said about the experience of the company that chose to go to Edinburgh, as opposed to Belfast. The arts are critical to the desire of this Government to deliver a stronger economy for the people of Northern Ireland.

Cultural tourism is the fastest growing segment of our tourism industry and, last year, 224,000 people engaged in cultural tourism activities. Earlier this year, the Rediscover Northern Ireland programme provided us with an opportunity to attend the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC to demonstrate Northern Ireland’s wares and show the United States of America the quality of our arts and culture. That showcase was hugely successful and, since then, the United States has shown a lot of interest in what we are doing in Northern Ireland. Many outdated, Northern Ireland stereotypes were challenged, and we showed that we were a creative, confident and outward-looking people, capable of partnering with businesses, organ­isations and people from all sections of the community. We also showed that, for some individuals, Northern Ireland has a lot more to offer than what might initially meet the eye.

I want to develop Northern Ireland as a world-class creative and cultural region, generating wealth and sustainable employment opportunities in the creative industries. We have made it very clear that, the arts are critical to many aspects of Northern Ireland; therefore, arts funding is of critical importance. A significant shortfall has been identified, and a case has been made for that in the comprehensive spending review. I have listened to my colleagues, and for example, to what the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Mr McNarry, had to say about his party’s support. That is not always reflected by his ministerial colleagues; some of the more negative comments about arts funding perhaps have come from that source.

We need to get together and identify how we, as a Government, can deliver more from the central pot, and how local government can deliver more. We must look to the corporate sector and to private sponsorship because, in many other cities and regions, the private sector makes a far greater contribution to the arts. It is not simply about giving money away — there is some­thing in it for business. There is significant benefit —

Dr Farry: In light of the Minister’s discussions with his colleagues, has his Department, through the CSR, made a formal bid to bring spending on the arts in Northern Ireland in line with the other regions of the United Kingdom?

Mr Poots: The answer is yes, and the Member should not have expected any other answer. It would cost around £26 million over the three years of the CSR. I do not need to tell Members that this is a very tough negotiating round, and we shall see what comes out of it. What happens today will have some impact on the announcement at Westminster on the CSR.

I support the spirit of the motion and of both amendments. For all the reasons that I, and other Members, have outlined, investment in the arts is a sound investment for Northern Ireland. It is important that local government and private funders step up to the mark along with central Government. Members can rest assured that I have made the case very strongly in the context of the CSR, and I very much value the many contributions made by the arts to Northern Ireland, its society, and its economy, as illustrated in the speeches this morning.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Thank you Minister. Members will be aware 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 2.00pm, when we will have the winding-up speeches on the motion and on the amendments. The sitting is by leave suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 12.39 pm.

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

2.00 pm

Mr Brolly: I had prepared a pre-lunchtime address, so I will be brief. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

I want to deal not so much with arts funding but with where the Arts Council directs its funding. I have been at various Arts Council meetings over the years, and at one such meeting, I made the point that its promotion of the arts should be more proactive and dynamic. It seemed to me that the council simply doles out any funding that it receives to people who promote the arts. It even passes the buck to the Events Company, which doles out money on its behalf.

I understand the reason that that is the case. It is probably linked closely to the fact that the funding is not available and that the council works on a shoestring while doing as much as it can. Therefore, I look forward to the Arts Council’s receiving extra funding — and I hope that it will get the sum that it seeks — so that it can become more proactive. The Arts Council is different in nature from the body that was known as the Sports Council; at sporting events, the Sports Council has a certain presence. However, people do not get a sense of an Arts Council presence at arts events. If the Arts Council adopted the same kind of promotional attitude as the Sports Council, people might show more interest in, and be more enthusiastic about, the arts.

Last night, I listened to an interview with Anna Lo, one of the proposers of the motion. I predicted the question that the interviewer would ask her when she said that the arts needed an extra £6 per capita. I said to the person who was in the car with me that the interviewer was going to ask whether that money would not be better spent on schools or hospitals. We must get that attitude out of our minds. I have an image of hospitals and schools being soulless places. These days, compared with when I was a young man, schools and hospitals are soulless. Local schools and hospitals used to have souls, but now they just have bodies. That is a good reason for the Arts Council to receive extra funding — it can use it to add soul to schools and hospitals.

My second — and last — point is that it is important for us to sustain and encourage North/South co-operation in the arts. That would give everyone a wider geographical and cultural area of interest.

Many benefits have come from North/South co-operation. I mention a very good initiative called Turas/Journey, which is a North/South funding initiative to encourage individuals and group performers in all areas of the arts. Such initiatives are useful even from an economic point of view, because, when Dublin is involved, it usually contributes a wee bit more money than we do. Apart from that, widening people’s perspectives and giving them a greater opportunity to enjoy artistic things is beneficial.

I am sorry, but I do not know whether we have yet heard the Ulster Scots for Turas/Journey from Nelson.

Mr McCausland: Three Ulster-Scots translations for “journey” are “stravaig”, “gang” or “rake”.

If we are to broaden the vision, we should be inclusive, not insular. To think about one island is to be insular. We must take a broad-minded and comprehensive view, which means embracing all the islands — the entire British Isles. Let us look east to Scotland as well.

Mr McElduff: Did Nelson previously offer “dander” as another alternative?

Mr McCausland: It was a possibility, but I thought that three alternatives were enough. I did not want to overpower people.

Mr Brolly: Will the Members give way? [Laughter.]

I shall conclude very soon, because most of the points have already been made. The Turas/Journey initiative is as inclusive as any initiative can be. I attended its launch, at which Ulster Scots and Irish were represented. Indeed, anything that could have been represented was there. I appreciate what Nelson has said about embracing all the islands. We can travel across the water to enjoy morris dancing, and perhaps even learn a bit of it. Everything cultural is good, from wherever it comes in the world.

Mr D Bradley: When the Member refers to crossing the water to enjoy culture, does he include the Scottish Gàidhealtachd in that? We heard yesterday about the worthy Colmcille initiative that was organised on Iona and Mull.

Agus ba mhaith liomceist a chur ar an bhall an aontaíonn sé liom gur choir an gaol sin idirgaeltacht na hÉireann agus gaeltacht na hAlban a fhorbairt agusa threisiú.

Does the Member agree that we should do all that we can to encourage arts links between the Gaeltacht in Ireland and the Gàidhealtachd in Scotland?

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member literally has 10 seconds.

Mr Brolly: Aontaím go mór leis an bhall eile agus gor raibhmíle maith agat, Dominic. I have little more to say. Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Mr Shannon: I support amendment No 1, which I urge Members to back.

The benefits of the arts in Northern Ireland as a means of expression are important. Indeed, those benefits are essential. Many famous poets and artists from Northern Ireland gained their inspiration from — dare I say it? — the beauties of Strangford, so I readily enjoy seeing pieces of art on display that give me a taste of home.

Undoubtedly, art has been the vital means of expression and release in the rehabilitation of many in the Province. The fact that 88% of people in the Mater Hospital felt that crafts helped them to recuperate should come as no surprise. People are made aware that they can do something useful and therapeutic, whether that be to make Christmas cards, to dedicate a piece to the memory of a loved one, to erect a monument that represents a loss of life or to paint a mural that depicts history — but that does not glorify terrorism. There is a major difference there.

Arts and culture are vital to our children’s develop­ment. It gives them an outlet for expression other than rage or bad behaviour. Ask any youth leader in the Province how he or she guarantees good behaviour from a group: the threat of their not getting to do craft. Children and adults alike enjoy working with their hands to achieve something beautiful, so that must be encouraged. For that reason, 75,000 children in the Province participate in art workshops. In my constituency alone, many workshops are held, not only in Newtown­ards Town Hall but right across the entire Ards Peninsula. Moreover, art classes are held in the techs, and classes are taught on the intricacies of knitting and crocheting — skills that I dare say elude many of us in the Chamber. I certainly would not possess them.

Historically, Strangford has produced superior poets, authors, artists and craftsmen. That must be fostered and maintained.

Everyone present will have heard me use the Ulster-Scots language in the Chamber and will know the importance that I, and many of my colleagues, place on our cultural identity. Recently, Newtownards celebrated the four-hundredth birthday of the Hamilton and Montgomery settlement, and many events were co-ordinated to celebrate that.

Mr Campbell: The Member has, on occasion, used Ulster Scots in the Chamber, but will he accept that the difference between his use of it and others’ use of Irish is that he does not use it every single time he gets to his feet, in order to make a political point?

Mr Shannon: I thank the Member for his inter­vention; it is quite clear that I do not use Ulster Scots every time that I speak, and I do not use it for political means.

We in Ards Borough Council saw the four-hundredth anniversary of the Hamilton and Montgomery settle­ments as an opportunity to remember our history, as a way to enjoy our culture, and as a drawing point for tourists. Judging by the expressions on people’s faces as they enjoyed the theatre, the crafts and the history of how Ards and Strangford have developed, a great time was had by all.

One needs only to take a drive around my beautiful constituency of Strangford to see that the lack of money is leading to serious accidents on the roads. That is why the DUP amendment is important. One needs only to sit and wait in the Ulster Hospital to realise that the Health Service is understaffed and underfunded. One need only sit in the library in Ards, which holds 40 people, or go to our schools to witness the problems that arise a from lack of funds, and to see that there are areas in the Province that must be given priority in a wholehearted allocation of funding.

Although it is important for children to be able to express their talents and gifts, it is crucial that they can sit in a classroom that is equipped to meet their needs, and that they can go to a library that will enhance their basic literary skills. As important as good funding is in boosting tourism, it is essential that the infrastructure can bear the weight of the load. As amazing as the results of rehabilitative arts expression are, it is imperative that the correct drugs and treatment can be recognised for each patient, and afforded accordingly.

It would be great to be able to afford to do every­thing; to have the perfect country with enough funds to ensure state-of the-art hospitals and schools alongside artistic forums, workshops and dedicated facilities. However, Northern Ireland is not that country; at least, it is not yet. I have no doubt that a time will come when our nation’s investment portfolio is greater, when our tourism potential is explored, and when we get all the benefits that that will bring. At that time, the funds will be available to invest greatly in young, individual artistic talents. However, that day is not yet here, and the essentials must take precedence.

As a member of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, I would love enough money to be available to support all of the applications for funding that are made. However, that is not possible, so we must strive for the most and excel with what we have. We can do that. I support the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure in his bid for the extra £26 million for arts funding over the next three years, because that gives an indication of what he is aiming to do, and it gives the Committee a chance to support him.

I support the amendment, which recognises the importance of arts funding in Northern Ireland, but also identifies the fact that there are pressing needs that must take priority if we are to develop as a nation. I support amendment No 1.

Dr Farry: I welcome the vast majority of the comments that have been made in the debate. It has been a constructive debate, although Members have, at times, wandered into the next debate.

All parties, and especially the Minister, accept that, per capita, the arts are underfunded in Northern Ireland, compared to every other region of the United Kingdom, and compared to the Republic of Ireland. There is no need to repeat the figures, but they are revenue-based, and additional capital investments should be taken into account when arts funding is considered. Parity with the rest of the United Kingdom to meet the UK average requires an investment of £26 million over the course of the forthcoming comprehensive spending review period. I am pleased that the Minister has today confirmed that DCAL will make a specific bid for those funds in the comprehensive spending review.

The Minister made a strong case for the Alliance Party’s motion during his speech. I hope that the Assembly will approve the original motion. If it does so, the Minister’s efforts to persuade his Executive colleagues to come up with that money will be reinforced.

2.15 pm

The Assembly is not asking for something unrealistic or off the wall but for something that the Department has put on the agenda. Unfortunately, the Alliance Party cannot support amendment No 1, because it ducks the core problem of underfunding in Northern Ireland relative to other regions. The issue of parity must be addressed in the short term and as quickly as possible.

The DUP Members who spoke reflected the essence of the motion. When the Minister spoke, he effectively made a bid for the money to which the motion refers. Rather than blurring the issue, there are advantages in DUP Members weighing in behind their Minister in order to reinforce his efforts around the Executive table. There is a real advantage to be gained by the Assembly’s speaking in a clear, united voice.

I must slap myself on the wrist and apologise to Barry McElduff, who proposed amendment No 2, for not sufficiently reflecting the Irish dimension in the original motion. The motion tried to place Northern Ireland in the context of overall UK public expenditure. However, Anna Lo and other Members, including Mr McElduff, referred to the figure of £12·61 — or its euro equivalent — that each person in the Republic of Ireland receives in arts funding. It must be recognised that people in the Republic are even further ahead of people in Northern Ireland in arts funding per capita. The North/South and all-island dimension to the arts must also be acknowledged. Many facets of the Irish story of arts and culture can be marketed to the world. That point has been well made, and I accept the criticism of the original motion.

That said, the reference made in amendment No 2 to arts funding of £10 per person perhaps sells Northern Ireland somewhat short, given the loss of the National Lottery funding for the arts. To achieve parity in arts funding, the figure per capita in Northern Ireland would now be £11·55. Given my comments on the Irish dimension to arts funding, it would be advantageous were Sinn Féin to withdraw its amendment and back the original motion.

During the debate, Nelson McCausland referred to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in the United States. I agree that that was a tremendous demonstration of the creative arts in Northern Ireland. I also fully accept his points that the Orange culture must be incorporated into the arts and that alternative funding streams must be considered.

Much has been made of the fact that the Arts Council is the main recipient of funding. Although the Arts Council is in the driving seat and has made the strongest arguments for additional funding, it should be recognised that other sectors in Northern Ireland contribute to the creative arts. The motion made no specific reference to the Arts Council; it dealt with arts funding in general rather than specific funding for a particular organisation.

Several councils throughout Northern Ireland make strong interventions in support of the arts. Mr McCausland criticised North Down Borough Council, but I reassure him that North Down is at the cutting edge of the arts. In my capacity as Mayor of North Down, I recently attended a concert by Camerata Ireland and Barry Douglas. Moreover, the annual Aspects Irish Literature Festival was held in my constituency at the end of September. The council is working to secure a new theatre and multi-purpose venue in the near future. On the back of that, the council will increase the amount of money that it diverts towards the arts.

Barry McElduff mentioned the sandy beaches of west Tyrone: I am not sure where they are, but I look forward to sunbathing there in the future. However, he made the important point that for every £1 invested in the arts, the benefit to the economy is £3·60. If anything, that may be an underestimate.

David McNarry said that the Assembly is setting a target and a challenge for the Minister on arts funding. That should not be perceived as an ultimatum to the Department. The motion does not try to back the Minister into a corner but to reflect concern about a critical issue and achieve some consensus in the Assembly that should aid him in his efforts.

I look forward to seeing Dominic Bradley’s acting ability being put to good use in the future. He made useful points about tourism potential on the back of arts and the importance of arts investment in the context of the global economy. He referred specifically to the importance that countries such as Italy and France place on high-quality design to create high-value products. Northern Ireland can learn lessons from that.

Lord Browne referred to the history of creativity in this part of the world, and to the benefits of groups such as Snow Patrol and Van Morrison putting Northern Ireland on the international map. On 1 September, 30,000 were people in Bangor for the Snow Patrol concert.

Paul Maskey referred to Féile an Phobail, which is an excellent example of a community arts festival. It has been a tribute to the ongoing work in west Belfast, and, as we move out of conflict, has done much to create a positive image for that community.

Ken Robinson mentioned a host of names who have benefited from arts funding in Northern Ireland, and who, in turn, have played a crucial role in promoting its international image. He also referred to the Grand Opera House, and it is worth reflecting that it was a beacon of hope in Belfast during the Troubles. The Grand Opera House, at the start of the golden mile, is the centre of so much investment and spin-off in Belfast.

Declan O’Loan referred to how areas that invest in tourism also invest highly in the arts. Surely there is a link there. He also referred to the importance of providing a rich, cultural environment in which to attract foreign direct investment.

The underfunding of the arts is not the fault of the Assembly, but a legacy of the past. We now have an opportunity to put things right. That underfunding illustrates that there are structural problems in our economy, and it is one of the many areas where we will come across major distortions in public expenditure that are having a detrimental effect on our ability to grow as an economy. There are a range of reasons for investing in the arts — social benefits; health and education; helping people with disabilities, including the visually and aurally impaired; dealing with mental health; community engagement; and promoting a shared future. Two thirds of art activity is, in fact, cross community.

In conclusion, I shall focus on the financial and economic aspects. Investment in the arts can be viewed as a major investment in our economy and future prosperity for us all. As Anna Lo stressed at the beginning, the sums involved are small in the context of the overall budget. However, the investment that we make on the back of the motion could have a disproportionate positive effect. In the 1820s, an English political economist, David Ricardo, set out the theory of comparative advantage: Northern Ireland has a comparative advantage in the creative arts. It is something that we are good at, and we should develop that to its full potential. We have the excellent talent — we have mentioned the names already — and we have the culture and the heritage on which to capitalise. We should, arguably, try to build on those areas at a rate ahead of the UK average.

As the Minister has stated, the Arts Council supports about 2,500 jobs. It is larger than any other industry in Northern Ireland. The arts underpin a wider range of creative industries, including design, architecture, fashion, marketing and the media, which amount to around 33,000 jobs. As the Minister has said, that is only 4·7% of our economy, whereas the UK average for those industries is 6·8%. Again, there is huge potential to build on that. Artistic output goes further in branding Northern Ireland. Not all investment in the arts will work, but some investment will produce huge gains for Northern Ireland. That investment is a form of research and development. Overall in Northern Ireland, research and development is a major problem, and we should invest in that for everyone’s future.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Before I put the Question on amendment No 1, I advise Members that if amendment No 1 is made, amendment No 2 will fall, and I will proceed to put the Question on the motion as amended.

Question, That amendment No 1 be made, put and negatived.

Question, That amendment No 2 be made, put and negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly recognises the critical role that the arts can play in promoting a positive international image of Northern Ireland, attracting visitors and growing the local economy and the contribution that community arts make to social cohesion; expresses its alarm that the arts are relatively underfunded per capita in Northern Ireland compared to all other regions in the United Kingdom; and calls upon the Executive to raise the level of arts funding to at least the United Kingdom average within the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

2.30 pm

Irish Language

Mr Speaker: A valid petition of concern in respect of the motion was presented to me on Monday 8 October 2007. Having checked the petition, I regard it as fulfilling the requirements of Standing Order 27, thus allowing the vote to take place at the conclusion of the debate. Members wishing to inspect the petition of concern may do so in the Business Office.

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 to make a winding-up speech. All other Members 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 to wind up. The vote on the motion will be on a cross-community basis, whereas the vote on the amendment will require only a simple majority.

Mr McNarry: I beg to move

That this Assembly reaffirms its support for the recognition given to the Irish language and Ulster-Scots culture through Foras na Gaeilge and Tha Boord o Ulstèr-Scotch as an equitable framework for the expression of these linguistic and cultural traditions; objects to the proposal for an Irish language Act in light of these arrangements; and calls on the First Minister and deputy First Minister to request all members of the Executive Committee to recognise the sensitivities of using the Irish language by refraining from its use in the Assembly Chamber, in Committees and in written communication with MLAs.

At the outset, Mr Speaker, I should state that I accept the amendment. Nine years ago, the Ulster Unionist Party concluded that the 1998 arrangements provided for an equitable framework through which due recognition would be accorded to the Irish language and the Ulster-Scots culture. That matter should have been left at that juncture to allow Tha Boord o Ulstèr-Scotch and Foras na Gaeilge to develop. However, as Members know, the promotion of Irishness was never going to be left there. The 1998 arrangements were seen as merely a means to ram home the abrasive side of republicanism, based on the sentiment that they should bank what they have got, then push hard and demand more.

I see a smile on the face of junior Minister Kelly. I do not know whether he is here to speak in response to the motion, but I hope that he will be speaking for OFMDFM, not for his party.

Since 1998, unionists have been subjected to having the Irish language forced down their throats in an uncompromising and adversarial way. How disappointing it is, therefore, in our country — blessed over a short but unique period of history in the United Kingdom, in which we have contributed to the society of a Union that flows with a rich diversity of cultural traditions and where, in recent times, we have embraced a growing range of ethnic minority traditions — to find conflict manufactured by an Irish-speaking minority, as represented in the House by Sinn Féin, which is forcing an obscene aggression of deliberate defiance right smack into our unionist faces.

The motion reaffirms support for Foras na Gaeilge and Tha Boord o Ulstèr-Scotch. It aims to unite — not divide — the House on current arrangements and to continue to support the significant commitment to fund both bodies. It neither imposes nor implies any threat to the agreed equitable framework; indeed, it is wrong for anyone in the House to suggest otherwise.

The Ulster Unionist Party has not shifted and does not intend to shift its position on the introduction of an Irish language Act. In our opinion, the 1998 arrangements remain the best means of respecting our cultural diversity, of contributing to community cohesion, and of promoting good community relations.

Decisions that were taken at St Andrews were not agreed by the Ulster Unionist Party, but, whatever the truth about who agreed to what, the decision that was taken in itself has served to be profoundly unsettling for unionists and has potentially damaging implications for both community and Assembly relations.

I have no doubt that the responses that the House will hear will be the laments of those who are unwilling to compromise and be practical about the issue. Compared to the lengths that unionists have come since the introduction in 1998 of the arrangements that had the aim of reflecting respect for cultural values and traditions, the lamenters’ tunes are old, familiar and played out, and they no longer stack up or impress anyone.

What did the myth makers behind the consultation process try to get away with? They told us that an Irish language Act would have no adverse impact on those who did not speak Irish. However, in this place, even without an Act, unionists are constantly experiencing the effects of an adverse impact, and today we are plainly saying to you that we are having no more of it.

The scribes of scribble and deceit also suggest dangerously that the proposed Act would help build support for, and understanding of, the benefits of promoting and protecting the Irish language. Even those on the opposite side of the House do not believe such nonsense. It completely ignores the political, social and cultural reality that the Irish language is not — I repeat not — viewed as a neutral form of cultural expression.

Look at the sinister side of the Act. Despite the admission by the draftsman that the current demand to have public services delivered through the medium of Irish is, at best, relatively modest, it is proposed that public authorities be duty-bound to prepare a language scheme.

What about the cost? There has been nothing but a failure to even estimate with any accuracy the cost of introducing the legislation. How would the avalanche of Irish-language strangulation be paid for? Will the funding come from cuts in hospitals, or will there be more school closures? Will you take it from the farmers, Ms Gildernew? Will the teachers, parents and pupils pay for it, Ms Ruane? How about putting a cap on social housing, Ms Ritchie? Will the road works be slashed, Mr Murphy? Tell us that.

People have asked me why I have thrown Executive Ministers into the mix over the Irish language. The truth is that I have not thrown anyone into the mix: it is well stirred up, and I am responding to it.

The Ministers’ inclusion is a serious issue. I was prompted to include them because on 19 July 2007, the Minister of Education wrote to update me on RPA proposals on the education sector that the Executive accepted. The second page of her letter was all in English, but half of the first page — and half of the last page — was in what I assume was Irish. Obviously, that Minister is incapable of writing in English only. I wrote back saying:

“I find your communications inclusive of Irish intimidating, disrespectful and off-putting. I would respectfully request that in future you would correspond with me in English only.”

To date, I have not received a reply to my letter, let alone an acknowledgement.

Hansard records the same Minister, in her opening remarks on the classroom assistants’ dispute, which covered 11 paragraphs, speaking in Irish for what I assume was more than 30% of her allocated time. I did not understand any of it. I noted that the Minister did the same thing yesterday.

I am aware of Standing Order 73, which states:

“Members may speak in the language of their choice.”

I accept that Members have endorsed their nomination to hold office in a British regional Assembly, and also being Members, may speak in the language of their choice. However Standing Order 73 does not state that Members can communicate in writing in the language of their choice. Therefore, in light of the obvious unionist sensitivities over speaking in Irish, it seems reasonable and forthright to ask the First Minister and his deputy to take stock of those sensitivities, to recognise the serious implications of such, and to request that Ministers refrain from using Irish in the Chamber, in Committees and when communicating in writing.

There is really nothing to get het up about. However, by judging the unwarranted charges tossed about by Sinn Féin, the word “request” seems to have been overlooked. There is no demand, just a request. There is no abuse of anyone’s rights, and I reject outright any attempt by any republican to slur any unionist by branding him or her a bigot over the issue. Make no mistake: what has been presented here is a clear, definitive signal that unionists are fed up with the Irish language being thrown in their faces.

Many a time we have been asked to look to the Republic — indeed, we were asked to do that today. I have looked to the Republic, and I am grateful to the Bills Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas. The kindly people in the Houses of the Oireachtas have given me the following information: in 2006, 65 English-only Bills were published; five bilingual Bills were published; and no Irish-only Bills were published. Up to 2 July this year, 41 English-only Bills were published, and no bilingual or all-Irish Bills were published. Not once did a Member of the Houses of the Oireachtas produce, present or publish a Bill in Irish only.

On that formidable and conclusive evidence, I rest my case. I ask the House for its support.

Mr Speaker: I remind Members of two matters. First, the junior Minister is present to represent the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Secondly, the remarks of Members must be made through the Chair. Members should have the courtesy to do that.

Mr McCausland: I beg to move the following amendment: After ‘Ulster-Scots’ insert: “language and”

and after ‘MLAs’ insert:

“; and requests that the Official Report uses the same policy for recording the opening words of speeches when they are spoken in Irish as when they are spoken in English.” — [Offical Report,Vol 23, No 5, p182, col 2]

I am grateful to Mr McNarry for accepting the amendment. Minority languages are part of the cultural wealth of any country, including Northern Ireland. Here in Ulster, we have two minority languages that are indigenous to this place — Ulster Scots and Irish.

The difficulty for many of us is that what should be cultural wealth has been turned by Sinn Féin and others — they are not alone — into a cultural weapon. I believe that the way forward for minority languages is found through the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and through the Government’s strategy, ‘A Shared Future’. ‘A Shared Future’ sets out a vision for Northern Ireland of equality and diversity. The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages sets out a linguistic framework for language development.

Under the previous devolved Government, there was a substantial disparity in funding, support and commit­ment regarding the two languages, in that vast resources were pushed into the Irish language through Foras na Gaeilge, whereas very limited resources, coupled with many imposed difficulties, went to the Boord o Ulstèr-Scotch.

Therefore, the concept of equality was not there.

2.45 pm

As a result of funding and support during that period, there was capacity to employ a range of workers and build up a head of steam in order to demand an Irish language Act. One must only consider the amount of public money that was paid into organisations such as Pobal to run that campaign. It was no wonder that thousands of signatures could be collected and that events and conferences with international speakers could be organised — it was all done with public money. Unfortunately, the Ulster-Scots community was not supported in the same way.

In the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, Ulster Scots has part II status. We can now move forward, and, in a few years, we will be at a point at which Ulster Scots will achieve part III status — on the same level as Irish and entitled to the same provisions. There will be real equality then.

In 2002, under the previous devolved Government, the DCAL adviser on minority languages, who was employed as a consultant, produced a plan to promote the status of Ulster Scots from part II to part III. Tragically, that document sat in the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, and no one bothered to do anything — it was forgotten. There was no mention of it when the DUP asked for feedback from the inter-departmental charter implementation group. Was it sent to a working group? No, it just gathered dust on a DCAL shelf.

Under devolution, I hope that Members will be able to progress the comprehensive spending review to a point at which the funding for Ulster-Scots reaches parity with Irish. That is what a shared future must be about.

On 10 September 2007, Mrs Carmel Hanna said:

“I ask the Minister to take into consideration, when he looks at the matter, the most recent census figures, which show that around 10% of the population of Northern Ireland speak the Irish language and only 2% speak Ulster Scots.”

The census did not ask whether those completing it spoke Ulster Scots. It is remarkable that she knew how many people spoke Ulster Scots when the question was not even asked. The figure of 10% is grossly exaggerated, particularly in light of recent figures from the Republic that show that, even though a proportion of the population has some capacity for the Irish language, those who bother to use it are about a third of Mrs Hanna’s figure. I learned French at school, but I never use it.

Concerning Sinn Féin’s use of the Irish language and points that were raised about the Irish language Act, Mr McNarry used some relevant words. He spoke of people ramming the Irish language down other people’s throats — he is right about that. Many years ago, the predecessors of the IRA, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, published a magazine called ‘Irish Freedom’. In one article, it encouraged every Irish speaker to become — what a great phrase — a “language bigot”. The magazine actually advocated bigotry. Therefore, people were compelled to become Irish language bigots and to go around the place and “shove it down their throats” — whether they liked it or not. Sinn Féin’s policy today is the same as that which the Irish Republican Brotherhood advocated 100 years ago — nothing much changes.

At the beginning of the Gaelic revival, a few Protestants were involved; however, they soon dropped by the wayside. One need only examine the records of the Glens of Antrim Feis to see that leading republicans were on the platform. It was more political than cultural. The GAA and the Gaelic League have been involved in events such as the Casement commemoration — another republican event. The linkage between the Irish language, Gaelic culture and republicanism spans more than 100 years.

Concerning knowledge of the Irish language, Sinn Féin kindly posts a magazine through the doors in my area every so often. That magazine formerly had an Irish headline in letters an inch and a half large.

However, the last issue that came was called the ‘Sinn Féin Bulletin’. Although the “Sinn Féin” bit seems to be Gaelic, the word “Bulletin” is English. The original big banner headline is now a minuscule strapline. That says clearly that the people who were getting the newspaper did not know what it was, because they could not read it.

That is a bit like the case of the Sinn Féin Members who, at the start of the Assembly, were given little crib sheets. Somebody left one in the photocopier, and I picked it up. The crib sheet gave phrases in English with their Irish equivalents — which were also spelled out phonetically, so that the Members would know how to say them. Over the summer, some of those Members went to classes, and now they can actually manage to say a few words. That may be progress linguistically, if not otherwise.

Finally, we added the reference to Hansard because at the start of a speech made by a Sinn Féin Member there are usually five or six words — I will not attempt to pronounce them — which probably mean something like “Thank you, Mr Speaker”. However, when I say the same thing in English, it is not recorded. That raises two points. First, if that phrase were removed from the speeches there would be little Irish to record, because that is about the limit of most Sinn Féin Members’ knowledge. There are a few fluent Irish-speakers among them, but the bulk of them struggle with their seven or eight words.

Secondly — if we believe in equality — if such phrases are recorded in one language, but not in the primary language of English, who decided that they should be recorded in Irish for Irish-speakers?

Mrs Long: Will the Member give way?

Mr McCausland: I have less than two minutes left, I am sorry.

Finally, if we are to deal with the issue, we need to get rid of the divisiveness, friction and abrasiveness that the Irish language lobby has brought to the matter. We must restore the Irish language to its place in our cultural wealth.

All minority languages are of value wherever they exist, whether they belong to indigenous or ethnic communities. However, indigenous languages are particularly significant, because, if they die out in the countries in which they are spoken, they will not exist elsewhere. If Chinese ceased to be spoken here, it would still be spoken in China, and it would survive. However, if Ulster Scots dies out in Ulster, it will die out completely. The same can be said of Irish. If it dies out as a minority language on the island of Ireland, it will die out. We need to reach a point where those languages are respected, not used as cultural weapons in an abrasive and offensive manner. We can reach that point if we stick to the core principles outlined in the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and the Government policy of ‘A Shared Future’.

Ms Ni Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Agus ba mhaith liom labhairt i gcoinne an mholadh seo. For Nelson, that was: “Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am not supporting this motion.”

This motion is divisive, offensive and sinister. The issue of language rights is not controversial in Wales, Scotland, the South of Ireland or throughout Europe. An expression of human rights has become a political football in the battle for supremacy between the unionist parties. The determination of unionist politicians to block any recognition of the Irish language is a misguided and macho demonstration of anti-Irish bigotry. It is almost as if unionism has decided to define itself by how ferociously anti-Irish it has become. That is nothing short of pathetic.

According to the latest census, 75,000 people in the Six Counties speak, read, write and understand Irish. An additional 167,000 people say that they have some knowledge of the Irish language. The increasing demand for Irish-medium education is an indication of the value attached to the language by many families in the North. Those are the plain facts.

The Irish language has a particular relationship with the people of this island. It is an indigenous language, with an unbroken historical line, and it has been spoken here for over 2,000 years. It is part of a common culture; a language that has been shared with Gaelic Scotland for 1,500 years. The names of our mountains, rivers, towns and streets are deeply rooted in the Irish language.

The Irish language is not just a nationalist issue; it is part of the shared cultural heritage of us all. Indeed, the Irish language is rooted in the proud tradition of Presbyterianism, and there are many examples of Presbyterians who viewed the language as an integral part of our shared cultural heritage.

In 2001, the British Government signed up to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The committee of experts who oversee the imple­mentation of the charter has consistently been critical of the British Government’s approach to the rights of Irish language speakers. There has been a deliberate attempt to inflate the likely costs of affording language rights to Irish speakers, and measures to address the historical exclusion of Irish speakers have been presented as an unnecessary burden to the taxpayer. Like many of the arguments that have been deployed, those arguments are also spurious.

Where costs have been incurred, the bottom line for Irish speakers, who are also taxpayers, is that for decades they have been paying towards their own exclusion. The Irish language community is asking to be treated equally with the Welsh language community regarding resources. We need to safeguard the rights of Irish language speakers — the same rights that were part of the Good Friday Agreement, which David McNarry’s party supported.

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a thabhairt do Dháithí Mc Narry. I thank David McNarry, because as a result of his motion, in just one week, the demand for people requesting to find out where their local ranganna Gaeilge or Irish language classes are being held has increased. Therefore, go raibh maith agat, Daithí. Mar fhocal scoir —

Mr McElduff: I want to point out that David McNarry, who proposed the motion, vacated the Chamber as soon as the Sinn Féin Member got up to address the issues contained in his statement.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat.

Mar fhocal scoir, ba mhaith liom na rudaí seo a leanas a rá. Mr McNarry should know that a proposed Irish language Act is now with DCAL, and that it will be discussed on 25 October 2007. This motion is a pre-emptive strike, and is unhelpful to us all. Náire ort Sinn Féin is opposed to the motion. Go raibh maith agaibh.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat. Ba mhaith liom a rá ón tú go bhfuil mé gla in éadan an rúin seo mar nach bhfuil crothán céille leis in aon chor.

At the outset, I express my opposition to the motion. It is not a sensible motion in anyone’s language, whether it is Irish, English or Ulster Scots. It seeks to have the First Minister and the deputy First Minister request that members of the Executive Committee refrain from using the Irish language in the Assembly Chamber, in Committees and in written communications with MLAs.

Fiú dá n-iarrfadh an Chéad agus an Leas-Chéad Airear airí a léithéid a dhéanamh cén cumhacht a bheadh acu a n-iarratas a chur i bhfeidhm ?

Even if the First Minister and the deputy First Minister were minded to make such a request, what power would they have to enforce it? Such a ban would fly in the face of every piece of human rights and equality legislation that we have — not to mention international charters.

Rachadh sé in aghaidh rialacha an Tionóil féin chomh fada agus atá cead ag baill a rogha teanga a úsáid ach a n-aistriúchán féin dá ndúirt siad a sholáthar.

Indeed, it would go against the rules of this House insofar as Members may use the language of their choice and provide their own translation. That is the convention, and it is observed by Members who use Irish and Ulster Scots, and, therefore, recognises the sensitivities of those who may not understand what is being said.

We should be considering the ways in which Irish speakers are disadvantaged by the rules of the House. As I said, Irish speakers, according to convention, must translate everything that they say into English. In doing so, they lose part of their speaking time.

Tá cosc orainn ceisteanna scríofa nó ruin a chur síos i nGaeilge ach lena cheart a thabhairt don Cheann Comhairle tá geallta aige a scéal sin a inniúcadh.

We are even prohibited from submitting written question or motions in Irish, even if we provide translations. Although, Mr Speaker, to give you credit, you have promised to consider that issue, and I welcome that pledge.

3.00 pm

Mr Speaker, the House should move into the modern age and provide a facility for instantaneous translation, as Assemblies in other parts of the UK do. Instead of trying to curtail cultural rights and diversity, we should be trying to facilitate them. The message that we should send out is that we are open to diversity and we facilitate it, not that we are narrow-minded bigots who cannot share our own cultural traditions. If we cannot share them here, what chance do we have of embracing a wider diversity?

The motion calls on the House to object to the proposal for an Irish language Act. However, Mr McNarry should know that such an Act would have to pass all the legislative stages, including a Committee Stage. He is Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure. Why does he seek to undermine the integrity of that Committee by bringing this motion? Mr McNarry is vociferous when he considers that the Minister or the Department are seeking to under­mine the Committee’s integrity, yet he brings a motion today that seeks to do that for which he condemns the Minister and the Department. That, Mr Speaker —

Mr McNarry: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Did you not say, when chastising me, that Members were to address their questions through you and speak through you?

Mr Speaker: Once again, I remind Members, as far as possible, to address their remarks through the Chair.

Mr D Bradley: Mr Speaker, you will have noticed that I have addressed you in name at least five times already.

Mr McElduff: I thank the Member for giving way. I wish to welcome Mr McNarry back into the Chamber. Ba mhaith liom a rá fáilte ar ais. The Sinn Féin Member has spoken: Mr McNarry can now come back into the Chamber.

Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute.

Mr D Bradley: Mr McNarry’s attitude to the debate and to the Committee is utter hypocrisy and points to the shambolic nature of the motion, which calls on people who have no power to do anything, to do nothing. It is a waste of the Assembly’s time. Even if the motion were to be carried, it would not change a thing. Members should see Mr McNarry’s motion for what it is — a cheap publicity stunt. We should not encourage that sort of thing; we should reject it.

Tréaslaím le gach duine sa teach seo a roghnaíonn an Ghaeilge nó n Ultais féin a úsáid, is cuma cá mhéad den teanga atá ar eolas acu. Tá mé cinnte de nach gcuirfidh an rún seo as dóibh agus ta súil agam go mbeidh na háiseanna cuí againn le húsáid na Gaeilge a fhorbairt mar is ceart i ngnó an Tionóil.

Mr Speaker, if you give me the time, I will translate that.

In conclusion, I congratulate every Member who chooses to use Irish, or indeed Ulster Scots, in the Chamber. It does not matter how much of the language they know. I am sure that the motion will not discourage them from doing so, and I look forward to a time when there are facilities in the House for instantaneous translation. Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Dr Farry: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.


Mr Kennedy: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I ask the Mayor of North Down to explain that remark to his constituents.

Dr Farry: As the Mayor of North Down, that well-known hotbed of republicanism, I point out to the Member that, on the mayor’s chain of office, and on the crest of the borough of North Down, the place name Bangor appears in Irish as Beannchor, a Cheann Comhairle.

The motion is completely unnecessary. The people of Northern Ireland wonder why we are discussing the motion when so many pressing issues face us, such as health, education, community relations and the classroom assistants’ strike.

Does a knockabout over an issue regarding symbols really add to the credit of this Assembly?

I think not. It is a real shame that the situation is such that a petition of concern has been submitted on an issue that does not affect the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland. That is an interesting statement of the priorities of the Ulster Unionist Party, which follows its proposing the same motion twice.

We must have respect for one another in the Chamber. My colleagues and I do not find a Minister’s using Irish in the Chamber, or in a letter, offensive or intimidating. Provided that a translation is supplied, what is the problem? As Mr McCausland said, relatively little Irish is spoken in the Chamber. It is not a big deal and is not holding back the Assembly.

We must avoid a situation whereby the Irish language is associated with republicanism. When that association has been made, it has come from the allegations of unionists. The Irish culture and heritage belongs to us all as part of our shared background. Many place names in Northern Ireland have an Irish root.

Mr McCarthy: Ballygowan.

Dr Farry: Ballygowan, among many others. My Irish is limited, and I will not attempt to speak it again, but I did attend an Irish class when I was at Queen’s University. Guess who organised that class? It was the Queen’s University Ulster Unionist Association. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order.

Dr Farry: Even Mr McNarry used Irish in his speech today when he referred to the Southern Parliament as the Oireachtas, and he did us all a great discourtesy by not providing a translation of that term. [Laughter.]

The Alliance Party is happy to discuss an Irish language Act, but our preference would be for an overarching language Bill that would encompass all the languages that are used in Northern Ireland, whether Irish, Ulster Scots, or the growing range of ethnic and minority languages.

We must make a distinction between giving respect, and facilitating people to engage in freedom of expression, in which case duties are placed upon others. Allowing Members to use Irish in the Chamber does not place duties on other Members, but it respects people’s rights to exercise part of their identity, and none of us should have a difficulty with that.

The Alliance Party is reassured by the approach that is being taken in relation to the current version of the Irish language Act, under the aegis of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. The Alliance Party had major reservations about the rights-based approach that was advanced as part of the initial consultation, which we believe would place substantial burdens on public bodies. The approach of creating language schemes, whereby public bodies have a duty to put in place suitable provision for their user base, is constructive and merits further discussion.

Today’s debate is not about the Irish language Act, but about respect for Members of the Assembly and how we relate to one another. Members must send out the message that respect and tolerance is now the ethos of the new Northern Ireland. There is a risk that this motion will drag us back to the old-time politics that many people believed we had moved on from. The Assembly must reject the motion in the strongest terms.

Mr G Robinson: I support the amendment. Sinn Féin, and others, use the Irish language as a political tool and as a political football. Sinn Féin use the Irish language as a means of creating an identity that they can hide behind when they want to whitewash their electorate into thinking that they are still a republican party.

The motion identifies the sensitivities involved in using the Irish language, and it aims to create equality in the Assembly Chamber. The request for only English to be spoken in the Assembly Chamber has been made for sensible and practical reasons, in order to build an environment that is truly shared. There can be no equality when the majority of Members cannot understand what certain Members say, or try to say.

Janet Muller of Pobal said:

“Demanding Irish speakers cease to use the language in public is the language equivalent of telling black people to sit at the back of the bus.”

That is a misleading and scurrilous attempt to blind the Assembly and con the public into believing that a there is a unionist agenda of language apartheid. Language apartheid is being created only by those Members opposite who deliberately preface their remarks with a statement in Irish, and sometimes pronounce that badly.

There is no doubt that respect for cultural heritage in its various forms is a slow and ongoing project. However, forcing contentious aspects of a culture, which has become closely associated with terrorism, is not the way to gain respect for it. The Members opposite cannot honestly compare the use of Irish — which became closely identified with IRA terrorism, whether they accept that or not — with the use of Ulster Scots by their Protestant neighbours. Is it so difficult for some Members to use the language that they use in everyday conversation in the Building, and, indeed, through which they make the majority of their comments and contributions in the Assembly?

Recently, Members will have become aware that £151,000 of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety’s budget has been wasted in the past five years. I, and many others, have no doubt that that money could have been better utilised to the benefit of all. Members are aware of the tightness of the budget that the Assembly has at its disposal. Small savings in each Department add up to a substantial amount. Those savings can be made immediately and will benefit the whole of Northern Ireland, unlike the sometimes stuttering comments in Irish to which Members are subjected in Assembly debates, Committees and written communications.

The proposal of an Irish language Act is another example of how Sinn Féin has tried to appease the people who elected its members into office. Sinn Féin knows as well as everyone else in the Assembly that there is no way that such a proposal would be passed. The DUP promised its electorate that that would not happen. My party can deliver on its promise. With that in mind, any such proposal can be seen as Sinn Féin’s use of part of its culture and heritage as a political device. Sinn Féin knows that an Irish language Act is undeliverable. That is tantamount to an abuse of the trust that its electorate has put in the party.

I sincerely hope that the amendment is carried and that the ridiculous speculation on an Irish language Act can be put behind us. We are an English-speaking nation. In the context of Northern Ireland, the Irish language is a highly divisive issue that is used to inflame and to cultivate political sport. Scots Gaelic and Welsh are not used in that way, and are more popular in their respective countries than Irish is in Northern Ireland. I support the amendment.

Mr Brolly: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Caithfidh mé a rágo gcuireann an rún seo díoma or magus go mór mór ós rud é go bhfuil sé curtha inár láthair ag fear a bhfuil breá Gaelach air – Dáithí McNarry, agus tá sé as láthair arís.

I am disappointed by the motion, especially as it was brought to the House by a man who carries a fine Gaelic surname: David McNarry. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order, Members. Order.

Mr Brolly: Tá sloinne breá Gaelach orm féin agus tá mé cinnte nach gcuirfidh sé ionadh ar dhuine ar bith sa teach seo go bhfuil mé ag éirí i mo sheasamh chun labhairt go láidir agus go teann in éadan an ruin sheafóidigh seo.

I carry a fine Gaelic surname as well. I am sure that no one will be surprised that I speak strongly and firmly against this pointless motion.

Is féidir go bhfaca cuid agaibh na páistí scoile agus a múinteoirí taobh amuigh den fhoirgneamh seo ag am loin ag déanamh agóide i gcoinne an rúin seo. Tá na daltaí sin i measc ceithre mhíle acu atá ag staidéar trí mheán na Gaeilge ar chuig scoil agus seasca ar fud an Tuaiscirt agus tá na huimhreacha sin ag ardú ó bhliain go bliain.

Perhaps some Members saw the children who assembled in protest outside the Building at lunchtime. Those children are among 4,000 who study through the medium of Irish in 65 schools across the North — a number that is growing from year to year.

Briseann an moladh seo rialacha an Tionóil. Briseann an moladh seo Comhaontú Aoine an Chéasta maidir leis an teanga. Briseann an moladh seo an chairt Eorpach a thacaíonn le ceart an duine an Ghaeilge a fhoghlaim agus a labhairt.

The motion breaks the rules of the Assembly. It breaks those rights enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement regarding language and it breaks the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which supports the right of people to learn and to speak Irish.

3.15 pm

Mr D Bradley: The Ulster Unionist Party, of which Mr McNarry is a member, signed up to the Good Friday Agreement, which stated that the Government should:

“ • take resolute action to promote the language;

• facilitate and encourage the use of the language in speech and writing and in public and private life where there is appropriate demand;

• seek to remove, where possible, restrictions which would discourage or work against the maintenance or development of the Irish language;”.

Does the Member agree that it seems that the Ulster Unionist Party is now posing as an anti-agreement party?

Mr Brolly: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Go raibh maith agat, a Dhominic.

I thank Dominic for his intervention and for that very useful information.

Tá an ceart chun teangacha dúchasacha a úsáid aitheanta go hidirnáisiúnta agus ní féidir le ciníochas frith-Ghaeilge nó páirtithe polaitiúla ceart mhuintir Thuaisceart na hÉireann a dhiúltú. Ní cóir ach oiread do dhuine ar bith sa teach seo nó taobh amuigh de gan meas a bheith aige ar an Ghaeilge, ar Ghaeilgeoirí agus ar lucht tacaíochta na Gaeilge.

The right to use indigenous languages is recognised internationally, and no racist, anti-Gaelic racist, or political parties have the right to deny the people of the North of Ireland their right. It is not proper for people in the House, or outside it, to show disrespect for the Irish language, Irish speakers or supporters of the Irish language.

Cinntíonn an rún seo agus an drochaigne a ghin é go bhfuil acht láidir agus éifeachtach de dhíth ar an Ghaeilge gan mhoill.

The motion and the ill-will that gave birth to it reinforce the need for a strong and effective Irish language Act, as soon as possible.

Tá mé ag iarraidh oraibh go léir anseo inniu vótáil in éadan an rúin seo. Go raibh mile maith agaibh.

Mr Speaker: Before I call the next Member to speak, I will clarify a point that has been made about the motion. The motion does not break the rules of the House. The motion is competent, and I must put that on the record.

Mr Shannon: There should be little doubt about the importance that I place on the celebration of culture and heritage. People cannot know where they are going until they know where they have been. There is not — and should not be — anyone in the Chamber who is opposed to the expression of a culture, as long as the expression of that culture is dignified and is carried out in an appropriate manner.

There is no doubt that, in order to give our young people a sense of self-worth and national pride, they should be made aware of their history and roots. I congratulate Foras na Gaeilge and Tha Boord o Ulster-Scotch for their hard work in the promotion of those objectives. Both bodies work hard to achieve their aims, which are the promotion of language and culture, and both are successful in those aims. For that reason, the Irish language Act is redundant, as it calls for the promotion of the Irish language and culture — that is the purpose of Foras na Gaeilge.

To push for more than the stated aims of Foras na Gaeilge is nothing to do with the love of culture and heritage. It has more to do with the love of political machinations and expression of anti-British malice. It is an attempt to stir up resentment and emotions, while achieving no gains in the promotion or development of Northern Ireland.

Do some Members think that the boards are not doing enough to promote culture and heritage? Do they lack belief in the ability of those hired to do the job and achieve the aims of those organisations?

I find that hard to believe, given that Assembly Members are instrumental in running the boards. What need is there for an Irish language Act to carry out that which should already be being successfully carried out by the bodies that are currently in place.

As I have said, the motives behind the call for such an Act must be examined, and I firmly believe that those motives are harmful to progress in Northern Ireland. Rather than making people more open and receptive to the Irish culture, the manner and the means by which this matter is being approached is alienating and intimidating the majority of people in Northern Ireland.

That bullying approach will, in no way, soften the Province’s population or encourage it to embrace that language — rather, it is having the opposite effect. That, of course, is the intention. There is no real honest intention for Northern Ireland to step forward in celebration together. Rather, an Irish language Act is a political statement, which would be a waste of money, and which many in the Province would find too insulting to overlook.

That type of mentality and endeavour can have no place in a Chamber to which we are elected to serve and represent the needs of the Province as a whole — not to place one section of the community above the other. There is no fairness and equality in doing that. Surely the equitable approach would be to use the money that is set to be wasted on that unnecessary Act on some­thing that would benefit the whole Province, rather than isolate the majority of the people who live here.

It is my personal belief that both language bodies are successful in their endeavours. Indeed, the young public in my constituency recently benefited from the hard work of the Ulster-Scots Agency in organising a fitba coaching day with David Healy, during which football and language were taught with equal skill. That day was thoroughly enjoyed by all. That is the way in which language should be promoted — in a way that is fun, informative and pleasurable. That is where the Ulster-Scots Agency is thriving. In linking the past to the present, and then to the future, we can be secure in the celebration of our heritage in ways that do not exclude any members of the community. That celebration was not exclusive; people from all areas of the Strangford constituency, and of all political affiliations and religious views, participated in that event, which had no political emphasis — it was merely a day of information and fun. That should be the aim of the promotion of culture and heritage, which should be free from political statement and machination.

It is clear to anyone in the Chamber that the Irish language Act and its connotations are aggressive in nature. We are well past the point in Northern Ireland where the aggression of one section of society should impact on so many others.

Northern Ireland does not have funds to throw about willy-nilly — so much needs to be done to its infra­structure and on the essentials. Wasting money on a political statement that offends and upsets the majority of people in the Province cannot be, and should not be, considered.

I support the amendment and ask the Assembly to look past the political machinations of one sector and to concentrate our effort, attention and funds on matters that will benefit all the people of the Province.

Mr K Robinson: Herr Sprächer, Ich danke Sie fur Ihr verstanden. Ja, meine Damen und Herren, und beliebten Mitglieder, will Ich in Englisch sprächen.

I support the motion standing in the name of my colleague David McNarry. In doing so, I ask Members to read the motion carefully. It contains a generous recognition of the cultural diversity of our society. It also notes the carefully constructed framework that supports an equitable approach to those linguistic and cultural traditions.

The motion further seeks to streamline the work and improve the effectiveness of the Assembly by indicating areas in which the use of one of those languages — in the Chamber, in Committee and in written communication — adds to costs and impinges on the most constructive use of the time available for conducting our business.

There is not a Member in the House who will not admit that shortage of time is a major obstacle to our workload. How many Committee members are engaged in meetings that last up to three hours in an attempt to cope with the huge workloads? Just look at the forward work programmes for those Committees and remember that we have not yet begun to scrutinise legislation, clause by clause and line by line. Dare I remind Members that that business will be conducted in the working language of this House and this society — the language that all immigrants and overseas workers who arrive on our shores seek to master in order to integrate and prosper.

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of attending the annual conference of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, which was held in Newry. During that event, which, in those days, would not normally have been attended by unionist politicians, I had the good fortune to sit beside the president of the union. He spoke fluent Irish in a most melodic and pleasant manner. However, for me, he highlighted the difference between the melodic intonation of the Gaeltacht and that harsh, staccato “Jailtacht” variant that has been instilled into certain parts of the Province.

A former employee of this estate, who was also a native Irish speaker from the Republic, told me how he listened to the attempts of Members of a previous Assembly to speak to him in Irish. Their pronunciation and structure were wrong, and their words were not those that a fluent speaker would naturally use. We also had the interesting spectacle of two Members on the opposite Benches disagreeing in Irish until one of them quickly ran out of words. The winner of that pan-nationalist struggle was a native of the Gaeltacht. My former colleague and Irish speaker Ian Adamson had many a chuckle as he analysed the attempts of the Members on the opposite Benches to speak in Irish. A Southern unionist visitor to the Public Gallery explained to me that certain speeches that she heard in the Chamber were delivered in less than impressive Irish. Although that can be readily understood, for many there is a more sinister side to the desire to use Irish.

Unionists know what Sinn Féin’s underlying traditional aim is in its promotion of Irish. In saying that, our so-called unionist paranoia is not kicking in; rather, I am describing the vision of a namby-pamby, Brit-loving, Treaty-signing Free Stater — none other than “The Big Fellow” himself. That vision was recalled by a former head of research for the Soldiers of Destiny in a lecture that was reported by ‘The Sunday Times’ on 9 March 1997. It pointed out that Collins’s vision for Ireland was no different from that of de Valera. Collins asserted that:

“We are now free in name. The extent to which we become free in fact and secure our freedom will be the extent to which we become Gaels again…We can fill our minds with Gaelic ideas, and our lives with Gaelic customs, until there is no room for any other…The most completely anglicised person in Ireland will look to Britain in vain.”

That is why Irish is still being used and abused, not as a cultural expression, but as a weapon of exclusion. I support the motion and Nelson McCausland’s amendment.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Seasaim chun labhairt in éadan mholadh David McNarry.

Ní chuidíonn an moladh le híomhá an Chomhthionáil mar áit inar chóir fáilte bheith roimh gach duine agus inar cheart aitheantas don teanga agus iolrachas bheith á léiriú agus á aithint go hoifigiúíl. A mhalairt ar fad, go díreach.

Agus, is tábhachtaí fós, ní chuidíonn moladh den chineál seo agus aon sort díospóireacht conspóideach, nimhneach le cur chun cinn na Gaeilge, ná le meas ar teanga ná cultúr ar bith.

Mr McNarry’s motion does the opposite of enhancing the impression of the Assembly as a place where everyone should be welcome and where, as of right, the language and cultural diversity should be officially on display and recognised for all to see. More importantly, the motion — and any controversial or poisonous debate — does absolutely nothing to promote the Irish language and, consequently, to promote respect for any language or culture.

Reverend Martin Brennan, writing in ‘A View of the Irish Language’, says that:

“Language is indeed primarily a means of communication. It unites two minds in the common possession of an idea given and received, held in common. Because of this power to unite minds it must have something of the spiritual in itself, in spite of the evidently material nature of the symbols it uses to convey the ideas. The spiritual aspect of language gives it a depth and a dimension that a merely material medium could never share. Language is not a mere code, a sort of intellectual coinage where each unit, each word, has a set value and is capable of fitting into a sort of mental slot-machine to give a mechanical result.”

Baineann sé sin le gach teanga – an Ghaeilge ina measc. That applies to every language — including Irish — where history, music and literature are concerned.

3.30 pm

Today, a distinction has been made between the funding and the recognition of the Irish language. Mr Shannon referred to funding; that is one mechanism, and it is welcome and important. However, we need formal, statutory, legislative recognition for the identity of the communities.

Le bheith fírinneach linn féin – baintear úsáid as an Ghaeilge gach lá — in fact, Irish is used every day — Carrickfergus, Annaghmore, Mullaghmore, Garvaghy, Gort, Keady — go díreach ón Ghaeilge — those names are taken straight from Irish.

Difference can be either an excuse for division and all the prejudice that underpins it, or a reason for a society to embrace plurality and emerge all the richer for it.

Tá mé ag obair ar son tire a ghlacann an bunphrionsabal sin go hiomlán ar bord. I will continue to work for a country that enshrines those basic principles in their entirety.

Cuirimse in éadan an rúin.

I oppose the motion. Go raibh maith agat.

The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr G Kelly): Am bye hairtfelt glaid tae bae complutherin at tha forgeitherin o tha semmlie.

I am glad to be in the Chamber to speak on this important issue. I welcome the opportunity to respond to the debate, and I have listened with interest to the contributions. I am glad that Mr McNarry pointed out that I am speaking as the junior Minister for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

The proposer of the motion is correct in saying that the Ulster-Scots Agency, Tha Boord o Ulstèr-Scotch, is the main vehicle for the promotion of Ulster-Scots language and cultural issues, and that Foras na Gaeilge provides that function for the Irish language.

Is Tionól reigiunda é an tionól sear chíuseanna an chairt agus cur I gcríoch an chairt taobh istigh dá nobraidí.

Beidh á fhios ag na baill go bhfuil sé iontach soiléur sna hordaithe seasta go bhfuil cead ag Baill labhairt í dteanga a rogha féin – cludaíonn seo na Baill nuair a labhrann said mar Airí, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure has undertaken two consultation processes, from December 2006 to June 2007, on proposals for Irish-language legislation. The second consultation, which ran from March to June 2007, sought views on a number of possible draft clauses. The clauses gave an indication of what shape the legislation might take.

The Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 places a duty on the Executive to adopt a strategy setting out how it proposes to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language. The general aim of the legislation, as presented in the second consultation, was to enhance and protect the Irish language in the North through supporting its use in the provision of public services. The approach set out in the draft clauses was based mainly on a language-scheme model. A comparable model to that is the scheme that was adopted by public bodies under the equality duty — section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

The draft legislation proposed the creation of a duty on public authorities to prepare a language scheme, specifying the measures that they would take on the use of the Irish language in the provision of their services. In addition to that, a Cheann Comhairle, it proposed that a person would be able to use Irish in legal proceedings in courts and tribunals sitting in the North, subject to the provision of notice and the interests of justice.

Draft provision had also been included to enable certain statutory forms to be made available in Irish. Over 90% of the 11,000 responses to the second consultation on Irish-language legislation have been processed. It is expected that a summary of those consultation responses will be published later in the autumn.

There are also obligations arising from commitments that the Government made when the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages was ratified. I note that the proposers of the motion and the amendment support that charter. The charter highlights the need to base policies, legislation and practice on the principles of recognising, promoting and encouraging the use of Irish and Ulster Scots in order to preserve and safeguard both. It also includes a commitment to take “resolute action” to promote languages such as Irish and Ulster Scots.

For the purposes of the charter, the Assembly is a regional assembly and is responsible for the imple­mentation of the charter in its operations. The Assembly’s Standing Orders also state that Members may speak in the language of their choice. That also applies when Members speak as Ministers. Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Mr McNarry: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In case the Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure makes another point about my absence, I must say that I am heartily sickened to hear a Minister of this institution speaking in Irish.

Mr Speaker: That is not a point of order.

Mr G Kelly: Tá sé ceart agus coir don bhall an méid atá fáite aige nó aici é a aistriú go Béarla má tá sé/sí ag caint as Gaeilge nó I dteanga ar bith eile. Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

It is, however, a convention that any statements made in a language other than English, are translated fully and accurately by the Member immediately afterwards, as I have been doing. The use of Irish or Ulster Scots in correspondence — for example, in letter headings or salutations — is a matter for each individual Minister.

Slán go fóill. As go brách leat.

Braitheann sé ar an Aire más maith leis nó léi teanga or bith eile a úsáid I gcomhfhreagas oifigiúla.

I make the point that David McNarry did not walk out when I was speaking in Ullans.

Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Mr Campbell: I intend fully to utilise my allotted five minutes. There have been several complete misconceptions about the amended motion. A Sinn Féin Member described it as blocking any manifestation of Irishness. Another Sinn Féin Member described the motivation behind the motion as “racist”.

Mr McGlone quoted a Minister who said that Irish should be a means of communication. Of those who spoke against the motion, his was the most sensible quote that I heard all day. Language is precisely that and, if no one can understand the means of communication, what is the point in using it — unless as a political weapon? Members who say that they speak Irish — whether they took a crash course over the summer and missed some classes or are proficient — use it each and every time that they speak in the Assembly. People do not understand the words that are being used, never mind the impact of what they are trying to say. If not to make a political point, what is the point of speaking Irish?

Mr Farry referred to various Irish appendages on the mayoral chain of North Down Borough Council, and I am sure that there are others. Other Members weighed in with Irish place names, the relevance of which totally escapes me.

Today’s motion asks Ministers to ensure that when they communicate to Assembly Members and the public they do so in a language that people can understand. Why on earth such a request should be described as “racist” or an attempt to block any manifestation of Irishness is totally beyond me.

Less than a month ago, and in answer to my question, the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, who has responsibility for the Irish language, outlined that last year some £17 million of taxpayers’ money was spent on the promotion of Irish­ness — in comparison to the £600,000 that was spent on the promotion of Ulster Scots. How can expenditure on Irish that is 30 times greater than on Ulster Scots block any manifestation of Irishness? The people who talk about equality will get it: the DUP is committed to that.

When the bullseye is hit, we get a response. That is good, and I hope that we will get more of that — in a language that I understand. I am happy to take that on the chin, whether it is on a ferry, in the Chamber, or elsewhere.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Campbell: I will not leave and come back when the heat is off. Jim Shannon talked about an equitable approach, and that is what we are seeking. The mover of the amendment made that point very well.

No one who opposes the motion has attempted to address the anomaly that exists whereby Members who begin their speeches in Irish have their words recorded in Hansard, yet those of us who begin our speeches in English do not. They did not refer to that, but that is equality. We intend to see that matter through.

The junior Minister referred to the outline of any proposed language Act, and he spent some time doing that. It is precisely because of the content of any Irish language Act that there will not be one.

Mr Kennedy: Thank you for the opportunity to make a winding-up speech on the motion. In spite of the way in which the motion was unhelpfully heralded and trumpeted in some quarters, particularly by Sinn Féin representatives, with references to black people at “the back of the bus”, it has been an interesting debate.

The debate has been largely free from any element of real viciousness — we will have to wait a bit longer for that. However, the context of the debate — and let me be clear and inform the House yet again, because the proposer of the motion went to great pains to make the point clear, and it clearly was not heard, and some people are not good at listening —

Mr McElduff: Especially if they have left the room.

Mr Speaker: Order.

Mr Kennedy: Mr McElduff may regard himself as the self-appointed attendance officer of the Assembly, but if he takes some time to listen, he may become better informed. The Ulster Unionist Party respects cultural diversity, as a key foundation for a stable, peaceful, pluralist society.

Northern Ireland’s unique history in the United Kingdom and the British Isles has given to our society a rich diversity of cultural traditions — British, Northern Irish, Anglo-Irish, Irish, Ulster Scots and, in recent years, a growing and welcome range of ethnic-minority traditions. A framework that fosters respect for that diversity contributes to community cohesion and to good community relations. That is the starting point of the Ulster Unionist Party on those issues. That is why we believe that the arrangements that were agreed in 1998 provided principles and architecture that facilitated a growing respect for our society’s cultural diversity. In particular, recognition was afforded to the Irish language and Ulster-Scots culture through Foras na Gaeilge and Tha Boord o Ulstèr-Scotch. It was there to provide an equitable framework for the expansion —

Mr Elliott: Does the Member agree that if the Irish language is treated in a respectful and appropriate manner, in the same way as other languages, it can be respected by everyone in the Chamber and outside it? In Fermanagh this evening the chairman of Fermanagh District Council, who is a unionist, will present Irish-language bursaries on behalf of the council. That is progress, and that is respect for what is right.

Mr Kennedy: I thank the Member for his well-made point, which highlights again that the allegations of racism and bigotry that were promoted, principally, by Sinn Féin representatives in the Chamber today are completely wide of the mark.

The decision at St Andrews by the political parties — including the DUP — to introduce an Irish language Act is profoundly unsettling and potentially has very damaging implications for community relations and for respect for cultural diversity. Any person who claims that an Irish language Act would have only a positive impact on community relations demonstrates a wilful ignorance of the views that a wide range of political and community stakeholders in Northern Ireland hold.

3.45 pm

Historically, Sinn Féin has used the Irish language as a political tool. It continues to do so, which does a huge disservice to those people who are genuinely interested in the language and its cultural diversity. The Irish language is severely hampered by Sinn Féin continuing to use it in that way. In many ways —

Mrs Long: Will the Member give way?

Mr Kennedy: I am sorry; I do not have enough time.

In many ways, Sinn Féin uses the Irish language as a kind of warped ideological jihad. That is the overwhelming perception of the unionist population and unionist representatives in the House.

On the subject of Ministers who use Irish in correspondence, I recently had occasion to write to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development about a bull. It was a local bull, but when I got the reply, the writing appeared to be bullish. I was greeted with “Danny, a chara” and “Is mise” at the end of the letter. I was not interested in that; I was more interested in her doing something for the owner of the bull, but that did not happen.

The debate has been sensible. Mr McNarry outlined his concerns very well and again underlined that the Ulster Unionist Party regards the 1998 settlement of those issues as final.

I welcome and accept Mr McCausland’s amendment. He rightly pointed to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and expressed a concern about the disparity in funding between Irish and Ulster Scots. The other interesting aspect of his speech was that he learned French as a young person but no longer uses it, particularly not in the Chamber.

As the round table went around, Carál Ní Chuilín — if that is not the right pronunciation, it is my fault — again accused those in favour of the motion of being racist, almost to the point of their being very bigoted. She also reminded the Chamber of the link between the Irish language and the Presbyterian tradition. I again thought of my great-grandaddy Jones Black, who was a very competent Irish speaker many years ago, but, because of various influences, did not pass that on through the family. The Assembly must ensure — [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order.

Mr Kennedy: The Assembly must ensure that, when Irish is taught, it is not being done so to be used as a political tool. Mr Dominic Bradley, a Member for Newry and Armagh, got himself into a lather and shouted at Mr McNarry in particular, who left at one point. [Laughter.] He then accused the UUP of being narrow-minded bigots.

The Mayor of North Down then made an intervention with Irish translations, which confirmed that people in Bangor could never spell. [Interruption.] I meant that some people in Bangor could never spell. [Laughter.]

Like George Robinson, I was greatly offended before and during the debate by the suggestion that the sentiment of the motion equated to a blacks-at-the-back-of-the-bus culture. That was a directly offensive and outrageous remark, which has no basis.

Mr Brolly clearly knows the difference between chuckle and our la — or whatever it is — and he treated the House to what some might regard as an Irish-speaking master class. However, it was lost on me because I was unable to translate it.

Mr Shannon confirmed that there is no need for an Irish language Act, and he stated that the Irish language is sometimes used to intimidate and bully.

I compliment my colleague Ken Robinson who opened his speech in German and reminded the House that there are genuine lovers and speakers of the Irish language who use it responsibly.

The junior Minister Mr Kelly set out, on behalf of the Executive, his factual views on the issue.

I agree with Gregory Campbell’s comments about the means of communication. The language of communication in the Chamber is English. People should understand that, respect it and get on with it.

Mr McElduff: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Mr Kennedy made a comment about people in Bangor not being able to spell. Bangor is in North Down, which is the only constituency in which the Ulster Unionist Party held on to its MP. It may be in danger of losing that constituency if it continues to insult the people of Bangor.

Mr Speaker: That is not a point of order.

Mr A Maginness: Mr Speaker, I have a serious point of order, and I would ask you to give a ruling later. Members have witnessed one Member going in and out of the Chamber during the debate. Not only was the Member going in and out, he was also the proposer of the motion that gave rise to the debate. In any other parliamentary institution, there would be at least some comment — if not censure — on that Member. The Member did what he did for ostensibly political reasons and not for any reasonable excuse. Mr Speaker, I ask you to give a ruling later as to whether those actions were a discourtesy to the Assembly. I also ask that rules are enacted in the future to censure a Member who carries out such acts.

Mr Speaker: I appreciate the Member raising that point of order and I will bring back my ruling to the House as soon as possible.

Mr McNarry: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Are you accepting that as a point of order?

Mr Speaker: What was your point of order, Member? I did not hear it.

Mr McNarry: Thank you for the invitation to get to my feet again, Mr Speaker. My point of order is to ask whether you are accepting the last point as a point of order and will be bringing a ruling to the House?

Mr Speaker: I stated clearly that I will bring a ruling to the House as soon as possible.

Mr McNarry: Mr Speaker — [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: I ask the Member to take his seat. I want no further discussion on the issue.

Mr O’Dowd: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it appropriate for a Member to question the ruling of the Speaker?

Mr Speaker: It is not, and I came close to saying that. [Interruption.]

Order. The Member came very close to questioning the ruling of the Speaker.

I remind Members that the amendment only requires a simple majority.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 44; Noes 46.


Mr Beggs, Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Mrs Foster, Mr Gardiner, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Mr McCallister, Mr McCausland, Mr McClarty, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McFarland, Mr McGimpsey, Miss McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Mr Paisley Jnr, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr G Robinson, Mr K Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Savage, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Kennedy and Mr G Robinson.


Ms Anderson, Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Burns, Mr Butler, Mr W Clarke, Mr Dallat, Dr Deeny, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Ms Gildernew, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr A Maginness, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCartney, Dr McDonnell, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McHugh, Mr McLaughlin, Mr Molloy, Mr Murphy, Mr Neeson, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr O’Loan, Mrs O’Neill, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ruane.

Tellers for the Noes: Mrs O’Neill and Ms S Ramsey.

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 44; Noes 46.



Mr Beggs, Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Mrs Foster, Mr Gardiner, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Mr McCallister, Mr McCausland, Mr McClarty, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McFarland, Mr McGimpsey, Miss McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Mr Paisley Jnr, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr G Robinson, Mr K Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Savage, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Kennedy and Mr G Robinson.



Ms Anderson, Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Burns, Mr Butler, Mr W Clarke, Mr Dallat, Mr Gallagher, Ms Gildernew, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Mr A Maginness, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Dr McDonnell, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McHugh, Mr McLaughlin, Mr Molloy, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr O’Loan, Mrs O’Neill, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ruane.


Dr Deeny, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr McCarthy, Mr Neeson.

Tellers for the Noes: Mr D Bradley and Mr Dallat.

Total Votes          90   Total Ayes          44            (48.89%)

Nationalist Votes  38   Nationalist Ayes    0            (0.00%)

Unionist Votes     44   Unionist Ayes     44            (100.00%)

Other Votes           8   Other Ayes           0            (0.00%)

Main Question accordingly negatived (cross-community vote).

Sex Offenders

4.15 pm

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 who wish to speak will have five minutes. Two amendments have been received and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of each amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech.

Mr Butler: I beg to move

That this Assembly expresses concern at the disparity in child protection regulations and the registration of sexual offenders across the island of Ireland; and calls for an early North-South Ministerial Council cross-departmental sectoral meeting, including the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Department of Education and the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to address the disparity.

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

The most fundamental right that children on the island of Ireland should have is the right to be safe. Those of us who were elected to the Assembly, and those elected to the Oireachtas in the South of Ireland, have a responsibility to safeguard our children.Tá áthas orm as an deis a phlé an ábhar tabhachtach seo sa Tionól inniu.

Any approach to child protection must be based on the rights of the children on this island, regardless of which jurisdiction they live in. Both Governments have a clear duty to protect citizens, children and young people. The rights of the child must be paramount. The Irish and British Governments have signed up to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. That is the standard that they must reach.

Taking the border out of child protection is the challenge for both Governments. We must have a borderless country when it comes to the protection of children. The North/South Ministerial Council provides an opportunity to introduce protective measures. The North/South Ministerial Council must address the issue that we have two different legal and child protection systems and processes on the island.

Tá a fhios agam fosta go bhfuil fabhdh idir an tír seo agus An Bhreatain agus ar fud na hEorpa i dtaca leis an cheist seo.

I accept that the difficulties we face on the island of Ireland are also reflected in the different jurisdictions in Europe, and between Britain and Ireland. There is a need for that situation also to be addressed.

Glacfaidh muid leis an leasú atá ag an Alliance i dtaca leis an mholadh seo.

Two amendments have been tabled; the one proposed by the Alliance Party recognises that there is a problem not just between the two jurisdictions in Ireland, but between Ireland and Britain, and right across Europe.

Sinn Féin’s long-standing objective has been the introduction of an all-Ireland sex offenders register. My party has been to the forefront in demanding an all-Ireland register as the most effective way of protecting our children. A single all-Ireland body should be responsible for holding standardised child protection information.

Nuair a bhí Mairtín Mac Aonghusa agus Bairbre de Brún ina hAirí sa Tionól deireanach, rinne said iarracht ar an cheist tabhachtach seo a réiteach.

When Martin McGuinness and Bairbre de Brún were Ministers in the last Assembly, they initiated a process to allow for the setting up of an all-Ireland register to protect children, young people and vulnerable adults. There must be an all-Ireland approach to eradicating sex crime. That is why Sinn Féin has tabled this motion: we want an effective and integrated all-Ireland sex offenders register.

At present, a paedophile arrested in one jurisdiction on this island is not automatically included on the register of the other. That is worrying. Sex offenders are taking advantage of the loophole. We have a situation in Ireland where convicted sex offenders can move from one jurisdiction to another and legally seek work with children. There is already a battery of legislation to combat sex crime. However, there is a serious question about the effectiveness of the present system and the proper application of existing powers. There is a need for more powers, and for effective all-Ireland legislation to deal with the matter.

Sinn Féin wants to see the establishment of a single all-Ireland body responsible for holding standardised child protection information, supported by the Depart­ment of Health here, the Department of Health and Children in the South, and the Departments of Education in both jurisdictions. That body could also work within wider EU and global contexts, given that the issue is not confined to these islands. That is reflected in the amendments to the motion that have been tabled.

Sex abusers know no boundaries. It is vital that a key tool for protecting children and young people should not be confined by borders. The loophole still presents clear dangers and needs to be closed. It is disgraceful that a paedophile convicted in one jurisdiction on this island does not automatically appear on the sex offenders register in the other part of the country.

In recent years, high-profile cases have underlined the seriousness of the issue. The Bichard inquiry was established to examine the handling of Ian Huntley, who was convicted of the Soham murders, with which we are all familiar. That case gave impetus to the need for criminal justice agencies and, in particular, the police to be enabled to share information.

On the island of Ireland there have been several high-profile cases. Vincent McKenna was convicted of abusing his daughter Sorcha McKenna. At that time, her family appealed for a change in the law. Mary McCleary, Sorcha’s grandmother said that changes were necessary in order to stop sex offenders who were jailed in the South — such as Vincent McKenna — moving to the jurisdiction of the North.

Paul Redpath is a convicted paedophile who broke his probation by fleeing to the South of Ireland, where he was free because Garda had no power to arrest him. That case highlighted that the border was being used by sex offenders to evade justice, and underlined that police services and agencies had inadequate statutory legal powers to track sex offenders who moved from one jurisdiction to the other. Furthermore, it underlined the need for a change in the legislation and policies in relation to sex offences on both sides of the border. Last week, the arrest in the South of one of Britain’s most-wanted sex offenders, John Murrell, again emphasised that sex offenders from other jurisdictions see the South of Ireland as a safe haven.

In November 2006 the British and Irish Governments agreed a new protocol to track sex offenders who may attempt to evade detection by travelling out of Ireland or Britain. That initiative came in the wake of the controversy generated by sex offender Paul Redpath, who broke his probation conditions by moving from the North to the South of Ireland where he could not be arrested. Under that agreement, police services on both islands will share and impart information on all sex offenders who plan to travel between Britain and Ireland.

An intergovernmental advisory group on registered sex offenders was established to enable continued and close co-operation in the exchange of information between Britain and Ireland. However, that memorandum of under­standing between the Governments does not create binding legal obligations between Britain and Ireland.

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

The decision to establish a memorandum of understanding between the British and Irish Govern­ments is a welcome and important first move; however, it must also serve as a catalyst for a full harmonisation of powers to protect children and young people on this island.

The next logical step to the process is a compre­hensive all-Ireland policy. Sex offenders in the South are now subject to a new risk analysis before they are released from prison, or serve their sentences in the community. The system will determine the risk that offenders pose to community and will help in the formation of a plan to deal with that risk. The measure is part of an all-Ireland system for tracking and monitoring paedophiles and sex offenders.

Our border is shared by two jurisdictions, and sex offenders and paedophiles take advantage of that. In the North over 700 paedophiles and sex offenders are monitored, 43 of whom are classed as high-risk. To take the border out of child protection is the challenge for both Governments on this island. We must have a borderless country when it comes to the protection of children. A thorough, systematic and effective way of dealing with child abuse is needed on this island. We need changes to the law, better co-operation between the PSNI and the Garda and effective legislation on both parts of the island. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Buchanan: I beg to move amendment No 1: Leave out all after “offenders” and insert

“between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; recognises the threat that can arise when sex offenders from Northern Ireland move to Great Britain; and calls for full co-operation from all relevant departments to address these matters.”

I propose the amendment to provide a broader scope and to include the UK when dealing with the issues before the House today.

4.30 pm

I am sure that the protection of children from sexual abuse is a matter that lies close to the hearts of all Members. Too often, when we open our newspapers, turn on our televisions, or listen to the news headlines, we read or hear of another appalling incident in which a child or young person has been the unfortunate victim of sexual abuse — incidents that occasionally result in that young person’s death. Such harrowing incidents not only instil fear and anger in communities, but provide a wake-up call that much more needs to be done to protect children and young people from such violent offenders.

Primary responsibility for safeguarding children rests with their parents, who should ensure that they are safe from danger and free from risk in their homes. However, given the society in which we live, where the family unit has been disregarded and many children are raised by single-parent families, there is an even greater need for full co-operation and a strategic approach from all relevant Departments in order to safeguard our children.

Today’s ‘Belfast Telegraph’ carries yet another harrowing story. The headline is “Monster raped me at age 13”. A teenager has courageously spoken out about a vile attack that has ruined his life — a horror that he can never forget. That is the type of abuse that some young people must endure without their families’ knowledge. Indeed, sometimes, such vile abuse is carried out by a close and trusted family friend. What is the testimony to such a horrific ordeal? The victim tells us that he endures flashbacks, nightmares that continually disturb his sleep, and torment that has driven him to attempt suicide on three occasions.

Recently, the House debated the problem of suicide, particularly among the young. The Health Committee is currently dealing with that issue. Could it be that sexual abuse is a contributory factor to the high rate of suicide? Young victims may be unable or too ashamed to express their feelings to close family members, which results in such pain welling up inside them that they are driven to suicide. That reinforces the fact that urgent action is required to deal with this matter.

The disparity in child-protection and sexual-offender regulations between Northern Ireland and the Republic must be addressed. The Assembly must ensure that, wherever possible, legislation and policies on those issues work effectively on both sides of the border. A weakness that has been identified is that the Republic of Ireland does not have the same management arrangements for sex offenders as Northern Ireland, where strict arrangements for both the assessment and management of such offenders are already in place.

Multi-agency sex-offender risk-assessment and risk-management processes, which involve the PSNI, the Probation Board for Northern Ireland, the Prison Service, the Housing Executive and representatives from the voluntary sector, help to protect children and reduce opportunities for offenders to gain access to potential victims. Although the register of violent sex offenders, which was launched by the PSNI in January 2006, allows information to be shared on violent sexual offenders on a UK-wide database, a loophole in the law means that such offenders can evade serving their full sentences and can be released on probation back into the community. That has been witnessed recently in the case of Billy Adams in England and in today’s ‘Belfast Telegraph’.

Mr Weir: I am glad that the honourable Member has mentioned Billy Adams, as one of his victims was a constituent of mine.

Does the Member agree that the Billy Adams case highlights the cross-jurisdictional nature of the issue, which effectively resulted in his being able to benefit on three separate occasions?

The first time that he benefited was when he was transferred from a prison in the Republic of Ireland, where he had committed offences, to a prison in Northern Ireland, where he was able to benefit from 50% remission of his sentence. That meant that he was released early from prison. The second occasion on which he benefited was after his release from prison in Northern Ireland when he went to Liverpool. At that point, there must have been a breakdown in the system as he was able to commit serious offences again.

Perhaps what is most galling for his victims is that, in the third and final instance of his being able to benefit, given that he committed his most recent offences in Liverpool, the Northern Ireland Office has indicated that the months that he gained from 50% remission will not be added to his sentence. Had he committed the offences in Northern Ireland rather than in Liverpool, the early release period would have been added to his sentence. However, the different applications of both policy and sentencing across the British Isles have meant that he has benefited from legal loopholes. It shows the need for the matter to be examined, not only on an all-Ireland basis, but across the British Isles

Mr Buchanan: I thank the Member for his intervention and for his valid point. The issue needs to be examined across the whole of the British Isles and a single policy developed to deal with it.

As we have read in today’s ‘Belfast Telegraph’, a man who sexually abused eight young children and who has 45 charges pending against him is to serve only part of his sentence. Is it not an indictment on Government and society that this evil paedophile, Henry Irwin —who was jailed for 14 years for sexual abuse, including rape — has already spent two years in jail but will walk free in five years under the 50% remission rule? It is an insult to the poor victims that have to live with the consequences of that injustice.

The House must send a clear message that there shall be no hiding place for the scourges of society who assault, abuse and destroy children and young people’s lives. Governments must work with the relevant Departments to ensure that those offenders can no longer flout the law and that our young people have a secure environment in which to grow up.

I was somewhat encouraged today when the Speaker sent to all Members a letter from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr Shaun Woodward. That letter stated that two Orders in Council would be introduced in the House of Commons. One of those Orders will refer to the repeal of 50% remission of sentences, and the other refers to the modernisation and strengthening of the law on sexual offences, along the lines of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Those Orders in Council are to be introduced in the near future for consultation. When we consider the cases that have been mentioned in the House today, that development is to be welcomed.

Mrs Long: I beg to move amendment No 2: Leave out “an early North-South Ministerial Council cross-departmental sectoral meeting,” and insert

“early sectoral meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council”

I have no doubt that Paul Butler and Carál Ní Chuilín’s motion will command support across the Chamber, and I thank them for bringing it to the House. Our amendment does not seek to detract in any way from the importance of North/South co-operation on the issue.

Most of us will remember the name of Father Brendan Smith who manipulated, and who was facilitated in manipulating, poor co-operation between the authorities on either side of the border. We owe his victims, among many others, the reassurance that the authorities across the island are doing their utmost to make sure that a case such as his can never happen again.

Rather than opposing North/South co-operation, we want to expand the motion to ensure that the co-ordination between authorities across the islands is maximised and that sex offenders cannot slip through the net of official supervision by simply moving across the Irish Sea.

We are not attempting to provide some kind of artificial sense of balance. Instead, we are attempting to address a serious issue that has massive implications. I am sure that many will have heard of the Murrell case, which was reported in the media last week and to which Paul Butler referred earlier.

Murrell served a sentence for indecently assaulting a child in Worcestershire, but did not register with the police when he was released seven years ago. He disappeared along with his wife and children. Failing to register on the sex offenders’ register has been recognised as indicating an extremely high risk of reoffending. In spite of that high risk, Murrell simply vanished. The authorities spread their net as far as Canada in an attempt to recapture him. However, last week, it was discovered that he was living in County Kildare; he was soon arrested by the gardaí and now seems set to be extradited back to England.

It is worth noting that Murrell was not recaptured as a result of standard practices and statutory authorities working in proper harmony with one another. He was recaptured as a result of an appeal on the UK programme ‘Crimewatch’ followed by his details being placed on the “most wanted” page of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre’s website. That was what eventually led gardaí to his whereabouts.

That is not an isolated case. Sadly, for many decades sex offenders have recognised that borders and seas provide little barrier to their movement but can be a serious barrier to the legal authorities in tracing and managing them. The example given by Peter Weir earlier clearly shows why proper co-ordination is needed.

There is a case for exploring some degree of European harmonisation on holding and releasing criminal record information and on how sex offenders are managed and tracked. However, we should not underestimate the serious issues that would be raised through any Europe-wide harmonisation because of different legal definitions and different understandings of items such as freedom of information, privacy and the rehabilitation of offenders. While EU-wide arrange­ments have merit, and the Alliance Party would support efforts in that direction, it should be recognised that such arrangements could take a decade or more to agree.

However, there are particular issues concerning the movement of sex offenders around different parts of the British Isles. We have a common travel area and a common language, and that makes movement much easier. We have legal systems that are rooted in common, rather than Roman, law, and we have similar traditions of policing and offender management, which should, in theory, make co-operation and harmonisation easier to achieve. Indeed, we will not be starting without some foundation, as progress has already been made between authorities on information-sharing.

My research leads me to believe that the migration of sex offenders from mainland Britain to the Republic is the area in which action is needed most urgently. Co-operation would also enable us to learn from best practice that is being developed in other jurisdictions, and that could be implemented in Northern Ireland as quickly as possible.

Our systems of child protection and sex-offender management are very similar to those across the water but are quite different to those that exist south of the border, as Members have already pointed out. Indeed, Sinn Féin has framed the debate very much on the Republic’s catching up with the standards that we enjoy in Northern Ireland. However, we cannot be complacent and assume that we will always be at the cutting edge of child protection.

For example, the Scottish Parliament has shown considerable reforming zeal on criminal justice matters. Its sheer determination and energy in making the lives of Scottish people better puts us to shame, and we may well have to learn much from the Scottish Parliament and our colleagues in Wales in the years to come. Good ideas cannot simply stop at the Irish Sea.

I thank Carál and Paul for raising this sensitive and difficult issue, and I reiterate that our amendment is intended only to amplify the intention of the motion rather than oppose it. I thank them for accepting the amendment. When issues such as this arise, it is normal practice for people to say that they will leave no stone unturned. I hope that at the end of this debate, that really will be the case, and that borders will be no barrier to lawful authorities in protecting the public from some of the most dangerous criminals in our society.

Mr McCallister: I would like to make it clear from the outset that the UUP will be supporting amendment No 2.

This debate is important and worthwhile. One cannot underestimate the gravity of the issue under discussion because the protection of children is paramount and is a priority for any Government, and I am pleased to contribute to the debate.

North/South co-operation on this issue is sensible and wise. There is evidence that some unsuitable individuals who pose a risk to children have accessed work in the Republic despite being barred from working with children in the UK. Child protection regulations and the monitoring of sex offenders must be considered on a European — indeed, global — level, rather than simply on an all-Ireland or UK level.

4.45 pm

Diana Sutton, head of policy and public affairs at the NSPCC made an excellent case for those measures when she said that:

“We need a simple system that allows an education or health authority in Manchester to ensure a potential employee from Madrid or Marseilles is not a danger to children.”

The management, vetting and barring of sex offenders is a live issue across the EU and requires urgent attention in light of some very serious cases. Ours is not the only area of Europe to share an international border. Our colleagues across the EU have huge experience in these matters and of the various legal systems involved. My party’s disagreement with Mr Butler’s motion is not, as Mrs Long rightly put it, because we are against an all-Ireland body; it is because the motion does not go far enough — the problem is much larger and must be set in a wider context.

The Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety has been examining the serious blight of suicide on our communities, and I agree with Mr Buchanan that there is no doubt that sex offending contributes to that blight. The role of the Internet was mentioned during the Committee’s deliberations, and, in his evidence to the Committee last week, the Minister told us that he had been in contact with colleagues from the Home Office on that subject. I am sure that the Minister will continue to communicate the views of the Assembly and the work of his Department to the Home Office in that regard.

Mr Weir made a useful point about sentencing. It is important that the House notes the current rules on 50% remission, which many Members take issue with.

To conclude, my party supports amendment No 2 in the context that it will deliver the best protection for our children: that is the key point. We share a common travel area and a common language with the Republic of Ireland, and there are lessons that all jurisdictions could learn from one another. We should adopt examples of best practice and work together. We must never close our minds to new ideas or other exciting developments to tackle these serious issues, and the last thing that we want to do is to repeat the tragedy that developed out of a case some years ago in which neighbouring police forces in England failed to share information. We want the fullest co-operation between the various jurisdictions in the UK, the Republic of Ireland and, indeed, across the EU.

Mrs M Bradley: When the First Minister met the Taoiseach at the Battle of the Boyne site earlier this year, he said that:

“it is important to engage with our closest neighbour from a position of mutual respect and with assured confidence”.

Nowhere is that more important than in child protection. It is good to hear such sentiments; however, old suspicions cannot be buried by victims of sex offenders, especially when he or she is confronted or haunted by their attacker in their own locality.

I am sure that the motion will receive a resounding Aye in the House. Unfortunately, I am equally sure that every one of us could recount horrific stories described by a broken-hearted mother, husband, daughter or relation, of how their loved one was humiliated, threatened, abused or, in the worst case, murdered by a sex offender who was known to the agencies but happened to commit the crime in another jurisdiction.

More stringent and restrictive regulations must be introduced. The most basic of those would be an inter-agency and inter-judicial database of offenders.

The motion is emotive, and it is infuriating that the Assembly must debate an issue that should be a given — the right of all our children to be protected. Despite the many horrific attacks that take place throughout the world on a daily basis, our various Governments have yet to create one general database that the legal agencies of any given country can access. Such a mechanism is now commonplace where terrorism is concerned; a click of a button will indicate to airports, criminal bureaux and Governments those individuals who are attempting to enter their respective countries. Why not give the statutory agencies that are responsible for security and protection a similar facility for the identification of sex offenders? It is a scary thought that throughout the EU there are over 27 varying templates upon which information about national sex offenders is stored, yet there is not one single database that is comprehensible enough to be shared or circulated among the various countries for the purposes of prevention and protection.

It is imperative that, in the context of EU expansion and increasing migration across member states, we address the issue not only on an island-wide vetting basis, but on a European-wide basis. That is not an attempt to demonise migrants, or infer that they are somehow less worthy of job opportunities than those who currently reside here or in Great Britain; rather, it is a recognition that British or Irish citizens would, as a matter of course, be subject to such checks if they were applying for the same posts as migrants.

It has always been a major priority and a genuine goal for the SDLP for child protection regulations to be taken seriously and improved as our society evolves and changes. The SDLP introduced private Member’s Bills in the former Assembly, and that, combined with our determination and tenacity to work closely with various children’s agencies and charities, has resulted in the adoption of legislation.

I and my party colleagues held lengthy discussions with the Minister for Health and Children in the Republic of Ireland about many health and child-protection issues and about how cross-border co-operation could be extended and assisted. Given the close proximity of North and South, the sharing of one cross-border database would be a tremendous start towards creating a safer future for us all. In the absence of an international database, a lifeline at least would be available to those who are responsible for child protection and for the protection of all our residents from sex offenders.

My constituency of Foyle is literally a hop, skip and a jump to the border, and Donegal is our natural hinterland. Unfortunately, it has been known for sex offenders and other criminals to go missing by crossing the border. The Hunter Redpath case is synonymous with such a scenario. He remained free in the Republic of Ireland, as the gardaí were powerless to arrest him until he set foot on UK soil. Based on the details of that case, on 27 November 2006, the UK and Irish Governments produced a memorandum of understanding on the transfer of information about sex offenders and on inhibiting perpetrators fleeing over the border for any purpose without the consent of the probationary services.

For many years, the SDLP has been clear and forthright about its position on cross-border co-operation, and sometimes it has been demonised for that stance. However, —

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

Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. No one in the House would have a problem with ensuring that there are no borders in child protection. Indeed, other Members highlighted that point. All borders pose a challenge in dealing with those who are a potential risk to children.

We are not unique in dealing with this issue. Last week, the NSPCC published a research document entitled ‘Protecting Children from Sexual Abuse in Europe: Safer Recruitment of Workers in a Border-free Europe’. That report examined the different mechanisms that exist across the EU for the holding and disclosure of criminal records and information, the managing and tracking of sex offenders, and vetting and barring arrangements.

It is of great concern that there are different arrange­ments throughout the EU. In a recent case, a French national, convicted of a series of murders and sexual assaults, was able to move to Belgium, where he gained employment in a school and continued to murder and commit sexual assaults. That highlights the need for common EU standards on convictions, sharing of information and vetting.

Both Ireland and Britain have enacted legislation to ensure that convicted sex offenders are required to notify the authorities of where they are. The two pieces of legislation are similar in their notification periods and the requirements placed on offenders with convictions outside the state. There has also been progress on the sharing of information on sex offenders. As a result of such structured co-operation, there has been much more cross-border work between probation officers and police on the management of sex offenders. That is to be welcomed.

However, although agencies in the North risk-manage all sex offenders in a structured manner, that is not the case in the Twenty-six Counties. Arrangements in the North have developed through the introduction of new risk-assessment techniques, new powers under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and the probability of new legislation to place the MASRAM arrangements on a statutory footing later this year. That has not been paralleled in the Twenty-six Counties.

Recent high-profile sex-offender cases, such as the murder of Attracta Harron by Trevor Hamilton, demonstrate the need for a cross-border element in the management of adults who pose a risk. Although there has been some progress on the management of sex offenders on a North/South basis, concern remains about the vetting and barring arrangements for those who are unsuitable to work with children.

The North has some of the strongest vetting and barring arrangements in the world, but they differ starkly from those in the South, where the checking of criminal records only recently became a requirement for a range of posts. There is no equivalent disquali­fication list to the disqualified from working with children list or the list of unsuitable persons, nor is there lifetime monitoring of the workforce. Without common legislation and policy development on a North/South basis, unsuitable individuals will be able to exploit the border, and Members have highlighted recent such cases. Given the all-Ireland nature of sporting and faith groups, if the arrangements are to work, there must be a clear understanding with the Twenty-six Counties on their implementation.

As Mary Bradley said, many people work on one side of the border and live on the other. That highlights again the fact that effective barring and vetting arrange­ments need to be put in place on an all-island basis, with the highest level of co-operation. Last year, my colleague Bairbre de Brún was instrumental in developing a North/South seminar, which was organised by the Department of Health and the South’s Department of Children and attended by the respective Ministers. The key professionals who attended the seminar displayed no shortage of energy and enthusiasm on the need to work together.

The Minister has already looked at this topic and has held useful recent meetings with his counterpart in the Irish Republic. One of the key issues to arise from the seminar was the need for some kind of regular forum to examine child-protection issues on an all-Ireland basis. That is a massive agenda, encompassing a range of Departments in the North and South. There­fore, I propose that OFMDFM, as a matter of urgency, places the matter high on the agenda for the next sectoral meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council.

The Health and Education Ministers, in conjunction with their counterparts in Dublin, should publish a discussion document that sets out the current levels of co-operation on the management of sex offenders, and all that goes with that. The Minister of Health, in conjunction with his colleague in Dublin, should establish a North/South child-protection forum to look at specific operations and policy issues —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Your time is up.

Ms S Ramsey: I realise that the Minister may not have time to respond to all those points, but I would appreciate —

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

Mr Beggs: I support amendment No 2. As Members have said, sexual offenders do not recognise inter­national borders but try to exploit weaknesses in the system. The management of sex offenders is not only a North/South issue; it is an east-west, European and international issue. Any policy that is based solely on an all-island, North/South approach will fail. Narrow political ideologies should not come before children’s safety. Sinn Féin’s motion is flawed.

5.00 pm

The weakness in the system lies in the Republic of Ireland, but its weakness is our weakness. As others have said, there is a memorandum of understanding between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Sex offenders from Scotland, Wales and other places can come to the Republic of Ireland and cross our borders. This issue is clearly much wider than a North/South concern.

Amendment No 1 recognises that there is a threat when sex offenders from Northern Ireland move to Great Britain, but what about sex offenders who cross the border from the Republic of Ireland? What about those offenders who would be maintained on Northern Ireland’s register of sex offenders, which would limit their employment in Northern Ireland? No equivalent lists exist in the Republic of Ireland, so those people can be successfully employed in positions in Northern Ireland. Their weakness is our weakness, and it is endangering all our children. Amendment No 1 is incomplete, and I call on the DUP not to be governed by its narrow political ideology.

Northern Ireland follows the legislation that exists in the rest of the United Kingdom, and it is widely recognised that the United Kingdom has some of the most comprehensive legislation in the world to deal with sex offenders. There is a disqualification from working with children list and an unsuitable persons list. The people on those lists have not even been convicted of a criminal offence, but they have raised concern with statutory agencies. There are methods of vetting through criminal records. As others have said, we have a multi-agency sex offender risk assessment and management system.

I too welcome the news of the sexual offences Order, which will follow the lines of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, but why did we have to wait for four years for additional legislation to protect our children? As a side issue, the Secretary of State also announced that powers to expand curfews and electronic tagging would be considered. That must be welcomed, because it will mean additional tools to protect and safeguard children from sex offenders who, at some point, are released into society. There is a clear flaw when such people cannot be monitored 24 hours a day.

The weakness in the system lies in the Republic of Ireland, and no one wants it to become a haven for paedophiles, as would appear to be the case. However, as the border is porous — and again I say that their weakness is our weakness — we need changes in the Republic of Ireland to protect our children. If that is done on a North/South basis, or through the British-Irish Council, that is fine, but narrow political ideology is no reason for not making changes. We must use all means at our disposal to work with the Republic of Ireland to bring it up to modern-day standards because, without those changes, our children remain at risk.

There is a very high attrition rate in the prosecution of sexual offences — only about 5% of offenders are successfully prosecuted. It is important that those additional lists are created in the Irish Republic, so that when people from the Republic of Ireland apply for jobs in Northern Ireland that involve our children, we are aware of their history and their background, and inappropriate people do not gain access. It is important that changes occur there.

Furthermore, there is risk management associated with sex offenders when they are released back into the community. That is why issues such as electronic tagging are important. In Northern Ireland, we have various methods of assessment for level 1 and level 2 offenders, and that happens automatically. However, in the Republic of Ireland, that happens only in cases of court action. Changes must happen in the Republic of Ireland.

Mr Attwood: I apologise to the House that I was absent for 20 minutes, but the Speaker and I had a meeting, and I was in some conflict over where I should be. Therefore, I apologise that I did not hear the full debate.

I welcome the debate and I acknowledge the briefing that was provided by relevant agencies including the NSPCC, which has heavily informed the sensible substance of the debate.

However, the points that I wish to make are political. I make those points despite Roy Beggs’s reference to narrow ideology. Although a party’s views may be seen to stem from a narrow ideology, on this issue the House should look beyond arguments based on narrow ideologies to the best architecture to protect young children and vulnerable adults on this island, between these islands, and beyond.

In the event that policing and justice powers are devolved, part of the current architecture that protects children and that deals with justice and policing issues falls. At present, there is a British-Irish agreement on justice, and one on policing matters. At the point of devolution, when those two agreements fall, there will be a vacuum. With a vacuum comes risks that may jeopardise young people on this island. I ask the House to ensure — through the Assembly and Executive Review Committee and any other appropriate mechanisms — that, when justice and policing powers are devolved, North/South agreements on justice and policing are in place to advance the good work that has already been done on a British-Irish basis to protect young children, as well as vulnerable young people and adults.

In the period until then, I ask that the Minister uses his good offices to ensure that there is agreement on this, and any other relevant issue, so that a vacuum is not created and that joined-up justice and policing is implemented that maximises the protection of individuals — especially children.

Mr Beggs: Does the Member accept that there is no need to wait for six months, a year, two years or five years? Why can standards in the Republic of Ireland not be raised immediately to the same level as those in the UK in order to protect our children?

Mr Attwood: I agree. Those politicians in the Chamber who have said that the South is lacking in protections must converse. The South needs to hear from them where those weaknesses lie. As the NSPCC and other briefings have confirmed, the South lags behind in child protection measures compared with Britain and Northern Ireland, which are considered world leaders in that field.

How will that conversation be taken forward? One way in which it could be done would be to create the North/South parliamentary forum in which politicians from the North and South talk to one another rather than have Ministers, officials or experts talk to one another. That is not about ideology; rather, it is about the protection of the citizens on this island. We in the North — where there is better protection for children — could inform politicians in the South about how to improve their standards. Without that form of action, Mr Beggs’s voice will not be heard by a TD or a Senator in the South, because the conversation will be at a ministerial level and official level, which, although relevant, will not be between the politicians in this Chamber and the politicians in the South.

I ask the Minister to ensure that politicians’ voices are heard on the matter through the early establishment of the a North/South parliamentary forum. This is not about ideology but about maximising the political impact of politicians in the North in order to convince our counterparts in the South that improving protection of their children will improve the protection of all children on the island.

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

Mrs Hanna: I support the motion and amendment No 2. Child protection presents a complex array of challenges in an already difficult situation for the trained professionals who are trying to help and protect children from harm. However, the protection of children is the responsibility of their parents, family, the statutory and voluntary sectors and the rest of society. Even though much has been done in Northern Ireland in recent years to improve child-protection measures, a multi-agency and interdepartmental approach is required. That is practised to a degree, but there is room for improvement. Several high-profile child protection cases in the North and South of Ireland have verified the need for developments and changes. Members may have heard in the media today of another sad case in which the lives of a young person and a family have been ruined. As has been said, the automatic 50% remission for offenders will exacerbate that damage and hurt. That reduction in sentences is unacceptable, especially in cases of sexual abuse.

Even though I welcome the relatively new memor­andum of understanding regarding sex offenders, more can be done to improve the cross-border co-operation. For instance, it is important that all professionals and volunteers who work with children are subjected to police checks before they are hired. In the Republic of Ireland, the checks taken by the Central Gardaí Vetting Unit provide information on police convictions, but they do not include any soft information such as allegations, concerns or inquiries about the applicant. Neither do the checks cross-reference against those on the sex offenders’ register, unlike the system in the North which is more comprehensive and includes such information.

The importance of that cross-border co-operation and parity on child protection cannot be overstated. People who want to harm children are not put off by borders, as we have seen in Ireland and throughout Europe. We have seen cases in which opportunistic, convicted, high-risk sex offenders have fled to the South to escape the rigour of the law and to evade justice. Loopholes — whether in the law or in practice — in either jurisdiction must be filled so that the risk of potential exploitation by those who seek to harm children is reduced.

Governments and agencies must, together, develop ways of working to make sure that every child north or south of the border is properly protected. With the influx of migrant workers from the EU, interjurisdictional protocols to ensure an easier, more efficient and comprehensive exchange of information on sex offenders between the PSNI, the Gardaí and foreign police services are also vital. Sharing information is crucial; however, I am aware how different child protection systems are in the North and the South. Systems for sharing the information need to be adequately developed and strengthened if we are to ensure that those who are a risk to children do not exploit the differences and loopholes. It is not a straightforward task, and interconnected Government policies are required. A comprehensive vetting service and an all-island register are two ways of improving the child protection system on the island. Allied to that are funding arrangements that will have to be put in place for improved services.

The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Department of Education and OFMDFM have a role to play in safeguarding vulnerable children and young people in Northern Ireland. As health spokesperson for the SDLP, I am keen to ensure that safeguarding the welfare of children remains a high priority for all, and we have an opportunity to do that during this time of considerable administrative reform in the Health Service.

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): Children are our most precious asset, and they must be protected and nurtured in a positive environment if we are to have a stable and progressive society. The statutory responsibility for the protection of children does not fall to one Department, group or individual. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Department of Education have specific responsibilities for child protection; however, all Departments that work with children or fund organisations that work with children have child-protection responsibilities.

5.15 pm

The registration of sex offenders is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Office, and I fully agree that information on sex offenders should be shared between jurisdictions. We all have a responsibility — whether as parents, family members, or neighbours — to protect children from sexual predators who prey on some of the most vulnerable members of society.

I also share the concern of others about the location of hostels near schools and family homes that house sex offenders when they are released from prison. Full and open debate is required on the need for a “Sarah’s Law” in Northern Ireland. This should also be the subject of an ongoing debate between the Executive and the Northern Ireland Office.

Society expects us, as legislators, to provide powers and legislation to ensure the protection of children. Our legislation and arrangements for monitoring and vetting, and for the regulation of services, are primarily aimed at protecting children from stranger abuse, or from abuse by known offenders.

Unfortunately, most abuse takes place within families and extended family circles, and is often associated with domestic violence, parental drug and alcohol abuse, mental-health problems, and families under stress. Those situations often limit the capacity of parents to adequately care for their children, and young people who are abused often suffer mental-health problems. Further investment in family-support services offers the best potential for reducing levels of child abuse within the family. The same is true of many new or expanded services that will require an increase in the health and social care budget. I have been making that point strongly to my Executive colleagues.

Ninety per cent of what is commonly referred to as child protection actually falls under the heading of safeguarding, whereby measures are put in place in order to prevent children and young people from being subjected to abuse. The monitoring of sex offenders and the vetting and barring of unsuitable persons from working with children are the best known ways of safeguarding.

Overall responsibility for the management of sex offenders in Northern Ireland rests with the NIO, and is managed through the multi-agency sex offender risk assessment and management system. Those arrange­ments should reduce the offender’s opportunity to reoffend, although we are all aware of occasions where reoffending has occurred while the offender was being monitored.

The Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 has improved safeguards for children and vulnerable adults by preventing unsuitable people from working with them in paid or voluntary positions. In order to do that, the Department maintains lists of individuals who are considered unsuitable to work with children and vulnerable adults. That disqualifies them from working with children and means that they will commit an offence if they apply for, accept, or do any work — either paid or unpaid — in a childcare position.

There has been continuous progress in the UK in efforts to strengthen arrangements. That has sometimes been in response to technological changes in the workplace, but, unfortunately, it has sometimes been in response to lessons learned from cases in which children were abducted, abused or murdered. No system of protection will ever be perfect, but we have a responsibility to make our arrangements as effective as possible, to continue to take steps to improve the internal arrangements of Northern Ireland, and to improve collaboration with the Republic of Ireland and the UK.

Paul Butler mentioned the Bichard Inquiry, which focused on the failure of police forces and social services to share information with one another after the murders committed by Ian Huntley in Soham. New arrangements to be introduced by The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups (Northern Ireland) Order 2007 will address those concerns, and that will enable the sharing of information between police forces and social services across the UK.

As a result of North/South co-operation, a memoran­dum of understanding was signed last year to ensure that information on sex offenders who plan to travel between Ireland and the UK, including Northern Ireland, is shared by the relevant police forces.This means that when someone from the South seeks employment with children in Northern Ireland, the vetting procedure will include a criminal record check by gardaí that would show up any conviction for a sex offence.

However, therein lies one of the problems. Although we in the UK have safeguarding and barring arrange­ments, the Irish Republic’s problem is that it has a written constitution. The family is specially enshrined within the constitution, so the Republic cannot simply pass laws — there must be constitutional change. We are well aware that that is always a difficult issue in the Republic.

I had a meeting recently with Brendan Smith, the Minister for Children down South. We discussed those issues and the need to introduce legislation in the Republic, which is well recognised in Dublin. That is probably the key issue. If the situation were to develop rapidly, it could mean that a series of constitutional changes would be needed in sequence. However, that is a matter for the Republic, and they are aware of the problem, the challenge and the need to change.

All those on the sex offenders registers in the Republic and the UK must inform the police of where and when they intend to travel if it is for more than a certain length of time. The memorandum of understanding — the first agreement of its type in the world — means that our police forces share that information about all sex offenders who plan to travel between the two states. The Agreement on Co-operation on Criminal Justice Matters between the Irish and British Governments was signed in July 2005. There is a significant level of co-operation between gardaí and the police here at an operational level on those matters.

As has been said, the border is no respecter. This is not an issue of political positions or political correctness: it is an issue about what needs to be done to safeguard our children. That applies in Northern Ireland, the Republic and the home countries. We must work together closely. My officials and their counterparts in the Republic of Ireland liaise closely on developments in their respective jurisdictions. We work closely with our counterparts in the South to ensure that they are kept abreast of developments, and we will continue to provide information and assistance to them based on our experience. I have already referred to the meeting I had recently with the Minister for Children in Dublin.

The arrangements for the sex offenders register lie with the Northern Ireland Office. I do not have the authority to raise the issue at a North/South Ministerial Council meeting. However, I will be happy to raise the matter at the British-Irish Council, as all the relevant authorities would be together. I will continue to discuss the full range of child protection issues in my regular meetings in the Republic and throughout the British Isles.

The Executive needs to have some oversight of the decisions by the NIO on the arrangements for the management of sex offenders.

All Departments must discharge their responsibilities for protecting children. I hope that there is a clear understanding that providing support to families dealing with domestic violence and parental drug- and -alcohol abuse, and the provision of better mental-health services will, in practice, have the biggest impact on protecting our children.

Dr Deeny: I thank all the Members who have contributed to the debate. I thank the Minister for being here and for his commitment to this serious issue.

The Minister said that the problem of sex offenders affected society, and that health professionals should not be the only people to deal with the issue. To focus on the health thing and the sex offences that we hear about, the fallout and the aftermath can be devastating for the people concerned. They often do not recover from the serious health situations that result from their having been sexually abused. That is important to point out, and it is why I am interested in this issue.

I am convinced that the people who commit those crimes are evil. As a doctor, I hear time and again from across the water, talk of providing medication that might, somehow, help paedophiles. That appals me, because it attempts to medicalise those evil acts. We often hear that paedophiles must be sick. That is an insult to the sick. I work with the sick, and none of them do things like this. Those are my own personal views.

The Minister mentioned Sarah’s Law. I am not too sure. The releasing of offenders’ names is certainly an avenue to look at; however, when that happened in the US, a lot more people cleared off, ran away and disappeared. We need to look at that again. Withholding the names and allowing offenders to stay in an area might permit more monitoring. That needs to be discussed and talked about. The public insists on the proper registration and monitoring of sex offenders.

Members have spoken of recent cases. There was a horrific situation not so long ago in Castlederg. I heard about one this morning — I think Carmel talked about it too. It was a young boy on the radio this morning, talking about his terrible ordeal. Another gentleman was found in the South, and the position there has to be sorted out.

The punishment must fit the crime. Mr Weir mentioned 50% remission, and I agree that that has to be looked at seriously, along with judicial accountability. However, that is an argument for another place. When one sees the consequences of some people’s actions, it is appalling that they are free to roam the streets and reoffend after just a few years in prison. When those people are released and undergoing rehabilitation, proper registration and monitoring must be involved, whether it be tagging or whatever. That is their punishment, and it is how they must pay.

Sensitive, but important, issues such as this must be discussed, and it is what politics should be about. Therefore, I thank Carál and Paul Butler for tabling the motion and for accepting amendment No 2. To be precise, it was tabled by the United Community group — not just the Alliance Party. There are another two of us.

There is a realisation and an understanding — and it was mentioned by a number of people: Mary Bradley, Sue Ramsey and others — that borders do not count when we are talking about sex offenders. I thank them for accepting the amendment. Members also mentioned that the debate should be widened to include the whole of Europe as well as these islands.

The United Community amendment was tabled to demonstrate how serious we are about this important issue. The duty of pursuing it must be assumed at levels as high as the North/South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council.

Tommy Buchanan means well, but amendment No 1 is too vague. On reading that amendment, it appears that culprits only travel in one direction — from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. Of course, there is the reverse direction, and indeed North to South and South to North. Amendment No 1 also mentions “all relevant departments”. That does not specify who needs to be responsible for this important issue. Its lack of emphasis undermines that importance, and that is why I ask Members to support the motion and amendment No 2.

Mr Easton: I support amendment No 1. The evidence clearly shows that those who perpetrate sexual offences against children know no borders or boundaries. There­fore, Government’s response must be to introduce an effective and proactive system of information-sharing, registration and monitoring which is fit for purpose and has the capacity to address the dangers and challenges presented by such dangerous perpetrators.

Sex offenders target, groom and exploit victims whenever and in whatever opportunities arise. The lives of victims and survivors are characterised by the severity of the traumatic stresses they have suffered.

Often, flashbacks of the abuse endured bring back the pain. The mental scars will often outlast the physical scars. Sadly, eating disorders, self-harm and suicide attempts are all too prevalent in the life stories of survivors of sexual abuse.

5.30 pm

The statement that “prevention is better than cure” is particularly relevant today. The onus must be on the prevention of abuse and the protection of society, and measures to enhance information sharing and the monitoring of sex offenders must be introduced as a matter of urgency. In so doing, we can proactively protect the community, and let us note that many survivors of abuse come from the most vulnerable groups in society.

We must also recognise, in the debate, the out­standing efforts of those who work in this area. I draw attention, in particular, to the excellent job done by the Police Service’s child abuse and rape enquiry units, and the professionalism of the social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists who provide a public service to the victims of child abuse.

The charitable organisations in the voluntary sector that provide counselling and healing therapies for survivors deserve the highest possible commendation. The work being undertaken locally by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Barnardo’s is worthy of particular mention.

Let us learn the lessons that the research reveals: there is an appalling rate of reoffending by child sex abusers. The best strategy to deal with them necessitates a multi-agency response that can register and monitor the perpetrators, combined with stiffer sentences that ensure that those people will never be released from jail.

In supporting the amendment, Members will rise to the challenge that the perpetrators of child abuse present. We will provide a more effective system of protection and prevent other children from suffering the horror of abuse. The progress that is being made in transport, information technology and communications presents us with the challenge of ensuring that the perpetrators of child abuse can be effectively monitored, as they become more flexible in their transport and communication arrangements. The motion goes some way towards allowing us to do that.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún. This has been a very important debate, and I value every Member’s contribution. It is evident that we do not want the House to divide on the matter. To that end, it is possible to support both amendments without division.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this important matter that embraces all communities and our respective constituencies. As Alex Attwood pointed out, a devolved and locally sensitive Government can achieve improved outcomes. The transfer of policing and justice is only one of those outcomes. Mary Bradley also mentioned that the Assembly is in a position to do something about the issue.

Dealing with those who would harm children and vulnerable adults has become a borderless matter. Sexual predators do not recognise partition, and every Member who spoke pointed that out to some degree. Increased movement of population through the EU, the availability of cut-price travel and rapidly changing technologies all present a huge challenge to us.

Last week, the police forces in Britain, in conjunction with their Irish counterpart, the Garda Síochána, announced the start of Operation Pentameter 2, a Britain- and Ireland-wide operation designed to locate and rescue the victims of trafficking. We have also seen the creation of the Virtual Global Taskforce, which is designed to bring about international co-operation to deal with Internet sex abuse and, lately, the UK Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), which aims to police the Internet and catch those who seek to exploit the lives of the vulnerable.

Social networking, which is becoming increasingly mobile, has become a feature of many young people’s lives. Unfortunately, there are well-documented cases of dangerous individuals grooming children over the Internet and travelling, sometimes from overseas, to meet and abuse them.

In Britain, the appalling spectre of sex tourism has been partially countered by new powers and Orders to restrict the movements of registered sex offenders when they attempt to leave the jurisdiction. Furthermore, when individuals are convicted of offences overseas, they can be made the subject of notification Orders on return.

All those developments are based on the fact that dangerous people are not any respecters of borders, boundaries, laws or values. Indeed, some will actively seek to exploit international boundaries and loopholes; that fact has been mentioned by almost every Member who has spoken during the debate. In response, we must remain on the offensive and ensure that our legislation and policies counter that exploitation. It is also important to ensure that the best use is made of operational co-operation and information exchanges in, and between, states.

In these islands, there are two different systems for dealing with sexual offenders — sex offender manage­ment, vetting, and barring regarding the protection of children, and safeguards for our children; Thomas Buchanan outlined the importance of that.

I welcome the interest that there has been on this issue between the British and Irish Governments, and the signing of the memorandum of understanding. I also welcome the interest that the previous direct rule Ministers with responsibility for health, social services and public safety, Shaun Woodward and Paul Goggins, showed in taking forward a seminar in October 2006 on cross-border co-operation with Brian Lenihan TD, who was the then Minister for Children.

On this issue alone, much more can be done to ensure that our child protection systems are harmonised and can be operated in a more seamless way across the border. Naomi Long referred to harmonisation in her contribution. For example, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety will shortly launch the new child death review protocol, which was instigated in part by the review into the case of David Briggs. That protocol could easily be adopted in the South and operate in a seamless way across this island.

Through devolution, high levels of aspiration must be turned into direct action. We must ensure that systems are in place to deal with a range of measures. For example, Sue Ramsey spoke in detail about the development of common policy, assessment and risk management arrangements when dealing with sex offenders. It would be foolish for us to have different structural and management arrangements for the registration of sex offenders, North, South, east, west or elsewhere.

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety spoke about the development of vetting and barring on an all-island basis. Although I know that there are constitutional issues south of the border that are often cited for difficulties in developing vetting arrangements, it seems that it is neither helpful — nor is it to anyone’s advantage — to have an individual barred from, or deemed unsuitable in, one jurisdiction but able to work in another; measures regarding that need to be tightened.

There will be an increased gap between the two jurisdictions in both legislation and practice because of the changes to the vetting and barring arrangements in the North that are to take place in this jurisdiction next year through the implementation of Access NI, and the provisions of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups (NI) Order 2007.

Vetting is only part of good safeguarding and recruitment practice. Given that most sporting and faith groups now operate on an all-island basis, it makes sense to ensure that a joined-up approach on advice and guidance is being given to both Health Departments.

Naomi Long, as I mentioned earlier, discussed the issue of harmonisation and the co-operation across borders and boundaries. John McCallister spoke about the need to think bigger and to strengthen, where possible, legislation for vulnerable children and adults. I support those positions.

We also need to have a mechanism to take forward developments collectively and allow the North/South Ministerial Council to have ministerial oversight and to take political direction on both parts of this island on those matters. One of the early tasks on the agenda should be an examination of the gaps and differences that exist and how we might deal with those on both sides of the border.

Finally, given that there are devolved and reserved aspects to the subject and that the responsibility for policy is split among several Government Departments, it would be useful if officials from the Department of Education, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the NIO and the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister could report to the Assembly setting out current levels of North/South co-operation on assessment, risk management, vetting, barring, and child protection generally, and identifying the work that has yet to be done.

I thank all the Members who spoke in the debate, each with sensitivity and compassion. Obviously, there will be no Division. As the Minister said, children everywhere must be protected and nurtured; and that must be the case all over this island. I support the motion. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Before I put the question on amendment No 1, I would advise Members that if amendment No 1 is made, amendment No 2 will fall, and I will proceed to put the question on the motion as amended.

Question, That amendment No 1 be made, put and negatived.

Question, That amendment No 2 be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly expresses concern at the disparity in child protection regulations and the registration of sexual offenders across the island of Ireland; and calls for early sectoral meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council including the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Department of Education and the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to address the disparity.

Motion made:

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


The future of Donaghadee High School

Mr Easton: Donaghadee High School is a co-educational school for 11- to 16-year-olds, and is perceived by its community to be a very good school. In 2006, the school celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Many pupils of 11-plus age and above travel from Donaghadee to schools in Bangor and Newtownards, and as a consequence, the viability of the school, in the present segregated, 11-plus system, has been threatened. As the song tells us, those journeys are in the order of at least six miles.

The failure of the South Eastern Education and Library Board to undertake an effective review and reorganisation of school provision has added to, and fuelled, the feeling of uncertainty in the minds of parents about the future of Donaghadee High School. For any school to be blighted in that way damages pupils and staff, and condemns the community to a future without a secondary school. For the town, it is like the death of a thousand cuts, leading slowly and painfully to extinction.

Donaghadee, like any large rural town, needs a secondary school in the heart of its community. In many towns, it might be wise to consider amalgamation of the primary school and the secondary school under one administration to achieve economic success, so that children do not have to travel considerable distances to be educated. It is also the case that many people are moving into Donaghadee and its hinterland, and the general population of Donaghadee is on the rise.

We are in the midst of chaotic times in education; and that chaos has been exacerbated by the tensions attendant on the review of public administration (RPA). We are unsure about the outcome of the RPA; we are uncertain about the future of the 11-plus; and we are not able to describe the future structure of the education system.

This is not the time to close schools. It is not the time to ignore the rights of parents to have their children educated in their own town, with their own friends as classmates, and in a school that has done much to encourage a vibrant, inclusive culture in Donaghadee.

We must make hard economic choices, and education is not exempt from that necessity. In that context, we must all recognise the cost to society of segregated education and its impact on community, cohesion and solidarity. While we engage in a debate about a future state education system that will provide the opportunity for children to be educated together, and which respects and honours diversity, we must also respect the wishes of parents who want that experience for their children now.

5.45 pm

Donaghadee High School has applied for integrated status, partly in an attempt to maintain viability but also on the basis of its long tradition of cross-community work and the promotion of a culture of tolerance among its pupils by a staff of skilled and dedicated teachers and auxiliary staff, whose positions are now under threat because of the commissioners’ announcement.

It is vital that the townspeople and the school are given an opportunity to explore the possibilities of that arrangement while the Assembly works out the way forward for all of us. The school must be given the chance to remain viable and to grow, and to ensure its place in the social, cultural, educational and economic life in the town of Donaghadee.

Along with NICCY, I call on the Minister of Education to support Donaghadee High School’s application for integrated status and to give the staff and parents a reasonable period to succeed in their determination to retain a local integrated secondary school at the heart of their community. The parents and pupils of Donaghadee do not want to lose their school, and they do not want the proposed merger with Movilla High School. A letter that I have received from the board of governors of Movilla High School states that the board has voted to oppose the merger, which indicates that there is no appetite for such a venture.

Since then, the commissioners have declared that the merger is off the agenda and are now aiming for the complete closure of Donaghadee High School. I condemn that announcement, because we have yet to carry out the consultation on integrated status and present a business plan. I call for the South Eastern Education and Library Board, the commissioners and the Minister of Education to give Donaghadee High School a fair chance to come up with a viable business case to prove that there is a need for the school. There is clear evidence that there are more than enough pupils in the Ards Peninsula area to make the school viable. Why not merge the local primary school, which is situated on the same site and has over 300 pupils? The secondary school also has a special needs basis, with over 90 pupils in that category, so it is a specialised high school. A viable business case can be made, and I call on the parents, teachers and board of governors to work together on a business plan.

I have tabled this debate in the Assembly to state my support for the Donaghadee people, which I hope will encourage others to stand by them at this worrying time. To those who wish to see the school close without a fight — I will give those people a fight that will leave no doubt about the determination of the people of Donaghadee. I warn the Minister of Education that if she can open Irish-language schools for 12 pupils, she can save Donaghadee High School, which has over 200 pupils. I will stand with the pupils, parents and teachers who are here today. Let us unite and try to save Donaghadee High School.

Mr Cree: On 17 September 2007, the Minister of Education told the House:

“Pupil numbers are clearly an important factor in assessing the future viability of schools, but they should not be the sole factor.” — [Official Report, Vol 23, No 7, p323, col 1].

That came as no surprise to many Members. She listed the other factors as:

“the educational experience of the children, the financial position of the school, leadership and management at the school, accessibility, and links with the community.” — [Official Report, Vol 23, No 7, p323, col 1].

The consultation document issued by the former direct rule Administration on a policy for sustainable schools is still under discussion. The Assembly was assured that it was necessary that any review of a school’s future viability should be handled carefully and sensitively, and that local circumstances must be considered on a case-by-case basis. During the same Question Time, Members discovered that the Minister had approved the opening of an Irish-language school that had an intake of 12 pupils, and they received an insight into her logic when they were told:

“if there are 12 pupils in primary 1, a long-term enrolment for a seven-class school can be calculated by multiplying 12 by seven.” — [Official Report, Vol 23, No 7, p323, col 2].

That long-term enrolment is subject to a deduction because of the projected population figures. However, it totally ignores major issues such as new house building in the area and other imminent development proposals. Donaghadee and other parts of the constituency of North Down are subject to considerable development; I will return to that issue.

In the South Eastern Education and Library Board area, commissioners have been appointed who appear to be autonomous. They make decisions that will have a significant effect on children and their school careers. A primary school in nearby Conlig — an academy that I graduated from many years ago — has served the community well for many decades. It has had a most difficult time because of those commissioners. At a recent meeting between interested parties, the governors were able to satisfy all the requirements that were laid down by the Minister, yet the commissioners decided to push ahead with a proposal to close the school.

Some 1,600 houses that are under construction in the area are to be completed within the next two years. The Minister will now have two proposals on her desk at the same time: one to close the school, and one to allow the school to transform. All interested parties say yes; the commissioners say no. That is just not good enough. The same woolliness is demonstrated in respect of Donaghadee High School and Movilla High School. Consultation has been ongoing for some time. We have been told that formal consultation by the South Eastern Education and Library Board is to take place during the autumn term, which is now.

Any proposal that the board brings forward for the rationalisation of post-primary provision in the area could mean the publication of a further report and more consultation. All of that consultation is suspect, because it may not be heeded. The delay in resolving the issue is detrimental to the good governance of both schools. Sensitive, sympathetic and prompt action is needed to remove the blight that mars the progress of several schools in the south-east region.

Dr Farry: I welcome the opportunity to discuss the situation with regard to Donaghadee High School. Donaghadee could potentially become one of the largest — if not the largest — settlements in Northern Ireland without a dedicated secondary school. All Members would consider that a tragic outcome. That said, I am realistic and I appreciate that there are current difficulties with enrolment figures at Donaghadee High School, which are considerably lower than the level that was set by Sir George Bain in his report of December 2006, and in the Department’s subsequent draft policy on sustainable schools.

That policy set out a framework in which decisions can be taken on rationalisation of the school estate. I fully recognise that difficult choices must be made, given the huge number of empty school places — around 50,000 at present, which could rise to 80,000 in a few years’ time. Therefore, there is a need to redirect resources from school buildings, where there are often large overhead costs, towards ensuring that the scarce education budget is focused on the needs of children and on supporting teachers’ and schools’ support staff, such as classroom assistants.

It is, therefore, disappointing that there is not yet a formal departmental policy within which difficult choices on rationalisation could be taken. There is an urgent need for the Department to bring forward its formal policy on sustainable schools. The consultation period closed six months ago, during April 2007. Given that so much pressure is being applied right across the various education sectors, there is a need to bring forward a clear policy as soon as possible in order to give guidance to people who are faced with difficult choices.

In that context, the option of integrated schools becomes much more attractive. My party firmly believes that integrated schools are the most viable form of education for the social good — the best interests of pupils — as well as for financial considerations. Often, people in towns and villages must make difficult decisions on the rationalisation of their schools. The integrated route may provide a more sustainable local option, as opposed to sectors having to merge across a large geographical area, resulting in children having to travel a greater distance to school.

Integrated education is a more viable way of ensuring the continuation of local provision. Therefore the proposal for Donaghadee High School to transform to integrated status should be considered in that broader context.

It is worth pointing out that there are already some very successful integrated secondary schools in the North Down and Ards area. Strangford College, in Carrowdore, is well oversubscribed. Priory Integrated College, in Holywood, has been artificially capped by the Department of Education. However, there is clear evidence that that cap can be broken and a much higher level of enrolment sustained, well above the limit of 500 pupils that was suggested by Sir George Bain.

Clearly, there is scope for additional integrated education in the greater North Down and Ards area, at secondary level. The same argument applies at primary-school level, where Bangor Central Primary School is perhaps the most successful integrated primary school in Northern Ireland. Similarly, Glencraig Primary School, at Seahill, is equally successful.

Leslie Cree mentioned the proposal for the transformation of Conlig Primary School. While its numbers are well below the Bain threshold figure for primary schools, there is considerable evidence of housing growth in that area over the coming years. An integrated primary school would, of course, provide the maximum appeal to people who move into the area, many of whom will be young parents with children of primary school age. Therefore, there are opportunities to be considered, if we take a wider look at what is actually happening. Indeed, just to stress that point, there is the potential for 1,600 housing units to be built in a one-mile radius of Conlig Primary School, and there are similar degrees of building going on in the vicinity of Donaghadee.

It is worth noting that Ards Borough Council takes a proactive approach in encouraging additional housing units for its council area, of which Donaghadee is a key part. Obviously, there are difficulties whenever schools seek to transform to integrated status in the face of what is a threatened closure. I prefer that schools would consider that issue much earlier. However, the overall thrust of the Bain Report is that schools should look to those types of solutions to become more sustainable. That is what the parents in Donaghadee seek to do through the proposal.

I have a major concern that the Department seeks to consider proposals for closure, or amalgamation, in parallel with proposals for transformation to integrated status. That is seriously detrimental to consideration of the integrated proposal, which should be considered first. We have the same problem with Donaghadee High School and Conlig Primary School. I ask the Minister of Education to reassure us that her Department will consider all proposals for integration — in advance of any decisions regarding closures or amalgamations — so that full consideration is given to creating locally sustainable options.

It may also be worth considering whether Donaghadee High School is viable as a campus of Strangford College, and whether a solution can be found in that wider context. I would also like the Minister to consider the issue of viability criteria for integrated schools. Her predecessor, as Minister of Education, Mr McGuinness —

Mr Deputy Speaker: I invite you to draw your remarks to a close, Dr Farry. Do you wish to draw them to a close?

Dr Farry: I would like to continue, if I may. Are you telling me —

Mr Deputy Speaker: OK. Thank you. I call Mr Peter Weir.

Mr Weir: My colleague says that I should try to bring some sense to the proceedings. I welcome the opportunity for the debate, and I thank my colleague for raising the issue. With regard to Donaghadee High School, it is important to examine the recent history of the current proposal and to understand where it came from.

In March 2006, when the issue of general provision of education was considered in Donaghadee, the South-Eastern Education and Library Board (SEELB) convened a special workshop to deal with Donaghadee, Millisle and the north-east Ards area. A number of public representatives attended the workshop, including myself and my colleague from Ards Borough Council, Councillor Bell.

Alderman Wilson may well have been present, too. It was very clear from that workshop that both the board officials and members had reached a consensus that the way forward for Donaghadee was not amalgamation or the closure of its high school, but the creation of an all-age school — a suggestion that my colleague Alex Easton made.

A successful primary school already operates on the same site as the high school, so if there were greater integration and better throughput — allied with the current proposal for integrated status — there would be a clear route forward for the school. The Department, by its own admission, recognises that there is no post-primary integrated education provision in Bangor, Donaghadee or Millisle. Thus, if the school is given breathing space, a clear route forward can be taken that will make the school viable in the long term.

6.00 pm

However, the unelected commissioners who were imposed on the South Eastern Education and Library Board came up with the proposal for either closure of the school or its amalgamation with Movilla High School. Anyone who has talked to the parents, the governors or teachers of either Donaghadee High School or Movilla High School will know that that imposed solution clearly bears no relation to what would work on the ground. The proposal is opposed not only by all those involved with Donaghadee High School, but those involved with Movilla High School.

If Donaghadee High School were to be closed tomorrow, it would clearly not be a panacea for Movilla High School. The pupils from Donaghadee High School would not simply transfer to Movilla High School; they would be scattered around a wide range of schools. Thus, the proposal for amalgamation is very much a non-starter.

Within the framework of a new beginning for Donaghadee High School — by way of an all-age school and integrated status — it is clear that it is not the case that Donaghadee is a declining community whose reduced numbers could not sustain a high school. I think that I am right in saying that Dr Farry stated that if the school were to close, it would mean that Donaghadee would be the largest town in Northern Ireland without a secondary school.

Donaghadee and its surrounding area have experienced substantial growth in recent years, and is due to experience even greater growth in years to come. There is, therefore, clearly an influx of people who could sustain the school, if it is placed on the right footing. I appeal to the Department, even at this late hour, to show a degree common sense and give the school breathing space.

However, there is another issue at stake, and it has been touched on only briefly. Mention was made earlier of special-needs provision in Donaghadee, and, at present, some degree of provision has been put in place for about 90 children. More particularly, around 50 of those 90 children are in the separate special-needs unit of Donaghadee High School. What will happen to those children who currently are in an environment that enables them to progress and learn if Donaghadee High School closes? When questions were asked about that earlier this year, the Department indicated that there were no other special-needs units in the secondary sector in Millisle, Donaghadee or Bangor that could cater for the children involved.

Indeed, in the Department’s response to a question from my colleague Miss McIlveen, there was not, at the stage, any evidence of expressions of interests from any other secondary school in the Bangor, Donaghadee or Millisle area that showed that they would be willing to take on those special-needs pupils. What is to happen to those children? Are they simply to be scattered to the four winds? All the good work that has been carried out in Donaghadee High School to nurture those pupils will go to waste.

It is clear that if Donaghadee High School is given a fresh opportunity and some space, and if the Department applies a bit of common sense, the situation can be turned around, and we can have a very successful school that contributes valuably to the local community. I appeal to the Minister to show that common sense today and to overturn the proposals of the unelected and out-of-touch commissioners of the South Eastern Education and Library Board. She should show a bit of faith in Donaghadee and retain Donaghadee High School. I urge the Minister to respond positively to the proposals that my colleagues and I have put forward today.

Mr B Wilson: Speaking as another unemployed member of the South Eastern Education and Library Board in the last year or so, I believe that this matter should not be decided by unelected commissioners but by the members of the South Eastern Board.

I support integrated education, and I have been involved in its promotion since the All Children Together campaigns nearly 20 years ago. This application for integrated status is valid because there is considerable demand for integrated education in North Down. As Mr Farry pointed out, Strangford College is over subscribed and Priory College could take more pupils. St Columbanus College in Bangor, although it is not the same type of school, is pretty well integrated, 50:50, and could take more pupils if it were allowed to do so. However, its intake has also been capped. The demand for children to be educated together is there, and that fact should be considered in this instance.

I would like to think that this application could be successful, but I am concerned that several applications for integrated status have been submitted by schools because they are under the threat of closure. That strategy may save schools for a couple of years, but in the longer term it may lead to unviability and closure. It is totally unacceptable to use integrated education as an excuse to keep a school open. However, I do not believe that that is the case as regards Donaghadee High School. It will be important for the school to consider its long-term enrolment, because there are serious problems; and the issue of long-term viability must be considered and other options prepared, if the viability criteria cannot be met.

The South Eastern Board figures show that Donaghadee High School enrolled 12 new mainstream pupils in September 2006 and did so again this year. If that situation were to continue, the school will have fewer than 100 pupils in five years’ time. Nobody could argue that that number would make for a viable post-primary school, because enrolment would amount to one fifth of the target set by the Bain Report, and we should be looking to implement that report.

As other Members have said, more building is taking place in Donaghadee, and the figures I have mentioned might be only a blip — but we must be honest and admit that an annual enrolment of 12 pupils a year — [Interruption.]

Dr Farry: I thank the Member for giving way — I think he needs a glass of water.

Will the Member agree that there is a particularly strong case for changing the viability criteria as regards the religious balance of pupils in the integrated sector in north Down and Ards? In particular, it may be difficult to maintain the 70:30 Protestant/Catholic split over the 10-year target period. The large number of people — within what is defined as the minority segments — who define themselves as “others” should be taken into account in order to improve the viability of every school in that area.

Mr B Wilson: I agree. The population of north Down is imbalanced. However, there are many “others” who would not identify with either tradition but who would be very keen on integrated education. Donaghadee High School could provide a place for those children to go in the longer term.

However, it is not in the best interests of pupils to have a school with an enrolment of fewer than 100 pupils, which might be the case if present trends continue. Under such circumstances pupils might miss the many opportunities that would be available at larger schools. The Bain Report focused on amalgamations, or joining schools in partnerships so that they can use each others’ facilities and maximise opportunities for their students. That is the way forward.

I hope that the Department of Education will reconsider Donaghadee High School’s application for integrated status and that the application will be successful. There is a demand in the north Down area for such a school, and integrated status for Donaghadee High School would allow it to look forward to a brighter future.

Mr McFarland: I worry greatly about the current state of education policy. It is in a complete mess; there is a constant drip, drip, drip throughout the Province as schools close here and there. I am greatly concerned that there are moves afoot to close Donaghadee High School on viability criteria. It is deemed that there are not enough pupils to keep it open. The number of pupils at a school is related to the number of people who live in an area. I am sure that the Minister of Education has closely examined the regional development strategy, because that document gave Ards Borough Council 4,500 houses to build, and, for reasons known to itself, it volunteered to take an extra 3,000 houses. Some 7,500 houses are being built in the Movilla area of Newtownards and in Donaghadee. I urge the Minister to go to Donaghadee. Every time we canvass during an election campaign in Donaghadee, we need a map, because one, if not two, more estates have been built and roads expanded. It is a rapidly expanding town, with more people moving into the area. I cannot for the life of me understand how, with an expanding population and new houses being built, a decision to close the high school is in the offing.

I have also been in contact with the Minister about Priory College, which is being prevented from expanding because it does not have enough pupils. It does not have enough pupils because the system will not allow it to have any more pupils. That is a ludicrous, catch-22 situation, yet, as my colleague Mr Cree has said, an Irish-speaking school can be built for 12 pupils. The whole criteria policy is absolutely barking. The education system will probably develop into a system of something like academic schools and vocational schools, although how that system will evolve has not been decided. I cannot understand why it is in such as mess.

I urge the Minister to keep Donaghadee High School open until there is a clear education plan that takes into account the population increases in Donaghadee and the changes that are likely to come from a change in educational philosophy that results in a move either to academic schools and vocational schools or to another system. In the absence of any clear plan on the future of education, I urge the Minister not to close schools, and certainly not Donaghadee High School.

The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Go raibh maith agat. The future planning of the controlled schools estate in the South Eastern Education and Library Board area, which includes Donaghadee High School, is, in the first instance, a matter for the board. To date, the board has not submitted any proposals to the Department for Donaghadee High School.

Is eol dom go bhfuil an bord i ndiaidh dul i gcomhairle le gobharnóirí, foireann teagaisc, agus tuismitheoirí in Ardscoil Dhomhnach Daoi agus in Ardscoil Mhaigh Bhile maidir leis an fhéidearthacht go ndeanfaí an da scoil a chónascadh, le héifeachct ó Mhéan Fómhair 2008.

I am aware that the board has initiated consultation with governors, staff and parents at Donaghadee High School and Movilla High School on the possibility of amalgamating the two with effect from September 2008. Before I go into detail on that, I wish to make two points.

6.15 pm

First, please stop playing politics with the Irish language in schools. Members are not even comparing like with like, because today’s debate is about post-primary schools. The criteria for the establishment of an Irish-medium school in the North of Ireland are exactly the same as for an English-medium school, whether in the maintained, controlled or any other sector.

To receive funding, Irish-medium schools must meet the same criteria as any other proposed new school. For primary schools — not post-primary schools — the year 1 intake must be at least 15 pupils in Belfast and Derry, and 12 pupils elsewhere. It is the same for controlled, maintained and integrated schools.

Therefore, that issue can be put to rest. I do not know about other Members, but I am sure that anyone listening to the debate is sick and tired of people abusing information, giving out wrong information and using scare tactics. The education system in the North presents enough difficulties. In the past couple of days, I had the unpleasant task of informing the principal of St Gabriel’s College that the school does not have enough pupils. I take any decision on school closures extremely seriously. Therefore, I ask Members not to play at politics on the issue.

Donaghadee High School and Movilla High School have been experiencing falling enrolments, primarily as a result of demographic changes in the area. Donaghadee High School has an approved enrolment of 380 places. Ten years ago, its enrolment was 327 pupils, and today it has 213 pupils, including 48 children who attend a special unit. Movilla High School has an approved enrolment of 900 pupils. Ten years ago, its enrolment was 888 pupils, and the figure has now fallen to 652. It was in that context that the board determined that a review of school provision in the area was necessary.

After meetings on 15 May 2007, the SEELB advised that both boards of governors agreed that it was appropriate to consult staff and parents from the two schools on a possible amalgamation. Meetings were held during May and June with the board of governors, parents and staff of both schools. The SEELB will present the outcomes of those consultations to the commissioners to inform their decision-making. To date, no decisions have been made.

The parents of some children who attend Donaghadee High School are particularly concerned about the future of the special-needs provision at the school. The four special units located at Donaghadee High School cater for pupils with moderate learning difficulties from year 8 to year 10. That provision will remain for the 2007–08 academic year, and parents of pupils in the unit have been advised accordingly. Whatever decisions the South Eastern Education and Library Board take on the future of Donaghadee High School, it has a statutory duty to make the special education provision and placement necessary to meet the needs of each individual child, as outlined in the statement of special needs.

In recent weeks, the board advised the Department that parents of children at Donaghadee High School had submitted a request to the school’s board of governors that a ballot be held on whether the school should move to controlled, integrated status. As more than 20% of parents signed the request, the governors resolved to hold a ballot, and the Electoral Reform Society has been asked to conduct it. The board has advised that the closing date for the ballot is 22 October 2007 and, if successful, the board of governors must submit a development proposal to the South Eastern Education and Library Board for the school’s transformation to integrated status.

Post-primary schools that seek to transform to integrated status must demonstrate the ability to draw at least 10% of their year 8 intake from the minority religion in the first year of operation, and the potential to achieve a figure of 30% in the longer term. Other factors that must be taken into account include the long-term viability of the school and evidence of the school’s awareness of, commitment to, and preparation for, the process of integration. The impact of any change in status on other schools in the area must also be considered. The SEELB commissioners must decide whether to proceed with the proposal for the amalgamation. However, if it is decided to proceed with any change to the school, there is a statutory requirement for a development proposal to be published.

In response to Stephen Farry’s question, no proposals have been published for Donaghadee High School. If two proposals are published at the same time, they will both be considered, in line with current procedures. All relevant information will be carefully considered before any decisions are made, including issues such as new housing estates, which Alan McFarland mentioned, and projected pupil numbers. Before such a proposal is published, there is a require­ment for the relevant education and library board to consult any schools that may be affected. There is also a duty on the proposer to consult governors, parents and teachers of the school or schools that are the subject of the proposal.

Following publication of the proposal, there is a statutory period of two months during which representations can be made to the Department in support of — or against — the proposal. No doubt, I will receive letters from people requesting meetings about that, and I will be happy to meet those people. At the end of the two-month period, the Department evaluates all the relevant information on the proposal in order to decide whether it should be approved. All development proposals are considered on their individual merits. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on potential future proposals for Donaghadee High School, because I will be required to make a decision on any published development proposal and I cannot pre-empt the outcome of the development proposal process. However, it is important to recognise the issues that face us as we plan future education requirements.

The biggest issue that affects all of us is demographics. The demographic trends in the North of Ireland present the education system with the major challenge of ensuring that schools remain educationally viable and that they avoid inefficiencies arising from excess surplus capacity. The strategic review of education — the Bain Report — was undertaken in the context of important challenges that were presented by the reduction in pupil numbers. School rolls fell by 9%, which amounts to 30,000 pupils over the past decade, and they are projected to fall by a further 9·5%, which amounts to a further 30,000 pupils over the next 10 years. That places increasing strains on budgets and on teaching staff in schools with falling numbers, which can impact on the quality of children’s education.

The Bain Report recommended that there be an estate of fewer, larger schools, with greater collaboration and integration in and across school sectors. I agree with the general thrust of the report and with the objective of providing modern fit-for-purpose schools that provide high-quality education for all our children. Many of the recommendations require further detailed work, and the report could certainly not be implemented overnight.

Dr Farry: Does the Minister recognise that schools in all sectors face difficult choices in respect of rationalisation? In the absence of revised up-to-date guidelines from the Department, resulting from the Bain Report on sustainable schools, when will the Minister’s Department have that framework in place?

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat. I wish to congratulate. Dr Farry on his use of Irish earlier. We will have to find out the name of the UUP teacher who taught him at Queen’s University, because he or she is obviously very good.

On a more serious note, I will address some of the issues that Dr Farry mentioned. The Bain Report recommended that provision should move to a system of schools that are educationally and financially viable for the long term, planned on an area basis. That should help to reduce problems of over-provision, provide the choice that parents and children need in a period of change to pupil numbers, and ensure that communities have the schools that they need.

Dr Farry pre-empted me on the sustainable schools policy. At the heart of area-based planning is the need to provide a system of strong, viable schools. We are considering the responses to the consultation on sustainable-schools policies. The draft policy document proposed the enrolment thresholds that had been recommended in the Bain Report, which were: 105 pupils for rural primary schools; 140 pupils for urban primary schools; and 500 pupils for post-primary schools for 11- to 16-year-olds, or 14- to 19-year-olds, or whatever the provision may be. The Bain Report did not state that schools below those levels automatically need to be rationalised. Instead, schools below those thresholds were to be reviewed to consider whether they continued to provide high-quality education for children.

Concerns about a school’s viability are often only raised when enrolments have fallen irreversibly. The indicative criteria in the policy are intended to provide a framework for early consideration and possible remedial action. The level of enrolment is only one of six proposed criteria for helping to assess school viability. Others include the educational experience of the children, the financial position of the school, the leadership and management of the school, and its accessibility and links with the community. The core objective of the policy is high-quality education for children regardless of their background or where they live.

The entitlement framework is also part of the creation of the schools estate. The introduction of the revised curriculum and the entitlement framework aims to provide young people with a broad and balanced education, with access to a range of courses both generic, which means academic, and applied, which means vocational and technical.

The Education Order 2006 places a mandatory require­ment on boards of governors to provide all pupils at grant-aided schools with access to the entitlement framework. From September 2009, schools will be required to provide pupils with access to a minimum number of courses at Key Stage 4 and post-16 levels. In both cases, at least one third of the courses must be general and one third applied, that is, vocational and technical. For most schools, some form of collaboration with other schools or FE (further education) colleges and training providers will be necessary to enable pupils to have that. I am glad to say that many post-primary schools are doing that now, and some of them are very successful. This is going to be very challenging for schools.

In conclusion, I have not received any proposals from the SEELB in relation to the future of Donaghadee High School.

Maidir le moltaí a thugann na húdaráis oideachais cuí chun cinn, beidh orm eispéiris na bpáistí atá i gceist a mheas anois agus sa todhchaí. Ba é seo an príomhshlat tomhais ar leagadh béim air is gcáipeis polasaí scoileanna inbhuanaithe. In regard to proposals brought forward by relevant education authorities, I must consider the educational experiences of the children concerned, both now and in the future. That was the key criterion highlighted in the sustainable-school policy document, and we are looking at it before announcing proposals.

I am sure that Members will agree that in all the proposals that I am asked to decide on, my prime concern must be the educational experiences of the children. However, the proper process must be adhered to. Although I welcome the opportunity to debate this issue, I feel that it is a little premature, because I have not received development proposals yet. Go raibh maith agat.

Adjourned at 6.28 pm.

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