Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo


Tuesday 19 February 2008

Assembly Business

Ministerial Statements
North/South Ministerial Council — Plenary Format
Update on Bluetongue

Executive Committee Business
Budget Bill: Consideration Stage

Private Members’ Business
Murder of Paul Quinn
Conductive Education

Health Provision in Larne

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

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Assembly Business

Mr Speaker: Yesterday, Members asked whether a statement was due from junior Minister Mr Ian Paisley Jnr. It is important that I clarify the situation for Members.

A junior Minister ceases to hold office if he or she resigns by notice in writing to the First Minister and deputy First Minister. There is, therefore, no legal requirement to notify the Speaker or the House. However, junior Minister Mr Paisley Jnr, as a courtesy, informed me yesterday morning of his intention to resign from office.

Should Mr Paisley Jnr seek to make a personal statement to the Assembly about his resignation, I shall consider his request.

Mr Kennedy: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am grateful for your early clarification. Can I have further clarification on the arrangements for the appointment of a new junior Minister? One presumes that ministerial appointments are subject to Assembly approval. On that basis, will the leader of the relevant party nominate a replacement, bring that nomination to the Assembly and, therefore, have the endorsement of that appointment?

Mr Speaker: Two junior Ministers were appointed and took up their posts on 8 May 2008 under an existing determination. That determination, in accordance with legislation, makes provision for a junior Minister ceasing to hold office and for the filling of vacancies. A copy of that determination is available from the Business Office.

Ministerial Statement

North/South Ministerial Council — Plenary Format

Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister that the deputy First Minister wishes to make a statement on the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in plenary format.

Recently, after ministerial statements have been delivered, Members have been in the habit of making their own statements rather than asking questions.

Yesterday, I was very clear, and I asked several Members to take their seats after lengthy statements, sometimes with no questions. Therefore, I say to Members on all sides of the House that there are questions to a ministerial Statement. I have given some latitude to Members who wish to lead in their questions; however, if Members insist on making long statements, I will rule them out of order.

The deputy First Minister (Mr M McGuinness): A Cheann Comhairle, in compliance with section 52C(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, we wish to make the following statement on the sixth meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in plenary format, which was held in the Dundalk Institute of Technology on Thursday 7 February 2008. All Executive Ministers who attended the meeting have approved that this report be made on their behalf.

In addition to the First Minister, junior Ministers Paisley Jnr and Kelly and myself, our delegation comprised the Minister of Finance and Personnel, the Minister of the Environment, the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Minister of Education, and the Minister for Social Development.

The Irish Government hosted the meeting, and the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern TD, chaired it. The Irish Government delegation included Brian Cowen TD, Tánaiste and Minister for Finance; Noel Dempsey TD, Minister for Transport and the Marine; Dermot Ahern TD, Minister for Foreign Affairs; Micheál Martin TD, Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Seamus Brennan TD, Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism; Éamon Ó Cuív TD, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Mary Coughlan TD, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Mary Hanafin TD, Minister for Education and Science; Eamon Ryan TD, Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; and Brendan Smith TD, Minister for Children.

The president of the Dundalk Institute of Technology, Dennis Cummins, with his staff and students, afforded us an excellent welcome and highly professional arrange­ments, facilities and hospitality. We were very pleased to meet among young people in a modern institute of technology. Our young people are the key to our success, and we welcomed the opportunity to let them see that we are working together to build a better future.

At the start of the meeting, the Council expressed its united condemnation of threats to undermine political progress. Ministers resolved to maintain progress on building co-operation, and expressed appreciation of the strong, cross-border co-operation between the PSNI and the Garda Síochána.

During the meeting, Ministers had a broad discussion and exchanged views on matters aimed at delivering practical benefits, such as co-operation on EU issues, and the north-west gateway initiative. Ministers welcomed the opportunity to discuss those and other important issues.

The Council received a progress report, prepared by the NSMC joint secretaries, on the 13 NSMC ministerial meetings since the previous plenary on 17 July 2007.

The Council welcomed the work under way in the NSMC sectoral and institutional format meetings on a wide range of mutually beneficial and directly relevant practical issues.

The Council endorsed the progress made, including agreement on a management structure, to take forward the plenary decision on the A5 north-west gateway to Aughnacloy and the A8 Belfast-to-Larne road projects, and welcomed progress to date on the Narrow Water bridge proposal.

The Council welcomed agreement on the modalities for taking forward the re-opening of a stretch of the Ulster Canal between Clones and Upper Lough Erne.

Ministers emphasised the importance of these major infrastructural projects and the need to ensure that they are delivered in a speedy and efficient manner, on time and in budget. I stressed the need to consult local stake­holders during the construction phase of the Ulster Canal, and to develop a targeted marketing programme for this important new tourist facility.

The Council welcomed the decision to assess options for the future development of the Belfast-to-Dublin Enterprise rail service, including increased service frequency, improvements to rolling stock and elimination of speed restrictions. It agreed that co-operation on road safety will continue to be a high priority, including recognition of driver disqualification and penalty points, and road safety in border areas.

The Council agreed that the tourism sector is making a major contribution to economic growth and employ­ment, and it welcomed Tourism Ireland’s challenging targets of tourism revenue growth of between 6·6% and 7·5% per annum, visitor growth of between 4·2% and 5·1% per annum, and promotable growth of between 14% and 17·2% over the next three years.

The Council looked forward to receiving reports from the working groups — which were established at the NSMC meeting in institutional format — on the cross-border transfer of pensions and on cross-border banking issues, which are of direct relevance to greater cross-border mobility.

The Council also considered a paper on child protection. It recognised that that is a crucial matter that affects us all. It welcomed the opportunity to discuss the matter and to consider how effective child-protection measures can be developed through enhanced collaboration and co-operation. It noted and welcomed the current cross-border co-operation on child protection, involving Departments, agencies and policing bodies.

In order to intensify co-operation on child protection, the Council requested that the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) and the Office of the Minister for Children establish and co-chair a cross-border group that comprises officials from relevant Departments. That work would include making early progress on an all-island child-protection awareness campaign; identifying other medium- to long-term measures to improve child protection, including an examination of an all-island approach to child protection, with a particular focus on vetting and the exchange of information; working on the areas for co-operation on children’s services that are emerging from the North/South feasibility study on health and social services; and reporting any progress to the next NSMC plenary meeting.

The Council considered the progress report on the St Andrews Agreement review, and it noted the progress that has been made to date in advancing that review. It also noted the intention to present a final report to the NSMC plenary meeting later in 2008.

The Council considered a paper on a North/South consultative forum. It noted the completion of the Irish Government’s consultation with their social partners and noted the position, as outlined previously, for reviewing the Civic Forum here.

Ministers also considered a paper on a North/South parliamentary forum, and they noted the ongoing discussions between the Houses of the Oireachtas and the Northern Ireland Assembly on the subject, which will be kept under review.

It was agreed that the Executive will host the next plenary in October 2008.

Mr Moutray: I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement. I welcome the progress that has been made to date on the reopening of a stretch of the Ulster Canal between Clones and Lough Erne. Will the deputy First Minister tell the House whether consideration was given to pursuing the re-opening of further stretches of the canal, particularly the great many that remain in the constituency of Upper Bann?

The deputy First Minister: At the sixth meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in inland waterways sectoral format, which was held on 17 October 2007, the Council approved arrangements that Waterways Ireland proposed. Those included joint-management arrangements and a targeted marketing programme to progress the restoration of the 12 km Clones-to-Upper Lough Erne section of the Ulster Canal over the next six years. Subsequent to advancing the project, Waterways Ireland officials met with representatives of statutory agencies, North and South. Along with local relevant interest groups, Waterways Ireland will progress the matter further by seeking to appoint a project manager and a consultant to undertake preliminary design work.

Although I know that there is tremendous interest in the further development of the project, progress on it must be made one step at a time, commensurate with affordability.

Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement.

Will he outline briefly the background to the Narrow Water bridge project? Will he further comment on the accuracy of the statement to the press on the €400,000 funding for the feasibility study for the bridge that Margaret Ritchie, the Minister for Social Development, made following her meeting with Dermot Ahern?

The deputy First Minister: In March 2007, the Irish Government’s Finance Minister, Brian Cowan TD, stated that they looked forward to working with the restored Northern Executive in order that his Government could further advance proposals in their national development plan, including the Narrow Water bridge project. The NSMC meetings in transport sectoral format in September and December 2007 noted progress on the Irish Government’s proposals for construction of a bridge at Narrow Water, linking County Louth with County Down.

The Department of Transport and the Marine in Dublin has provided some €390,000 to Louth County Council to undertake a technical study of the proposed project. Once the outcome of the technical work is available, the Irish Government will share the results with the relevant Departments here.

10.45 am

There was no detailed discussion on the matter at the NSMC plenary meeting. The discussions that Minister Ritchie held with Dermot Ahern TD were not part of the formal meeting. The Irish Government’s decision to fund a technical study on the Narrow Water bridge proposition was taken well in advance of the NSMC plenary meeting on 7 February 2008. No decision was taken on the technical study at that meeting. At the moment, the head of the Civil Service is investigating the circumstances surrounding the issuing of press releases by the Department for Social Development, including the involvement of officials, and will report back to the Executive in due course.

Mr Kennedy: Is the deputy First Minister aware that the Narrow Water bridge proposal does not have widespread support? It is the view of many, including Warrenpoint Harbour Authority, that it will not resolve the severe traffic difficulties in the Newry and Mourne and south Down area. In fact, there is greater support for the relief road proposal, which would, in many ways, help to resolve the ongoing traffic problems in the Newry area. Would it not be better to spend some time examining that proposal in detail instead of advancing a rather hare-brained scheme to create something that will have no long-term benefit?

Will the deputy First Minister provide more detail on the papers that were tabled on both the North/South consultative forum and the North/South parliamentary forum? Will those papers be deposited in the Assembly Library? How does he intend to consult in the Assembly, either through the Assembly Committees or with the political parties, in respect of those matters?

The deputy First Minister: For the moment, it must be accepted that a feasibility study, funded by the Dublin Government, is taking place, under the auspices of Louth County Council. There is no doubt that before we get close to a point of decision on any of those matters that there are all kinds of processes to be undertaken. The views of everyone are important.

On the matter of the southern relief road, I have been advised by Minister Conor Murphy that his Department’s Roads Service has employed consultants to undertake a feasibility study to explore options for a new Newry southern relief road that would link theA2 Warrenpoint Road, a few miles north of Narrow Water, to the A1, just south of Newry. That study, which is ongoing, will assess the benefits to strategic traffic management and the potential to ease traffic congestion in Newry. I have no doubt whatsoever that the two projects that are undergoing feasibility studies will be watched carefully by everyone.

At the plenary meeting in July 2007, the North/South Ministerial Council noted that the Irish Government would consult the social partners on the North/South consultative forum and also noted the review of the arrangements for consulting civic society in the North. Since then, the Irish Government have held formal consultations with their social partners.

The First Minister and I have commissioned a review of the Civic Forum. At the NSMC plenary meeting, I made it clear that although we are keen to see progress on that, we need to get it right. That will include taking on board the views of Members of this House and of the Committee that the Member chairs.

At its plenary meeting in July 2007, the North/South Ministerial Council noted the provisions of the St Andrews Agreement relating to the North/South parliamentary forum and that any development of a joint parliamentary forum is a matter for the two elected institutions. The Council agreed that officials from the two Administrations would make contact with the Assembly and the Houses of the Oireachtas and report back to the NSMC at the earliest opportunity on prospects for developing such a forum.

Officials from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) wrote to the Clerk of the Assembly conveying the Council’s decision. Subseq­uently, a meeting was held between An Ceann Comhairle of Dáil Éireann and the Speaker of the Assembly, and further discussions have taken place between the two elected institutions at official level.

All parties recognise that any forum will be a matter for the Assembly and Dáil Éireann to consider. At the NSMC plenary meeting, Ministers noted that discussions are ongoing between the Houses of the Oireachtas and the Assembly on the North/South parliamentary forum, and the matter will be kept under review.

Mr P Ramsey: I welcome the deputy First Minister’s statement on the good, positive work of the NSMC. I also welcome the high priority being given to road safety, particularly to ensuring that we can reduce, where possible, the carnage on our roads. That correlates with something that was not mentioned in the statement, although I think that it was mentioned by the deputy First Minister, namely alcohol misuse and abuse across the island.

Almost 37% of road deaths in the Republic are caused by drunk drivers; and there was an announcement this morning in our constituency, Mr Speaker, that almost 50 youngsters under 15 years of age, including one 10-year-old, have been admitted to accident and emergency departments due to drink-related injuries. What priority is OFMDFM going to give to ensuring that the next generation of children is not going to face the same pressures regarding the abuse and misuse of alcohol, and self-harm?

Finally, the north-west gateway initiative was mentioned at the NSMC meeting. Will the deputy First Minister give details of the action plan for health and education and, in particular, whether there will be any co-operation on sporting events in the initiative?

The deputy First Minister: We are pleased with the continuing level of co-operation with the Minister for Transport and his officials on road safety. In 2007, positive progress was made in the North on road safety, with a reduction of 11% in road deaths — from 126 to 112. The latter figure equalled that for 1947, which was the lowest on record.

The number of children who were killed on the roads fell by more than 40% — from nine in 2006 to five in 2007. That number is also the lowest on record.

Road safety is one area in which we cannot become complacent — each death is one too many. We have introduced a number of new road safety initiatives since devolution, and we welcome the publication of the new road safety strategy by the Irish Government.

I share the Member’s concern regarding alcohol abuse, and drink-driving in particular. During the Christmas period, An Garda Síochána and the PSNI issued statistics on the number of people who were caught drink-driving. Such behaviour is completely and totally unacceptable.

I am pleased to report that we are making steady progress in reducing the number of people being killed and injured on our roads, and that is very important.

Mr Ford: I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement. I listened closely to the questions asked by Mr Kennedy; however, I do not think that the deputy First Minister listened to them because Mr Kennedy did not seem to get answers to some specific points.

I ask the deputy First Minister specifically: will the Executive publish the progress report on the review of the St Andrew’s Agreement; will the Executive publish the report on the North/South consultative forum; and will the Executive publish the report on the North/South parliamentary forum? I note in particular, Mr Speaker, that the final issue is the responsibility of you, An Ceann Comhairle of Daíl Éireann and An Cathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann — why, therefore, was the NSMC discussing the matter?

The deputy First Minister: As work progresses on all those matters, decisions will be taken by the Irish Government and us under the auspices of the NSMC. The time is not appropriate for me to make any commitments on behalf of the NSMC because the Council, meeting in plenary sessions, is subject to joint decisions made by the Irish Government and the Executive Ministers who attend.

Mr Shannon: I have two questions to ask. The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Nigel Dodds, told me in a recent written answer that there had been 2·1 million visitors to Northern Ireland last year. The deputy First Minister said that he intended to increase the number of tourists by between 4·2% and 5·1% per annum. That being the case, what policies will he be introducing to ensure that those numbers increase? Mr Dodds’s answer also revealed that there had been only 166,000 visitors from North America; perhaps that is one of the areas on which we should be focusing.

My second question is in relation to cross-border co-operation on child protection. Have there been any discussions between the PSNI and the Garda Síochána on vetting and the exchange of information, which I think is vital?

The deputy First Minister: Tourism Ireland markets the island of Ireland overseas as a preferred tourism destination. Its key role is to provide strategic leadership and international marketing with world-class marketing programmes.

The first NSMC tourism sectoral meeting was held in Dublin on 8 November 2007. Tourism Ireland’s business plan for 2008 and corporate plan for 2008-10 were approved at that meeting. At the NSMC plenary meeting, the Council recognised the significance of tourism in the delivery of economic growth. It welcomed Tourism Ireland’s challenging targets of tourism revenue growth of between 6·6% and 7·5% per annum, visitor growth of between 4·2% and 5·1% per annum, and promotable growth of between 14% and 17·2% over the next three years.

There is no doubt that we are seeing a steady increase in the numbers of tourists coming to the North. That feeds into our economy, so it is important that we continue to grow those figures. Arrangements are being made for the next meeting of the NSMC in tourism sectoral format to be held in May.

The First Minister and I agree that children are our most important asset; they are our future, and it is our duty to protect them. Taking account of the important debate that took place in this Assembly, we agreed to raise the issue at both the NSMC and the British-Irish Council (BIC).

The NSMC discussed how more effective child protection measures could be developed through collaboration and co-operation across the island, including between the PSNI and the gardaí. There is already significant collaboration and co-operation involving Departments, agencies and the policing bodies, but we need to maintain momentum to ensure that the collaborative arrangements are as effective as possible on a cross-border, east-west basis.

The NSMC agreed that the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Office of the Minister for Children should establish and co-chair a cross-border group of officials to intensify co-operation, including early progress on an all-island child protection awareness campaign; the identification of other medium- and long-term measures to improve child protection, including examination of an all-island approach to child protection, focusing in particular on vetting and the exchange of information and any areas for co-operation in children’s services emerging from the North/South feasibility study on health and social services; and a commitment to report progress to the next NSMC meeting.

This issue is taken very seriously by all of us. It is imperative that the police forces, North and South, in particular, work closely together, and we intend to give them every encouragement and support in their task.

Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat. It is good to see such robust and dynamic all-Ireland work taking place. Will the Minister confirm that there is a need for a step change in the north-west gateway initiative to make it less aspirational and more operational? That is how we in Sinn Féin have always viewed the initiative. Despite what the SDLP and others told us, we knew that it was only ever going to be an aspirational document.

It must become more operational. Will the deputy First Minister confirm that that will happen? My constituents in Derry, and those who took part in the Stand up for Derry campaign, would welcome a step change in the north-west gateway initiative.

Mr Speaker: Order.

11.00 am

The deputy First Minister: The importance of progressing the north-west gateway initiative’s work was agreed at the plenary meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council. I said that OFMDFM hopes to submit a paper to the Executive on the matter in the next few weeks.

Mr Beggs: The deputy First Minister said that the NMSC requested the creation of a cross-border group of officials to co-operate on child-protection matters, and that that group would identify child-protection issues in the medium term to long term and focus on vetting and on the exchange of information. Why is nothing happening in the short term? The inadequacies of the Republic of Ireland’s child-protection system have been highlighted in previous Assembly debates. Those inadequacies endanger children in Northern Ireland never mind those in the Republic of Ireland. Will the deputy First Minister state why he has not pressed for short-term changes to the Republic of Ireland’s inadequate system for protecting children? Is there a cosy relationship, similar to the one between the DUP and Sinn Féin, developing between the First Minister and the Irish Government? Why have the inadequacies of the child-protection system in the Republic of Ireland not been highlighted at the NSMC meeting?

The deputy First Minister: In short, there are constitutional difficulties in the South that the Irish Government must address. The Irish Government’s commitment to the deepening consensus on amending its constitution to incorporate the rights of children — contained in the 28th Amendment of the Constitution Bill 2007 — has led to the establishment of a joint committee on the constitutional amendment for children. That committee’s terms of reference are to examine the proposals in the amendment, which include the exchange of soft information. The committee is due to report back to the Oireachtas by the end of March 2008. We await a decision on a date for that constitutional amendment with as much interest as everyone else.

Mrs M Bradley: The deputy First Minister said there was broad discussion and an exchange of views on matters aimed at delivering practical benefits such as the north-west gateway initiative. Was any consideration given to issues of concern to older people who live at the border? They could make good use of services that are available in the North, which are only between one and a half and two miles away from their homes across the border. At present, they stay at home because there are no day-care centres, or any other facilities, near them. I want issues such as that addressed.

The deputy First Minister: Naturally, I sympathise with the Member’s comments. The issue was not discussed at the plenary meeting of the NSMC. However, the First Minister and I intend to publish proposals, which the Member, along with the other Members who represent the north-west, will await with interest.

All Members have a responsibility to do as much as possible to ensure the safety and well-being of our older people. The Member has raised a health issue, which requires a feasibility study to detail the extent of the problem for older people who live in border areas.

Mr Elliott: I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement. My question relates to the Clones and Upper Lough Erne stretch of the Ulster Canal. Has any timescale been set for the restoration of that part of the canal? Has there been any estimate of the costs that the project will incur?

The deputy First Minister: At the sixth meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council at the inland waterways sectoral meeting on 17 October 2007, arrange­ments proposed by Waterways Ireland were approved, which included joint-management arrangements and a targeted marketing programme to advance the restoration of the 12-kilometre section of the Ulster Canal from Clones to Upper Lough Erne over the next six years.

There is a six-year time frame. Subsequently, in taking forward the project, Waterways Ireland officials have met representatives of statutory agencies North and South, along with relevant local interest groups. Waterways Ireland will progress the matter further by seeking to appoint a project manager and a consultant to undertake preliminary design work. After that, we will have a better idea of cost.

Mr Gallagher: I thank the deputy First Minister for the paper that he has brought to our attention and the progress that is evident on a range of issues. However, there is a serious question about the repatriation of illegal waste originating in the Republic of Ireland. We are led to believe that Dublin City Council is the authority responsible for repatriation, but the Minister of the Environment has been unable to get a commitment from Dublin City Council that it will take responsibility for the repatriation of that waste, despite the risks to health. Was that matter raised at the Council meeting and, if not, will it be a matter of high priority at the next Council meeting?

The deputy First Minister: A road map drawn up to deal with issues of illegal cross-border waste was endorsed by Ministers at the NSMC meeting in October 2007. Officials have held discussions with their Southern counterparts aimed at repatriating waste originating from two specific sites in Ireland at Slattinagh and Trillick. A formal request has been made to the Irish authorities to repatriate the waste in line with that road map and the relevant EU legislation. There has been very little progress on that matter, and Minister Foster has recently raised the issue with John Gormley, who, I understand, is taking a personal interest in resolving it. I am convinced that Minister Foster is proactively pursuing the issue.

Mr Dallat: I note that there will not be another plenary session until near the end of the year. Given the serious issues under discussion, including child protection and road safety — matters involving life and death — is there not a need to let the handbrake off and have more regular meetings so that those outstanding cross-border issues can be discussed?

The deputy First Minister: It would be a mistake to think that all of the work is carried out at the plenary meetings. Many cross-sectoral meetings take place in between Council meetings, and the respective Ministers, North and South, have the responsibility of dealing with the detail of those issues.

Ministerial Statement

Update on Bluetongue

Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development that she wishes to make a statement to provide an update on bluetongue.

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Gildernew): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I wish to make a statement about the bluetongue virus that has been found in animals imported into the North from Europe.

Before I go into detail, I will make a few preliminary comments. First, I pay tribute to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) and the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) staff who have worked so hard in recent days — and nights — and who are still working to defend the agriculture industry from bluetongue.

Secondly, I acknowledge the recent unanimous support from agri­culture industry leaders for messages urging potential importers not to put their own businesses, as well as those of their neighbours, at risk.

Finally, I appreciate very much the press release issued by the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee on 15 February. I agree wholeheartedly with Dr McCrea that our farming industry does not need any further challenges at this time. His appeal to the whole industry to work with DARD to enforce high standards of biosecurity effectively reinforced similar messages from me and from farmers’ leaders.

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

Also, I wish to thank Members from all parts of the Assembly for their understanding and support at this difficult time.

I will start by outlining the background to bluetongue. The bluetongue virus is present in many countries worldwide, and various strains have been present in the Mediterranean area for some time. However, in 2006 bluetongue serotype 8 began to circulate in northern European countries, such as Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland and France. In 2007 the virus appeared for the first time in Britain, in East Anglia.

Bluetongue is an economically significant disease for ruminant animals, mainly cattle, sheep and goats. However, it does not affect humans, and it spreads in a very distinctive way. I wish to make it clear that bluetongue does not spread by direct transmission from animal to animal — as foot-and-mouth disease does, for instance — nor is there any risk to farmers or stock handlers. Bluetongue is spread by midges. If an infected animal is bitten by a midge at a time of year when the ambient temperature is consistently above 15°C, the virus can develop within the midge, and the midge can then infect any other ruminant animal that it bites.

The incursion of bluetongue into England last autumn is believed to have been the result of wind-borne midges having arrived from the continent via prevailing easterly weather patterns. That incursion has established a beachhead of infection in south-east England that could spread north and west this summer through midge activity. However, as I have repeatedly said, the more immediate threat to the North, and the more likely way in which the disease could arrive here, is through imports of infected animals from bluetongue-affected areas in Britain and the continent. That is why I have been encouraging farmers here not to import animals from such regions.

The economic consequences of the disease can be severe. Belgian sheep farmers have reported mortality rates of up to 30%. There is also a loss of production in both dairy and beef cattle, although mortality rates are much lower, with a figure of around 1% having been reported. However, this is a new serotype of the virus, and my Department is currently assessing the potential economic impact of its becoming established in the North. Whether it will transmit easily in our climate remains to be seen.

It should soon be possible to vaccinate animals to provide protection from bluetongue. Veterinary pharmaceutical companies are developing a blue­tongue vaccine, and supplies of it should start to come on stream this summer. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has ordered more than 22,500,000 doses of the vaccine. Although my Depart­ment has input into the vaccination plans, European Commission rules prohibit vaccination in bluetongue-free areas, such as the island of Ireland, at this time.

It is imperative that we seek to keep bluetongue out for as long as possible. We operate a programme of restricting and post-import testing all animals that are imported from the continent or from bluetongue-affected areas of Britain. Such imports are restricted on farms here until post-import tests prove negative.

Turning to recent developments, on 14 February my Department obtained a preliminary blood-test result which indicated the likely presence of the bluetongue virus in one imported dairy heifer on a farm in north Antrim. On the same day, I took the decision to cull that animal as a precautionary measure while we waited for confirmation of the result from the community reference laboratory in Pirbright. The result, which was formally confirmed the next day, showed the presence of bluetongue virus in that animal.

The animal was one of 21 dairy cattle that had been imported to the farm from a collection centre in the Netherlands in January. The animals had originated from farms in the Netherlands and Germany. These animals had been tested for bluetongue after their arrival here, on 22 January, as is routine for any ruminant animal that is imported into the North from the continent. At that time the animal was negative for both evidence of exposure to the virus — as shown by the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) test — and the presence of the virus, according to the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.

At that post-import test, eight heifers in the group of 21 tested positive for antibodies, which indicated that those animals had had previous exposure to the virus — they were ELISA-positive. To explain what that means, the animals did not have the live virus in their blood, only antibodies. For example, a person who has had chickenpox as a child will continue to have antibodies to that disease for many years.

The animals were also tested for the live virus, through the PCR test, and all were found to be PCR-negative, which indicated the absence of active infection. However, my Department took the precaution of restricting the herd for a longer period than is usual, and we retested all of the cattle 30 days after import.

11.15 am

That retest was carried out on 11 February and one heifer showed up positive on PCR: that is, we found the presence of the bluetongue virus. Having culled the infected heifer, and having received confirmation of a positive test, the decision was taken on Friday to cull the heifer’s calf as an additional precaution. That was done because it was possible that the calf had become infected through virus transmission before birth and through the close contact it had had with its mother.

Over the weekend, we received results of tests on blood samples collected on Friday 15 February from calves born to other cattle in that group. They showed that three out of four calves born to heifers in the group were ELISA positive and PCR positive — that is, they also showed active infection with the blue­tongue virus. On the basis of those results, and in the light of the findings of the investigation so far, I took the decision on Sunday to cull the remaining 20 cattle and all of their calves in the imported group. The culling of those animals was completed on-farm yesterday.

It was judged prudent to remove all the remaining heifers in the group, as the mechanism by which the original animal and the calves became infected is uncertain. That group of cattle had already been exposed to the infection and presented a risk. The mechanism by which animals in the group had become infected is still under investigation. Further tests are taking place in laboratories in the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute and in Pirbright as I speak. Importantly, no evidence exists that vectors are active in that shed, and the suckler herd held in this same airspace remains uninfected, although intensive surveillance of that group continues. I will return to that point shortly.

Yesterday, as a precautionary measure, we culled a further three animals, imported in another batch. Because of the uncertainty of the mechanism by which the animals in the first group contracted the virus, it was considered prudent to remove the additional animals. In total, 30 animals were culled on the farm.

The Department is under no obligation to pay com­pensation for imported animals that have been affected by, or exposed to, the bluetongue virus. I repeat that the Department and I are determined to do all we can to keep the North’s bluetongue-free status. The cull does not mean that the disease is circulating here.

Recognition of an outbreak of bluetongue, and that a country has infected status, depend on evidence that the virus is circulating in animals other than imports. Such evidence is taken to demonstrate infection of the local midge population. Our active surveillance has yielded no such evidence, and so the North, and the island of Ireland, retains bluetongue-free status. Both DEFRA, and Mary Coughlan, the Minister for Agri­culture, Fisheries and Food in the South, have been kept informed.

I assure Members that I will continue to focus on ensuring that the disease is contained through quick and decisive action. The remaining cattle and sheep on the farm will continue to be restricted and they will be tested regularly until we are satisfied that no risk of infection remains. Surveillance-testing will be extended, as necessary, to other imported animals and across other areas of the North. I have asked my officials to consider what else needs to be done, and I will announce what further steps are to be taken in the coming days.

In the meantime, nothing must divert us from the immediate task of implementing intense surveillance of the infected farm in north Antrim. The farm in question is the only farm that has given cause for concern. I will keep the Assembly informed as the investigation progresses, and as more information comes to light which helps us to understand the incident on that farm.

Go raibh maith agat. As I said on Friday, farmers who consider importing livestock from bluetongue-affected areas should wise up if they are serious about keeping bluetongue out of the island of Ireland. On Friday, the president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union called for a voluntary ban on the import of animals from bluetongue-affected areas. I welcome that move, as I have no statutory power to ban such imports.

Once more, I plead with farmers who are considering the importation of animals to think again. This experience demonstrates that importing is far too risky. I wonder how long it will be before the message gets through. Since my appointment, I have reminded farmers about vigilance in relation to bluetongue a staggering 23 times. On six occasions since May 2007, I have explicitly asked in my press releases that farmers think carefully before importing.

The Chief Veterinary Officer has written to all cattle and sheep owners in the North about that, and DARD has issued posters and flyers to farmers and private veterinary practitioners. This week, DARD will again run a series of advertisements to remind farmers to be vigilant and to remind them of the precautions that they should take in relation to bluetongue.

I regret the circumstances that have led to my having to make this announcement. One farming family has already suffered loss. I appeal again to anyone considering importing animals to think twice about the impact that it may have on their business and on the wider community. I assure the House that I and my Department will continue to do all that we can to retain our bluetongue-free status, but, as I have repeatedly said, everyone in the farming community must be responsible and vigilant. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that they are to ask questions about the Minister’s statement.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development (Dr W McCrea): I thank the Minister, the Department and the farming industry for their continued vigilance, and for working to ensure that the disease does not become the epidemic that we all fear. I endorse the calls for the industry to remain on high alert, and I welcome the fact that Northern Ireland is still a bluetongue-free area. I also support the action that has been taken.

The Minister previously told the House that she would adopt a fortress mentality towards disease. However, now that the threat is at the door, there appears to be a hesitation to take the only appropriate action that is available — to ban imports from bluetongue-infected areas. On 1 October 2007, the Minister said that her disease strategy:

“recognises that different regions have different priorities to consider, and it provides for us to respond in a way that is specific to our circumstances.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 24, p102, col 2].

The Minister said then that she had the capability to act, but now she has told the House that she does not have the statutory authority to act. Who has the statutory authority, and is the Minister seeking to have that authority invoked? Does she agree that now is the time to address our specific circumstances by banning imports, rather than simply calling for the voluntary ending of imports? Having agreed with me that the farming industry does not need this challenge, does the Minister agree that action beyond the wait-and-see approach is desperately needed? Can the Minister tell the House why she does not seek to implement the very practice that she has personally promoted — turning Northern Ireland into a fortress by banning imports from affected areas?

An order for the bluetongue vaccine has been placed for livestock in England and Wales. What steps have been taken for a vaccine to be made available should bluetongue, God forbid, become a reality in Northern Ireland? I ask the Minister to keep the Committee fully informed as the issue develops.

Ms Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Committee Chairman for his comments, and I welcome the good working relationship that we have had on the issue. I will, of course, continue to keep the Committee fully informed.

The question about the ban is an obvious one. The higher-risk imports are from areas affected by bluetongue in mainland Europe. Under EU legislation, we are unable to ban imports if the relevant trade conditions are met. On 26 October 2007, Commission Regulation 1266/2007, which allows for the movement of animals from bluetongue zones under certain conditions, came into effect. Banning imports would contravene that legislation. The regulation came into effect because so much of Europe was affected. I was opposed to the regulation, and I lobbied intensely on the matter. I wrote to Jeff Rooker at DEFRA, and spoke to colleagues there, about voting against the European Commission’s regulation. However, the UK Government voted in favour of the legislation. I do not have the statutory authority to ban imports; that is why I appeal to farmers and the agriculture industry to work with me to impose a voluntary ban.

Although we were part of the vaccination strategy and the discussions around that, we are not part of the tender process. At the moment, no animals in the North are infected with bluetongue; therefore, we are not permitted to vaccinate. If we require the vaccine, we will obtain it through our own procurement process. We are developing a vaccination strategy in partnership with DEFRA and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (DAFF). I should also point out that the vaccine is expected to have a limited shelf life. If we were to invest money in the vaccine this year and, all being well, not need it until next year, that money would be wasted.

We are keeping a close eye on the situation, but we are not permitted to vaccinate against the disease while we are bluetongue-free. Therefore, we must wait until animals become infected before we can buy the vaccine and distribute it to farmers. We will keep a close eye on the situation as it develops, and we will do all in our power within the legal framework to keep bluetongue out of the island and out of the North.

Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I commend the Minister and her Department for their swift and decisive action over the past few days. Everyone has put in a huge effort. Will the Minister elaborate on the conditions of bluetongue-free status? Are all the results now available?

Ms Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. We have not lost our bluetongue-free status. Unlike other diseases, bluetongue is not confirmed until there is evidence of circulation of the active virus between susceptible animals and the midge vector population. In other words, we retain our bluetongue-free status until bluetongue is found in the midge population. We are at higher risk from imported animals than from midge activity.

The animals that were culled yesterday are still being tested, and we are awaiting some retests on samples that were sent to Pirbright laboratory. This is a live situation, and results are still coming in. We will keep a close eye on those results as they come through and take the necessary action to protect our bluetongue-free status.

Mr Elliott: I thank the Minister for her statement and for the work that she and her Department have been doing. I would like clarification on the testing regime, as eight of the 21 imported animals tested positive prior to leaving the country of export. They then appeared to test negative when they came to Northern Ireland. However, at the most recent test on 11 February, they tested positive again. Will the Minister clarify how those results differed so much?

Ms Gildernew: With your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker, this will be a lengthy answer. I will go through the timeline of events to put the matter into perspective.

On 11 January, some 36 animals arrived here from an assembly centre in the Netherlands. The animals originated from Holland and Germany, and they tested negative for bluetongue in the pre-import test before leaving the Netherlands. The consignment went to two separate farms. The animals were restricted on those farms, in line with post-import control for bluetongue-susceptible animals. On 21 January, we tested all the animals from the second farm, and they all tested negative for bluetongue. On 22 January, the 21 animals from the first farm were sampled and eight of them tested ELISA-positive, which means that they showed immunity to bluetongue. In other words, the animals had been exposed to the virus and had antibodies in their blood, but they did not carry the live virus. Therefore, we took the further precaution of restricting the herd for longer than usual to carry out further tests.

On 24 January, the PCR test, which shows whether the virus is active in the animal, showed that none of the animals had bluetongue. It was decided to test the animals again 30 days later, and midge traps were placed in the shed.

11.30 am

The animals that were imported on 11 January were retested on 11 February, and on 13 February one animal tested positive for bluetongue virus. A further sample was taken from that animal, and both samples were sent to the reference laboratory in Pirbright. On 14 February, the holding was restricted. The decision to cull one animal was based on suspicion and taken as a precautionary measure. On 15 February, we received the official results from Pirbright, and by that time the cow was culled. On the advice of scientists, that cow’s calf was also culled. Test results on the calf showed that it was ELISA positive, because it was exposed to the antibodies that had been passed on through its mother. The calf, however, was PCR negative. Therefore, it had immunity, but it did not have the virus. All other cattle on the premises were sampled.

On 17 February, results showed that three calves that were born to ELISA-positive dams were PCR and ELISA positive. Interestingly, the calves that had not been exposed to vector activity were found to be PCR positive. One calf was ELISA positive but PCR negative, so it had the immunity but not the virus. Samples from other animals gave cause for concern, so those animals were retested, and the samples were sent to Pirbright for analysis. On 18 February, the remainder of the cohort that came from the Netherlands — 20 cattle and five calves — were culled. Yesterday, the Department took the precautionary step of culling a further three animals. Those animals did not test positive, but we were not 100% happy with the results.

At all times, the Department has taken a belt-and-braces approach to contain the disease and to do what is necessary to protect the industry and to cull the animals.

Three out of the four calves that were born to the imported heifers were PCR positive, so the virus was, obviously, transmitted through their mothers. However, the Department and the scientists are still involved in robust active investigations on all of that.

I apologise for the length of my answer, but, in short, the animals tested negative before they left the Nether­lands, tested negative on arrival here, but tested PCR positive when later tests were carried out.

Mr P J Bradley: I thank the Minister for updating the House on the bluetongue virus, and I thank her and the Chief Veterinary Officer, Bert Houston, for their constant attention to the threat and for their call for vigilance; that is appreciated. The events following the detection of the first case prove that our post-import detection is working, but it also shows that we are not impregnable and that our flocks and herds are at risk. What is known about the area of the Netherlands from which the affected animal came? The Minister said that she cannot ban imports from that area, but why are animals allowed in from the likes of the Netherlands and Germany when those countries are so prone to the disease?

Ms Gildernew: The bottom line is that the heifers from those areas are cheap. Members are aware of the challenges facing the red meat industry. The farmer who imported the cattle had a suckler herd, but he wanted to move into the dairy sector. Dairy heifers are cheaper to buy in countries where bluetongue is prevalent than they are to buy here. Therefore, the farmer made an economic decision. I can understand that; I am not entirely unsympathetic to his situation. The heifers were cheaper to buy and import, and the farmer was thinking of going into the dairy sector. Those heifers had to be culled because they were exposed to the virus, and we have to protect our industry.

The situation should act as a timely reminder to farmers that it is a false economy to bring in heifers from bluetongue-affected areas, because they could end up losing them.

The heifers also came through an export assembly centre. They were collected from different parts of the Netherlands and Germany and brought to an assembly centre. The farmer followed the correct procedures involved in the pre-import and post-import testing, but the risks exist in spite of the procedures. That is why I am reiterating my message: please do not import bluetongue virus into the country.

Mr Ford: I thank the Minister for her statement and actions and those of her Department’s staff, particularly the Chief Veterinary Officer and those who work with him.

Considering the Minister’s answers, some serious questions about the science remain unanswered. Although there was no evidence of a vector, calves tested PCR positive. Therefore, maternal transmission occurred, which, previously, was not considered to be the case. A heifer that tested negative before leaving the Continent tested PCR positive in Northern Ireland. Clearly, much is unknown about the science.

Dr McCrea’s point about the necessity of going back to Europe in order to request import restrictions is emphasised by the facts that have emerged over the past few days.

In addition, if the post-import tests were only performed on the farm after 10 or 11 days, is that satisfactory at a time in which there has been such a level of threat, or is there a need to impose testing at the ports in order to ensure that it is done at the earliest possible time?

Concerning the Minister’s request for farmers’ vigilance, which we all accept, rather than a vague reference to north Antrim, is it not incumbent on the Department to give more precise information about the location of outbreaks in order that people who live nearby can be more vigilant, ensuring that they and others are protected in the future?

Ms Gildernew: I thank the Member for his comments. We must remember that a farming family is affected by that outbreak, and that is why the location was described as north Antrim. Every farmer in that area — and in the North — should be vigilant. If the infection had been transmitted by the midge population, they would not have stopped at the boundary to the next-door neighbour’s farm.

Concerning the origin of the transmission, the Member is right about the fact that scientific evidence of which we were previously unaware is emerging. That evidence is subject to ongoing investigation and, at this time, it is unhelpful to speculate about the results of such an investigation. However, when the outcome is known, it is incumbent on me to keep Members informed about developments.

It is necessary to wait for 10 days in order to allow recently infected animals to develop the disease to a point at which it can be detected. The testing regime is conducted subject to that timescale, and that allows us to obtain the most accurate results from blood tests. Therefore, we take into consideration what we know about the disease and apply that to our testing regime.

Mr Shannon: I thank the Minister for her statement, in which she said:

“I have been encouraging farmers here not to import animals from such regions … farmers who consider importing livestock from bluetongue-affected areas should wise up … I have explicitly asked in my press releases that farmers think carefully before importing.”

In addition, the president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union called for a voluntary ban.

Will the Minister confirm whether the continuing cattle imports from the Netherlands and Germany pose a real threat to the Northern Ireland cattle industry?

Will she also make a statement about the Ulster Farmers’ Union’s comments? Perhaps, instead of calling for a voluntary ban, it would be better if the Ulster Farmers’ Union asked for a statutory ban and used its influence in an attempt to persuade people across the water, where the real power lies?

Ms Gildernew: I thank the Member for his questions. When the Member said “across the water”, I presume he meant London. However, on this occasion, the power lies in Brussels. In October, the EU Commission introduced regulations that mean that, if importers meet all the trade conditions, we cannot stop animals coming from infected areas. Therefore, we must be aware of the points at which to apply pressure.

The Member mentioned the fact that the agriculture industry’s leadership has been helpful concerning this matter, which it has, and I welcome the comments made by the president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, Kenneth Sharkey. I also welcome the stark call made six or eight weeks ago by the secretary of the local branch of the National Sheep Association, Edward Adamson:

“anyone considering importing animals from a Bluetongue Region — DON’T!”

We must get such stark language across to people.

We were lucky that this incident occurred during the recent cold snap. It was a timely reminder to the industry of the risk that exists. Had those animals been imported and found to be PCR positive at a later time of year, in August or September, perhaps, the situation could have been very different, because midge activity at that time of year might have resulted in a bluetongue outbreak. In some ways, I am thankful for the weather that we have had.

We are in a position to argue our case in Europe for a ban on imports. However, in the absence of such a ban, we must ask the industry to impose a voluntary ban. Until I have the power to impose a statutory ban, the industry must do it voluntarily. I ask anyone who is thinking of importing animals from bluetongue-infected areas not to do it. It is too risky, both to themselves, to their neighbours and to the entire industry.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister and her Department for the way in which they have dealt with this issue. The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development mentioned the vaccination programme. For the purpose of clarity, when will that programme be made available, and how quickly can it be introduced in the event of an outbreak? Bearing in mind that there is North/South and east-west co-operation on these issues, are there any other new measures that can be introduced to maintain the North’s bluetongue-free status?

Ms Gildernew: Vaccination supplies are only imported when a disease is confirmed to be in circulation in a country, and then only within the protection zone. Thankfully, we are not in that position. However, we have to plan strategically in the event that we require vaccines in future.

May I ask the Member to repeat his second question? Did he ask what happens if an outbreak is confirmed?

Mr Boylan: No. What new co-operation measures are available to keep the North bluetongue free?

Ms Gildernew: We must keep our colleagues in Dublin and London up to date on our findings. We have worked and will work closely with Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and their counterparts in Dublin to ensure that they are fully apprised of the situation as it develops. Work is ongoing, and there will be further liaison with veterinarians and scientists in Europe. This is emerging science, and Europe will be interested in our scientific findings. I congratulate Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute and our veterinarians for discovering that previously unknown transmission route. Europe will look closely at how the disease is transmitted. If that helps to make decisions on vaccination procedures it will be very useful indeed.

Mr Bresland: I thank the Minister for her statement. Can she assure the House that the Veterinary Service has enough resources to deal with any potential outbreak of bluetongue in Northern Ireland?

Ms Gildernew: Obviously, at a time like this, the resources that the Veterinary Service needs to deal with and contain this situation will be made available. Since last week and before, the Veterinary Service has been busy testing animals and carrying out surveillance. Additional midge traps have been placed in the sheds. The Veterinary Service has done sterling work on site, ensuring that we get results as quickly as we can, and that we are kept fully apprised of the situation. I have to rely on scientific evidence and veterinary advice. Everyone has worked hard to ensure that the Veterinary Service can do its job, and that we take the decisions that are necessary to protect the industry.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I wish to seek clarification about the Department’s policy on compensation. Will individual farmers whose herds are affected by bluetongue be compensated in this instance? What procedures for compensation are in place should an outbreak take place?

Ms Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat. The Department is under no obligation to pay compensation for imported animals that have been infected by, or exposed to, the bluetongue virus. We must be very clear about that.

If an outbreak is confirmed, the animals will not be culled because the mortality rates are such that culling is not necessary. Animals can become infected by bluetongue, but then develop a resistance to the disease and recover from it. If an outbreak is confirmed, we will obviously have to change tack. As I said, we will not cull, but we will still not compensate farmers for the slaughter of any animals that become infected by bluetongue. As we do not have the statutory authority to ban imports, we need some mechanism that will encourage people not to import animals and put the industry at risk.

11.45 am

Mr T Clarke: My first question perhaps follows on from the previous question. The Minister said in her statement that the Department is under no obligation to pay compensation. Does that mean that there is no willingness on her part to pay compensation to the farmers who are affected? The fact that the Department is not under any obligation to pay compensation does not mean that it cannot pay it. Therefore, I ask the Minister: will she pay compensation?

Secondly, does the Minister accept that her comment to farmers that they should wise up was offensive?

Ms Gildernew: No, I do not think that the comment was at all offensive. I was simply appealing to farmers who may be thinking of importing animals from bluetongue-infected areas to recognise that their actions will place the industry at risk. It was a straightforward message to farmers, and I received no negative criticism for using those words. I had to make my message clear and simple.

I have repeatedly told farmers that I will not pay compensation for imported infected animals. As I said, some mechanism is needed to deter farmers from importing such animals, and if that means financial loss, then so be it. The importing of animals that are infected by bluetongue puts our industry at risk. As the Chairman of the Agriculture Committee said, farmers need no further challenges at this time. A suitable mechanism is required, and if that involves farmers facing a financial hit, then so be it. I have repeatedly said publicly and to the media that I am sympathetic to farmers’ losses, but that a message must be sent that there should be no imports of animals from infected areas because that puts our industry at risk.

Mrs McGill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her statement, and I commend both her and her departmental officials on the work that they have done to address the issue. My question was about the banning of imports, and that has been fully answered on a number of occasions. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Irwin: I want to associate myself with the remarks made by the Chairman of the Agriculture Committee. Many of us are concerned that, even after all the testing and screening, an animal with bluetongue can still get through the loop and be brought into Northern Ireland. Surely this latest confirmation of bluetongue strengthens the Minister’s case in going to Europe to seek a ban on imports from all bluetongue-infected areas?

Ms Gildernew: I thank the Member for his comments. He makes a very valid point. We will discuss the implications of our findings with Europe, and we will press the issue. However, I do not want to place anyone under any illusion that we will be successful. The European Commission has been very clear that, because so much of Europe is now affected by bluetongue, a ban would entirely shut down the movement of animals within Europe. We will take whatever action we can, and we will talk very forthrightly to the commissioner about our findings and the implications for the industry. All the checks and balances are in place as regards pre- and post-import testing, and the science is such that the animal did not get through the loop — we caught it. That is the point, and that is why I am making this statement today. Once findings are determined, we will decide what we need to do in our negotiations with Europe. Again, I am happy to keep Members informed of those deliberations.

Mr Burns: Does the Minister agree that local midges would carry this disease? If that is the case, would vaccination be our only defence?

Ms Gildernew: I thank the Member for his question. It was very gallant of him to ask it, given that he has almost lost his voice.

If the midge population has bluetongue, there will be a live outbreak and further precautions will be implemented. However, we are not at that point. The longer the midge population goes without bluetongue, the better it will be. Local midges are as able to distribute and transmit the disease as other midges. If that happens, we will be able to vaccinate against the disease.

My Department is continually working on a contingency plan to avoid the disease. There is also a plan to protect the industry if and when we are unlucky enough for the disease to spread. The longer we can hold bluetongue off, the longer we can protect our industry from it, and the longer we can maintain our bluetongue-free status. It will be better for the industry if our animals are free from the disease. I assure Members that my Department will be working to that end.

Executive Committee Business

Budget Bill

Consideration Stage

Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that the Consideration Stage is intended to enable Members to debate any amendments to the Bill. As no amendments have been tabled, there will be no opportunity to discuss the Budget Bill [NIA 10/07] this morning. However, Members will have an opportunity for a full debate during the Final Stage of the Bill.

I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to group the seven clauses for the Question on stand part, followed by the Question on the four schedules and the Question on the long title.

Clauses 1 to 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedules 1 to 4 agreed to.

Long title agreed to.

Mr Deputy Speaker: That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Budget Bill [NIA 10/07]. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

Private Members’ Business


Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.

One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech.

Mr P Maskey: I beg to move

That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to bring forward plans to develop tourist infrastructure, particularly in areas of social need, and to recognise the significant potential of political tourism.

I have a conflict of interest as I am currently the chair­person of Fáilte Feirste Thiar, which is a West Belfast tourism initiative. I am also a board member of the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau.

The motion has been tabled for a number of reasons. First, it is to recognise that there is a significant increase in the tourism budget, which I welcome. Tourism offers the potential to deliver a sustainable economy, but only if it is worked right and we get our act together by working collectively to ensure that that is the case.

The next reason is to recognise that the number of visitors who travel to the North has increased greatly over the years, which generates hundreds of millions of pounds in expenditure every year that can be invested in the economy. The tourism industry sustains over 36,000 jobs in the North. However, we have yet to reach the full potential of the number of jobs that could be created, or the visitor numbers and the expenditure that that would generate.

The motion also seeks to draw attention to the fact that many thousands of visitors come to see certain areas, but the local communities do not benefit due to the lack of infrastructure and underinvestment from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. Many of those communities are in areas of social need and would benefit from investment as it would bring them into line with others.

Due to the lack of investment, there is nearly a fishbowl scenario — visitors come into the community on a bus or in a taxi, look out the windows and drive off again.

No money has been spent by those tourists in the local community. Such visits, therefore, have little or no benefit to the area. People who are from outside the area benefit on the backs of the people of the local community.

The area that I represent, West Belfast, has many thousands of visitors every year, yet it has no hotels. There are only a small number of B&Bs and one fair-sized tourist-accommodation establishment — Farset International on the Springfield Road. Clearly, however, it does not have enough rooms to cope with demand. In Belfast alone, a 30% to 50% increase in bed space must be provided during the next few years in order to cope with the increased number of tourists. How many of those beds will be provided in west Belfast and the greater Shankill? I imagine that none or very few of them will be provided in those areas, or in any of the other new TSN areas throughout the North.

If the Assembly is serious about tourism and tackling areas of social need, the motion must be taken seriously. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment stated that it will target 50% of financial assistance for all tourist-accommodation projects to new TSN areas during the 2005-06 financial year. I tell DETI clearly that none of that money was spent in Shankill or west Belfast.

The West Belfast and Greater Shankill Task Force’s strategic review report stated that:

“Tourism is a fast growing industry and in West Belfast there are many community initiatives”

— such as Fáilte Feirste Thiar and Shankill Tourism —

“which have the potential to significantly contribute to the local economy.”

It went on to state that:

“Invest NI and NITB should be financially assisting and encouraging local community tourism initiatives, local businesses and hoteliers alike to invest in a range of tourism initiatives, including accommo­dation to boost the local economy.”

That will help to eradicate the fishbowl scenario.

Those areas have yet to see any commitment from Invest NI or the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) with regard to tourism. I sincerely hope that the Assembly, under Minister Dodds, will go some way towards dealing with those issues. For too long, his Department — under direct rule, I might add — has only paid lip service to those communities.

The tourism product is often discussed. I agree that development of the tourism product must be high on the Assembly’s agenda in order to enable the North to attract new visitors and, even more importantly, repeat visitors.

Another aspect of the motion is the potential for political tourism. Political tourism attracts many visitors, whether people like that or not. Curiosity is a major reason for that attraction. During the years, Belfast City Council has carried out several tourist surveys. The results indicate that more visitors would rather see attractions that relate to the Troubles than those that relate to the Titanic Quarter. However, currently, the NITB neither invests in nor recognises that type of tourism.

I understand that people have sensitivities towards political tourism. However, I also recognise that it has massive potential to grow the tourism industry and will assist in the regeneration of many areas of social need throughout the North. One only has to consider the number of journalists who have written many articles on political tourism and the opportunities that it creates. In a guide complied by ‘The Independent’, one of Britain’s top travel writers, Simon Calder, placed gable-wall art above any other visitor site. Instead of going to Buckingham Palace or the Tower of London, the journ­alist advises visitors to go straight to the Shankill and the Falls. That is an important statement from a significant travel writer. Another recent poll that highlights the places one must visit before he or she dies includes the North’s political murals.

Such articles show the potential of political tourism. The Assembly must grab the opportunity to build tourism infrastructure, recognise its importance and pay attention to what journalists write about it. People are interested in and curious about the North’s history. They want to be told that history by the people who have lived through it. The Assembly has that clever marketing tool at its disposal. Political tourism showcases the North to the rest of the world in a positive manner.

As I mentioned earlier, certain organisations work together in order to bridge and deal with tourism issues. Their co-operation shows great leadership. EPIC, which is a loyalist ex-prisoners group, conducts tours in the Shankill area. Many tourists and journalists have availed of those tours. Coiste, a republican ex-prisoner group, conducts daily walking tours of the Falls Road. On many occasions, the two organisations have worked closely to promote their communities and give tourists what they want. They have seen the demand for political tourism and have grasped its importance. They recognise that if political tourism were promoted and developed by the NITB and other bodies, it has the potential to lift those communities from areas of social need into areas that have great employment and socio-economic opportunities that will become must-see areas for tourists. The possibilities are immense.

12.00 noon

Writers from the ‘Lonely Planet’ series of guidebooks gave great reviews of the tours that they took with both organisations and raved about what the areas have to offer. I am sure that NITB officials have read the reviews of many journalists from throughout the world on political tourism. I daresay that NITB would be thankful for the free publicity that freed up hundreds and thousands of pounds of its marketing budget.

Many people from around the world read the reviews and travelled here to experience what is on offer. The opportunity to expand the industry must be taken and the potential of all aspects of tourism must be realised. The Assembly must ensure that tourism benefits everyone. I am not saying that all resources should be invested in areas of social need or that political tourism is the only tourism product. However, infrastructure must be built in the areas that tourists visit. Pilot schemes that operate in those areas have no visitor accommodation, but they attract many thousands of tourists.

I am not hung up on its name but, for want of a better phrase, political tourism has massive potential. The relevant agencies must promote it, and NITB must explore its possibilities and offer it support. Fair play to those organisations that have worked on tourism schemes, because they have tried to create employment opportunities for local people. Despite having received no financial support from NITB, they have led by example and increased the number of visitors.

I urge all Members to support the motion and to recognise the importance of the tourism industry here. All aspects of its huge potential must be considered. Areas, such as the west Belfast and greater Shankill area that I represent are calling for that to happen. Local people see many thousands of visitors coming into their areas every year but they have no accommodation to offer, and there is little benefit to their communities. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Ross: I beg to move the amendment: Leave out all after ‘infrastructure’ and insert:

“; recognises the benefits to the local economy of tourism; and seeks to promote Northern Ireland in a positive manner.”

In his opening comments, the Member acknowledged that tourism is a growing industry in Northern Ireland. It is recognised as such in the Programme for Govern­ment, which aims to increase the number of tourists from 1·9 million to 2·5 million by 2011, and to increase the revenue generated from £370 million to £520 million by the same date. Tourism is vital to the local economy, and it is one of the fastest growing sectors here. Public service agreement (PSA) 5 in the Programme for Government commits to:

“Develop our tourism sector and promote Northern Ireland as a must-visit destination to facilitate growth in business and leisure visitors.”

I listened to Mr Maskey’s opening remarks, and I had a similar debate with him on Radio Ulster in August 2007. He must recognise that people choose where they want to visit — they are not told where to go, and that is an important point. Unlike the motion, my amendment wants tourism to be developed throughout Northern Ireland and recognises that that will benefit everyone.

Although political tourism or terror tourism, as it been labelled in some quarters, will attract some visitors to the Province, Members must ensure that Northern Ireland sells itself as positive and upbeat. Everyone remembers the days when the only coverage of Northern Ireland that appeared in the foreign media was of bombs blowing people to bits and destroying our towns and cities and of the numerous murders and shootings. Unfortunately, those were the associations with Northern Ireland, and they did not encourage anyone to visit. In fact, such imagery was the reason why people did not come.

Thankfully, Northern Ireland is moving into a more settled and prosperous time, and it is attracting record numbers of tourists to its shores. Although many people may come because they have a genuine interest in the history of Northern Ireland, many others visit for reasons that are totally unrelated to the conflict. Simply to promote Northern Ireland’s political or terror tourism, or even to focus on that, does a disservice to many of the positives that Northern Ireland can boast.

It is important to state that political tourism can, and will, have a part to play in an overall tourism strategy. It would be naive to say that there is no market for it, although perhaps it may be deemed to be historical or cultural tourism. Perhaps cultural tourism could also focus on the celebrations that are held on 12 July every year. The Orange Order suggested that approximately £6·5 million could be generated for the local economy by promoting the Twelfth. Northern Ireland’s Ulster-Scots heritage is also of interest to many Americans, who trace the roots of many presidents to this part of the country.

Political or cultural tourism has a role to play. Countries such as Poland and Germany have marketed that type of tourism, of which the Berlin Wall is probably the best example. Given our history, people are interested in areas associated with the Troubles. Yesterday’s debate on the reclassification of the terrorist campaign demonstrates the fact that there is disagreement about the interpretation of our history. The Member for West Belfast referred to history being told by the people who lived through it; this side of the House resists any attempt to glamorise the past or terrorism.

Since devolution was restored in May 2007, there has been phenomenal interest in Parliament Buildings. My colleague Simon Hamilton has raised the need for a designated tourist centre on the Stormont estate. People are interested in modern political tourism in Northern Ireland, but if we focus only on such tourism, we associate ourselves only with the worst incidents of our history.

Northern Ireland should be promoted positively. We should promote the breathtaking scenery and the beautiful tourist attractions — the Giant’s Causeway, the Fermanagh lakes, the Marble Arch caves, the Titanic Quarter, Londonderry’s walls and the Ulster American Folk Park. We have the Mourne Mountains, which reminds me about the possibility of a national park and Members’ making their pitches.

In my constituency of East Antrim, Carrickfergus Castle is yet another attraction. East Antrim is the gateway to the coast road and is in a good position to reap rewards from our tourism potential. It is also important to promote and support our small hotels and bed-and-breakfast establishments.

There is an emerging market for other types of tourism. I am a member of the Committee for Employment and Learning, and, last week, we heard evidence from the owner of the Share holiday village, who told us that adventure tourism in Northern Ireland is on the rise. We must also consider that type of tourism.

Many tourists come to Northern Ireland for sporting activities, the best example being the North West 200. They also come for walking, cycling and fishing breaks or to play golf on some of the most splendid links courses in the world. Belfast has become one of the most popular destinations for weekend breaks. It has a growing evening economy, with bustling bars, restaurants and entertainment hot spots.

There are positive aspects to Northern Ireland tourism that we should promote. At the start of my contribution, I mentioned that the Member for West Belfast and I had a debate on Radio Ulster on this issue. That debate resulted from my travelling out from Belfast International Airport last summer and noticing that the shops in the departure area were not marketing specifically Northern Irish goods. The products in those shops were branded as Irish, with Celtic or Guinness logos, and everything from leprechauns to shillelaghs to shamrocks. Northern Ireland should be marketed as a destination of its own. The Irish Republic is our economic competitor, and we should recognise the constitutional reality and ensure that Northern Ireland is marketed as a single entity so that our hotels and bed-and-breakfast establishments can benefit from tourism and not lose out to the South.

My predecessor, the late George Dawson, was often critical of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board for not marketing Northern Ireland as a single entity. He had to travel all the way to the Epcot centre in Florida to buy products on which Northern Ireland was stamped. Fortunately, that situation has been remedied somewhat; the last time that I flew out of George Best Belfast City Airport, I noticed that Northern Ireland football merch­andise is now being sold, which is to be welcomed.

Northern Ireland must be promoted in a way that not only reflects the fact that it is its own country but will attract tourists. Terror tourism will not do that. Terrorism was a sad blight on our history, and the majority of people want to move on. Recently, a tourist bus was burnt out, which is a sad reminder of our terrorist past. The company, Paddywagons, had suffered twice from such attacks. At the time, press reports stated that a Canadian man who was on that bus said that he may never return to Northern Ireland because of the incident.

Such activity is characteristic of our past, and we should be committed to working towards a better future and moving away from our associations with terrorism, paramilitarism and conflict. The Member for West Belfast mentioned that many people visit Northern Ireland to see the murals. I recognise that, but Northern Irish people do not want to focus on the past. Articles in the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ and the ‘News Letter’ have stated that the majority of people who live near peace walls want them to be taken down once it is safe to do so.

People want to move on; they do not want to be stuck with the terrorist past and the conflict that we suffered for so long. Northern Ireland wants to move on as a place with a positive image, promoted not only locally but abroad. The amendment that we have tabled gives a much better way to promote Northern Ireland, irrespective of the tourist locations.

We do not have to be characterised by terrorism and our bloody past. Let us be positive about what we can offer tourists. I call on the House to unite behind the amendment and support the tourist industry in Northern Ireland.

Mr Cree: Since peace came to Northern Ireland, there has been a considerable increase in the number of tourists visiting the Province. Before the Troubles, Northern Ireland experienced considerable growth in the tourist market. The years between 1959 and 1967 were characterised by substantial growth, with tourist trips increasing from 615,000 to 1·1 million. After 1969, however, the number of tourists decreased dramatically and, in 1972, dropped to an all-time low of 435,000. Despite improved tourism growth during the latter 1970s, by 1981, the number of tourist trips had risen to only 520,000. It was not until 1991 that figures recovered to the level enjoyed before the years of terrorism.

Since 1991, there has been a year-on-year increase in the number of tourists to Northern Ireland. With a worldwide increase in tourism, Northern Ireland now welcomes substantially more visitors a year than at any other time in its history.

The preliminary forecast for January to December 2007 estimated, in total, 2,051,000 visitors to Northern Ireland — an increase of 4% from 2006. The revenue from tourism in 2007 was estimated at £366 million — a decrease of 1% from the previous year.

Northern Ireland has received significant praise as a tourist destination. In 2006, the ‘Lonely Planet’ travel guide tipped Northern Ireland as one of the “must see” countries to visit, and listed Belfast as one of the top 10 cities “on the rise”.

In November 2007, Tourism Ireland and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board unveiled their 2008 tourism marketing plans. It was realised that to increase the number of visitors to Northern Ireland, it was essential that the infrastructure be improved.

The Programme for Government estimated an increase in tourist numbers from 1·98 million to 2·5 million, and an increase in tourism revenue from £370 million to £520 million, by 2011. Furthermore, it was hoped that the tourism sector would be developed and Northern Ireland promoted:

“as a must-visit destination to facilitate growth in business and leisure visitors.”

Although the Budget states that revenue generated by the tourist industry has almost doubled in recent years, that sector contributes significantly less to output in Northern Ireland than in any other region, and is well behind what is contributed in the Republic of Ireland. An issue for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is how to increase tourism’s contribution to the Northern Ireland economy. Regional tourism organisations can assist, but they need more money.

The Budget allocation will allow for investment in marketing Northern Ireland as a tourism destination, in the Republic of Ireland by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and globally by Tourism Ireland Ltd. More­over, the allocation will allow for investment in tourism signature projects across the Budget period; however, I have reservations about some of those. Much is being done, and I agree that areas of social need cannot be left behind in our drive to increase tourism.

There has been significant debate in Northern Ireland as to whether political tourism is appropriate. In ‘Dark Tourism’, Lennon and Foley argued that tourist interest in disaster and atrocity is a growing phenomenon, dating from the late twentieth century, and that it is a form of pilgrimage, or a way of memorialising death. If that is the case, political tourism may be something that should be avoided in Northern Ireland.

12.15 pm

It can be regarded as inappropriate to make a pilgrimage to places where individuals lost their lives, especially if the visits are made in order to glorify the murderers. Political tourism can also be seen to pose a problem in Northern Ireland, as feelings regarding the conflict are still raw. Although it may be argued otherwise, sectarianism still exists, if not overtly, under the surface. As such, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to give a neutral view of the Troubles, and visits to sites that are associated with the years of conflict may become occasions for political propaganda. For that reason, I am happy to support the amendment.

Mr P Ramsey: I support the motion.

There is no doubt that tourism can bring enormous benefits to this region. I heard recently that Galway city, which has a population of around 100,000, receives one million visitors a year. Those visitors stay in local hotels and bed-and-breakfast accommodation, and they buy local products from local shops. That means that hundreds of millions of pounds are being spent each year on the local economy, a great deal of which goes to local businesses.

I mentioned the Galway model for several reasons. First, it is a demonstration of the potential of tourism, and, secondly, an examination of the city and region demonstrates the quality that tourists expect.

Most tourists visit an area for several reasons. Ireland’s clean, green image, its beaches, golf courses, rivers, the warm fáilte and the high levels of service are the attractions. A complete package is available. I do not think that any Member would argue that we should not develop our tourism package. Clearly, tourism is a potential growth industry here that should be exploited.

The motion also focuses on political tourism. That has many elements; academics and political practitioners from other regions of the world come to specifically research our conflict, including its causes and resolutions. Casual tourists also come here for many reasons, and they find it more interesting to sightsee in the areas that are recovering from conflict. Each tourist could contribute to our economy if our tourism package were constructed and developed properly.

Focusing on sightseeing tourism, which I assume is the primary focus of the Members who proposed the motion, there is no doubt that many people who visit Northern Ireland want to experience the story of conflict. Many are interested in our story, and developing a product that tells that story could provide an economic boost for areas that are recovering from conflict.

However, in building up such a product, we must ensure that the development and maintenance of our historical artefacts does not detract from other kinds of inward investment. I am aware of significant and unfavourable inward investment decisions. For example, a potential investor cited murals and flags as the reason for their not investing.

Mrs I Robinson: I am delighted that the Member gave way. Does he agree that certain artefacts should be returned to Parliament Buildings; for example, the table on which Carson signed the Ulster Covenant and all the paintings that were stored away because they were deemed offensive?

Mr P Ramsey: I do not have any difficulty with that argument; those artefacts are part of my culture as well, and they are part of the true culture of Northern Ireland.

The areas in which that investor chose not to invest were clearly not neutral; they presented the wrong image of Northern Ireland. Investors in high value added knowledge-based industries do not locate in areas that are covered in political murals. The areas in question did not get to the first base, and the investors did not even want to see the business properties in question. I am sure that the Minister will be familiar with similar stories.

We need to ensure that the development of the tourism product does not damage the quality of an area for its residents. Many people question whether murals should perpetually mark an area as being either nationalist or unionist. There is no doubt that such murals do not inspire integration.

We must also ensure that the development of political tourism does not detract from more basic forms of tourism, such as that of the Galway model. Tourists often want to be educated, and they want to feel comfortable and safe. They may seek to visit an area to hear stories and see murals, but how many will want to stay in such areas and spend their money there? That is a challenge.

The good-news story in my constituency is that an interesting historical tourism product is being developed in Derry. The product includes the city walls, cathedrals, churches, museums, murals and the Apprentice Boys’ hall. Each has a story to tell. There are stories of the Anglo-Irish, the Ulster Scots and the Gael — all interrelated and intertwined for hundreds of years. Those are put in a historical context. Visitors to the Free Derry museum or the Apprentice Boys hall get a sense of history — and it is history: the conflict is over. The Minister will be aware of our bid for world heritage status in an effort to ensure that our historical built heritage is preserved.

In Derry, the package is being developed to a high standard. The Walled City signature project involves about £10 million worth of capital investment. We are being careful to ensure that, in developing and maintaining our historical artefacts, we put our story into a historical context. It is important, for example, that artwork is constructive and not aggressive.

Is my time up, Mr Deputy Speaker?

Mr Deputy Speaker: I was going to give you a little bit of leeway, but you have decided to finish anyway.

Mr Neeson: I welcome the opportunity to debate tourism. There is a need to develop a new tourism strategy for Northern Ireland. Prior to suspension, the then Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment was in the middle of an important and significant inquiry into tourism. Perhaps the opportunity is there again for the current Committee to take up the challenge and to try to maximise the growing potential of tourism in Northern Ireland.

We live in a new dispensation. Statistics show that visitor holidays rose from 16% of the visitor-tourist population in 2001 to 20% in 2006. No doubt, 2007 will prove to have been even more significant. Members need only note the number of sightseeing buses that visit the Stormont estate daily. I welcome, too, the growth of the new air routes not only into Europe but to America and Canada. The arrival of both Aer Lingus and Ryanair is significant and shows the potential that can be achieved by the development of the air routes.

The development of the signature projects such as the Walled City of Derry and the Mournes is an important issue. It is to be hoped, too, that, with the controversy apparently out of the way, the development of the Giant’s Causeway signature project will proceed. I have a particular interest in the Titanic signature project and wish to see that developed. With regard to that, I raise again in this House the issue of maritime heritage and the fact that no Department in Northern Ireland has responsibility for its development. That is something that must be sorted out quickly.

I mentioned the Walled City of Derry, but it must be remembered that my hometown of Carrickfergus is also a significant walled town. Increasingly, greater interest is being shown throughout Europe in walled cities and towns.

I want to encourage not only the development of tourism in areas of social need, as the motion states, but all forms of investment in such areas. In that respect, greater focus should be placed on the importance of the social economy in Northern Ireland. Once again, that is an area that the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee could examine.

What is meant by political tourism? Does it refer simply to the murals? To my mind, the murals in both loyalist and republican areas are symbols of the division in society. Clearly, people who live in those areas are greatly distressed by the appearance of murals. It is time to move forward. Obviously, we have to take the feelings of the victims of the conflict into account. However, we will not be able to move forward within a political culture of murals.

One of the most amusing and appropriate pieces of political graffiti that I came across was in Enniskillen about 20 years ago. On the gable end of a house, it read:

“Forget 1690, we demand a replay”.

It is through that sort of tongue-in-cheek way that we can move forward.

Mrs I Robinson: How can we get rid of the murals that are offensive to both sides of the community if we are going to make them a tourist attraction?

Mr Neeson: I do not want the murals to be a tourist attraction: I want to move on. If we are to create a shared future, it will not be through political murals.

Mr Newton: I support the amendment because the motion contains some negativity. The Programme for Government rightly confirms that growing the economy is the Executive’s top priority, and it has been adopted by the Assembly.

Tourism has been adopted as PSA 5 in that strategic approach. The overall aim is to:

“Develop our tourism sector and promote Northern Ireland as a must-visit destination to facilitate growth in business and leisure visitors.”

There are two major objectives. The first is to:

“Enhance Northern Ireland’s tourism infrastructure”,

and the three associated actions, if successfully carried out, to ensure that we meet this objective are:

“Take forward key tourism signature projects to improve NI’s tourism product

Manage and develop our inland navigations

Manage and develop NI cultural infrastructure”.

Objective 2 is to:

“Promote the growth of the tourism sector”;

and that strategic objective also has three associated actions.

However, I would like to mention the five signature projects for a couple of minutes before coming to political tourism — or “terror tourism”, as it has been called.

The five signature projects have been identified for their potential to deliver world-class experiences — they will attract visitors from home and abroad. In achieving international stand-out, the projects will have a significant impact on Northern Ireland’s tourism performance. In other words, they will be must-see attractions.

No one will be surprised when I list the top priority as the Titanic signature project. I agree with Mr Neeson — it is my favourite project. As a brand name in a world context, Titanic is second only to the well-known soft drinks brand name Coca-Cola. Developing that signature project will involve Thompson Dock and the Harland and Wolff buildings, etc.

I will turn to the negative aspects of the motion. Anyone consulting a thesaurus will see that the word “political” has other interpretations such as supporting; following; biased; taking sides; and being opinionated. There are already initiatives aimed at political tourism in west Belfast, south Armagh and the city of Londonderry.

A political tourism experience was organised by the West Belfast Festival, and I want to relay the experience of an American visitor who booked a place on the political tour.

“First, you will be taken on your tour by an approved Sinn Féin guide — you will understand that this guide will be completely unbiased — or he will play up a strong republican bias to prove he isn’t an MI5 agent.

You will visit the political murals eulogising the republican heroes who blew up Saturday morning shoppers on the Shankill, bombed shops in Belfast city centre and shot policemen and soldiers in the back.

You can have your photograph taken at the mural involving that little Communist reprobate Che Guevara.

In Milltown cemetery, you will have a guided tour of the graves of infamous paramilitaries and hunger strikers with a Sinn Féin-approved tour guide: the graves of all those who shot, bombed and starved for Ireland. Of course, everything starts with a tour of the Sinn Féin bookshop, stocking all the political propaganda of the Provisional IRA’s terrorist campaign.”

12.30 pm

That is the experience of a visitor from the USA. If the role of political tourism is further developed, what will the additional experience be? Will the tourist experience mock kneecappings — maybe even the recorded screams of the supposed victims? What about dummy bomb runs? What about political beatings — hurley sticks provided? Even more ghoulish, what about the activities of the IRA’s infamous nutting squad? With a bit of blindfolding and torture, the tourist could relive the experience of the terror victim.

There is a role for tourism. We all want to protect and grow tourism. However, the aim of political tourism is to confuse the political process and to present a biased and prejudiced approach to the events of the past. That is a road down which Northern Ireland tourism, and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, must not travel.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately upon the lunchtime suspension today. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend this sitting until 2.00 pm.

Suspended at 12.31 pm.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —

2.00 pm

Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I support the motion.

The North of Ireland is investing a pittance in tourism in comparison with the South, and as a result, the potential to attract more visitors has not been realised. The return of devolution to the Six Counties means that the situation should improve beyond recognition. However, a cross-departmental approach to tourism is required to put the necessary infrastructure in place.

There are two signature projects in my South Down constituency — St Patrick/Christian Heritage and the Mournes. However, the roads and sewerage infra­structures are inefficient, and that is hampering efforts to attract visitors to the county. Years of underinvestment in the roads infrastructure has had a significant impact on the tourism industry. Visitors to the North do not want to feel stressed because they are stuck in traffic jams as they attempt to reach their destinations. In order to meet tight travel times, tour operators require a better transport network to compete competitively. The Executive must address those requirements.

Sinn Féin believes that there are huge opportunities in the development of political and cultural tourism. For example, the Long Kesh project, if realised, will deliver in a similar way to the Robben Island Museum in South Africa, where former African National Congress (ANC) political prisoners and wardens conduct tours. The project will also provide an opportunity for the development of a conflict-resolution centre to accommodate world peace efforts.

Another example is Kilmainham Gaol, where the leaders of the Easter Rising were held before their execution. The historical importance of the site is a major factor in attracting visitors, and it was used as a location for a number of scenes in the film, ‘In the Name of the Father’.

Both locations have proven to be very popular tourist attractions, and there is no reason why we should not draw on our shared history to maximise the potential of our tourism industry, which also has significant educational merit.

The rising of the United Irishmen in 1798 is another event that has been used to promote historical-based tourism elsewhere. For example, much of the tourism in Wexford has been built on the town’s links to the events of 1798. There is no reason why something similar could not happen in the North in respect of equally important events and battles that took place in towns such as Ballynahinch and Saintfield.

Gaeltacht tourism in areas such as west Belfast must be developed as it also has massive potential. Such potential is evident in Connemara, where local residents enjoy huge benefits from being part of a thriving Gaeltacht.

As was said earlier, tours of Belfast and Derry, which visit murals in places such as the Falls, the Shankill and Free Derry Corner, have been very popular and must be better promoted in Tourist Board literature. However, accommodation must be provided in those areas so that the local community can also benefit.

The story of the Battle of the Boyne must also be told in an honest way; tracing the journey of Scottish planters through the glens of Antrim to the River Boyne in Drogheda. That has the potential to be a major attraction, particularly for visitors from Canada and the United States.

Investment in large hotels, such as the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle, must be welcomed. However, that leaves a gap in the market. Grant assistance must be provided for the budget end of the tourism market because that has been neglected. Small hostels throughout Ireland are essential to achieving our vision of sustainable tourism. A network of hostels must be built throughout the island to provide accommodation for the thousands of backpackers would be prepared to stay for long periods if the necessary infrastructure were in place. Groups such as hill walkers, fishermen and students require budget accommodation every 10 or 15 miles. The North of Ireland lags way behind the South in tourism, and that is exemplified by the fact that there are more hostel beds in Galway than in the whole of the North.

It is important that young travellers from all over the world have fond memories of their holidays in Ireland, including the North, because they are the future business class who will return to our island for conferences. Their initial visits will shape the future attitudes of those people.

There must be leniency in the development of brownfield sites, such as old mills and barns, into budget accommodation, and that should be accompanied by substantial grants.

Sinn Féin also calls for the development of social tourism in line with continental Europe, where around 75% of families enjoy an annual holiday compared with fewer than two-thirds of families in Ireland. If the Executive are serious about a social-inclusion agenda, social tourism should be developed on a par with the high level of state-subsidised holidays that is provided to low-income families in countries such as France —

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

Mr W Clarke: Holidays are an essential part of family life and should be mainstreamed into social welfare policy. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Simpson: I am sure that Members will agree that tourism makes an important contribution to the local economy. In 2003, income created by tourism was in the region of 3·5% of gross value added to the Northern Ireland economy. However, only 0·9% was generated by external visitors.

There is a clear need for the improvement of our infrastructure after 30 years of terrorist violence and mayhem. The unfulfilled potential of the tourism industry in Northern Ireland reflects the fact that it lost some three quarters of its global market share of incoming visitors at the start of the Troubles. Recent studies show that more visitors are coming to Northern Ireland. However, there is still a huge gap in the market that needs to be explored, and the Assembly and the Tourist Board need to promote, encourage and support new initiatives to regain and improve our maximum tourist potential.

It is vital that the Tourist Board provides an outstanding service that gives our taxpayers value for money, while identifying potential growth areas and maximising benefits to the community. We must focus on parts of Northern Ireland that can be further developed; the added benefits would lift those areas out of their current social need. For example, Craigavon has many popular attractions, including Lough Neagh, which is home to Oxford Island, the Kinnego marina and the Lough Neagh Discovery Centre — the second most visited tourist site next to the Giant’s Causeway. Portadown has links to the formation of the Orange Order, and to the history of the Blacker family. It also had a role in shaping Irish history through events such as the 1641 rebellion. Banbridge District Council area is home to attractions such as the Scarva event on 13 July, the Brontë Homestead, and many more.

I encourage the Minister to engage with all those council areas, and to encourage the councils to engage with him —

Mr Shannon: Does the Member agree that what he has referred to in Craigavon is replicated in the Strangford area almost bit by bit, including its history, its attractions and the reasons for going to that area?

Mr Simpson: I will take my colleague’s word for that. He is taking the opportunity to promote his area, and he did that in a very nice way. He slipped it in very well.

A Member: In your time.

Mr Simpson: Yes, in my time. I hope that the Speaker will be lenient with me as regards time.

Will the Minister give us some indication of how he will engage with those organisations and promote and develop those events?

I have many concerns about Tourism Ireland, but I commend it for the positive manner in which it is now showing willingness to promote the Twelfth of July and similar events. I urge Tourism Ireland to keep at it. [Interruption.]

Sorry to disappoint you. You were supporting that.

As well as developing more tourist venues, we need to identify the tourists that we want to attract, and to increase the numbers of tourists coming from different areas. If we are to promote cultural tourism, we must maximise our US dollar takings, and in order to do that, we must package Northern Ireland in such a way as to attract people to the Province for different reasons.

The historical links with the US are well known across the Chamber. There are deep, long-standing links between the Province and the religious atmosphere in the southern states of America, and we should capitalise on that. As well as Patrick and the ancient Celtic Christendom, we could capitalise on the great hymn writers of history and emphasise the Wesleys, the Covenanters and the history of revivalism. By those and other avenues, we could court the American Bible Belt tourist. Does the Minister agree that in seeking the American tourist, a key target section of American society would be people from the Bible Belt who have much in common with Northern Ireland Christian historical heritage?

We must guard against the danger of glorifying terrorism, as that would send out entirely the wrong message. Northern Ireland must be open for tourist business, but it should not be marketed to tourists as a freak show. For that reason, I reject the motion in favour of my party’s much more sensible amendment.

Mr McClarty: I strongly welcome the first half of the motion, which calls on the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to produce plans to develop our tourist infrastructure. I recognise the need to focus on areas of social need, but I have severe reservations about political tourism.

Political tourism has the potential to freeze com­munities in the past, to prolong sectarian divides, and to glorify horrific acts of terrorism at the expense of innocent victims, painting Northern Ireland in a negative light.

Thankfully, tourism is a growing industry in Northern Ireland, and we are receiving accolades from around the world for our visitor attractions, most of which are in the premier tourism area of the Causeway Coast — with respect to the Member for Upper Bann Mr Simpson. However, we still lag behind the rest of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, and it is essential that we continue to develop tourist infrastructure in order to attract more people to this Province.

In other debates, Members have called for better roads maintenance and improved public transport, all of which are essential for improving tourism. This morning, I was interested to hear on BBC Radio Ulster that easyJet has criticised Northern Ireland for not having a rail link from Belfast International Airport to its two major cities. That lack of a rail link could damage our tourist industry in the long term and make it unsustain­able. The Minister and his Executive colleagues must listen to business leaders, such as those in easyJet, in order to facilitate economic growth. Tourism and the general population of Northern Ireland will benefit from such growth.

Areas of social need cannot be left behind in our drive to increase tourism. Far too often, in cities and tourist destinations around the world, socially deprived areas are left to one side as central areas and infra­structure are developed. That is unsustainable, as socially deprived areas must be incorporated into tourist strategies so that their assets can be utilised to their benefit.

Although I cannot deny that there is interest in political tourism, I do not consider it to be of long-term benefit to Northern Ireland, particularly in socially deprived areas, for two linked reasons. First, Northern Ireland is still a divided society, within which, unfortunately, sectarianism is still rife. Many of the areas in which political tourism is an attraction are in cities, and such tourism focuses on the political divide. Tours often glorify division and our violent past. Unfortunately, that is a sure-fire way to remain in the past; it is not a way in which to regenerate areas and bring them out of social deprivation.

Secondly, Northern Ireland’s past is very much part of its present. Many of the tours that are organised under the heading of “political tourism” pay attention to the suffering that victims of terrorist atrocities still undergo, whether they are suffering bereavement or living with an injury. Political tourism can be seen as a cynical attempt to make money out of other people’s suffering. A leaflet that was produced by one such tour shows that cynicism. It says:

“A Blast from the Past, Luxury Tours”.

The word “blast” appears in bold type in the leaflet, referring to the countless explosions that occurred in our towns and cities and destroyed much of our built heritage.

The leaflet goes on to let tourists know that they can see actual footage of the Troubles. That is disrespectful to victims and their families, and it will do no long-term good for the communities that it seeks to benefit.

2.15 pm

For that reason, I ask the Minister to develop tourism infrastructures that will incorporate areas of social deprivation; however, I support the amendment tabled by the DUP, which calls for references to political tourism to be deleted, and for Northern Ireland to be promoted in a positive manner.

Mr Dallat: I support the motion and I will not get too hung up on the type of tourism we need.

I will focus on infrastructure, which is a funny old word when applied to tourism. Indeed, I look forward to hearing the Minister define the word “infrastructure”: I know that it includes posh hotels, golf courses and that it could even include the Maze stadium.

The word “infrastructure” also includes events such as the North West 200, which has already been mentioned, and the Milk Cup, which Mr McClarty knows about. It also includes festivals, walking tours, musicals, football competitions, bird-watching — the feathered type of course — and everything else that presents communities in a good light. We have not really ventured beyond that, and in the debate, we have tended to focus on the things that divide us rather than those that unite us.

Perhaps, initially, that is not a bad thing. It gets us started. However, eventually, we must package our tourism in a way that is understood by the international traveller who is not particularly interested in whether Carson’s portrait hangs in this Building or whether he was a tourist from Dublin who did not go home. Rather, tourists want a snapshot of life here that embraces the culture, the music, the politics, the history and, above all, the beauty of the countryside: the mountains, glens, rivers and lakes — and, yes, the smiling people who are living at peace with one another, just as Members do in the Chamber.

In a peculiar way, we can make the motion out-dated and irrelevant — if we make a success of tourism. People in socially disadvantaged areas do not want tourists gawking at them from open-topped buses — they want to be part of the success story, part of history, and part of burying the ashes of the past that practically wiped out the tourism industry. They also want to build anew.

Even if the Troubles had not happened — and I wish that they had not — buckets and spades and two weeks at the seaside are long gone. Gone, too, is the acceptance that service can be shoddy or second-rate. The need for physical infrastructure has never been more important, irrespective of whether the market is aimed at politics, culture, sport, leisure or whatever.

Were Members to take a trip to some of the more successful countries in the Balkans, they would see at first-hand just how good the infrastructure is in countries such as Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, and so on. Most importantly, one should listen to what the people in those countries have to say. They talk about the past, but they do not focus on the bullet-holes still evident in the buildings. Rather, their focus is on the future. Irrespective of what side they were on in the conflict, people will say that the hatred, violence, ethnic cleansing and all the rest should never have happened; and they will tell you that they will never happen again. That should be our loud and clear message.

That is a good story. Every area has its own story to tell — it does not matter whether it is Sandy Row or Strabane, Larne or Limavady, Ardoyne or Ahoghill. In some cases, the story may be heavily focused on the past; in others, it may be about the rivers and lakes, the music or the craic. Tourism infrastructure, accom­modation, places of entertainment, events, museums and things to do are all important, because they bring investment, change for the better, new hope and confidence in the future.

I will raise my glass to that, because I know that if we do it together, we will bring down the walls, whether they are physical or embedded in the mind. We will build our own infrastructure, which will be priceless when selling international tourism to people who do not want to be indoctrinated and who will make up their own minds about how to interpret the things that they see.

I support the motion for all the right reasons.

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Dodds): I thank everyone who has taken part in the debate. It has been an interesting and useful debate on tourism across Northern Ireland. A wide range of issues has been raised, dealing with signature projects, investment in product and marketing and, particularly, in areas of social need. I hope to address issues that Members have raised, as well as make some points of my own.

The Programme for Government puts economic development at the centre of the agenda. As several Members have said, it clearly identifies tourism as a key economic driver, with the potential to make a significant contribution to the economic well-being of Northern Ireland. However, to realise that potential is a major challenge.

For too long, the international image of Northern Ireland was blighted by violence, murder and civil strife — all too often, capturing the imagination of people as they saw the images on their TV screens. Although we all fervently hope that those days are permanently behind us, one effect of our recent history is the fact that the tourist business in Northern Ireland has all but disappeared. Large numbers of people did not want to visit a part of the world that featured so strongly for all the wrong reasons. Nowadays, people have a vast array of choices, and there are much cheaper ways of travelling than there were in the past.

The evidence shows that, when deciding whether to visit an area, people put safety and security at the top of their considerations. Inevitably, the areas that were most in the headlines were areas of high social deprivation. People found those areas to be the most off-putting, because that is where the violence was happening. During those years, Northern Ireland lost 80% of its share of the international tourism market. Even now, when significant progress is being made, we still attract fewer visitors than somewhere of comparable size. Given the vast number of tourist attractions that we can boast, we ought to attract more visitors.

However, the potential is there. Members referred to the fact that ‘Lonely Planet’ has billed Northern Ireland as one of the world’s must-see destinations. The Antrim coast road was designated as one of the top 10 sites in the world. I am sure that the Member for Strangford Mr Shannon will be delighted that Strangford Lough was listed as one of the UK’s top three beauty spots. We have a great deal going for us, but a lot more must be done.

Members have referred to a number of themes, and those are being actively pursued. The Programme for Government, with the comprehensive spending review, sets a target to increase visitor numbers from the current level of under two million a year to 2·5 million by 2011. More importantly, it aims to increase the tourist revenue — the amount that visitors spend while they are here — from £366 million now to £520 million by 2011. Those are challenging targets, especially when current world economic conditions and the exchange rate are considered. It is now more difficult to achieve those targets than it was a while ago. All of that plays a part in determining the willingness of potential visitors to travel abroad, never mind whether Northern Ireland should feature in their plans.

Those targets are backed up by increased resources. The Tourist Board and Tourism Ireland have received allocations that give them the resources to fulfil the targets. I will look to both organisations to continue to work enthusiastically and energetically to make significant contributions towards the achievement of those targets.

The motion refers specifically to the development of tourism infrastructure. I note carefully what has been said about the desirability of that investment in areas of social need. In recent years, the tourism infra­structure has received a fair investment from the public sector and the private sector. As part of the Causeway Coast and Glens signature project, 400 signs have been erected along the Causeway coastal route, leading visitors from the centre of Belfast to the Giant’s Causeway, and further on to Londonderry, with the opportunity to visit inland scenic sites.

As the Member for Foyle Pat Ramsey said, the Walled City project has had sizeable public-sector investment. Phase one has been completed and elements of phase two are under way, with the implementation of the built heritage programme and the lighting strategy for the city, to which the Member referred.

A great deal of money has been spent on the St Patrick’s signature project, mainly in the Down and Armagh areas. Other examples of recent public-sector investment in tourism infrastructure include the implementation of a comprehensive visitors’ signage and interpretation strategy for Belfast.

Belfast has also benefited from the renovation of the Thompson dock and pump house in the Titanic Quarter. I remind the House of the importance of the Titanic signature project, which Mr Newton, Mr Neeson and others mentioned. I continue to work energetically to fill the funding gap left by the Big Lottery Fund’s decision not to support the project. Mr Neeson referred to the decision of the National Trust and Moyle District Council to take forward the challenge of providing world-class visitor facilities at the Giant’s Causeway. I welcome that positive development.

All those developments represent vast investment in Northern Ireland’s tourism infrastructure. It is vital to ensure that everything is as attractive as possible for tourists. There are other issues relating to investment in tourism infrastructure, such as roads, access and visitors’ ability to travel around the Province. Those areas do not fall within my remit, but they are wider issues for Government. They are all part of the development of tourism and the economy.

I have said many times in the House that developing the economy — whether that be through tourism, jobs or whatever — cuts across a number of Departments. For example, the Department for Employment and Learning may need to invest in skills; the Department for Regional Development may need to invest in roads and infrastructure; and the Department of Education and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment may need to invest in particular areas. All those Departments are vital in promoting the economy to make it easier for people to invest in, and to visit, Northern Ireland.

I could not agree more with Members who said — and I think that the proposer of the motion also said — that all areas of Northern Ireland must benefit from the increase in tourism and revenues from tourism. We cannot accept a fishbowl scenario where tourists come in on buses, visit areas and then leave without investing or spending in those areas. Yesterday, I met representatives from the West Belfast and Greater Shankill Task Force, and we discussed a number of issues. I am conscious of the need to ensure that all areas of our Province benefit from economic development and tourism investment.

We must also ensure that we do not forget the role of the private sector, because it has an important role to play. Mr Neeson mentioned the development of air routes. Five years ago, there was only one direct international air connection from Northern Ireland, but now there are over 35 connections. Part of that interest was stimulated by public support through the air routes development fund. That fund no longer exists because it is not necessary, as the market has been stimulated. We now have private investors, and airlines such as Aer Lingus, easyJet and Ryanair operate routes from here. That is a tremendous testimony to the progress that has been made in recent years, and it will be an enormous boost to economic development and tourism. Although those airlines will take people out of Northern Ireland, they will also bring many people into Northern Ireland, which is very welcome.

In recent years, there has been unprecedented private investment in hotels and accommodation in Northern Ireland, and in Belfast in particular. There are plans in the pipeline for more hotels. We welcome investment in our hotel infrastructure, and we will continue to encourage such private-sector initiative and commitment.

Some Members raised the issue of hotel develop­ment, particularly in areas such as west Belfast, the greater Shankill and other areas where there is a deficiency in accommodation. There has been a moratorium in assistance for hotel development within 10 miles of Belfast city centre, simply because there is little evidence, at the moment, of market failure. Indeed, the growth of the hotel sector in Belfast bears witness to that policy. However, there are exceptions to that rule. It is important that we do not rule out assistance for hotel developments, particularly in areas of social need. I welcome such investment in my constituency of North Belfast, where there is a shortage of hotel accommodation. The policy is that the moratorium does not represent a total veto on assistance for attractive projects in areas that are designated as suffering from economic disadvantage.

In those circumstances, I assure the House that Invest Northern Ireland will consider the merits of any proposed hotel development and how such a proposal lines up against that body’s normal support policy. Officials from Invest Northern Ireland are aware of several proposals for the development of hotels in west Belfast and have met project promoters.

2.30 pm

Northern Ireland has a great deal to offer through cultural tourism; for example, its art, architecture, music, dance, restaurants, bars and living culture are attractions. Members have mentioned various aspects of tourism. Mr Dallat and other Members referred to the broad mix of elements that attract people to any country or region. In moving the amendment, Mr Ross said that political tourism was part of what we had to offer, but that that it should not be seen as the be-all and end-all; it is simply one element of cultural tourism. When talking about what we have to offer, it is important that Members do not get fixated on the notion that only one interest area can be used to sell Northern Ireland internationally; a combination of many can be used. Northern Ireland is fortunate to have great cultural diversity, and that is part of its attraction.

Some visitors to Northern Ireland will want to see some of the areas that were most affected by violence, for instance, but I agree with those Members who said that public money or Government support must not be given to any projects that glorify or seek to justify terrorism or perpetuate that kind of ethos in socially deprived areas. Any approach to the political element of cultural tourism must remain within clearly defined boundaries and demonstrate balance and fairness of interpretation. Under no circumstances will I support, or allow the Northern Ireland Tourist Board or Tourism Ireland to support, anything that seeks to glorify terrorism or acts of violence. I am reassured by Members’ support for that view.

If anyone in Northern Ireland wants to glorify terrorism in the name of tourism or under any other guise, that is a matter for them, but they will not get any support from me, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment or the public purse. People would find such glorifications of terrorism deplorable and unacceptable, and, as Mr McClarty and others said, it would serve only to perpetuate enmities that we are seeking to overcome.

On the other hand, a balanced approach that seeks to provide the visitor with a factual account of events from Northern Ireland’s recent past can be considered. I am aware that the Tourist Board is seeking to do exactly that by preparing a cultural tourism strategy, which encompasses four core cultural tourism themes — heritage, living culture, creative tourism and the arts — and their associated products.

The first task, which is in progress, is to complete a product audit that will identify Northern Ireland’s strongest products and those that are unique and that will make Northern Ireland stand out in the international marketplace.

References were made to such activities as 12 July celebrations, events in the Ulster-Scots sector, and Irish dancing and music. Those activities have their part to play in attracting visitors to Northern Ireland and in entertaining them when they are here. Such activities and events — and others of a cultural and sporting nature — feature in material that the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Tourism Ireland have produced. I was delighted to hear Mr Simpson say that he welcomed the moves that Tourism Ireland has made to take those events and celebrations on board.

We are investing actively and strongly in tourism infrastructure, and it is important that we acknowledge that some people will be interested in the wider cultural aspects of so-called political tourism. However, I want to reinforce my firm view — and what I believe is the firm view of the community in Northern Ireland — that even in the interests of attracting tourists, we cannot countenance anything that risks offending our people or our welcome visitors.

Mr Hamilton: I welcome the opportunity to discuss tourism, which is an issue of growing importance. Virtually every Member who contributed to the debate highlighted reasons why tourism is becoming such an important aspect of our economy. The Executive’s top priority is to grow a vibrant, dynamic economy, and tourism has been given a privileged role in that. Substantial investment has been allocated and specific targets have been set in order to increase the numbers of visitors to and the amount of money that they spend in Northern Ireland.

Tourism is a growth area in Northern Ireland, whether that is measured by the number of jobs created; the number of visitors; the £750 million tourism contributes to the economy; the number of bed-nights sold or hotel-occupancy rates. It could also be measured by the number of flights coming to Northern Ireland, which was referred to by Mr Neeson, not only from short-haul UK airports but from Europe, North America and beyond, which, in itself, is testimony to this place’s popularity.

Despite tourism’s important position in our economy, its full potential has not been maximised. The Tourist Board has stated that if Northern Ireland had matched the Republic of Ireland’s external visitor trends since 1969, tourism here would be worth an extra £270 million a year and would have generated an additional 11,000 jobs. Tourism represents only 2% of Northern Ireland’s GDP, compared with 9% in the Republic and 11% in Wales, and we must ask ourselves why that is the case. It is not because we do not have the product. Perhaps we have been deficient in certain skills and services, but we definitely have the attractions, many of which have been mentioned: the Giant’s Causeway, the Mournes, Strangford Lough and elsewhere.

One does not have to be a genius to figure out that the Troubles thwarted tourism marketing here and were the reason why the sector has not maximised its potential. As innocent people here were often caught up in the violence, it is not difficult to understand why visitors did not want to come and why the bulk of the tourists who did come comprised people who were forced to do so on business or to visit family members. David Simpson and Leslie Cree spoke about the fact that, between 1960 and 1972, which were some of the most violent years in our history, three quarters of Northern Ireland’s share in the global-tourism market disappeared.

Although the ‘Lonely Planet’ designation of Belfast as a must-see destination was mentioned, that was applied after the Troubles ended and when we had entered a period of relative peace.

We all hope that those days are behind us. If they are, the potential exists not only to meet the Programme for Government targets but to exceed them, and those aims will best be achieved by projecting a positive image of Northern Ireland. In the past, a negative perception drove people away: a positive image will have them flocking here in droves.

How often have we said — and we have all said or heard it — that we would have a wonderful wee country if we only had the political and civil stability to back it up? Now that we have that chance, we must put our best foot forward.

There is no doubt, as has been said by the Minister and others, that some people wish to engage in political tourism. Whether that is supported by the Department or various agencies, it will be a factor and it will attract some business. However, such tourism creates difficulties about being sensitive to victims and survivors and is not a solid foundation on which to build future tourism growth. In addition, it would be wrong for the perpetrators of violence to profit in any way from their crimes.

Much was said about murals, and, indeed, Robin Newton spoke about a mural in Belfast that depicts Che Guevara. I am sure that that Marxist revolutionary is turning in his grave at the thought of contributing to capitalism in Northern Ireland.

As we seek to re-image our communities, however, that pursuit should in no way be hampered by the pull of tourism.

Northern Ireland needs a positive image. We have a positive message to send, and we must, at every opportunity, sell the positive side of our Province. I commend the amendment to the House.

Mr Brolly: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I wish to echo the welcome that Paul Maskey gave to the increase in resources that the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has made available for tourism.

We spend so much time talking about tourism because 99% of the natural resources that we have are those that can be exploited by the tourism industry. We have no coal mines, gold mines, tin mines or oil. We must decide that we are going to be a tourist area: there has never been a better time in our history to exploit the potential that we have.

There is a negative side — the kind of thing that has prevented the development of tourism here, apart altogether from our political Troubles, or whatever we want to call them. I am trying not to use the word “war”. The political Troubles have had a negative effect on where we are going. Nevertheless, when I look at Magilligan, in my constituency, from Magilligan Point to Downhill I see eight miles of the most beautiful, unspoiled and unexploited strand in Europe and possibly the world, sharing a shore with Lough Foyle and the great sea. What have we got there? A prison and an MOD firing range, in one of the most touristically exploitable parts of Ireland.

I have been doing everything that I can to impress on people how much could be done if we could turn that area into the tourist attraction that it should be, not just for the north-west, but for the whole of Ireland. I hope that, before I die, I might succeed in impressing someone enough that they will do something about it. I am about to receive a notional master plan of what that area might look like minus the prison and the firing range. It has potential for the economy and for the people of that most beautiful place. I hope that the Minister will remember what I have said when we come to talk about this matter again.

There were many interesting contributions to the debate. It eventually came to a divide over whether we should have political tourism. Political tourism is already a fact. People from other countries can be seen on the Shankill Road and the Falls Road every day. They alight from coaches to take photographs and use video cameras; people from all over the world are interested in those areas. We should not cut off our noses to spite our faces. We should not talk about glorifying these things; we are not glorifying them just because we make them available for people to come and see. We cannot do away with the Falls Road or the Shankill Road. They are there, and we should make people welcome to them. That is the job of the tourism industry.

2.45 pm

Alastair Ross had some difficulty with an all-Ireland tourist plan. However, it has been discovered over the years that tourism, like disease, does not stop at the border. The tourism drive should be a mutual exercise, and we can and should learn from the experience of the Twenty-six Counties. We should allow them to be a part of our drive to promote our only large industry — outside of the public service and, possibly, the building trade — and allow it to realise its full potential.

Leslie Cree provided some very good data on tourist numbers throughout the years, which showed how the numbers fluctuated. Obviously, the numbers dropped to a very low level during the Troubles. He also pointed out that infrastructure is sadly lacking here.

There has been the same short-sightedness about Portstewart’s potential as there has been about Magilligan’s potential. Portstewart was a lovely tourist resort on the north coast, in my county. It was a real tourist magnet; that beautiful place attracted millions of visitors over the years. What has happened over the last few years? The developers have bought the hotels, knocked them down and built flats. Portstewart has virtually no tourist accommodation now. The only tourist accommodation left there is cheap flats and old houses that are rented by students at the nearby University of Ulster at Coleraine. We must consider that issue. We must stop the developers — or rather, we must get the developers working on our behalf, rather than destroying the only potential that we have. I ask the Minister to bear that in mind; indeed, all Members should bear that in mind in their own areas.

Sean Neeson mentioned the importance of having good air routes into the area, and of having good access to the main centres from the airports. We lack proper transport in those areas, which are woefully underfunded.

Sean Neeson also mentioned political tourism, which is a very important part of what we have to offer. We should not segregate and sectarianise that, or talk about glorifying it. We should simply accept that it is there. People from all over the world are very interested in what has happened here in the past 40 years. In fact, some people have taken a huge interest in all of Irish history for a very long time. Ireland is a very important part of the world, and always has been.

Robin Newton talked about some very important Belfast-based attractions. Both he and Sean Neeson talked about how poor we have been at exploiting our maritime heritage. The Titanic project is the big maritime venture that is under way at the moment. However, many other projects are under way in Derry and around the coast throughout the country, where a strong maritime history also exists. Mr Newton mentioned some of that work, but then, for some reason, descended into a kind of slapstick commentary about a tour of republican areas. That was entertaining, but not terribly constructive.

Willie Clarke zoomed in on Downpatrick, of course. He also mentioned the importance of the Long Kesh project, which will probably become a huge tourist attraction here when it is fully developed. That name rings a bell all over the world, and nobody should be afraid of that development. People from all sides were in Long Kesh, so we should enjoy and exploit those matters together.

The Battle of the Boyne site was mentioned. It has already become a huge attraction, and even those who supported King William and the great deeds that were done there might have been a bit shy about travelling from here to the Boyne, but thank God that that attitude is softening and people are beginning to become a bit more mature about such matters.

John Dallat spoke in the very reasoned way that he always does about the need for all of us to take a mature and broad-minded look at what we are doing.

We have to be careful not to cut off our noses to spite our faces because of some sectarian or political bias. Members have to work together, or nothing constructive will happen in the tourism industry.

If Members on this side of the House say that we do not want any loyalist murals, loyalist history, or that the Battle of the Boyne —

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

Mr Brolly: I was just getting warmed up.

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

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to bring forward plans to develop tourist infrastructure; recognises the benefits to the local economy of tourism; and seeks to promote Northern Ireland in a positive manner.

Private Members’ Business

Murder of Paul Quinn

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.

I remind Members that absolute privilege attaches to the making of statements in proceedings of the Assembly only for the purpose of the law of defamation. It is important to remember that privileges do not extend beyond that.

I have said previously in the House that with such protection comes responsibility. I strongly encourage Members to act responsibly when speaking during this, or any other, debate. As no one has yet appeared before the courts on this matter, I am sure that Members will be particularly anxious not to do anything to prejudge any possible future proceedings.

I also remind Members that a live police investigation into this incident is ongoing. No Member will want to jeopardise future court proceedings, especially through the naming of names in the House.

Mr D Bradley: I beg to move

That this Assembly condemns the murder of Mr Paul Quinn; notes the clarification by the British and Irish Governments that they do not hold the view that the victim was involved in criminality of any kind; further notes the assessments of Sir Hugh Orde and the Independent Monitoring Commission regarding the involvement in this crime of persons who are current or former members of the Provisional IRA, or who have associations with members or former members of the Provisional IRA; and calls upon everyone to encourage people to come forward and assist the police investigations being carried out by the PSNI and an Garda Síochána.

Saturday 20 October 2007 may stand out in some people’s minds as the date of the Rugby World Cup final. Indeed, about the time that I got a phone call from my colleague Councillor Geraldine Donnelly at around 8.45 pm, most Members, like me, were probably watching that match.

Councillor Donnelly told me that she had received a phone call from a member of the Quinn family to say that Paul had been savagely beaten and was in hospital in Drogheda fighting for his life. Councillor Donnelly and I were asked by the family to meet them at the hospital. However, before we reached Drogheda, we were informed that, sadly, Paul had died of his injuries.

The scene at the hospital, as we gathered to pray around Paul’s broken and battered body in the little mortuary chapel, can be imagined. His distraught parents, brother, sister, relations, friends and neighbours were there. Gradually, we heard the story of how Paul had been lured to a lonely barn just over the border in County Monaghan and beaten unconscious with clubs and iron bars. We also heard how, even when he had stopped crying out for mercy, the dull thuds of the blows continued to rain down on his broken body until he lay motionless.

Even that was not enough. Paul’s killers proceeded to spray his body and the crime scene with a substance that would render DNA evidence from the scene unusable. They wore forensic suits and gloves and smashed the mobile phones of those who were present before they left the scene. This was no ad hoc gang that had hastily convened to beat a young man: instead, it was a group of up to 10 people who knew what they were doing, had probably been involved in similar beatings previously and who organised, planned and executed that dreadful deed with military precision. They were 10 men against one young man, to show who was boss in the area.

I do not believe that anyone in south Armagh believes that the IRA was not involved in Paul Quinn’s murder; at least, no one who was present at the hospital in Drogheda — Paul’s family, friends and neighbours — believed that the IRA was not involved. The opposite, in fact: everyone who was there believed, on the basis of events that led up to Paul’s death, that the IRA had murdered him.

In statements that I released after the murder, I did not accuse the IRA of murdering Paul. I said that the apparatus of paramilitarism had been used in the murder. Gradually, however, it became clear from the gardaí, the PSNI and the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) that what the family had told me was the truth — the IRA was involved in Paul’s murder.

After his murder, it was particularly upsetting for Paul’s family that he was branded a criminal by his local MP, Conor Murphy. Conor Murphy said that he approached members of the IRA, who gave him solid assurances that they were not involved. What did he expect them to say? Did he expect them to put up their hands and admit to the murder; to tell him that he must go out into the highways and byways and tell everyone that the IRA murdered Paul Quinn? It would be naive of anyone to expect them to do so.

It is equally naive to expect people to believe that the murder was the result of a dispute between two criminal gangs, particularly considering the fact that several years ago, Conor Murphy berated Seamus Mallon for suggesting that there were any criminals in south Armagh, and accused him of supporting Merlyn Rees’ castigation of south Armagh as “bandit country”. Mr Murphy should tell the Assembly where all of those criminals have suddenly come from and how not only one gang, but two, have conveniently appeared to bolster up his arguments.

It is shameful that Conor Murphy has not withdrawn the remarks that he made after Paul Quinn’s death that criminalised him. In the past, Sinn Féin Members have complained about their being demonised, yet a member of that party now uses the same tactic against someone who is no longer with us to defend himself. Paul’s family, however, can defend him. I welcome them to the House. I hope that in their presence, the debate will be conducted with dignity. The Irish Foreign Minister, An Taoiseach and the Secretary of State have all set the record straight, which has been some consolation to the family. I hope that Conor Murphy takes the opportunity to set the record straight in the debate.

An Garda Síochána, the Chief Constable of the PSNI, Hugh Orde, and the IMC do not agree with Conor Murphy’s assertion that the IRA was not involved in Paul Quinn’s murder. It is true that the Irish Government have said that the IRA was not involved, as a corporate entity, in the murder. Indeed, no one has argued that it was. I do not believe that the chief executive of the IRA, who might very well sit in the House, made a corporate decision to have Paul Quinn murdered; nor do I believe that the IRA’s management team — the so-called army council — made that decision. However, as the motion states, I believe that current members of the IRA were involved in the murder.

Those nuances may be of particular interest to Members of the House — and so they should be. However, they are merely academic to the family of Paul Quinn, who know only that their son was brutally murdered by a gang that included IRA members.

3.00 pm

More than anything else, the family wants those responsible for Paul’s murder to be apprehended and brought to justice. There are people in south Armagh who know who murdered Paul Quinn. Today, I ask them, as has the superintendent from An Garda Síochána, to examine their consciences and come forward to the gardaí with whatever information they have.

Some people have said that the murder of Paul Quinn has been politicised — and they are right. The involvement of IRA members in the murder politicised it from the moment of his death. Paul Quinn’s murder poses political questions for everyone in the Assembly. Are the political parties that have endorsed the policing arrangements here willing to accept the continued existence of paramilitary groups that think that they are the law and can act as judge, jury and executioner if, and when, they decide that that is necessary?

Is the House happy that one of its Members, who is a Minister in the Executive, feels it necessary to act as a message boy, as the new P O’Neill, to help the IRA to exonerate its members? How can consulting the IRA be reconciled with the Pledge of Office? Gerry Adams said:

“They haven’t gone away, you know.”

Conor Murphy said that the IRA continues to exist as part of the transition between conflict and peace.

It is past the time for the IRA to go away — and go away for good. Murder does not complete the transition from conflict to peace; it only prolongs the suffering. I want solid assurances that the IRA has gone away, that its violence and intimidation have come to an end and that it will murder no more.

The politicisation of the case revolves around the denial that there is still a functioning murder machine in south Armagh. The army council has prohibited actions such as organised beatings, but the Provos in south Armagh do not gave a damn. They do not take orders from Dublin or from Gerry Adams in Belfast.

If the Paul Quinn case demonstrates anything, it is that the orders probably flow in the opposite direction. Even if the Provisional IRA has theoretically been stood down, individual members still have access to its structures, skills and experience. The group, as a whole, still tries to exercise control over the community, and, worst of all, it can still draw political support from Sinn Féin in doing so.

Even if the murderers of Paul Quinn are locked up for a long time — and I hope that they will be — that problem will remain. That is the challenge for the entire community, for all Members and for the entire democratic system. The Assembly must make its voice heard on the murder of Paul Quinn to ensure that no more young men are battered until every major bone in their bodies has been broken. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Donaldson: I commend the Member for Newry and Armagh Mr Bradley for introducing the motion. I also commend his colleague Councillor Geraldine Donnelly, who has worked closely with the Quinn family. I spoke to Dominic and Geraldine as part of the DUP’s assessment of what happened. I commend the courage that they have shown when speaking out in south Armagh. The leadership that they have given to the nationalist community is also commendable.

The DUP will not ignore the murder of Paul Quinn. It is a terrible blight on society that there is still an area in Northern Ireland where people feel that they must assert themselves to demonstrate that they somehow are the law. They exercise that so-called law in the most brutal fashion imaginable, and it is totally unacceptable.

In moving Northern Ireland forward, the DUP is trying to show leadership to the community, and the party seeks to ensure that the Northern Ireland of the future is different from the Northern Ireland of the past. That means leaving behind the violence, intimidation, bullying and hatred.

It means crossing the line to accept and embrace fully the rule of law as the only way by which we order our society and our communities. The writ of law must run in south Armagh as much as it runs in other areas of Northern Ireland. The republican movement must address that fact.

There is evidence to suggest that members and former members of the Provisional IRA were involved in the murder of Paul Quinn; the Chief Constable and the Independent Monitoring Commission are on the public record to corroborate that.

We could debate several issues: who ordered the murder; was it done at local level, as the Member for Newry and Armagh suggested; was the army council involved; who knew about it in advance? Those matters may unfold in time, or they may remain in the shadows. However, we must take every reasonable step to ensure that what happened that day in County Monaghan does not happen again. We cannot return a son and a brother to the Quinn family, but we can try to ensure that their suffering is not visited on other families. It is wrong and unacceptable that people take the law into their own hands.

Sinn Féin cannot straddle the line between the rule of law and lawlessness. Whether it be in south Armagh or elsewhere, when people sit on the Policing Board and the district policing partnerships and state that they support the police and the rule of law, that support must be carried through to its ultimate conclusion. In the Quinn case, the ultimate conclusion means that if people have evidence of anyone’s involvement in a crime — including murder — they co-operate with the police to bring those responsible for that crime to justice. There must be honesty and co-operation instead of denials, running away and covering up.

I acknowledge, and I have heard at first hand, that the police commanders who cover south Armagh and the district commander who is based in Newry have stated that co-operation is much improved. However, we must move beyond co-operation to ensure that evidence is produced and that those who are responsible are convicted.

I have said publicly, and the DUP has stated clearly, that if in the fullness of time it becomes apparent that the IRA was involved in this murder or in its sanctioning, we will not turn our backs on the political consequences. For that reason, it is important to deal with the issue. It is also important that the IRA finishes the business that we were told would be finished when Gerry Adams said that the army council would be dealt with to everyone’s satisfaction.

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

Mr Donaldson: That must happen, and it must happen now.

Mr Murphy: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. At the first opportunity that I had to address the House after the very brutal murder of Paul Quinn in October 2007, I made it clear, before a statement on departmental business, that I completely condemned his murder. I called on anyone who had information about the murder to co-operate with the police investigation on both sides of the border. I reiterate that comment today; I do not think that I can be any clearer. Since that brutal killing, I have been consistent and clear. I have also been consistent and clear in my assessment of what was at play. I have repeated, and stand by, my assessment of what was involved in Paul Quinn’s killing.

The motion should have provided an opportunity for the House to unite in calling for support for the Quinn family and ensuring that people who had any information assisted the investigation. However, the motion’s real intention is to be divisive and selective. Unfortunately, that has characterised much of the campaign by the group —

Mr B McCrea: Will the Member give way?

Mr Murphy: No, I have only five minutes to speak.

Mr B McCrea: Will the Member give way?

Mr Murphy: No, I have only five minutes to speak; other Members have 10 minutes.

Mr B McCrea: The Member will be given an extra minute to speak.

Mr Murphy: The Member will have his chance to speak, as will everyone else.

The motion has been crafted deliberately to make it divisive and selective. It quotes an assertion that one member of the IMC made that is so vague that it is utterly useless. In fact, Mr Bradley, through his association with that group, is now an associate of former members of the IRA. The motion ignores the assessment that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform made in the Dáil last week, and it ignores the local assessment that the guards have made. It is unfortunate and regrettable that the motion is selective in its approach to the killing.

As a local MP, I shall not remain silent as individuals with varying agendas try to use this brutal murder to forge divisions in our community. Several of those who are involved in the campaign are former republican activists, all with their own anti-Sinn Féin and anti-policing agendas. The SDLP involvement is already well documented. That kind of politicking does not serve well the search for the truth about this murder, and it goes some way to explaining some of the recent, more personal attacks. I have made a conscious decision not to get involved in a public slanging match with the political drivers behind the campaign. I have, however, called publicly for people to co-operate with the guards and the PSNI. I have met both agencies privately and offered my support. Furthermore, I have offered to meet the Quinn family face to face.

Unfortunately, innocent people have been linked to the crime. A campaign of intimidation has been ongoing against the Traynor family of Cullyhanna — their home has been attacked on numerous occasions, and a lorry that belonged to them was burnt. Those are facts, and, unlike the unsubstantiated rumours that gave rise to those attacks, they cannot be disputed. Indeed, the PSNI has been provided with CCTV images of one of those attacks. Graffiti naming others have been painted in Cullyhanna and Crossmaglen. In a later incident, local people’s homes, cars and property were damaged. Moreover, over the Christmas period, individuals who claimed to be acting in support of the Quinn justice campaign brutally assaulted with hammers several young men outside the local disco. Again, the guards were informed.

None of that has a place in a campaign for justice. I appeal to those who orchestrated and carried out those attacks to think again. They do not help the task of putting Paul Quinn’s killers behind bars. Instead, they increase community tensions and deter local people from uniting behind the demand for justice, which is what must happen.

Once again, I offer our support to the Quinn family and call for anyone who has any information to bring it to either the PSNI or the guards. I call for them to be allowed to get on with their jobs and for an end to intimidation and violence against completely innocent families. Furthermore, I call on people to reflect on much of the politicking that has gone on around the incident —

Mr A Maginness: Will the Member give way?

Mr Murphy: My time is limited; the Member’s party has 20 minutes to speak, and I have five.

I call on people to reflect on the recent politicking that has gone on around the incident, and not to let it deflect them from the real task, which is to find Paul Quinn’s killers. Sinn Féin has not sought, and will not seek, to play politics with the issue. Such public bickering does not help to advance the search for justice. Others must defend their own record in their dealings with the community.

We must send a strong message of support for the ongoing investigation into the murder. I commend the hundreds of people who, thus far, have co-operated. The police and the guards have said, and their point has been accepted, that there have been unprecedented levels of co-operation in the inquiry. That is how justice for the Quinn family will be found and how the killers of that young man will be found. I commend all those who have an interest in the matter to support those who are tasked with bringing to justice those who are responsible. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Kennedy: At the outset, I acknowledge the presence in the Public Gallery of the Quinn family, who have behaved with total integrity and dignity in the most difficult of circumstances — the callous murder of their son and brother.

As I have said before in the House and as I repeat today, if Members of Sinn Féin are serious about what they refer to as their political project, I do not know how they can allow the continued existence of the IRA army council. Every single act of criminality, murder and brutality that occurs in republican areas and that is associated with known republicans will raise the inevitable question: was the IRA involved? If the IRA no longer existed as an organisation that has an army council, that question could be asked — at least not in the same way — and those unanswered questions could not jeopardise the political process in any way.

A theme is emerging in our debates. Only last week, we condemned private armies. Yesterday, we rejected the idea that the IRA insurgency could be represented as a legitimate war instead of the murderous and brutal terrorist campaign that it was.

3.15 pm

The Sinn Féin Members opposite would do well to listen to the theme that is emerging from these debates and to what representatives of the unionist and part-nationalist communities are saying to them.

The motion condemns the murder of Paul Quinn. It was a particularly brutal and nasty murder that shocked the entire community and left ordinary people feeling deeply revolted that a group of men could so forensically and with such intent set about bludgeoning a young man to death. Mr Quinn had committed no crime; even if he had, the manner of his death was unacceptable and disgraceful. It puts his murderers on a par with the Mafia monsters who brutalised their victims.

His murderers are not just criminals; they belong to a group of individuals who can truthfully be described as having committed crimes against humanity. Their behaviour was based on an arrogant belief that they are somehow above and beyond the law. That arrogance leaves the rest of us stupefied and horrified. We know that those people represent the very face of evil. They are black-hearted villains, and their community must give them up to the forces of law and order.

No one in south Armagh can be safe while the murderers of Paul Quinn walk free. Those men clearly believe that they can do whatever they like. I say to the community, including friends and relatives, from which those who are responsible for Paul Quinn’s murder come: what sort of monsters do you have living with you? Are you content to let those people go free? How do you know that they will not some day turn on you for some imagined crime that you have committed against the IRA?

I say to their political representatives: you do not become democrats merely by using democratic words and pretending to be civilised. For as long as the situation continues where you could be linked in any way, however remotely, to this or any other murder, you must not let one more day pass without doing something about it. Mere condemnation is easy, but it must be matched by action. Action is not just a statement condemning this kind of activity; it means giving up those villains and doing that now.

The IMC finding that current and former members of the IRA were involved in the crime is a massive problem for Sinn Féin. Mr Murphy, a Minister in our Executive, has just said that he is sure that the IRA was not involved in the murder. Let him prove it. On what does he base that assertion? On what facts does his certainty rest? He has raged against the IMC, the findings of which brought this place into operation. Therefore, his democratic credentials are tied up in this incident, regardless of whether he likes it.

Let us have an end, once and for all, to private armies, army councils and the whole paraphernalia of the brutal terrorist past.

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

Dr Farry: I support the motion. At the outset, I commend Dominic Bradley for securing the debate. More importantly, I commend Paul Quinn’s family for keeping their wider campaign for justice very much alive.

This motion may be one of the most important that we have debated in the Assembly so far. It goes right to the heart of the discussion of ascertaining the type of society that we will have in Northern Ireland. We must recognise first, however, that this is a human and personal tragedy for Paul Quinn and his wider family circle. His murder was cruel and brutal, and it was clearly planned and premeditated. It has been compounded by the subsequent character assassination of Paul Quinn. Allegations were made after that gentleman’s death that would neither have been made nor sustained when he was alive. Only the courts can pass such judgements; Ministers and MLAs, who should be setting a better example, cannot make those judgements.

I note that Conor Murphy has left the Chamber — perhaps he does not regard what the Alliance Party has to say as important. Perhaps his colleagues will pass on the message that although he talks about divisions being created, the only division that I have detected is the one created by him. Four parties in the House are clear: Paul Quinn was not a criminal. Only Sinn Féin maintains that libel against his character. When it makes those allegations about the circumstances leading up to the murder, it creates some kind of legitimisation of what happened, when, in fact, there can be none. The only crime was the murder of Paul Quinn. However, that crime was not just against Paul Quinn but against wider society. That presents a major challenge for us all.

After the ceasefires in 1994, a currency emerged in Northern Ireland whereby ceasefires were deemed to have been breached only in the case of attacks on the other side of the community, against economic targets or against the security forces. We made the mistake of allowing the situation to arise in which paramilitaries could do what they liked to what was perceived as their own side of the community without proper challenge. Inconvenient truths were swept under the carpet for the sake of the peace process.

Quite rightly, that proved to be unsustainable. Organised crime, paramilitary organisations, social control and gangsterism are corrosive of our society, the rule of law, democracy and human rights. They must all be challenged. We have learnt that, rather than sweeping those matters under the carpet, we must shine a spotlight on them. The way in which we deal with such incidents goes right to the heart of the type of society that we are building and the credibility of the new institutions.

Things have been getting better in Northern Ireland in recent years. We are moving forward as a society, and it is important that we not be dragged back by the failure to address such matters properly. It is important, too, that we send out a message today that the murder of Paul Quinn is not some awkward incident, a relic of the past from which we can move on and that we can forget about; it is something that we must face up to. We need to see justice brought to the fore.

There may be a temptation for some people to say that that issue can be handled internally and that it should be dealt with by the organisations involved. I say that it is a matter for the police and the courts to resolve. We must be clear that when we talk about co-operation, that means people coming forward with information either to the PSNI or to the Garda Síochána, the laying and taking forward of the basis of a proper prosecution, and justice, in its proper sense, being carried out.

The people behind the murder of Paul Quinn are a blight on our society, something that we need to remove. It is a cancer that affects us all. As an Assembly, we need to send out a clear, strong, unanimous message that that will not be tolerated in the new Northern Ireland and that we must move on.

Mr Campbell: The murder of Paul Quinn in the Irish Republic was abhorrent, and I join with other Members in congratulating Mr Bradley for bringing the motion before the House.

The murder of Robert McCartney in Northern Ireland was equally abhorrent, as were all the other murders that have taken place in Northern Ireland, in the Republic and elsewhere, carried out by whomever — there is no distinction. Sometimes in debates such as this there is an attempt to indicate that some of us condemn one type of murder but not another. All of them, without exception, are wrong. Not only should they be condemned, but every possible support and scrap of information should be given to the police in order to bring those responsible before the courts.

The issue is about justice. I know that the Quinn family, like the McCartney family and all the other families, want to see justice done. Those in this House who previously carried out that type of activity have moved to stop their actions.

They took a long time to do that, and it was right that they should stop; but they should not be commended for doing so, because they should never have started in the first place.

They have moved towards supporting the forces of law and order, and they were right to do so because they never should have been in the position of not supporting law and order in the first place. They have moved. However, they need to give the fullest possible co-operation and information to the police. As Dr Farry said, they can give such co-operation either to the police in Northern Ireland or to the police in the Irish Republic.

There are Members in the Chamber who have had links with the IRA. It would appear that there were IRA connections in the murder of Paul Quinn. Therefore, those who are in the IRA and those who were formerly in the IRA in that area will know people who have in their possession the knowledge and information to give to the police so that those responsible can be brought before the courts. All Members must be proactive in bringing those responsible for this and other murders to justice.

Sinn Féin, in particular, in this instance, has a responsibility to impart information in the best possible way to ensure a successful prosecution. That party moved towards supporting policing — and there was recognition across the divide that it had done so. That party has the votes that it needs to get into Government, but to get recognition as democrats, Sinn Féin Members need to go further. As yet, they do not share a level playing field with the rest of us, in spite of the movement on which they have embarked. Members of Sinn Féin must give the fullest possible co-operation to the police so that we do not have the families of murder victims saying that they were invited to a Sinn Féin party conference, but that the party did not give them its fullest support, and that when people were told by the party to go to the police, they were also told not to give the full information. That must stop.

Normal courtesies cannot be extended to Sinn Féin while its members remain in some form of limbo. This Assembly is in the process of delivering for people. It would not be in the interests of anyone in Northern Ireland — let alone those of us with party interests — for murders such as the one that we are debating to precipitate a crisis. However, in the event of Sinn Féin Members’ having information and declining to forward it, a crisis could well be precipitated.

Mr McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I am cognisant of the fact that the family and friends of Paul Quinn are in the Gallery and are listening to the debate. The death of a loved one is always devastating for a family. However, it is even more difficult and traumatic when the circumstances are brutal, savage and cruel. Paul Quinn’s murder was all those things. It was dreadful and reprehensible.

The local community and people across the island were rightly shocked and horrified by the barbarity of that murder. I extend my sincerest condolences to Paul’s father, Stephen, his mother, Briege, and the family circle. I want to tell them —

Mr Campbell: Will the Member give way?

Mr McLaughlin: The Member’s party will have ample opportunities to speak. Does the Member have the manners to listen?

Mr Campbell: Will the Member give way?

Mr Speaker: Order. The Member should not persist.

Mr McLaughlin: I wish to tell the family that republicans everywhere are appalled by what happened and that our sympathy and solidarity is with them. Those who carried out the murder of Paul Quinn are criminals. They deserve the strongest condemnation and they must be brought to justice. There is a responsibility on every citizen to co-operate fully with An Garda Síochána and the PSNI. No one should seek to shield or hide the murderers of Paul Quinn.

Anyone with any information, however tangential, should bring that information to An Garda Síochána and the PSNI. Those are the law-enforcement agencies, and they are the only agencies responsible for tracking down and bringing before a court those responsible for Paul Quinn’s murder. Sinn Féin totally supports their efforts, and I again urge anyone with information to make it available.

3.30 pm

In the aftermath of Paul Quinn’s murder, there have been claims and allegations of republican involvement. I am not from the immediate area, although I know many people there. I have studied the reports closely. None of those who has levelled allegations has produced a scintilla of evidence to back them up. I do not believe that republicans were involved in, or responsible for, the shameful murder of that young man. I do believe, however, that some who are opposed to Sinn Féin’s project or to a new beginning to policing, or who seek party political advantage, have tried cynically to exploit that murder in order to further their own interests.

In my view, those baseless allegations have made the job of the police and the prosecution agencies even more difficult. A criminal investigation has been politicised by those who seek to use it for political advantage. Worse, in the community around Cullyhanna, their words have created a climate of fear and suspicion that has resulted in some local people being injured and their property being attacked. That also should be condemned by all, although Dominic Bradley ignored it in both his motion and his speech. I repeat: any Members of this House who have any information about Paul Quinn’s murder, let them bring it to the proper authorities. If they do not, they do a grave disservice to the Quinn family, who rightly want the perpetrators brought to justice.

Dominic Bradley indulged his usual fixation with Conor Murphy MP. When he did eventually deal with the substance of his motion, he referred directly to the IMC’s John Grieve, who said:

“Despite the fact that we are saying it is a local dispute, we do believe that those who were involved in the attack on him — in his brutal murder — included people who are members or former members or have associations with members or former members of the Provisional IRA.”

That could mean every person within a 20-mile radius, including, for that matter, Dominic Bradley. It is of such a generalised nature as to be particularly useless in establishing the truth.

Mr Bradley further claimed unnamed Garda Síochána members as a source for those unsubstantiated allegations, yet, as recently as last week, the Irish —

Mr D Bradley: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You asked Members earlier not to name names, particularly concerning this case, yet two Members have done so, the latter’s having done so in circumstances that are, at best, dubious. I ask you to ask that Member to withdraw his remark.

Mr Speaker: I certainly did guide Members at the start of the debate as to how they might handle themselves. However, I do not see a problem with anything that Mr McLaughlin has said. It is important that I say that, and it is important that Members take care in what they say. In this instance, what Mr McLaughlin has said is the cut and thrust of debate.

Mr D Bradley: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker, Mr McLaughlin, in his speech —

Mr Speaker: Order. I am not taking any further points of order on the issue.

Mr D Bradley: Then, I shall write to you about it.

Mr Speaker: I shall be happy to talk to the Member about the issue.

Mr McLaughlin: I stopped counting after the sixth reference to Conor Murphy in Mr Bradley’s contribution.

Brian Lenihan said that the gardaí have no information to show that the IRA was involved in the murder of Paul Quinn in Monaghan. I presume that Mr Lenihan is more privy to the evidence that the gardaí are dealing with than Mr Bradley is. Likewise, I would hazard a guess that the PSNI is also well briefed. Some in this House are more concerned about the political mileage that they can achieve than about establishing the truth.

Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.

Mr McLaughlin: Given Mr Bradley’s interruption, I want to make it clear that those who carried out the murder of Paul Quinn are criminals who deserve our strongest condemnation, and they must be brought to justice. Go raibh maith agat.

Lord Morrow: I have just learned that the Quinn family are in the Public Gallery. It is proper that I say that I and my party feel for them. I express my sincere and heartfelt sympathy and that of my party to the family on the loss of someone who was very precious to them — their son.

I commend Dominic Bradley for bringing the motion to the House. I say to him directly that it took courage to do so. It is gratifying that he, as the proposer of the motion, lives in the constituency in which this awful atrocity took place. We thought that Northern Ireland was moving forward; but it seems that some things are not going to change. Sadly, it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Today, the Quinn family could take that sentiment to heart and say that, for them, very little has changed.

I have read much about the case, and I have heard many things said about the incident on television, radio and elsewhere. I have heard Paul Quinn branded as this or that. I say directly to Sinn Féin Members: if you believe any of those allegations, why have you not taken that information to the PSNI? You say that you support the PSNI and that it is the only legitimate agency for law and order in Northern Ireland: why then did you not give all of the information to the police? Quite frankly, I think the whole thing is a smokescreen.

Paul Quinn was taken aside and treated worse than a dog — he was brutally done to death. My words and those of any other Member will fall far short of what should be said to graphically illustrate what happened to Paul Quinn. Sadly, he was not the only person to suffer at the hands of brutal animals: I am also thinking of Robert McCartney and the two policemen who were shot in Dungannon and Londonderry respectively.

We are told that things are moving on: Sinn Féin representatives said today that they recognise that the PSNI is the only legitimate agency for law and order. I say to them that it is not that long since Gerry Adams said that he was never a member of the Provisional IRA — and we are supposed to believe that. Similarly, it is not that long since the Minister of Education was in Columbia making preparations to get the Columbia Three home. Of course, when Sinn Féin representatives were asked about the Columbia Three, they said that they has never heard tell of them and did not know them from Adam. Their protests continued until television pictures emerged, which showed Martin McGuinness — I think — talking to the Columbia Three.

Sinn Féin has a job to do: not only does it have to convince the nationalist community that it is for real, it must also convince the unionist community because many of us are sceptical and do not believe that the “war” — as Sinn Féin calls it — is over.

It seems that Sinn Féin reserves the right to take someone like Paul Quinn and batter him to death if it is expedient to do so. The law of the jungle is not acceptable in any democracy; and that is something which the Shinners may have a lot of difficulty getting their heads around. Their days of skulking behind hedgerows should be over, but, alas, they are not. It used to be that they took their violence out on the security forces and on Protestants, but now they are turning on their own community. Because they deemed it necessary to take out someone like Paul Quinn, they brought him to a barn and, instead of shooting him, battered him to death. His pleas and cries were heard across the countryside.

What sort of society do those people think they are directing us into? I have no hesitation in supporting the motion, and I commend the Member who proposed it.

Mr B McCrea: I am reluctant to get involved in the issue, because Conor Murphy said that there was a danger of hijacking it for political ends. There is a fundamental question at stake: how can we ask others to speak about the issue if we are not prepared to speak about it? If we do not speak about it, others will allege criminality, make excuses, and come up with some form of spin that will say that they were not responsible.

I tried to intervene several times, and it is a pity that Conor Murphy is not in the Chamber. Through you, Mr Speaker, I would have liked to ask him a question. I will read a quote from Mr Stephen Quinn that relates to comments by Members who said that criminals carried out the murder and that the republican movement had no part in it. Those Members did not respond to Mr Stephen Quinn’s challenge.

Mr Quinn said:

“Conor Murphy has repeated the criminality story. If he has a shred of evidence that Paul was involved in anything, I challenge him today to put it in the paper — or else to do the decent thing and publicly withdraw it.”

I give the opportunity here and now to any Member of Sinn Féin to intervene and declare that Paul Quinn was not a criminal.

Silence speaks louder than words. There was no justification — absolutely none — for that brutal murder, and those who allege criminality should hang their heads in shame.

I spoke to the family today, and I regret that I did not speak to them earlier; I was worried about how it might look. I spoke earlier this week to a family in my constituency whose son had also been murdered. I sat on that poor boy’s bed and I listened to his mother and father and his brothers and sisters tell me of the total distress that they felt. I can only imagine the trauma that the Quinn family has gone through. I offer them my sincere and heartfelt condolences.

The murder of Paul Quinn has political implications. I do not know whether his murder was sanctioned or not. Frankly, I am not sure that it makes any difference. Will the Assembly trundle on, will it go about its business and hide the matter under the carpet, or will it start to talk about real issues to provide a vision for the future of the Assembly?

Some people allege that a cosy cabal runs matters; that the end justifies the means; that there is no principle that is not worth sacrificing on the altar of expediency; and that the process must be protected at all costs. I disagree. I do not want the Assembly to fall. I have heard what Members said. I want us to succeed, but what is the point of having an Assembly if we do not tackle real issues? If we are open, honest and transparent, if we try to move matters forward and deal with the hard issues, I can face down the critics. However, I cannot defend the indefensible.

The Quinn family, Paul Quinn himself, the wider community and the whole of Northern Ireland deserves justice and proper policing. It is time that the Assembly collectively got its act together and started to deal with those issues. I am appalled that some Members will not speak out on behalf of people. In the strongest possible terms, I ask the entire House to unite behind the motion moved by Mr Dominic Bradley.

3.45 pm

Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. First, I offer my deepest condolences to the entire Quinn family on the brutal murder of Paul Quinn.

Mr Lunn: Will the Member give way?

Mr O’Dowd: No, I will not.

No words that can be spoken in the Chamber will fully express the emotions felt by any family that had its son taken in the way in which Paul Quinn was taken. There is a sombre mood in the Chamber today — and rightly so. I have not felt such an atmosphere in the Chamber before, but it is right that such an atmosphere can be felt today.

The Quinn murder has produced a set of circum­stances that are not unique but that require a response because of their political implications. That is why Sinn Féin proposes an alternative view to that stated by other parties. In other circumstances, my party would not have made any comment. However, the situation is being used by those who wish to bring down the political institutions. Therefore, Sinn Féin has submitted a scenario, or an option, that the killing might be related to something else.

We are not calling on the Assembly or other political parties to investigate all the circumstances that led to the murder of Paul Quinn but on the PSNI and the Garda Síochána to do so. If these institutions fall on the basis of statements that were made publicly by elected representatives and other individuals — I do not mean members of the Quinn family, because they are entitled to say anything that they wish, although it does not make them right — another crime will have been committed. The hopes and aspirations of hundreds of thousands of people will have been dashed on misinformation.

I wish to present Members with another example. In November 2006, several heavily armed men burst into a house in Keady. They beat the two occupants of the house with hammers, doused them in petrol and burnt them alive. The following morning, on radio and on television, senior political representatives of the SDLP and the Democratic Unionist Party said that republicans were involved and that republicans — Sinn Féin, in particular — had questions to answer.

As the day progressed, it became apparent that the assailants had been severely injured in the attack and had been admitted to hospital in Monaghan. As events rolled on, it became clear that there was no republican involvement whatsoever in that attack. However, if those brutal, murderous assailants had made good their escape, would we be debating those two murders today? Would the finger of blame be pointing at republicans? I suspect that the answer is yes, because blaming republicans suited the political agendas of some of the people who spoke on the radio that morning.

Perhaps we would not even be here, because this institution would not have gotten onto its feet. It would not have gotten onto its feet because of two brutal murders in which republicans were not involved. The finger of blame was pointed at republicans for one reason only — the attack happened in south Armagh. Apparently, it could not have happened in south Armagh unless republicans had sanctioned it. That is the belief of the political opponents across the Chamber, and that is why they believe that the IRA murdered Paul Quinn — it happened in south Armagh, and nothing like that can happen in south Armagh without the IRA’s permission.

I appeal to people to allow the Garda Síochána and the PSNI to bring the murderers of Paul Quinn, regardless of who they are, to justice. Stephen Farry said that only the courts can decide, but he went on to make his own decision on the matter. Let the courts and the police decide on that murder, and let the killers be brought to justice.

Mr Irwin: I thank Mr Dominic Bradley for tabling the motion. As a Member for Newry and Armagh, I wish to convey my sympathy to the Quinn family.

It has been only four months since the tragic event, but I am sure that the family still feels the hurt. The murder of Paul Quinn last October remains a chilling reminder of the depths to which man will stoop to inflict harm on a fellow human being. Unfortunately, that is not new to Northern Ireland and, for many years, such actions have been commonly associated with the republican movement in South Armagh. It is also a stark reminder of the work which must still be done within the minds of those in Northern Ireland who see summary justice as acceptable. They say that murder is acceptable; I say that murder is murder — it is totally unacceptable and must be condemned by all right-thinking people.

Interestingly, on 28 October 2007, shortly after the murder, the leader of Sinn Féin stated in ‘The Independent’:

“The people involved are criminals. They need to be brought to justice and it is fairly obvious to me that this is linked to fuel smuggling and to criminal activity. There’s no republican involvement whatsoever in this man’s murder.”

Mr Adams is the very same man who said that he was never a member of the IRA. For someone who was always very quick to warn against forming opinions on the detailed motives and suspects involved in republican crimes in the past, Mr Adams’s publicised and sudden insight into the murder of Paul Quinn is extraordinary. I ask him to clarify how he arrived at that conclusion.

The motion refers to the matter of whether Paul Quinn was involved in criminality. The SDLP contend that he was not, yet the mere reference unintentionally sends out a confusing signal.

Mr Spratt: Does the Member agree that, irrespective of whether Paul Quinn was involved in crime, no man has the right to hand out justice such as was given to him? No man has the right to beat anyone to death. Only the courts can deal with such incidents.

Mr Irwin: I agree with the Member for South Belfast. The bottom line of this debate is that the beating to death of a human being is, in any case, futile, wrong and abhorrent. The argument cannot be diverted, even for a second, to the issue of Paul Quinn’s activities. The argument must centre on recognition of the rule of law, support for the structures through which law can be enforced, and the process by which those responsible for the death are imprisoned.

It has not gone unnoticed that a sizeable number of people in the community from which Paul Quinn originated clearly and publicly endorse the efforts of the PSNI in trying to bring to justice those responsible. That represents a noticeable shift in the minds of people who formerly did not recognise the PSNI, and the police have confirmed that the community has been co-operative in the investigation. If there remains in that community even the slightest fear whereby people feel unable to provide a key piece of information that could lead to a conviction, those who carried out the murder will remain at large. That information is out there, and it is a massive test for that community to ensure that the police are assisted in bringing the killers of Paul Quinn to justice.

I support the motion.

Mr Elliott: I offer my condolences to the Quinn family circle on the brutal murder of Paul. I assure Members, and those outside the House, that I have no personal or political incentive or motive for speaking in the debate. I thank the Member for Newry and Armagh Mr Dominic Bradley for having the courage to propose the motion.

The murder of Paul Quinn sent shock waves through­out Northern Ireland. No matter in what part of the country or Province we live, it was clear that people thought that such dark days were over. The previous months had seen an almost dream-like atmosphere sweep across Northern Ireland, and the establishment of the Assembly was the beginning of that.

However, there was to be a sharp reminder of the continuing presence of the bloodthirsty people in this society, and it came via the brutal mutilation and murder of Paul Quinn. I wonder whether Mr O’Dowd is suggesting, on behalf of the IRA, that it did not carry out the murder of Paul Quinn. If he is, I do not believe him.

Neither I nor the people that I represent in Fermanagh and South Tyrone are strangers to the evil acts of republican terrorism. For almost 40 years, the border with the Republic of Ireland has suffered as an area of death, harassment, intimidation and fear. Border activities have been perpetrated against Catholics and Protestants, nationalists and unionists alike by the IRA, which does not want to recognise real democracy but is happy to use that democracy to meet its own private ends. Sadly, Paul Quinn was just one more innocent civilian to the IRA, to add to its list of thousands.

The organisational skill of the people who murdered Paul Quinn was clear for everyone to see. We are told that up to 12 perpetrators with boiler suits and surgical gloves beat Paul Quinn with iron bars and nail-studded cudgels. His death was brought about in a cold and calculated manner, the like of which was the hallmark of the IRA campaign throughout the Troubles. The Independent Monitoring Commissioning, Sir Hugh Orde, the Secretary of State and every person in every corner of Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland know that that barbaric act was carried out by the IRA.

The IRA and its army council — and I have to wonder if members of the army council sit in this Chamber — would have us believe that no organisational direction or power was issued to the murderers for the act to be committed. Given the prowess with which the beatings and killings were delivered, and the estimated number of people who took part in the act, everything points to the organisational governance having a strong say in the running of the events and their tragic end.

The news of the murder of Paul Quinn left me and, I assume, the majority of people in Northern Ireland, angry. It left me to wonder why such a young and promising life had to be taken. We now know that Paul had stood up to the chiefs of the south Armagh brigade of the IRA. Like so many who faced the IRA in days gone by, he paid for that with his life. I hope that his family will continue to fight for justice for their son, and they would be right to do so. His killers must be brought to justice and pay the penalty for their crime.

Years ago, a certain man and Member of the Assembly said:

“They haven’t gone away, you know.”

We all knew that he was telling the truth, and his statement is true today. The IRA, which we have been told in the past is inextricably linked to Sinn Féin, continues to use the structures that have allowed it to mutilate, kill and intimidate for decades. The campaign may have slowed down, but it has not disappeared. Therefore, the onus is on Sinn Féin to explain to the Quinn family, the community in south Armagh and the people of Northern Ireland why those structures and the army council have not disappeared.

Mr Ford: I express my sympathy to the family and friends of Paul Quinn. It is deeply regrettable that we have to have a debate on a topic such as this. An interesting reference has been made by Sinn Féin Members, and not by other Members, about the attacks on houses, property and cars — and perhaps people — in the wake of the murder of Paul Quinn. It is right that any such attacks be condemned. Sinn Féin Members have every right to highlight those attacks and to expect that other Members would want the full rule of law to be observed. Without any reservation, I condemn any such attack, but the principal reason for this debate is not because of graffiti being painted on houses, but because a young man was murdered in a most brutal, cowardly and callous fashion.

After his murder, he was subject to character assassination by Sinn Féin representatives, not just in the Newry and Armagh area, but in the wider area. The three leading Members of Sinn Féin who have spoken so far — Mr Murphy the local MP and Minister, Mr McLaughlin and Mr O’Dowd — all expressed their sympathy, but none of them managed to find it in his heart to apologise for the slurs that were made about Paul Quinn.

4.00 pm

Basil McCrea made an offer to Members of Sinn Féin, but perhaps it takes them a while to get the message, so I will make that offer again. I will happily give way to any Member of Sinn Féin who wishes to take the opportunity to apologise for the slur that was cast on Paul Quinn’s character.

Once again, the silence from the Sinn Féin Members is the most eloquent thing that we have heard from them this afternoon.

Our party has not laid the blame on any organisation. We talked about the rule of law, the role of the police — whether it be the PSNI or the gardaí — and the role of the courts in determining guilt, yet, even in those contexts, Sinn Féin Members cannot find it in their hearts to acknowledge that their statements, led by Conor Murphy in the wake of the murder, were utterly wrong. They stand condemned for their inability to recognise those simple facts. It was not only the assault and the murder that were wrong, it was the character assassination.

The Quinn family, and the memory of Paul Quinn, deserve an apology. However, it appears clear that no apology will be forthcoming from Sinn Féin. Indeed, it is not simply an apology that is required — there should be a full-scale retraction of the allegations.

The Alliance Party offered sympathy to the Quinn family’s campaign, along with Ulster Unionist Members, SDLP Members and some former Members of Sinn Féin, in conjunction with others who are non-political, and today we heard sympathy from DUP Members. That does not make it a political campaign — it shows the level of backing across the community for the concerns raised by the Quinn support group. Those voices must be heard, because the politicisation has been the assault by Sinn Féin on the integrity of Paul Quinn’s memory. For Sinn Féin to accuse others of politicising the issue is a little rich, to put it mildly.

The Alliance Party wants a new beginning for this society. We want to move to a society that is powered by totally peaceful and solely democratic means. When we look back at the murder of Paul Quinn, it is clear that some people do not wish to move to such a society. When we talk about these issues, it is not because we seek to bring down the institutions; it is because we seek to have institutions that are built on integrity, justice and the rule of law, and not on covering up awkward facts because they do not suit the needs of certain parties. If Mr O’Dowd expects other Members of the House to put the interests of the supposed greater good of stability secondary to the interests of getting justice and a full hearing for everyone, he will have to think again.

Mr O’Dowd: Will the Member give way?

Mr Ford: Unlike Mr O’Dowd, I will give way.

Mr O’Dowd: Mr Ford is doing himself and this debate a great disservice. I have not asked for anyone to put the murder of Paul Quinn above these institutions.

Mr Ford: Most Members in the Chamber heard a suggestion that there was a threat to the stability of the institutions because we debate these issues. That is fundamentally wrong and immoral, and we do not accept it.

Mr McHugh: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the Quinn family here today, but I am sorry that they are here under such circumstances.

Paul Quinn was murdered in a violent and brutal way. The murder was carried out in a pre-planned and well-organised manner. Paul knew that he was going to be attacked, and he knew who was going to attack him. Let us be clear about that. Any attempt to criminalise Paul, to blacken his name and to create a smokescreen to cover the circumstances around his murder will not detract from that murder. No amount of character assassination or political posturing will make Paul’s murder acceptable or justify any murder in this democratic society. I call on Gerry Adams to publicly retract the label of criminal that his party has put on Paul Quinn and I would ask why they felt it necessary to do so.

As a member of the power-sharing Executive, Conor Murphy should have shown leadership and encouraged those with any knowledge of the murder to go to the PSNI or the Garda Síochána. He should not have questioned those who he believed had carried out Paul’s murder and then stated that they had nothing to do with it. He is in a position of power and authority, and he should take seriously the responsibilities that go with that position.

This killing must not be treated or dealt with as anything other than what it was — a brutal, savage murder. The truth cannot be suppressed — whatever the political consequences. Anybody who colludes in the suppression of the truth undermines the principles of justice. Go raibh maith agat. I support the motion.

Mr Attwood: I join other Members in thanking Dominic Bradley for the powerful way in which he told the story of this horror and family trauma. Most of all, I thank the Quinn family for the dignity that they have shown in the conduct of their campaign.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Attwood: Their dignity is in stark contrast to the comments of Mr McLaughlin, whose speech was categorised by narrow, petty, divisive points that ill serve the debate, and which contrast remarkably with the campaign for justice that is being waged by the family.

Paul Quinn’s murder was not the first of its kind. There are startling parallels with what happened to Robert McCartney and others. The evidence confirms that there was a strategy to mislead, to create a fog and to lay down false trails. After the murder of Paul Quinn, Gerry Adams said:

“it is fairly obvious to me that this is linked to fuel smuggling and to criminal activity.”

Following the murder of Robert McCartney, Alex Maskey said that:

“there is a growing violent knife culture … this incident is an extension of that.”

Both those responses were deliberately misleading on the nature of the crimes that were committed.

Following the murder of Paul Quinn, Gerry Adams said:

“There is no republican involvement whatsoever … all of us should be careful that we don’t end up playing politics with what is a dreadful, criminal action.”

In the aftermath of the murder of Robert McCartney, Alex Maskey said that:

“what has … been disturbing has been the shameful attempts to … score political points.”

Today, Conor Murphy and Mitchel McLaughlin informed the House that other parties are playing politics with murders in the community in the North, when it is clear that it is they who have been most active in doing so. They have played politics in the most grievous circumstances that have arisen from the murders of innocent people.

Even after all that, when Sinn Féin’s strategy was not working, the MP Conor Murphy claimed that he was reluctant to drag Paul Quinn’s name through the mud. However, he subsequently did precisely that. Catherine McCartney reported in her book, ‘Walls of Silence’, which she wrote following the murder of her brother, that the Provos circulated rumours about their victims and justified their murders by demonising the victims.

The parallels between what happened to Robert McCartney and what happened to Paul Quinn are stark and obvious: a strategy to mislead, create a fog and lay down false trails.

The second parallel between the murder of Paul Quinn and that of Robert McCartney is shown in Sinn Féin’s attitude to dealing with the police. Sinn Féin shares power in this building and shares responsibility for policing on the Policing Board, but, although it has had several meetings with the police and said that it would consider encouraging witnesses to come forward in the McCartney murder, the police have confirmed on three occasions — including last week — that no new witnesses have come forward.

Compare that with the killing of Paul Quinn, about which the MP for Newry and Armagh gave the world a solid assurance from the IRA that it was not involved. Mitchel McLaughlin said:

“Anyone with any information, however tangential, should bring that information to An Garda Síochána and the PSNI.”

Has Mr Murphy gone to An Garda Síochána or the PSNI with his evidence about the people to whom he spoke and who gave him those substantial, alleged reassurances? If he does not tell the police about who he spoke to and what they said, he will have failed to co-operate with a murder inquiry and will not have given the gardaí and the PSNI the opportunity to rule in or rule out the people that he spoke to. By not going to the PSNI and An Garda Síochána, he will have done precisely what Sinn Féin did in the Robert McCartney case, which resulted in no new witnesses coming forward.

The third aspect of the Paul Quinn murder is a question: how can we ensure that the worst that happened to the families of Robert McCartney and Paul Quinn will not happen to anybody else?

Members have rightly said that the disbandment of the IRA’s army council, the UDA’s inner command and whatever command structure the UVF may have is part of the solution. However, it is not the whole answer. In 2003, Monsignor Denis Faul said of the murder of Gareth O’Connor in south Armagh:

“I’ve believed from the start that he was taken away by members of the IRA in south Armagh, though they may not have been acting under orders from HQ.”

That may also be the case in the Quinn murder. Even if the army council were taken out of the picture, the residue of IRA authority would not be removed from our communities. It will take more than the ending of the army council to ensure that such incidents do not happen again.

As Dominic Bradley said in the Chamber on 4 February, no one else must be summoned to a cattle mart in Crossmaglen in order to receive their ASBO. We must ensure that never again in Ballymurphy will the so-called IRA officer commanding for the area assault and disfigure a young person who is alleged to be involved in crime, while members of that community are not encouraged to go to the police as they would have been in relation to other crimes over the past six or nine months. Those are the tests of whether republican civil administration has been purged from communities once and for all.

The issue is about much more than the disbandment of the army council; it is about republican structures continuing to impose their will on communities. That is what the murders of Robert McCartney and Paul Quinn and the assault on the young man in Ballymurphy were about.

Two weeks ago, the two Prime Ministers issued a statement:

“Having seen the huge progress made, we are convinced that the time is right for the parties to move forward and take the final steps towards full devolution and full normality.”

The SDLP agrees that it is time to move towards full devolution, because if people can share power in this building and share policing responsibilities in other buildings, we can share responsibility for justice as well. In this phase of the political process, at the highest levels in the two Governments, it is deeply worrying that in a 200-word statement calling for the devolution of justice and policing powers, neither the Taoiseach nor the British Prime Minister has a single word to say about the residue, or otherwise, of the IRA’s authority in parts of the North. They should think again.

4.15 pm

I wish to finish by responding to one or two comments that were made by John O’Dowd. I want to correct his memory. No one in the SDLP made statements to the effect that there was IRA involvement in the tragic killings of two people several months ago. On the contrary, three members of the SDLP made statements that were very cautious about the circumstances of those incidents. I ask John O’Dowd to check the record, and, if he is in error, he should correct what he said.

Dominic Bradley mentioned Conor Murphy six times during the debate. Dominic should have mentioned him 66 times, because of all people, Conor Murphy has personal, political and ministerial responsibility on this issue — a responsibility, that even today, in front of the Quinn family, he continued to abuse.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly condemns the murder of Mr Paul Quinn; notes the clarification by the British and Irish Governments that they do not hold the view that the victim was involved in criminality of any kind; further notes the assessments of Sir Hugh Orde and the Independent Monitoring Commission regarding the involvement in this crime of persons who are current or former members of the Provisional IRA, or who have associations with members or former members of the Provisional IRA; and calls upon everyone to encourage people to come forward and assist the police investigations being carried out by the PSNI and an Garda Síochána.

Conductive Education

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 for a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

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

Mr D Bradley: I beg to move

That this Assembly supports conductive education and commends the Buddy Bear School, Dungannon, to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Minister of Education for financial support and assistance.

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Caithfidh mé a rá go bhfuil an-áthas orm an rún a mholadh.

I am pleased to propose this cross-party motion. Conductive education is a form of special education and rehabilitation for children and adults with motor disorders. It is appropriate for conditions whereby disease or damage to the nervous system affects a person’s ability to control movement. In childhood, those conditions include cerebral palsy and dyspraxia, and, in adulthood, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy. Conductive education is also beneficial to those who have had a stroke or a head injury.

Conductive education began in Hungary in the late 1940s. It was originated by a Hungarian doctor named Andras Peto, and is now widely established in Hungary, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Germany, Australia, Israel and many other countries. Newry and Mourne District Council welcomed the director of the Peto Institute, Dr Maria Hari, to Newry, before she opened the Buddy Bear School in Dungannon.

Newry has seen the benefits of conductive education. In fact, one of my young constituents, Daniel Murphy, is a shining example of how conductive education can shape a young person’s life. Daniel was born with cerebral palsy, and his parents were advised that he would always be dependent on others, and would face a life of limited possibilities. Daniel, however, had the benefit of conductive education at the Buddy Bear School, and he had the unique experience of being nursed by none other than the First Minister when he visited the Buddy Bear School a number of years ago. Many Members know Daniel’s story: they have met him here, and he is a frequent visitor to Parliament Buildings. Daniel now attends college and is on a work experience programme for two days a week.

The Buddy Bear Trust is an outstanding organisation, and the school that it operates in Dungannon provides an excellent service to the whole community in Northern Ireland by offering an imaginative conductive form of education. The trust has been operating since 1988, and it opened its independent school in 1994 to offer conductive education to children with cerebral palsy.

Over 900 children and young people from Northern Ireland suffer from cerebral palsy, yet the deplorable fact remains that there is no centrally funded special provision for children who suffer from that illness. Conductive education is a learning process; it is not a treatment, cure or therapy, but it offers a lifeline to those who suffer from cerebral palsy and to their families. The issue before the House today is the uncertainty over funding for the school in Dungannon. If we fail to provide the very modest funding that is required to keep the Buddy Bear school open, we run the risk of losing the expertise that liberated Daniel Murphy from a lifetime of absolute dependency.

I was part of the cross-party delegation that met with children and parents here on 23 January. That meeting marked a turning point for many Members. We had the opportunity to hear first-hand about parents’ experiences. We heard about their frustrations and stresses and about the difficulties that the school had experienced with the education and library boards. One young mother described in detail how her world and her hopes changed when she was told that her child had cerebral palsy. There was no helping hand of support from the agencies that have responsibility for those matters. The parents descended into a deep, dark world of depression, stress, frustration and worry. We heard about the mother’s tears and about the father’s silent and secret tears and his hidden worries about his wife and child. It was a very moving story.

However, we saw the mother brighten as she told us about the first rays of hope as Ms Veres, the principal and a trained conductor in the school, showed her how to work with her child at home. Progress was soon evident. The little girl began to move around the floor, and she is now trying to walk. However, she needs more time and help.

We can easily understand why parents want the Assembly to support and develop the Buddy Bear school. I hope that the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Minister of Education will establish an interim funding arrangement for the school. I ask them to set up a review with a view to exploring how best the needs of children such as Daniel Murphy can be met and how the school might be developed in the near future as a centre of excellence, not just for Northern Ireland, but for all the border counties.

There must be co-operation between the Department of Education, its education and library boards and OFMDFM. Let us not bat the issue from pillar to post. Let us show that devolution means something to the people of Northern Ireland by making decisions that will ensure the future of this wonderful school in our community. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Molloy: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. It is my pleasure to support this cross-party motion that presents us with an important opportunity to show what this Assembly can deliver for a local area and for this special-needs school in particular.

The Buddy Bear school and the Buddy Bear Trust have existed for some time and provide an important resource for children with cerebral palsy who need special attention and support. The school also gives the families of those children some light at the end of the tunnel by giving them the belief that their children can live normal lives through being able to get to school and get involved in conductive education. The children can then build a life for themselves and gain independence, which will enable them to deal with issues in the same way as any other child.

It is important to remember that children with cerebral palsy are as entitled to a place in a school as any other child. Education and library boards make allowances for every child as regards how much it costs to put them through school. Children with cerebral palsy are entitled to the same allowance.

Unfortunately, the education and library boards have not been making parents aware that the Buddy Bear school exists; that children can be accepted into it, or that conductive education can be beneficial to their children. Therefore, the boards have sidestepped their responsibility to deliver a quality education service to children with cerebral palsy.

The educational needs of the children are important, and the amount of money required to keep the Buddy Bear school in Dungannon open is not massive. Like other situations in which children have to travel to school, some children with cerebral palsy may have to travel a distance to get to the school, and they may require more intensive attention than other children. However, like every other child, they are entitled to an education.

The main role that the Assembly can play is to ask the education and library boards — through the Minister of Education — to make parents aware that the school exists and that their children can attend it. The Assembly should also encourage the funding of the school to enable it to remain open. If the school does not receive funding, it will cease to exist. Unfortunately, to date, the trust has been able to deliver the service only because people have begged throughout the country in an attempt to get sponsorship, support and finance for the school. Therefore, it is important that the Department of Education, and, in particular, the education and library boards, take responsibility and deal with the funding issue.

The school requires around £200,000 a year, which is a small amount of money. It could be made available if the Department of Education did not hire a consultant for a couple of months of the year. Therefore, there are ways of creating the required funding. The education and library boards already have the funding available to ensure that every child has access to schools and to education. It is important that the Buddy Bear school remains open.

People may say that conductive education is not the only means of dealing with cerebral palsy; that is correct. Others may say that some children with cerebral palsy can attend mainstream education; that is also correct. However, for some children, that is not an option; the only way that they can have a life and build independence is by attending the Buddy Bear school and getting conductive education, which will ensure that they have an opportunity to develop.

The motion calls on the Minister of Education and OFMDFM to give financial support and assistance to the Buddy Bear school. That support will enable the school to provide its important service to children who have been deprived of educational benefits for too long. It will also enable the parents of those children to see some light at the end of the tunnel by giving them the belief that their children can perform and become the same as every other child.

I support the motion, and I ask Members to do likewise.

Mr Savage: This debate is as timely as it is important. As a lifelong supporter of the Buddy Bear Trust, I am committed to doing my utmost to ensure that the Buddy Bear Trust Conductive Education Independent School in Dungannon can continue to operate and carry out its most valuable and highly-skilled work.

4.30 pm

In the recently agreed Budget, the Assembly earmarked more than £1·7 billion to educate children with special needs, whether they be in preschool, primary school or post-primary school. We have the power to make a lifetime of difference to a child with cerebral palsy, to that child’s family and, indeed, to the entire community if we agree to set aside around £200,000 — the figure that our honourable friend Mr Molloy has just mentioned — to protect and enhance the Buddy Bear Trust Conductive Education Independent School until the Department of Education, supported by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, has completed a full appraisal of the needs of children with cerebral palsy, parental support and staff training needs.

We all have high hopes for our children. We hope that they will be safe and well, and that they will succeed at school. We hope that they will avail themselves of education opportunities in our colleges and universities, as well as in our many apprentice schemes, so that they might enjoy a good lifestyle as they continue their journey through life. Consider, however, the hopes of the young couple who realise, or are told, that their precious child has cerebral palsy. How deep is their despair? How empty does that hurt and anxiety make them feel? Their celebration at the birth of a son or a daughter is shattered. What pain does a mother feel when she realises that her twins have cerebral palsy? Despair, anger, blame, guilt and utter helplessness are merely some of the feelings that come to mind.

Let me make it clear, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the Buddy Bear Trust is willing to be flexible in its attempts to find a long-term solution to educating children with cerebral palsy. The trust has made it clear — as it has done over the years — that it will work in the interests of children with cerebral palsy with the Minister, the Department of Education, the proposed education and skills authority, the education and library boards, and others. The Assembly must not allow the enforcers of red tape, of which there are plenty, to bring more despair to parents who have enough to do in looking after their children.

Its founder and chairman, Brendan McConville, is not paid, as is no one else who works for it. The trust has helped children since 1988, and we must help it now.

We are not here to score political points but to give peace of mind to parents by assuring them that we will protect and develop the Buddy Bear Trust Conductive Education Independent School until a full appraisal has been carried out to determine the real needs, including training requirements, of children with cerebral palsy.

Parents are convinced that the education and library boards’ refusal to give information to parents of children with cerebral palsy has caused the present crisis. Boards may argue that they do not have to inform parents about non-grant-aided schools, but surely they have a moral duty to give them as much information as possible, particularly as three boards have been paying the fees of children to attend the Buddy Bear school since 1993.

The boards also know that the Buddy Bear School is recognised and regularly inspected by the Department of Education. Whatever has happened up until now, we must move on. We have a crisis; we have distressed parents; and we have children who are benefiting from conductive education. Members have the power to make a lifetime of difference in exchange for a very small amount from the public purse.

To the best of my knowledge, no special training is provided to equip teachers to educate children with cerebral palsy. I know that the Minister is currently reviewing special education and the training of teachers, but, whatever the outcome of that review, it will be too late, should the Assembly not financially support the Buddy Bear Trust and its children now.

The Buddy Bear School is not in competition with other special schools. It must be viewed as an additional resource to assist children, parents and teachers. The Assembly must do all that it can to safeguard our only conductive education school for children with cerebral palsy. We have pledged our support for children who, up until now, have had no voice and have had to depend on charity. We have the power, the authority and the resources to make a lifetime of difference to children and their families, now and in future, so, for their sake, we must act.

I shall end with an interesting story, if you will allow me, Mr Deputy Speaker. Before the most recent Assembly election, I visited the Buddy Bear School in Dungannon. A young mother came in with triplets. Into my arms, I was handed a young child — a lovely child. I had to hand that child back to its mother, knowing that I could do nothing for it. I vowed that, if some day the Assembly were back up and running, we would do something to help that mother and the many like her. Our opportunity is now.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Lunn: I support the motion, as, I am sure, will every other Member. I confess that conductive education was new to me before Brendan McConville and his team visited Lisburn City Council before Christmas to make a presentation, at which we learned something about it. Those of us who were privileged enough to attend the more recent presentation in this Building would have found it very difficult not to be moved by what we saw.

Dominic Bradley has already mentioned Daniel Murphy, who may represent the most classic case of what can be done for a child who, 30 years ago, would probably have been regarded as a hopeless case — a wheelchair case. Without the influence of the Buddy Bear Trust and its school, that is exactly what would have happened. I have been told that, recently, Daniel managed to leave his house, get on a bus, go to Newry, visit the Buttercrane Shopping Centre, and go home again on the bus, all under his own steam. That is some achievement for a young fellow of about 16 years of age. He is not the only child who came to Stormont that day; there were others who were equally impressive in their own way. However, Daniel stands out as an example of what can be achieved.

The conductive-education system is recognised worldwide, and it is used extensively in Hungary, and across the rest of mainland Europe, the UK and America. The Buddy Bear School is the only one of its type on the island of Ireland. It is vital that its work be allowed to continue. The school has managed, since its foundation in 1988, to continue its good work, but it has existed from hand to mouth every year, never sure of future funding. Unless there is some proper support from the Department of Education, it may be that the school will have to fold. That would be a crying shame for the sake of £200,000, which appears to be the school’s total running costs.

The issue of referrals from education and library boards was mentioned earlier in the debate. I am perplexed as to why there are not more referrals, and why there does not seem to have ever been a referral from the South Eastern Education and Library Board or the Belfast Education and Library Board.

I am told that there are about 900 children in the Province with varying degrees of cerebral palsy and related illnesses. There must be some of them who could be assessed in a manner that would direct the authorities to point them towards the Buddy Bear School as their best chance of improvement.

It is good that the school is quite happy to take referrals from across the border. A parallel can be drawn with the Middletown Centre for Autism, which is an all-Ireland centre of excellence. I hope that the Buddy Bear School in Dungannon can become an all-Ireland centre of excellence in its field. I also hope that, just as the Executive are being asked to provide funding, perhaps the Republic’s Government could be asked the same question.

In the meantime, I plead with the education and library boards to make referrals to the school. If they did that, and pay for those school places, the funding crisis would be partially cured straight away. That would not take very many referrals, and that is from where the finance should come.

I plead with the Minister to give our case a sympathetic hearing and to see what can be done. The Buddy Bear School is a very worthy cause, and I am glad to see its being supported by everyone in the Chamber.

Lord Morrow: I am pleased to support the motion and to associate myself with the work and efforts of the white knights of the Buddy Bear Trust Conductive Education Independent School, which is based in Dungannon. Dungannon is my home town, and the town that I have represented on Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council for some 35 years. I have some knowledge of the school, and I am determined to see it continue with its excellent record of achievement. As a public representative, both at an Assembly and local level, I will give it all the support that I possibly can and in all the ways in which I can.

The Buddy Bear School delivers a unique service to children suffering from severe cerebral palsy, using techniques pioneered by the world-famous Peto Institute in Hungary. Indeed, the school’s principal worked at the Peto Institute, and brought her experience to the children of Northern Ireland.

Conductive education is possibly the most important sphere of learning, as children are taught the basics elements of life. Their education is not just academic; the children learn the basic skills that most of us take for granted — such as sitting up, walking, and com­municating — before being set up to lead a productive and independent life. The Buddy Bear Trust has literally put children on their feet.

A fine example of that has already been referred to by others, but I would like to mention 16-year-old Daniel Murphy, whom I had the tremendous pleasure of meeting. When he was a baby, Daniel’s parents were told that he would never walk or be able to fend for himself; he was, to use everyday terms, effectively written off. However, because — and only because — of the Buddy Bear Trust, Daniel is now a fine young man who travels by bus three days a week to his part-time work in Newry. He is happy, contented, independent, and is very much looking forward to the future, and that is thanks to the Buddy Bear School. Daniel is just one example of the miraculous work that is carried out at that facility, and he is a far cry from the helpless little individual for whom the prognosis was very poor.

No one would disagree that every child is precious, whatever his or her individual circumstances may be. That is why I am delighted that the Minister of Education has often stated that she believes that every child has a right to an education. Sadly for the Minister, that is where my praise ends, because there are some matters on which I want to challenge her.

Last month, the Buddy Bear staff, along with children and parents, arrived at Stormont for a much-anticipated audience with the Education Minister and a cross-party delegation of MLAs, including her party colleague Francie Molloy, who will be able to contradict me if I am inaccurate. Given the long journey that they faced, particularly with a disabled child, the parents set off early, and I understand that some may have travelled to Belfast the previous night. However, not only did the Minister claim to have no knowledge of their scheduled visit — which had been organised and confirmed on paper some time in advance — she baulked when faced with the fact that the MLAs were waiting to join the meeting. She will have a chance to answer that, and I look forward to that.

The Minister refused outright to meet the MLAs, and only after much ado did she agree to meet parents, children, and Buddy Bear staff — she condescended to do that, at least. The trust chairman was bluntly informed by a member of staff from the Department of Education that there could be no photograph of the visit, because it was claimed that it could look as though the Minister was supporting the school. What would be wrong with the Minister being identified with — or with her supporting — that school?

I thought that the whole intention of the visit was for the Minister to see at first hand the much-needed work that the Buddy Bear Trust is doing and the services that it is providing, but it seems that the Minister had other ideas. The trust chairman was then tackled as to why Ms Ruane appears on the Buddy Bear Trust website, only to be informed that she had visited the school in her former capacity, before she was a Minister. That is amazing. Such visits seem to be acceptable when made as a mere MLA or as a private individual who is representing a political party or grouping, because one cannot do anything, but it is a different story when the individual is in a position to be able to affect the situation.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I see that you are going to ask me to sit down. There is much more that I could have said, but I would like the Minister to address the issues that I have mentioned.

Mr K Robinson: Whenever Northern Ireland possesses a centre of excellence in any sphere, it is our duty to sustain and to nurture it, particularly if that centre of excellence is related to health, welfare, or education. The Buddy Bear School in Dungannon has been a bright light in delivering conductive education for those with cerebral palsy, which affects one in every 400 children.

The Buddy Bear Trust deserves our support, and, at the very least, it should be given the financial protection that it needs until a cross-border centre of excellence can be developed for cerebral palsy, along the same lines as the autism centre in Middletown, County Armagh.

That centre should then gain from whatever economies of scale are available and funded jointly by the Northern Ireland Executive and the Government of the Republic of Ireland. Needless to say, that eventual solution needs to draw heavily on the considerable expertise and good practice built up in the Buddy Bear School in Dungannon since its inception in 1994. The Ulster Unionist Party strongly supports the work of the Buddy Bear Trust and its school, and we want to see progress made on that issue.

4.45 pm

There must be concerns regarding the nature of the relationships between the education and library boards and the school. I have to say, at the outset, that systems should never become a barrier to giving a child in need the life chances he or she deserves. Systems do not exist for their own benefit, or to justify the employment of officials administering them. They exist to address real educational, health and social issues, and they deserve to exist only for as long as they do that. If a system ever gets in the way of delivering that need, then it must be scrapped, and we must go back to the drawing board.

At present, over 900 children and young people from Northern Ireland suffer from cerebral palsy, and yet there is no centrally funded specialist provision made for those children. It should not be left up to an independent voluntary organisation to raise funds to provide the financial support for conductive education. This is a public need, and conductive education is the way to meet that need. That should be the starting point for the system’s design. We must not become hung up on what was the direct rule Minister’s way of doing things.

For the last 10 years, three education and library boards have sent children to the school. However, in recent years, the number of pupils has decreased, and it has now emerged that the education and library boards have failed to inform parents of children with cerebral palsy that the conductive education school is an alternative to the existing statutory provision. Failure by any public body to do that is, in my mind, a serious omission from its primary duty to the welfare of the children in its area.

In January 2007, only two pupils were enrolled at the school. There were further concerns when it was revealed that an education and library board was preventing a six-year-old cerebral palsy sufferer from attending the school, because of red tape.

The lack of pupils has had a serious effect on the funding arrangements for the school, as the Buddy Bear Trust relies, for its normal day-to-day operation, on the fees provided by the boards. Fund-raising has been scaled down and remained in place only for the purchase of some extra items, such as specialised equipment and furniture.

As long ago as 1996, the then Secretary of State, in response to a Parliamentary Question, said:

“Under article 31(3) of the Education and Libraries (NI) Order 1986, a proposal by an education and library board to arrange for the special educational provision for a child to be made otherwise than at a grant-aided school is subject to the approval of my Department. My Department considers each proposal made under this legislation on its merits, taking into account the professional advice, parental representations, proposed costs and any other circumstances relevant to each case. There are, however, proposals currently before Parliament to change this legislation: under these proposals, my Department’s approval role in individual placements would be replaced by a power to approve institutions other than grant-aided schools as suitable for the placement by boards of children with special educational needs.”

We do not want to hear any more excuses from officialdom about why children are not directed to Buddy Bear School, Dungannon —we want to see action.

The school in Dungannon is what they call in the United States, heavily credentialised. In 1994, the director of the Peto Institute in Budapest, the world’s first and primary centre of excellence for conductive education, was actively involved in setting up the school, which was subsequently inspected and recognised by the Department of Education. This meant that the education and library boards were able to fund the school, by paying the fees of statemented children.

Since its establishment, the Buddy Bear School has helped over 200 children, and a recent inspection report has commended the school, and recommended that the Buddy Bear Trust and the board should work together to maintain the valuable resource for children with cerebral palsy. Let us, therefore, see an intervention by the Minister of Education to sustain this excellent institution in the interim, and let us see some concrete proposals coming from the Executive.

Mrs M Bradley: I support the motion. There is a blatant need for that organisation to be supported, to whatever level possible, and by whatever purse available to this Government and their branches. That support is essential for children who suffer from many of the diseases and conditions that mainly affect their motor skills. As those children grow into adults, they will need continuous care and assistance.

Surely, whatever skills that organisations such as the Buddy Bear Trust can help to develop — however minor they may seem compared with those that are developed by children in the mainstream-education system — are major developments in a sufferer’s life. Is such a development not a huge milestone for a child who would simply have been left to flounder his or her way through life prior to the publication of the work of practitioners such as the renowned Dr Peto of Budapest?

I am aware of the Buddy Bear Trust’s work, because as mayor of Derry in 1991, I visited the school in Dungannon in order to examine its work. At that time, a quadriplegic boy from Derry was a pupil at the school. Eventually, the young lad was able to develop sufficient motor skills to enable him to move a motorised wheelchair without help and to attend a mainstream school in Derry, although he needed care during school hours. Nonetheless, he did it, and I am pleased to say that he is now in further education. His name is Kevin O’Donnell.

When the Buddy Bear Trust visited the Building to promote its cause, mothers told me that they want nothing more than to see their children enact the smallest of improvements. In order to do that, those children need the help and professionalism of people who work in conductive education. The papers have played host to photographs of the First Minister and the Education Minister pledging their support for the school. Therefore, I trust that they will live up to their promises and do what they can to retain the school.

I sincerely ask the Minister of Education to ensure that the education boards inform parents of the existence of the Buddy Bear School. Until now, they have not done so. That is a disservice to parents and to the school. It is an insult to children who suffer from those conditions. The school is faced with closure, which, again, is an insult, particularly when the First Minister and the deputy First Minister have, in this very Chamber, declared that a better future for all is enshrined in the Programme for Government. There is no better future for those children or for their school.

I support the motion. I hope that the Minister, and anyone who can help, will keep the Buddy Bear School open in order to provide a good service for those children whom we all call special.

Mr Storey: I support the motion. At the outset of my remarks, I pay tribute to the staff, parents and all who are associated with the Buddy Bear School in Dungannon for the fortitude that they have shown over the years. In spite of all the difficulties and problems that they have had, they have maintained their stance and have continued to provide a service to the school’s children.

I want to pick up on Lord Morrow’s point about the meeting between MLAs and the Education Minister that did not take place. I was extremely disappointed. I have been accused of bullying and all sorts of wrongs against the Minister. However, I want to make a serious point to her. I do not want to use the debate as a means to score political points, as has been done in previous debates. My point is sincere and genuine. I welcome the fact that the Minister is present in the House. I trust that she will listen.

The Minister has told the Assembly that equality is central to all of her policies; indeed, it is the bedrock of her beliefs. She has said that she has an interest in all of Northern Ireland’s children. Surely, if that is the case, the children who Members have heard about in the debate, who suffer from cerebral palsy and who are associated with the Buddy Bear Trust, also deserve equality. They deserve to have the same rights as all other children.

It was extremely disappointing that the Minister did not attend the meeting in question. Through my experience in the political world, I am big enough to be able to take rebuff, rejection and exclusion. However, her absence was an insult to those families and children. Why did the Minister refuse to attend the meeting in the terms that were requested?

I am sure that her colleague, Mr Molloy, was disappointed that the scheduled meeting, of which everyone was aware, did not take place. Subsequently, I tabled a question to the Minister. However, when the question fell and went unanswered, I had to ask the Speaker for a ruling on the matter.

That leads me to conclude that there was an attempt to hide something. I welcome the fact that the Minister is here today and that she will be able to provide clarity and answers. The meeting was not intended to be a hard sell, but an open and frank discussion. As a cross-party delegation, we wanted to put the case for those children.

It is rare for an issue raised in the Assembly to attract simultaneous support from all parties. Perhaps today’s motion has done so because cerebral palsy does not discriminate on religion, politics, gender or ethnic background. Any individual or family can be affected. However, the Minister refused not only to meet the delegation but to clarify why. I am confident that Members have argued a sufficiently strong case for supporting the school.

In the short time that is available to me, I want to ask the Minister why the situation has been allowed to develop over several years and why, as has been mentioned in the House, education and library boards have not been referring children to the school. What is the Department of Education’s position on children with cerebral palsy and what provision does it make for them? Why is there no directive — perhaps there is — on the referral of children with cerebral palsy? I trust that, in contrast with previous occasions, the Assembly will receive answers from the Minister today, not prevarication.

The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Equality is the bedrock of all my policies; I am pleased to say that every policy is equality-proofed. I also put the child at the centre of all policies and will continue to do so. As I wanted to meet representatives of the Buddy Bear Trust and the families involved, that was the basis on which the meeting was organised. People may claim otherwise, and I will not get into that discussion today, but that was the point of the meeting and the basis on which I agreed to it. It went ahead, as planned, on 23 January 2008.

Provision for children with special education needs in schools is of particular interest to me, and I take it seriously as part of my ministerial responsibilities. My concern is that all children receive special education provision that meets their needs. I want to ensure that they are given the best chances at school so that they can maximise their opportunities in later life.

I am committed to improving the special needs framework and the way in which children with special needs are supported in schools and at preschool.

Le deireannas, d’aontaigh mé dréacht-mholtaí don chreatlach riachtanais speisialta oideachais a cuireadh le chéile ag foireann athbhreithniú cuimsithe i mo Roinn, agus beidh mé ag cur na moltaí seo faoi bhráid an Choiste Oideachais. Tá súil agam go gcuirfear na moltaí faoi chomhairliúchán i lár na bliana 2008.

Recently, I agreed draft proposals for changes to the special education needs framework. Those proposals were drawn together by the special education needs and inclusion review team in my Department, and I will bring them to the Committee for Education shortly. I hope that the proposals will be issued for formal consultation in mid-2008. The need for such a review reflects the bureaucracy attached to the special education needs framework, the year-on-year increase in the number of children with statements of special needs and the inconsistency and delays in assessment and provision. Clear accountability on how resources can be best used is also required.

The review aims to formulate comprehensive and cost-effective recommendations for special educational needs and inclusion, and it pays particular attention to the continuity and quality of provision, equality of access, the consistency of assessment and provision, and affordability.

5.00 pm

Recently, I met Brendan McConville and Stanley Anthony from the Buddy Bear Trust, along with a group of parents and children. Contrary to what some Members said, I have never visited the Buddy Bear School. Instead, I met representatives from the school at other events, such as teachers’ conferences, and I met the pupils when they visited the Assembly.

Is mian leo oideachas den scoth a bheith ag a gcuid páistí, agus tugann siad lán tacaíochta don teagasc agus don teiripe a fhaigheann na páistí agus iad ar scoil.

The parents of all children, including those at the Buddy Bear School, want the best standard of education that suits the needs of their children. The parents of pupils at the Buddy Bear School are highly supportive of the teaching and therapy that their children receive.

The Buddy Bear Trust is a registered charity, which opened a conductive education school in Dungannon in 1993 to provide for children with conditions such as cerebral palsy. The school is an independent special school and is approved by the Department of Education as an institution suitable for the admission of children with special educational needs under article 26 of The Education Order 1996. There are many independent schools in the North of Ireland, none of which are entitled to funding direct from the Department of Education. However, when an education and library board places a special-needs child in an independent school, it will have already decided that the placement meets the needs of that child. The board will also be satisfied that the arrangements are compatible with the efficient use of resources.

Má chuireann bord páiste go scoil neamhspleách, thig leis an bhord sin na táillí a dhíol don oideachas a chuirtear ar fáil don pháiste. Chuir boird an deiscirt, an iarthair agus an tuaiscirt páistí go dtí an scoil.

After a board has decided to place a child in an independent school, it is able to pay the necessary fees. Historically, the Southern, Western and North Eastern Education and Library Boards have placed children in the Buddy Bear School.

Conductive education embraces learning and therapeutic development of movement, speech and mental ability simultaneously — not separately or consecutively — and is based on the theory that motor-disabled children develop and learn in the same way as their peers.

It is important that Members recognise that, under special education legislation, the education and library boards are responsible for identifying, assessing and making special education provision for children with special educational needs in their respective areas. The legislation does not give me, or the Department of Education, any role in the identification and assessment of a child’s special educational needs. Neither does it give me any power to intervene in the process, which should be conducted among parents, schools and the education and library boards. The boards are entirely responsible for considering the most appropriate placement for a child, within the constraints of the legislative framework. That framework ensures that the boards and schools make special education provision that matches the assessed needs of each child. That provision may be made in special schools, in special units attached to mainstream schools, or in mainstream classes.

Ar an chéad dul síos, tá dualgas reachtúil ar bhoird riachtanais speisialta oideachais a chur ar fáil i scoileanna a fhaigheann deontas; ach má shíleann bord nach féidir leis riar ar riachtanais speisialta páiste, cuireann an reachtaíocht atá luaite agam ar chumas an bhoird sin páiste a chur go scoil neamhspleách mar Buddy Bear.

First and foremost, boards have a statutory responsibility to make special education provision in schools in the grant-aided sector. However, if a board does not think that it can meet the special needs of a child in a grant-aided school, the legislation that I mentioned, which is already in place, enables it to make provision through an independent school such as the Buddy Bear School.

In recent years, the number of children in the school has dwindled. When the district inspector visited the school in February 2007, she found that there were three pupils. The boards have told me that one child receives statutory funding to attend the school.

It is not the responsibility of the education and library boards or the Department to promote any school in the independent sector. That is a matter entirely for the school’s own management. I am aware that the trust has recently conducted a significant campaign to raise the profile of the school.

The Department surveyed those education and library boards that have historically placed children in the Buddy Bear School. According to the latest available school census information, the boards are making special educational provision for almost 500 children with cerebral palsy in a range of special schools and main­stream settings. Moreover, many other children are being supported by provision in their schools. The boards maintain that, given the greatly varying disabilities of that group of children, the needs of one child with cerebral palsy can be very different from the needs of others and, therefore, a range of placements is required.

Gabh mo leithscéal.

The key to the decisions about placement and therapeutic interventions is the fact that the education and library boards must rely on advice from local health trusts to assist in the assessment of pupils with cerebral palsy, and the trust seldom recommends conductive therapy as a requirement to meet the needs of such pupils. Should a parent express a preference for the Buddy Bear School to be named in a child’s statement of special needs, the board has a duty to consider an appropriate placement in the grant-aided sector. If the board feels that the provision of the Buddy Bear School is required, it must satisfy itself that it is in the best interests of the child that such arrangements be made, taking into account the relevant professional advice and the wishes of the parents. Such arrangements must be compatible with the efficient use of resources.

If a board decides not to name the Buddy Bear School in a child’s statement, the parent has a right of appeal against that decision to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal (SENDIST), which would then consider whether the appeal should be heard.

I shall conclude by summarising my position on direct funding for the Buddy Bear School. Neither I, nor the Department of Education, has a role in determining the special educational placement needed for children with special needs. The Buddy Bear School is an independent school and is, therefore, not eligible for grant aid directly from the Department of Education. The proprietors of an independent school must make parents aware of their school, not the education and library board.

Nuair a bhíonn cinntí a ndéanamh faoi shocruithe agus idirghabhálacha teiripeacha, braitheann boird oideachais agus leabharlainne ar chomhairle ón iontaobhas sláinte áitiúil agus iad ag déanamh measúnú ar dhaltaí a bhfuil pairilis cheiribreach orthu; ach is annamh a mholfadh an t-iontaobhas sláinte gur gá le teiripe stiúrtha le riar ar riachtanais an pháiste.

The first duty of education and library boards is to make suitable placements for children with special educational needs in schools in the grant-aided sector. The necessary legislative base is already in place for boards to decide whether the special educational needs of children with cerebral palsy should be met at the Buddy Bear School. It is then the board’s responsibility to fully fund the placements. The education and library boards seek advice from the local health trusts about the necessary therapeutic interventions to meet the needs of children with cerebral palsy. The boards report that the trusts seldom advise that conductive therapy is necessary to meet a child’s needs.

Is é chéad dualgas na mbord oideachais agus leabharlainne socruithe oiriúnacha a dhéanamh do pháistí le riachtanais speisialta oideachais i scoileanna a fhaigheann deontas.

Mr B McCrea: I am somewhat weary and dis­appointed after that response. Rarely have I seen such a clear example of defeat ripped from the jaws of victory. We are debating a cross-party motion. Everyone agreed that it is a very worthy cause. This is incredible.

Mr Storey: It is normal.

Mr B McCrea: I think that it is abnormal. I will outline the situation, just to record the support of the House. I commend Mr Dominic Bradley for proposing the motion with the support of other Members who are present. He provided a very good outline of the benefits of conductive education, and how the school started.

I was very pleased to hear from Francie Molloy, with whom I have had the pleasure of discussing this situation. He pointed out that the school needs only £200,000. He asked —quite reasonably — whether it would be a good idea to let parents know that that educational facility was available, and, if so, why could it not have modest funding.

Mr George Savage, who has been involved in the project for more than 15 years —

Mr Savage: I have been involved for 18 years.

Mr B McCrea: Yes, 18 years. He mentioned the absence of red tape. My colleague the Member for Lagan Valley Mr Trevor Lunn made an excellent point in developing that issue. He mentioned that, as far as he is aware, 900 people require some sort of assistance. It is not as though we have to find people to fill the school.

As he also said, one could not fail to be moved by the plight of the people. I was moved by those children — they were an inspiration — and my heart went out to their parents. Members talked about Daniel Murphy, Kevin O’Donnell and other children.

Lord Morrow mentioned that, as a local man, he knows about the school. He asked why the Minister was so reluctant to embrace the cross-party delegation. I can accept that, perhaps, there was some confusion about who would be there. However, if she was prepared to meet six people, she might as well have met 12 people. We were not there to be anything other than friendly and supportive, and to say that we thought that the school was a good idea.

My colleague Ken Robinson made a strong point about our duty to develop centres of excellence. To build on another well-made point, systems are not an end in themselves. No matter what their legislative basis — no matter what Orders dictate or what direction is given — systems should not prevent a child from receiving the very best support. The Minister said that the child should be at the centre.

Mr Storey: At the centre of what?

Mr B McCrea: Exactly. Where is the equality in this? The Minister said that we must not become rule-bound in this matter. She is making a fundamental mistake.

Mr Molloy: If the Assembly is to mean anything to the people of this area, surely it must change legislation that is wrong and make it fit our circumstances?

Mr B McCrea: I accept that point absolutely. I was about to talk about that. If Orders that were made by direct rule Ministers, or previous Administrations, are not right, surely the Minister is obliged to bring new legislation to the House. That is entirely the responsibility of the Minister and the Department of Education. Judging by what I have heard today, I can assure her that she would have the wholehearted support of most people. The tail should not be wagging the dog. It is not up to the education and library boards to tell the Assembly what to do; it is up to the Assembly to tell them. That is the point. I am really fed up of hearing, “We seem to have some politicians around, but let us ignore them and carry on.” We must sort out this issue.

I valued Mary Bradley’s contribution — as I always do. She talked about her experience in the north-west and what conductive education means to her and the people whom she encounters. Those are the sorts of good-news stories that we want to hear.

Mervin Storey finished his contribution with a pertinent question about why the education and library boards are not referring children to the Buddy Bear School. If health is an issue, why is it not being dealt with? Is there a directive? Is there a vacuum in policy, or is there a policy that is dead set against the school? Whatever the situation —

Mr Storey: The House has once again seen the Minister try the Pontius Pilate exercise, in which she is now an expert, of washing her hands of all responsibility. We have seen all that before. She is blaming the education and library boards, but she also referred to the fact that there were circumstances in which the education and library boards could make referrals.

5.15 pm

Therefore, it is not just about the inadequacies of the legislation: this is a case of where there is a will, there is a way. Members should remember that the Minister said that there were only three pupils in the school. If I am not mistaken, this Minister of Education, and her predecessor, had no difficulty in funding smaller schools in another sector — but perhaps the Minister operates only partial equality.

Mr B McCrea: I welcome the intervention, but in two parts. The real questions are: why do we have a Minister of Education and what is his or her role? Does the Minister of Education merely open schools, accept credit when good things happen and pass the buck when bad things happen? Surely, the role is bigger than that; it is to provide leadership and direction. In previous statements on different issues, the Minister challenged Members to provide vision, use imagination and show some compassion. I heard none of that from her today.

This is a small matter of £200,000 for a very worthy cause. If there are problems about how to deal with that, the Assembly, the Minister and her Department need to — and I am sure that the phrase is not unparliamentary — get the finger out and get things sorted.

The Assembly is the sovereign body. I am telling the Minister — as politely as possible — that her response is not satisfactory and will not be accepted. Her Department and her officials need to find a way of solving this particular problem. Children with cerebral palsy, their families, and the people of Northern Ireland are looking to her to provide solutions. If she cannot do that, we have a serious problem.

Equality, child-centred education, speaking in Irish — none of those things present a problem for me. However, there is a danger when people use language that is divisive. There is no need to be divisive on this subject: it is picking a fight where no fight is called for. I am told that it is bad manners to use language that puts people ill at ease. Whereas I absolutely respect the Minister’s right to use the language for part of her speech, it is a calculated act, which does not help.

Mrs M Bradley: Throughout the debates on the Programme for Government, Members heard that Ministers would be acting for the sake of our children, for the good of our children, and would be providing a quality of life for the children who are our future. Those children face an uncertain future.

It is not good enough that we, as elected repre­sentatives, have to tell parents that we are sorry, but we are unable to help their paraplegic children. No one, except the mother who has such a child, knows how that feels.

Mr B McCrea: I could not agree more with the Member. Mary Bradley has shown more eloquence than I could. I conclude on that point.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly supports conductive education and commends the Buddy Bear School, Dungannon, to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Minister of Education for financial support and assistance.

Mr Storey: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. In an earlier debate today, mention was made by several Members that a Minister — Mr Conor Murphy — had met with the IRA regarding the brutal murder of Paul Quinn. The Assembly has a ministerial code and Pledge of Office in place, and the latter includes a pledge to support the police, the courts and the rule of law. Given that this Minister, we believe, has met with an outlawed, illegal, terrorist organisation, which is in direct opposition to the legitimate security forces of the state, that the Minister in question knows that to be the case, and that he knew it to be the case before he went to meet with them, and that he went to discuss with that illegal, terrorist organisation its possible involvement in that brutal murder, I ask you, Mr Deputy Speaker, either for a ruling on the possible breach of the ministerial code and Pledge of Office, or that you take the matter to the Speaker as a matter of urgency, so that a full report on it can be made to the House.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Mr Storey’s remarks have been noted, and I have no doubt that the Speaker will report back to the House as appropriate.

Motion made:

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


Health Provision in Larne

Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that the proposer of the topic for debate will have 15 minutes in which to speak; all other Members who wish to speak will have approximately five minutes.

Mr Ross: I am pleased that the Adjournment debate has been secured, and I thank the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety for his attendance.

I do not intend to speak for my full 15 minutes, because it is important that all Members who wish to speak are afforded the opportunity to do so. I am also conscious that enough time must be left for the Minister to reply to some of the points that will be raised.

5.30 pm

It is pleasing that all six MLAs who represent East Antrim are able to work together on the issues such as public transport and, in this case, health provision, which affect everyone in the constituency. It is important that we work together for the benefit of our constituents. That point is highlighted by the fact that all three parties that represent East Antrim in the Assembly proposed similar subjects for debate. A series of meetings on the matter has been held, involving members of the public, clergymen, GPs, hospital staff, councillors, the MLAs and the MP for the area. I have written to the Minister about the issue, and I am sure that other Members from East Antrim have done likewise. Indeed, I know from written correspondence that since the Minister took office in May, he has had some 64 representations from various individuals and groups about Inver House and health provision in Larne.

I am sure that the other constituency Members have also been inundated with letters, emails and phone calls from members of the public in East Antrim who are anxious about the future of Inver House and about medical care there. I have received hundreds of pieces of correspondence in the two offices that I use. It is a very important issue, not only to us as representatives, but to the people whom we represent. That is highlighted by the fact that a meeting has been arranged for next week with the Minister, and another has been arranged with the trust for the beginning of March.

The issue of adequate health provision for Larne has been ongoing for some time, and I know that my predecessor, the late George Dawson, was also involved in the matter. We do not have a romantic notion of Inver House; we have a genuine concern about the healthcare that is available in Larne. Larne is one of the biggest towns in Northern Ireland, with a population of over 30,000. It is a growing town that every year attracts more and more people, especially given the new developments that are being built on its fringes.

On average, Larne also has a higher elderly population than anywhere else in the Province. The most recent figures show that, at 20%, the proportion of over 60s is the highest. It also has the highest mortality rate, and it has a lone-pensioner-household rate of almost 14%. Larne is over 20 miles from the nearest acute hospital, which is in Antrim. People who live in Carnlough, in the north of the constituency, must travel some 35 miles, or for over an hour, to get to Antrim Hospital. Larne is the only town that is covered by the Northern Health and Social Care Trust that is more than 10 miles from the nearest acute hospital.

As a town with a major port, it also has a sizeable transient population, adding additional pressure to local services above and beyond that which should be expected for a town of a similar population. Much of the current road infrastructure is insufficient to cope with the frequency of traffic, particularly given the heavy ferry traffic, freight traffic and increasing numbers of people who travel on the route from Moira to Larne in order to bypass the Westlink.

Constituents must go to Whiteabbey Hospital or Antrim Area Hospital, but the public transport to take them there is limited. That has an impact on visitors, particularly elderly people, who may not have access to their own cars. I have spoken to elderly people whose loved ones are in hospital in Antrim, and they cannot visit them as much as they wish because the public transport is poor. They have particular problems travelling on Sundays, and they cannot afford to travel in taxis.

People in Larne do not want, or expect, any more than any other area of Northern Ireland. They simply want equity of health provision. They want a higher-quality service in which patients are treated with dignity and respect and are not institutionalised. Since Moyle Hospital was closed over a decade ago, health provision has not been as good as it is in other towns in Northern Ireland. If Inver House were also closed, the population of Larne would be further marginalised.

It is extremely frustrating for my constituents to hear of hospital facilities being upgraded or enhanced, as is the case in Whiteabbey or Magherafelt, when that is not happening in Larne, despite the many valid reasons for doing so.

Questions must be answered about palliative care, as in recent years there has been a need for palliative care facilities in Larne. Home-care packages are fine for those who have someone at home who is capable of looking after them, but that is simply not an option for many elderly constituents. Larne has a high proportion of elderly people who need a facility nearby, and that is why Inver House is so important. It is a local facility that is held in high regard by local people. The expertise in Inver House cannot be provided in ordinary nursing homes, nor is it expected to be. Palliative care is a specialist medical discipline that requires specialist skills and training. Inver House has also built up a reputation for providing rehabilitation for patients who have been released from hospital but who are too frail to return home.

It is worth pointing out the volume of correspondence that our constituency offices received on the proposed closure of Inver House. Some people have written that their elderly relatives felt more comfortable in Inver House than in hospital in Belfast, because they felt closer to friends, family and their community roots. Others wrote about the exceptional nursing and cleanliness at Inver House. Those letters and emails did not just come from local people — I received a letter from a lady in Harrogate whose father had been nursed in Inver House in recent years. In fact, Inver House is the definition of care in the community. It is, therefore, disappointing that the Northern Health and Social Services Board seems to be following a policy of reducing the number of beds in Inver House, irrespective of demand or of the views of the local community. I know that the Minister is reluctant to engage in matters directly relating to Inver House, but I would like to know why beds were removed when the consultation was ongoing.

I am taking note of the length of time that I have spoken, as I would like all Members who wish to speak to have an opportunity to do so. I have outlined some of the reasons that people in Larne feel that they do not have adequate healthcare. Although I do not want to go into too much detail on matters that the Minister will be reluctant to address today, I hope that he understands the importance of Inver House to the people of Larne and East Antrim. I would like a fundamental review of health services and provision in the area, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments at the end of the debate.

Mr Beggs: I congratulate Mr Ross for securing the debate. I, too, proposed a similar topic for debate several weeks before him, but clearly he has more allies on the Business Committee than I do.

I am pleased that this important topic is being debated. I am also pleased that the Health Minister has agreed to meet all the Members from East Antrim on this important issue. Health provision and the future of Inver House are of immense importance to the people of Larne. The issue raises great passion and emotion, as was demonstrated at the public consultation meeting that I attended in the Highways Hotel in the latter part of 2006.

That meeting was part of the consultation process on the Northern Health and Social Services Board’s document, with the less-than-catchy title of ‘Consultation on a policy of improvement in health and social services to support the replacement of Braid Valley Hospital, Ballymena, and Inver House, Larne, with new high quality services and facilities in Ballymena and Larne’. No one at that packed meeting was in any doubt about the complete lack of public confidence in the board’s proposals. That lack of confidence has its origins in the downgrading of the Moyle Hospital some 15 years ago.

There is a strong local perception that health officials made promises to the people of Larne regarding alternative hospital and community care provision that have not been kept. Many people are adamant that promises that were made about the provision of a new cottage hospital or minor injuries unit in Larne have not been delivered. Acute services, including the accident and emergency and maternity units at the Moyle Hospital, were removed in 1994. The new Antrim Area Hospital 22 miles away was said to be the answer to all our health needs.

Wards one and two of Inver House contain the last remaining National Health Service beds in Larne and, indeed, in the East Antrim constituency. Inver House provides 43 beds, a small palliative care unit and other beds for rehabilitation and support. My family has reason to be thankful for the care and attention that the staff in Inver House have given in recent years, particularly in the palliative care unit.

Increased specialisation has caused medical practices to change. I accept that modern acute hospitals cannot be built in every town, but in other areas in which acute services have been removed, new services and facilities have been provided as replacements. Significant investment has been earmarked for the new local hospital in Omagh and the Downe Hospital. The people of Larne, therefore, are asking why they are not receiving similar investment.

Only two constituencies in Northern Ireland do not have an acute hospital, a minor injuries unit or a primary health and care centre — North Antrim and East Antrim. Funding for a Ballymena health and care centre has been promised in the strategic investment plan, so East Antrim will be the only area in which there is no investment in local health facilities. Will the Minister address that underinvestment by lobbying for further funding from the capital realisation proposals, or from other funding from the Minister of Finance and Personnel?

The Northern Health and Social Services Board area has been historically underfunded, and it has a higher proportion of elderly patients than other board areas. However, after four years, the fourth capitation formula review has yet to be implemented fully. Some £8·4 million annually is overdue to people in the Northern Board area, and that money could help to deliver additional services to the people of Larne. When will we receive our fair proportion of funding?

The consultation document held out the prospect of new purpose-built primary-care facilities, but that hope has been removed. There is a promise of a new health and care centre in Larne, a new rehabilitation ward in Whiteabbey and a new specialist palliative-care unit in Antrim Area Hospital. However, none of those has been budgeted for. An independent review of health provision in Larne is required.

I contend that insufficient public support exists in the Larne borough for the board’s proposal. There is an ongoing need for quality local palliative care so that families and friends can visit their loved ones frequently at sensitive times. There is a widespread belief that Inver House is being closed by stealth, because patients who are in the acute hospital are being offered community-care packages.

Local GPs and clergy have expressed their concern at the proposals for Larne. I urge the Minister, the health board and the health trust to consider Inver House as a palliative care and rehabilitation centre that will replace the capital facilities that have not been delivered in their plan. In future, I want to see a health and care centre that has a GP-led palliative-care and rehabilitation ward, in which people can be treated locally. The people of East Antrim deserve the health services that have been provided elsewhere, and those inequalities must be addressed.

Mr Neeson: I welcome the opportunity to debate this important issue. I also tabled a similar topic for debate, but I am happy that the opportunity has been provided to debate health provision in Larne. This Adjournment debate shows, once again, that the six elected MLAs for a constituency can come together when an important issue arises. We have come together in the past to deal with important constituency issues.

The uncertain future of Inver House was the catalyst for this debate. In recent years, we have seen the erosion of health services throughout Larne and the rest of East Antrim. It is not only the people in Larne who benefit from the services that Inver House offers but the rest of East Antrim and beyond.

Moyle Hospital in Larne was closed, despite elected representatives’ strong intervention. Larne Borough Council and the local community are making huge efforts to prevent the closure of Inver House. It would be helpful were the Minister to outline the possible timescale for the development of the new health and care centre in Larne. Roy Beggs has mentioned that, but that develop­ment would be an indication of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety’s commitment to the Larne area. The issue may become clearer when the six East Antrim MLAs meet the Minister next week. We shall approach him with a united voice.

We must also remember the responsibility that lies with the Northern Health and Social Services Board and the Northern Health and Social Care Trust. It is time for them to wake up to the health needs of people in Larne and the surrounding areas.

Furthermore, I share many people’s concerns about problems with the Ambulance Service in the Larne area, particularly for those who live in Glenarm and Carnlough. However, I congratulate the people in Island Magee who have been trained to provide local community help for those with cardiac problems.

Although Inver House has been the focus of attention, it is important that other health issues relevant to Larne and the whole of East Antrim are addressed. Hopefully, the Minister will be able to provide some answers when we meet him next week.

Mr S Wilson: I did not table a topic for the Adjournment debate before, after or at the same time as my colleague; however, I am happy to tag onto the subject he tabled for tonight and discuss some of the health issues in East Antrim.

I will not spend too much time on the matter as it has been well aired by the previous three Members who spoke, but I will re-emphasise the great concern and anger that is felt by people in the Larne area about the historical running down of the Moyle Hospital and the current threat to Inver House.

Although I am always happy to engage in a bit of Minister bashing, it would be unfair to echo the criticisms that have been levelled at him by some Larne councillors — some of whom are from his own party — who seem to think that the Inver House decision rests in his hands. If he were to blame, I would blame him with relish. However, by the end of the debate, I want the Minister to assure Members that, when the trust eventually decides what it wishes to do in Larne and brings those proposals to him, he will not accept any that do not include the provision of palliative and rehabilitation beds either in Inver House, in a new medical centre attached to it, or in some other place. Given the points made by other Members and that so many promises have been broken in the past, it is important that such provision is maintained.

I wish to highlight too the general lack of capital investment planned for East Antrim. There is a need for a medical centre in Larne, which must include, or at least service, some of the beds described by other Members. In addition, there is a great opportunity to provide services on the Taylor’s Avenue site in Carrickfergus, which would fit totally with the plan to bring a range of services, such as fire, ambulance, police and medical services, together on a single site. Such economies of scale would produce long-term savings. The site is there, and the council, the football club and the Health Service are willing to work together. Therefore, although such a development is not in the next three-year investment plan, if money becomes available through capital realisation, I hope that the Minister will give a commitment to prioritise that scheme.

There are grave concerns also about inconsistencies in the Newtownabbey part of the constituency. For example, if I were injured and taken by ambulance to Whiteabbey Hospital, the casualty department could not accept me and would insist that I was driven to the Belfast City Hospital. However, if the ambulance driver dropped me at the gate and told me to walk in, the hospital would deal with me. Either we have an accident and emergency service for the increasing population of the Newtownabbey area or we do not.

Recently, the doctors on night duty in the east Antrim area have been shifted from Whiteabbey to Antrim, adding another 20 minutes to their journey time if there is a call-out in east Antrim. As other Members have said, there is no logic in that decision, other than a seeming desire to increasingly centralise services in some of the major hospitals in the area. I ask the Minister to look into that issue.

There is a fear — not simply based on perception, but fact — that, per head, there is less expenditure in the east Antrim area on the Health Service than in any other part of Northern Ireland. An equality assessment and review of spending must be carried out. I do not know whether that is the responsibility of the Minister or of the local trust. However, if people are to be assured that they are being treated equally, that issue must be addressed.

Mr K Robinson: I am grateful to Sammy Wilson because he has covered so many points that the meeting with the Minister could be called off. However, I am grateful to my East Antrim colleagues who have con­tinually sought to see this issue raised in an Adjournment debate. Today, at last, we have been successful in bringing the issue of health provision in the Larne area before the Assembly, and specifically highlighting the role of Inver House.

There is no doubt, judging by the size of my mailbag, that the people of Larne hold Inver House in the highest esteem. Its staff, quality of care and high standards of cleanliness have received universal praise. I wish to make it crystal clear that I entirely share those sentiments. I also wish to place on record that, during Question Time to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety on 20 January, I sought to encourage Mr McGimpsey to transfer those patients from Antrim Area Hospital who were awaiting their care packages and who were completely unaffected by either MRSA or clostridium difficile into vacant and available beds at Inver House. Such patients would have been reassured that they would not become embroiled in the hospital-acquired infection problems that were present in the Antrim area at that time. The twin advantage of such a move would have been to reduce the pressure and concerns at Antrim Area Hospital, while ensuring that the unaffected patients awaiting discharge would benefit from the high standards of hygiene that pertain, but are sadly underused, at Inver House.

The central thrust of this debate is to make the Minister and the Northern Health and Social Care Trust and its board aware of the massive and widespread distrust that surrounds the future of health provision in the Larne area and, as Sammy Wilson said, right across East Antrim — but specifically at Inver House. Previous contributors from all parties who represent East Antrim have given details of the issues that the Minister will note. I hope that he will also note that all six MLAs from East Antrim are speaking with one voice on this matter. We demand that any previous promises or undertakings that were given by officials be honoured.

Such is the breakdown of trust in respect of this issue that people are demanding an independent review into the level of health provision in the Larne area. Two mayors of the borough have written to the Minister in order to voice those concerns. Along with my Assembly colleagues, I attended a meeting in the council chamber in Larne to hear the opinions of councillors, doctors, clergy, health staff and others, all of whom want to have a clear understanding of the future health plans for the Larne area.

As this issue drags on, facts are becoming blurred by other considerations and fears. The perception in Larne is that the local trust, its board and the Department are encouraging and allowing Inver House to be phased out by stealth. That situation must be addressed urgently. In medical terms, the boil must be lanced.

The demand for an independent review is a symptom of the deep distrust that is felt by the population at large. Larne needs to know that it is getting, and will get, a fair share of health provision and investment. It needs to know that the decline in health provision in the district is at last over, and to see parity of healthcare and health resources. It needs to see a bright future and the provision of services that respect its unique geographical location. I certainly support that demand.

5.45 pm

Mr Hilditch: I, too, thank Mr Ross for securing this debate today, which provides an important opportunity to consider the need for improvement in health services in the Larne area in particular, and in East Antrim in general.

As has already been stated, the Moyle Hospital in Larne closed almost 15 years ago, and now the threat of closure hangs over Inver House, which, at present, is Larne’s only provider of rehabilitative and palliative care. Larne’s nearest accident and emergency base is at Antrim Area Hospital, and the Ambulance Service has experienced cutback after cutback, with the result that, at times, one ambulance is expected to cover three towns. I hear many complaints from constituents about ambulance response times.

On 1 April, the area boards may be abolished and could well be replaced by a new health and social services authority. There may also be five local commissioning groups (LCGs), and the fear is that Larne would fall under the north-eastern LCG, which would include Ballymena, Ballymoney, Moyle and Coleraine. As we know, the Causeway Hospital in Coleraine has a very small catchment area. There is always a fear that if it is allowed to stay open, resources and funding may be cut from services in towns such as Larne.

The services at Whiteabbey Hospital have been cut over the years, and it has been under threat of closure for some time. There is a strong possibility that, under the new northern LCG, it might receive even less funding and services might be removed completely. There is further concern that Inver House nursing home faces the threat of closure. I understand that the Minister has assured us that no decision has yet been reached, but the fact remains that the number of beds has been reduced in recent months. If it closes, people from Larne town — which has a population of 30,000 — will have to travel to Antrim Area Hospital, which, as other Members have pointed out, is 22 miles away. Furthermore, there is practically no form of public transport to that hospital. That will make it virtually impossible for the elderly to access the hospital.

The experience of past years has demonstrated that there is undoubtedly a need for inpatient palliative care facilities in the Larne area. Although I recognise that care-support packages for the terminally ill at home can be most helpful, they are packages of support and do not provide for those situations wherein family members are capable of taking the lead role themselves. Sammy Wilson highlighted the uncertainty of the situation in Carrickfergus, and there is a real fear that the constituency will soon be stripped of all healthcare facilities.

The Minister announced that, over the next three years, the budget will increase from £145 million to £300 million. I hope that that extra money will lead to an improvement in basic healthcare services, and that we can add years to people’s lives, prevent disease and eradicate the inequalities that cause ill-health. There seems to be constant cutbacks in accident and emergency units, healthcare centres and Ambulance Service provision, yet the Department has told us that it is committed to putting patients first. How can patients’ needs come first when they have to travel over 20 miles to reach the nearest hospital?

A local doctor from the Inver surgery recently informed me that, three years ago, three on-call doctors covered the area from Glenarm to Fortwilliam, but now there is only one. How can one doctor possibly cover that vast area? We must ask why services are being cut back and patients’ lives put at risk.

I welcome the Minister’s statement yesterday on the reorganisation of the health and social care structures, and I ask that his Department make the provision of a high-quality healthcare service across Northern Ireland its top priority. I further ask the Department to carry out a review of the healthcare facilities and resources in Larne town and East Antrim in general. I ask all Members and Departments to support that request.

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): I am committed to the continued provision of high-quality health and social care services for the Larne area, as I am committed to the provision of such services for those who live elsewhere in Northern Ireland. We must have health services that deliver the best treatment and care, both in hospitals, when needed, and, increasingly, in local communities and in people’s own homes. The way in which our health services are delivered is changing, and must change, if we are to meet the expectations of the public and the challenges faced by a growing elderly population.

In recognition of the growing number of older people in our communities, an additional £35 million will be invested over the next three years in providing more community-care support.

Although there will always be a need for residential and nursing-home care, as well as hospital care, my Department’s focus is increasingly aimed at providing the support that older people need to continue to live independently in their own homes.

In addition to that support, significant additional resources will also be made available over the next three years to provide the additional community-based nursing and technological support that is needed to ensure that the most vulnerable elderly people with chronic conditions are not admitted unnecessarily to hospital.

To help to deliver my goal of a world-class Health Service, investment in facilities and the construction of modern, state-of-the-art buildings is required. Too many of our hospitals and other facilities are old, rundown and costly to maintain. A capital programme has been implemented to progress the construction and redevelop­ment of a number of hospitals. We also have a major programme to construct new health and care centres, which will act as one-stop health centres and provide care that is tailored to meet the needs of local communities.

However, in light of the need to find 3% efficiency savings and meet challenging targets, the Health Service must become more effective at delivering services, and every penny must be spent wisely. Therefore, it is also important that our health facilities are focused on developing rapid, accessible and tailored care to meet the needs of the communities that they serve.

I will take a few minutes to discuss the particular issues about service provision in the Larne area. I have received many letters from concerned members of the community about proposals that would change the services provided at Inver House. Having heard local people’s concerns, I am fully aware of the desire for the continuation of local services that have been in place for many years.

The Northern Health and Social Services Board has issued for consultation its proposals for improving health and social care services in the Larne and Ballymena areas. That consultation process is continuing, although no final decision has been taken by the board. I do not want to interfere with the public consultation process; therefore, Members will understand that I am not in a position to discuss in detail the ongoing work of the board.

However, I reassure Members that I will examine carefully the board’s proposals on the way forward when I receive them in April. I want to make it clear that no decisions will be taken without my approval. When I receive the board’s final proposals, I will be content to meet the groups that have concerns. As has been said, I will also be meeting the six MLAs from East Antrim to discuss health service provision in that area.

I encourage anyone who has concerns or who wishes to voice an opinion — whether it is members of the public, local politicians or other key stakeholders — to respond to the consultation and make his or her views known.

Mr S Wilson: I thank the Minister for giving way. I understand the Minister’s reticence about getting involved in the detail of the proposals. Like other Members, I am sure that all the letters that he has received have indicated that the main concern is the provision of beds for people who are receiving palliative care and rehabilitation. Will the Minister at least assure Members that he will ensure that any proposals retain some beds in the Larne area?

Mr McGimpsey: As I understand it, the proposed model of care for the area includes a unit with eight beds for people who are convalescing and four beds for those receiving palliative care. As I said, when the consultation process is completed, I am happy to discuss the proposals with concerned groups, Members — including Mr Wilson — and anyone else. I have views on what I think needs to be provided in the Larne and Carrickfergus areas. I encourage anyone with a concern to voice his or her opinion.

I can inform Members that the Northern Board has proposed that the services that are currently provided in Moyle Hospital, Braid Valley Hospital and in Carrickfergus will be redesigned to deliver a new and improved model of care, part of which will be provided from new health and care centres.

I am aware that a model was developed by a focus group that comprised members of the Northern Board, the Northern Trust and local GPs. It was set up specifically to identify a suitable model for the provision of rehabilitation and palliative-care services.

Regardless of the outcome of the Northern Board’s proposals, I want the services that people need to be provided in the East Antrim area.

Let me provide a picture of how services may look. A key element will involve providing health and care centres and an extensive range of treatment and care services. The northern area business case identified five priority projects in the first phase of developing health and care centres: Ballymena, Carrickfergus, Ballycastle, Coleraine, and Larne. The Northern Health and Social Services Board and the Northern Health and Social Care Trust decided that the greatest service need is in Ballymena, so that scheme is the first to be progressed for approval; the remaining four will be progressed as soon as funding becomes available.

I understand that draft proposals are being examined to develop a health and care centre for Carrickfergus, which would provide accommodation for local GPs and several multi-disciplinary health teams. Mr Wilson referred to that, and a few months ago I had an on-site meeting with David Hilditch in pursuit of that scheme. A key element of the plans is the potential to integrate health and care facilities with the local council’s plans for the delivery of leisure services. The plans will also take account of future services for the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service, and, potentially, the coastguard service. I believe that the plans can create an exciting new healthcare village for the borough of Carrickfergus.

There are plans to develop a new health and care centre that will provide integrated primary care services for the community of Larne, as well as plans for a new fire and rescue station in the town. The community also needs access to locally provided palliative care and rehabilitation services, and I know that the board and the trust are examining proposals to ensure that that happens.

It is important that those who need acute services can continue to access an acute hospital within a reasonable time. Indeed, Members can take comfort from the fact that travel time from Larne to Whiteabbey Hospital and Antrim Area Hospital is under 30 minutes; from Larne to the Mater Hospital it is 32 minutes; and from Larne to the Royal group of hospitals it is 34 minutes. Although I see the Member screwing his eyes up, I think —

Mr Beggs: Will the Minister give way?

Mr McGimsey: May I just finish the point? Members need to take account of the fact that those times are calculated on the basis of travelling in an ambulance with a blue light.

Mr Beggs: Does the Minister appreciate that the most northern part of the East Antrim constituency — Carnlough — is approximately one hour from an acute hospital. We are not just talking about the town of Larne, but the entire hinterland. Indeed, there are other areas in the Glens where travel times are even longer.

Mr McGimpsey: I am aware that Mr Beggs’s constituency extends beyond Larne. The rule is that patients should be able to reach an acute hospital from wherever they live within the golden hour. That is why hospitals are sited where they are, and that is a rule that we endeavour to ensure is always followed. We developed the first responder service to allow more inaccessible communities to get help immediately, before an ambulance arrives. As I understand it, that also applies in Island Magee.

Mr K Robinson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr McGimpsey: Why not? [Laughter.]

Mr K Robinson: The Minister said that “we” provided the first responder service. May I correct him? The public in Island Magee provided that service. One of your predecessors in the role of Minister of Health was informed of that service — she thought that it was a wonderful idea, but there was a distinct silence when we asked her or the Northern Health and Social Services Board for funding.

Mr McGimpsey: I thank Mr Robinson for that information. When I said “we” I was not referring to the royal we; I understand “we” as referring to society as well. The first responder service is one that the Ambulance Service uses.

In relation to —

Mr Neeson: So does the Queen.

Mr McGimpsey: Yes. [Laughter.] Of course, all the plans are subject to the availability of capital funding, and the Department of Health’s bid for capital was considerably reduced in the recent Budget.

I said that the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has enough revenue to cover the capital for building; however, the capital is severely restricted. Therefore, the plans of the Northern Health and Social Care Trust and the Northern Health and Social Services Board are constrained by those restrictions on capital — as is the case in other areas.

6.00 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker: Can the Minister bring his remarks to a close?

Mr McGimpsey: Difficult decisions need to be made in order to meet challenging efficiency-savings targets. It is clear that the Health Service must change if it is to be world-class. However, there will only be change if it is change for the better. I look forward to working with the Members for East Antrim and discussing the health needs of the people of the area. That will ensure that those people — and the people in the rest of Northern Ireland — receive the Health Service that they require and merit.

Adjourned at 6.01 pm.

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