NORTHERN IRELAND ASSEMBLY
Monday 10 March 2008
Executive Committee Business:
Private Members’ Business:
The Assembly met at 12.00 noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Ms Ní Chuilín: On a point of order, a Cheann Comhairle. Was the advice given regarding the decision taken last week by the Commission, about the media and cameras in the precincts of Parliament Buildings, in keeping with Standing Orders 69(4), 69(5) and 69(6)?
Mr Speaker: The Assembly Commission met this morning and agreed the terms of broadcasting procedures and the use of media facilities in the basement and in this House. However, those are not matters for the Chamber, and I intend to take no further points of order on the issue. The business of the Commission is the business of the Commission and is not the business of this House.
Mr Durkan: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Although I accept that the business of the Commission has, in general, been the business of the Commission, will there be a review of how Commission business and decisions are reported and reflected in this Chamber? There is a serious anomaly. This is an Assembly of accountability; however, we find that the Assembly Commission is not accountable to the Assembly.
Mr Speaker: The Member knows that any Member may submit a question to the Commission to obtain clarity on any issue that is dealt with, or decided upon, by the Commission.
Mr O’Dowd: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. It is clear to every one of us that, over the past months, you have carried out your tasks diligently, professionally, and in a manner that has gained respect from all quarters of the House. If, as in this case, the Office of the Speaker appears to have been poorly advised, is there not a danger of that Office becoming a subject of public question, or even ridicule?
Mr Speaker: Let us hope that that is not the case. That is the key to all of it. The advice and counsel that I take are the Speaker’s advice and counsel only. However, I say again and again that if any Member wishes to submit a question to Commission members for oral answer, that question will be answered.
Departments (Transfer of Functions) Order (Northern Ireland) 2008
The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr Donaldson): I beg to move
That the Departments (Transfer of Functions) Order (Northern Ireland) 2008 be approved.
I seek the Assembly’s approval of this statutory rule, which transfers the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland (OSNI) from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) to the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) to enable it to become part of the Land and Property Services agency. This statutory rule is made under powers conferred by article 8 of the Departments (Northern Ireland) Order 1999, which prescribes that the Order should be made by the First Minister and deputy First Minister and that it is subject to the affirmative resolution of the Assembly.
The transfer is a result of a written ministerial statement made by former Secretary of State Peter Hain on 21 March 2006, which included the decision to transfer the functions of the Valuation and Lands Agency (VLA), the Rate Collection Agency (RCA), the Land Registers of Northern Ireland (LRNI) and the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland to a single land and property services agency.
To put the transfer in context, the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland became part of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure after devolution in 1999. That was achieved by transferring responsibility for the provisions of the Boundary Survey (Ireland) Act 1854 — except section 15 — as well as section 1 of the Administrative Provisions Act (Northern Ireland) 1933, from the Department of the Environment to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure under the Departments (Transfer and Assignment of Functions) Order (Northern Ireland) 1999.
The relevant provisions of the 1854 Act concern the survey of townland and barony boundaries. The provisions of the 1933 Act relate to, and I quote from the Act:
“the public service in connection with the Ordnance Survey in Northern Ireland”.
OSNI’s long-standing role is to provide a definitive mapping service for Northern Ireland. In more recent years, that role has centred on the provision of digital mapping data to a wide range of public- and private-sector organisations. The mapping data is used to improve policy-making and service delivery in a wide range of fields including emergency services, agriculture, education and the financial services sector. The Department of Finance and Personnel is the parent Department of the Land and Property Services agency, and as Ordnance Survey for Northern Ireland currently resides in the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, it is necessary to, once again, transfer the statutory responsibilities; this time from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to the Department of Finance and Personnel.
Phase 1 of the Land and Property Services Agency is now established following the dissolution and amalgamation of the Rate Collection Agency and the Valuation and Lands Agency into the newly created Land and Property Services agency on 1 April 2007. Phase 2 will provide for the transfer of the Land Registers of Northern Ireland from the Department of Finance and Personnel and, subject to the approval of the Assembly, the transfer of the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, to the new agency with effect from 1 April 2008.
The First Minister and deputy First Minister made the Departments (Transfer of Functions) Order (Northern Ireland) 2008 on 6 February 2008, and if affirmed by the Assembly, it will come into operation on 1 April 2008.
The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, having consulted the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Committee for Finance and Personnel, is content with the proposed transfer. The incorporation of the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland into the Land and Property Services agency will support the Executive’s commitment under the reform and modernisation agenda to rationalise and improve the delivery of public services.
The amalgamation will combine related land and property functions and will streamline and improve the delivery of services to the public.
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (Mr Kennedy): The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister supports the motion to approve the Departments (Transfer of Functions) Order (Northern Ireland) 2008.
As the junior Minister said, the Order provides for the transfer of the functions of the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to the Department of Finance and Personnel, thereby enabling the Ordnance Survey to become part of Land and Property Services. My Committee’s responsibility for scrutinising the Order comes as a result of Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister’s (OFMDFM) responsibility for legislation that relates to the functions of Departments. My Committee was initially briefed on the rule on 12 December 2007, and we wrote to the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Committee for Finance and Personnel, which are responsible for scrutinising the agencies being brought together via the Order. Both Committees indicated that they were content with the proposals in the draft Order. On 20 February 2008, my Committee formally considered the draft Order alongside the report from the Examiner of Statutory Rules and agreed to recommend that it be affirmed by the Assembly.
My Committee wishes to see action being taken to reduce the number of public bodies in Northern Ireland. On Wednesday, my Committee will take evidence from OFMDFM officials on the progress being made by Departments in reducing the number of quangos — currently 81 — in Northern Ireland. At the same meeting, the Committee will also take evidence on OFMDFM proposals to introduce a public authorities reform Bill, which will seek to make a further reduction in the number of public bodies. The Departments (Transfer of Functions) Order (Northern Ireland) 2008 is a small step in the review of public administration commitment to the reduction of excessive public administration; it is, nevertheless, worthy of our support.
Mr Shannon: The Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland derives a substantial income from its mapping work for developers and Government bodies. Will the junior Minister reassure the House that OSNI will be able to deliver and enhance its work as an agency of the Department of Finance and Personnel?
Mr Donaldson: I thank both Members for their contributions this afternoon. I thank the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and its Chairperson, Mr Kennedy, for their support and the time that they took to scrutinise the Order and ensure that it complies with our overall objectives. The Committee’s support for the Order is appreciated. The Chairperson is absolutely right; Members on this side of the House are committed to a reduction in the level of bureaucracy and the cost of Government in Northern Ireland. The motivation behind the Order is to streamline services into one agency, and we are convinced that that will produce a more effective, more efficient and less expensive service. The public must be given the cost-effective service that it requires.
I thank my friend the Member for Strangford Jim Shannon for his question. The operation of the new agency will be a matter for my colleague the Minister of Finance and Personnel. However, I assure the Member that the motivation behind the Order is to ensure not only that the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland delivers an effective service to the public through the new arrangement but that it does so efficiently.
We hope that the savings accruing from the new agency will be used to enhance what is available to the public through the Land and Property Services agency. Those are matters that the Minister of Finance and Personnel will consider when the transfer arrangements have been completed.
Phase 1 of the Land and Property Services agency is now in place; phase 2 will make it complete, with the transfer of LRNI and OSNI to the agency. The amalgamation of those services will streamline the organisation, improving the delivery of services to the public. The work of OSNI will continue to flourish as part of the new agency. I commend the motion to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Departments (Transfer of Functions) Order (Northern Ireland) 2008 be approved.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. There has been a serious incident in the centre of our city. Scaffolding has collapsed at the old Northern Bank at the junction of Victoria Street and May Street. The collapse occurred as concrete was being poured in for a new floor. Six people are injured — some seriously — and a number of other people are unaccounted for. There are concerns that more of the building may collapse. Special recovery teams and dogs have been brought in, and traffic is at a standstill around much of Belfast. Our sympathies are with those who have suffered, and we wish well those who are engaged in rescue work. We hope that all the missing people will be accounted for soon.
There has also been an accident in County Tyrone — close to where the bus accident took place last week — and another child has been injured and taken to hospital. These are tragedies; I trust that out of the darkness may come some light and some comfort for us all.
Mr Speaker: I thank the Member very much, even though that was not a point of order. Members need a procedure for the House whereby they can raise such important issues. I hope that the Procedures Committee will examine that possibility fairly soon. Our thoughts and prayers are indeed with the victims. I hope — and I am sure — that the appropriate Ministers are listening. However, the House needs a system to allow every Member to raise issues of deep concern such as these.
Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Seat Belts) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008
The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): I beg to move
That the Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Seat Belts) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008 be approved.
The power to require persons to wear seat belts while travelling in a motor vehicle on a road is contained in article 23 of the Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 and in the Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Seat Belts) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1993. The legislation also enables an exemption to be made in the case of users of certain delivery or collection vehicles.
The original intention of the legislation was to allow an exception to be made for those who need to make frequent stops during deliveries, such as milkmen, postmen, refuse collectors and so on. Article 23 as originally drafted, and the 1993 regulations in their current form, refer to this activity as “making local rounds”. However, the limited extent of the exception has not been well understood, and many goods-vehicle users believe that the exception applies to any delivery or collection, over any distance.
Therefore, to provide clarity, article 23 of the Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 was amended by the Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 2007 to provide for the prescription of the maximum journey distance over which such an exception would apply. The opportunity was also taken to replace the reference to “users of vehicles” with the more precise reference to:
“the driver of, or a passenger in, a motor vehicle”.
The statutory rule that is before the Assembly for affirmation accordingly amends the existing Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Seat Belts) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1993 to provide an exception from the need to wear a seat belt in the case of a driver or a passenger in a goods vehicle, while engaged in delivery or collection duties, where the distance of the journey does not exceed 50 m. That will help prevent any future ambiguity. The amendment, which is routine and non-controversial in nature, will also help to improve road safety.
My Department consulted formally on this issue from 1 June 2004 to 24 August 2004, and the views expressed largely supported the recommended change. Although differing distances had been suggested, some consultees recommended that, to avoid confusion, the distance prescribed should be in line with that in Great Britain.
DOE officials and the Police Service of Northern Ireland considered that a distance of 50 m, as prescribed in Great Britain, was both reasonable and appropriate for Northern Ireland and should enable those engaged in genuine door-to-door deliveries or collections to benefit from that exemption.
Furthermore, I sought comments from Executive colleagues, in December 2007, on my proposals to clarify the application of the exemption by replacing it with one that will be more readily understood. I am pleased to report that I received no negative responses.
A regulatory impact assessment has been completed, but as this change only clarifies what was meant by a “local round” in the existing exemption, no extra costs to any stakeholders or the Government have been identified.
There are no additional costs for vehicle operators, as users are already required to wear seat belts when delivering or collecting. The majority of vehicles involved are already fitted with seat belts, and the legislation does not require installation of seat belts where they are not already required to be fitted.
In conclusion, the likelihood of a driver or passenger being killed in a collision greatly increases if the person is not wearing a seat belt, and this legislation is being brought forward as there is no valid reason why the lives of delivery drivers and passengers travelling more than 50 m between stops should continue to be put at risk through failure to use seat belts. That is why, today, I propose that this statutory rule be affirmed.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Seat Belts) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008 be approved.
Further Consideration Stage
Mr Speaker: I remind Members that under Standing Order 35(2) the Further Consideration Stage of a Bill is restricted to debating any further amendments to the Bill. As no amendments have been tabled, there is no opportunity to discuss the Taxis Bill today. Members will, of course, be able to have a full debate at the Bill’s Final Stage.
The Further Consideration Stage of the Taxis Bill (NIA 4/07) is therefore concluded. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.
Statutory Committee Membership
Mr Speaker: The next item on the Order Paper is the motion on the membership of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure. As with other similar motions, it will be treated as a business motion. Therefore, there will be no debate.
That Mr Raymond McCartney replace Mr Paul Maskey as a member of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure. — [Ms Ní Chuilín]
Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes. One amendment has been selected and published in the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes for the winding-up speech.
Mr Burnside: I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the First Minister and deputy First Minister to give their full support and co-operation to the operations of the Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past.
Dealing with the past is one of the most difficult problems that any society has to tackle, particularly following the conflict, death, violence and terrorism that existed in this Province for around 35 years.
I will qualify my remarks — and I have discussed this widely with my colleagues in the Ulster Unionist group – in asking the First Minister and deputy First Minister to co-operate with the Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past, we do not wish to propose a corporate Ulster version of 20, 50 or 100 Bloody Sunday inquiries in this Province. The Bloody Sunday Inquiry is costing about £200 million. I predict that for those who were shot on the day, for the Parachute Regiment and for all who were concerned with events on that day a long time ago, there will be no conclusion that pleases the victims, as they see themselves, or the Parachute Regiment. The £200 million spent on the inquiry would have been better spent on schools and hospitals. Therefore, I am not recommending that we set up a hundred times the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, with no time limit and no cost limit. Such a situation would be ludicrous.
However, we do have to try to deal with the past. The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister symbolises, through its two individual members, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, a major part of the history of the conflict. The First Minister and deputy First Minister, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, must be prepared to tell the truth about their part in the conflict. We support the SDLP amendment: we have no problems with it.
Mrs D Kelly: On a point of order —
Mr Burnside: I am sorry, but let me get into the thrust of my argument. The First Minister and deputy First Minister must be prepared to tell the truth. The First Minister was in his normal, old-fashioned aggressive style when I raised this matter during Question Time a couple of weeks ago. In response to my question that there should be no equivalence between victims and perpetrators of violence, he said:
“Looking at the man who asked the question and looking into his past, I think that he would be better keeping his mouth closed on that issue.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 27, p188, col 1].
That may be the way that the First Minister talks to his party colleagues: he does not talk to David Burnside in that way, because I know the history of the conflict. If the First Minister wishes to reveal the past, let him start to reveal the past and his contribution to the Troubles. Let us go back to the Ulster Protestant Volunteers in 1966 when Bill Craig proscribed Sinn Féin and the UVF to try to avert that celebration of the 1916 uprising.
Let us also remember the later contribution of the First Minister. I see history being totally rewritten in this Province. I was in the Vanguard headquarters in Hawthornden Road during the Ulster Workers’ Council strike and was proud to be there. Ian Paisley was in Canada; so, a johnny-come-lately of Ulster Resistance. Many of us were in and around this Chamber — not as elected Members — in 1975, when Ian Paisley brought down the possibility of a voluntary coalition of five unionists, two SDLP members and one Alliance Party member that could have, perhaps — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. The Member has the Floor.
Mr Burnside: Perhaps we could have pulled ourselves out of the conflict at that stage in the mid-1970s and not have had the 25 to 30 years since of conflict —
Mr Storey: Will the Member give way?
Mr Burnside: No, I am not giving way to Paisleyites or republicans today. As we move on through the days of the Troubles — and Ulster Resistance — the image of unionism was damaged nationally, in Europe and internationally by the undermining of unionist leaders: the worst description, the language, the venom and the vitriol. Jim Molyneaux — whatever one thinks of him; an honourable and decent traditional unionist — was called, in 1985, Judas Iscariot. Is that the language that should have been used for a man who served his country in war and peace? I do not think so. That language was not conducive to good relations in this Province. [Interruption.]
Mrs I Robinson: You went into Government with Sinn Féin.
Mr Speaker: Order, order. The Member has the Floor. All other Members will have the opportunity to speak, if they wish to do so.
Mr Burnside: He undermined every unionist leader. Carson and Craigavon would have found his language and behaviour unsavoury. While I do not say that there was blood on his hands, there was blood on his tongue. He did serious damage to the image of unionism in this Province for 35 or 40 years.
Let me turn to the deputy First Minister. We seek truth. I wish that Martin McGuinness was here. Are we going to have the truth told? Only last week or the week before, he said that he would have gone around Derry — Londonderry, the Maiden City — after Bloody Sunday and shot every British soldier around. When are we going to have the truth? In 1972, the year of Bloody Sunday, 27 members of the security forces were murdered by the Provisional IRA in Derry. Is he going to reveal the truth?
I was with the family of Marcus McCausland last week. He was a UDR officer from Dreenagh who was tortured and murdered by the IRA at the beginning of the Troubles. Under whose command? The deputy First Minister’s. Can we have the truth? Will the truth be revealed?
I can go through the different periods using ‘Lost Lives’. All the figures have been published — if we are to have the truth, let us go through the truth. The Provisional IRA was responsible for the deaths of 639 civilians, 454 British soldiers, 273 members of the RUC and RUC Reserve, 181 members of the UDR and the Royal Irish Regiment, 151 members of the IRA or other republicans — good at killing their own — 30 loyalists, 20 prison officers, seven guards in the South, six British policemen, and seven others, making a total of 1,768 killed. If we are to have a truth inquiry, or some form of structure for dealing with the past, let it be a structure wherein people will admit what they were involved in. I am told that the president of Sinn Féin was not a member of the IRA — what sort of joke society are we living in?
Many of us were involved in the conflict. We did not do everything right, and we did not do everything wrong. There were major players in the conflict over the past 35 years who made a major contribution to the problems. My colleagues and I are very concerned that we might set up a conflict-resolution industry in Northern Ireland. There is a considerable element of that already operating.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
Please let Mr Eames and Mr Bradley, in their co-operation with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, try to deal with the past in a proper way. Will the First and deputy First Ministers give their full support to the Historical Enquiries Team (HET)? Is that unit really carrying out investigations into the crimes of the last 35 years? Are the weapons that are being held in Carrickfergus being tested for the DNA of the commanders of the Provisional IRA, the INLA and the loyalist paramilitaries? If there is proper DNA testing and a proper investigation of historical crimes by the PSNI, those people should take part and tell the truth.
Mrs I Robinson: “No guns, no Government”.
Mr Burnside: Do not talk to me about “No guns, no Government”. On the last —
Mr Kennedy: You must have seen the guns, Iris, have you?
Mrs I Robinson: Yes.
Mr Kennedy: Good girl.
Mr Burnside: You would be as well to keep quiet on this one, Iris. Historical crimes and victims — [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Mr Burnside has the Floor.
Mr Burnside: I plead with the First Minister and deputy First Minister, given all that they contributed to the conflict, to give a full commitment to the Eames/Bradley group. It should not be a massive, no-timescale, no-cost-limit truth and reconciliation programme: but will the Ministers co-operate on historic crimes? Most importantly, will they look after the victims, the victims’ groups, the civilians, the widows and orphans — especially of members of the security forces — and the innocent Catholics killed for being in the wrong areas of Belfast? Will they co-operate with that? A truth and reconciliation inquiry is worth debating here today, and I hope that Eames and Bradley will be given full co-operation by the First and the deputy First Ministers. The truth will set us free; I hope that the First Minister and the deputy First Minister will tell the truth.
Mr Attwood: I beg to move the following amendment: Insert after the second “Minister”
“, the two Governments; the army, intelligence and police services; the paramilitary organisations including those who directed and controlled those organisations; all the political parties; and all others who can assist,”.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I apologise to you and to the House — [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.
Mr Attwood: I apologise, because I have to leave the Chamber as soon as I move the amendment; I do not mean any disrespect to the Chamber or to the motion, but, for personal reasons, I have to leave.
I welcome Mr Burnside’s comment that the Ulster Unionist Party will accept the SDLP amendment, and I look forward to other parties doing likewise.
In anticipation of what some Members might say in the debate — and considering that dealing with the past is a difficult and perilous matter — it is important that whatever mechanism is developed to deal with the past is as rigorous, representative and wholesome as possible. The SDLP, therefore, recognised that there was a need to deal with the past, but it expressed caution about the establishment of the Eames/Bradley group. Our reservations were due, partly, to the fact that it was sourced in the Secretary of State’s office and Downing Street and, partly, because members of the consultative group had made comments about the past with which the SDLP disagreed. For instance, with regard to on-the-run state killings legislation a number of years ago, Mr Denis Bradley — a man who deserves support for many of the things that he has done in the North — said that the British Government should go the whole hog and impose amnesties. The SDLP does not agree with that sentiment.
The party, therefore, expressed caution and vigilance about the proposed initiative to deal with the past. However, whatever about the parentage of the Eames/Bradley group, people — including Members — should consider afresh what it is trying to do now. Several observations can be made about the Eames/Bradley group as a commission. It is clear that, whatever we felt about what one or other individual in the group might have thought, the thinking on the consultative group has broadened significantly beyond any of our preconceptions. That thinking may expand to what we think should arise from the Eames/Bradley group’s proposals later this year.
Considering that the Eames/Bradley group has been able to look into certain dark places — including the state’s obligation and responsibility for conflict and death in this part of the world — it has seen the enormity of the wrongs that have been perpetrated. Consequently, the group has the potential to produce more broad-based and profound recommendations than was the case heretofore.
When a group such as the Eames/Bradley group has met 70, 80 or 90 victims’ organisations — as it has done over the past few months — it is inevitable that that will impact on their thinking. From speaking to the Eames/Bradley group, I know that they were impressed and touched by the narrative of the Ballymurphy families of those who were murdered some months before Bloody Sunday, for instance. Those families told the stories of what they had experienced and the truths that had not been told about that atrocity. Therefore, I have a sense that the Eames/Bradley group — whatever it may have been previously — now has hold of a narrative of the conflict of the past 30 to 40 years that means that its recommendations may move to deeper, bigger and bolder mechanisms for dealing with the past.
For those reasons, the Eames/Bradley group deserves a second look from those who may be hostile, and a broader recognition that it may be fulfilling a difficult job, as Mr Burnside said, in a more broad-based and inclusive way than might have been first thought. However, there are good grounds to be cautious that, over the next few months, the Eames/Bradley group will be unpicked by those who are threatened by it.
To some degree, that unpicking will result from the wounds that were self-inflicted after the Eames/Bradley group briefed the media in January, when amnesty was mentioned and there was debate on whether there had been a war in the North.
However, more fundamentally, some people are threatened by the fact that the consultative group has looked in dark places. Consequently, those who have lurked in those dark places over the past 30 or 40 years are confused, and they are anxious that the Eames/Bradley group may say that there should be disclosure about a great deal of past events. In my judgement, even though the initiative to establish the group may have been sourced by the British Government, elements of that Government are now anxious about the group, given that it has had sight — to whatever degree — of the report of the Stevens Inquiry and knows about all the devastation on which that inquiry reported. It is clear that the republican movement — the IRA in particular — is threatened by the Eames/Bradley group. That is the reason that it was reported a couple of weeks ago that it was highly unlikely that the IRA would engage meaningfully with the consultative group.
There are reasons for concluding that, regardless of where the consultative group was six months ago, it is now in a different place. As a result, it may be unpicked over the next three or four months because of the attitude of those who have a vested interest in, and the most reason for, covering up the horrors of the past: those who are accountable for what the leaders of the Army, police, security services and paramilitary did over the past 30 or 40 years.
If, as a society, we are going to move forward —
Mrs I Robinson: Shame on you.
Mr Attwood: If Mrs Robinson has anything to say to me, instead of to other Members, I will give way to her. However, if she has nothing to say to me, I ask for her silence.
Mrs I Robinson: I was attacking the Ulster Unionists.
Mr Attwood: If the Member is not going to speak to me, I ask for her silence.
The SDLP believes that — [Interruption.]
Mr T Clarke: Having read the amendment, I was wondering whether the Member will clarify whether he supports an amnesty. If so, will the Ulster Unionist Party also support it?
Mr Attwood: I am glad that the Member raised that point. If he reads anything about the matter, he will realise that amnesty cannot be granted. That is because it offends against international good practice and law. Therefore, it is erroneous to believe that the consultative group will say that general amnesty should be granted to all those who have perpetrated wrongs in the past. The group knows — as should we all — that general amnesty cannot be granted. Even though there can be specific —
Mr T Clarke: Will the Member give way?
Mr Attwood: No.
Even though amnesty can be granted on a specific case-by-case basis, general amnesty cannot be granted, even in those circumstances for grave matters. We know of all the past grave crimes for which nobody in their right mind would grant a case-by-case amnesty. We should therefore challenge everybody who has knowledge of certain events to co-operate with the consultative group and to account for their past.
In its manifesto of a year ago, Sinn Féin said that it would continue to highlight collusion. It also said that it would urge the British Government to disclose to affected families all the information that they have on collusion and state murder. Yet, in the same manifesto, Sinn Féin is silent about applying exactly the same principle to the IRA, an organisation that, over the 30 or 40 years of conflict, killed nearly 1,800 people. Therefore, I ask Sinn Féin Members to think about this question during the debate: if they believe on principle that the British Government must disclose to families all the information that they have on murder, do they accept, in principle, that the IRA and loyalist groups are obliged in exactly the same way to disclose to other families all the information that they have on certain murders?
If we are to have a better future, the leaders of those organisations that were involved in the past 30 or 40 years must be accountable. That includes not only chiefs of staff of the IRA or commanders of loyalist organisations, but living directors general of MI5, living chief constables of the RUC and living general officers commanding of the British Army. If those people made themselves answerable, accountability for the past might at long last emerge.
Mr Simpson: I listened with interest to Mr Burnside’s opening comments. I was glad that the Deputy Speaker allowed him to get his head and say what he had to — a Member who rarely attends or speaks in the Assembly deserves to say what he wants. The situation reminds me of an old country saying that those in the farming community will know: a young calf, seeing the daylight for the first time, goes berserk, loses control of itself and does not know what it is doing.
I find it difficult to support the motion. It gives the consultative group a blank cheque, and, if I have time, I hope to expand on that point.
The Government gave the group an important job to do. In cases in which assistance can be given to those who are innocent of all crime or wrongdoing but who nonetheless were targeted for murder by terror organisations, such help ought to be given. However, there can be no doubt that several factors hindered the work of the Eames/Bradley consultative group. First is the despicable suggestion that the Troubles be reclassified as a war and that there should be an amnesty for those who come forward to speak about the role that they played in the Troubles. That matter was debated in the Chamber some time ago, and on that occasion Mr Burnside said:
“What happened was not a war; it was an insurrection against the legitimate state: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 27, p405, col 2].
That illustrates that the Member who moved the motion is already on record as stating that he is against some of the major suggestions that have emerged from the Eames/Bradley consultative group.
However, other factors have hindered the work of the group. For example, the manner in which the suggestion was made to reclassify as a war undermined the group seriously. The group was divided over that suggestion. We must bear in mind what occurred when the press was being briefed on that matter: one part of the group was briefing against another. In effect, one of those parts sought to use the press to get its view of the Troubles and of any potential amnesty into the public domain as a way to spike internal opposition to that suggestion. As such, serious question marks hang over the group’s ability to deliver. The group is divided, and those divisions are being played out in the press over the issue of victims. Considering those disgusting recommendations and the fact that internal divisions were used in that way, I cannot but ask myself how such a situation could ever have emerged.
I must also ask exactly what role those who are at the centre of this organisation played in such proposals. I remember well the despicable actions of ECONI (Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland) at the time of the referendum campaign on the Belfast Agreement. I remember how that body produced a document justifying the early release of those bloodthirsty and ruthless sectarian killers, twisting the scriptures in so doing. When I consider the Eames/Bradley consultative group, I recognise the influence that ECONI has at its top table.
I freely confess that I shudder to think that people who have that kind of track record are involved in the consultative group.
Mr A Maginness: Will the Member give way?
Mr Simpson: I will not give way; I am nearly finished.
Therefore, there are problems with some aspects of the Eames/Bradley consultative group.
Mr A Maginness: Will the Member give way?
Mr Simpson: No, I will not give way: the Member will get his turn to speak, and I have a few seconds left.
It is likely that Mr Burnside’s motives for tabling the motion resulted from concern that the IRA has refused to co-operate with the consultative group on the ground that its members have been appointed by the UK Government. However, listening to Mr Burnside’s ranting and raving, one can barely understand what he is getting at.
That would be an honourable motive, and there should be no barrier to republicans’ working with the group. After all, Conor Murphy, Michelle Gildernew and Caitríona Ruane are administering Departments that have been devolved to them by that same UK Government. They administer budgets from the UK Government and exercise power granted to them by the UK Government under statutes passed by the UK Government in the Houses of Parliament.
The wording of the motion leaves a lot to be desired, and I urge the House to reject it.
Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I oppose the motion and the amendment. The Consultative Group on the Past, although having genuine people with integrity in its membership, was undermined from the start by being established by the British Government. I do not believe that the Eames/Bradley group, as it is called, is the way forward in the search for truth. That is also the view of many relatives’ organisations and victims’ groups.
No one should have anything to fear from a genuine truth-recovery process. However, such a process is doomed to fail if it is constructed by, or has its terms of reference set by, the British Government. That is why the Eames/Bradley approach is so flawed.
Accountability, truth and justice are paramount for all those who were victims — and I mean everyone who was a victim or a survivor — of the conflict. However, the British state must also recognise its role in the conflict and acknowledge that it too had a strong part to play. No truth-recovery process can be completely open and fair unless it is set up in an independent and transparent manner and is not affiliated to any of the protagonists.
Sinn Féin supports the setting up of a victim-led, independent international body. Families who are the victims of state violence and collusion will not feel that they are being treated as equals until their loved ones who died are recognised as victims of the conflict and are treated the same as those who were killed by republican organisations.
The B-Specials, British Army, UDR, RUC and unionist paramilitaries were responsible for many injuries and deaths. The British state, either directly through the deployment of Crown forces or indirectly by arming and directing unionist death squads, was responsible for killing 1,414 people, including men, women and children. [Interruption.]
Mr Paisley Jnr: What about the IRA?
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member has the Floor.
Ms J McCann: Over the years, more and more evidence of direct Crown force involvement with unionist paramilitaries has emerged. However, the ruthless and random nature of the campaign of collusion, and the fact that it went right to the door of the British Cabinet, has never been exposed. The campaign was the result of careful organisation and planning and could not have happened without direct state involvement.
It was not until Pat Finucane, a human rights lawyer, was murdered that the level of state collusion in the murder of Irish citizens began to be exposed. It was clear that the British state, in the guise of the British Army, the RUC and the UDR, planned and instigated the murder of Pat Finucane and facilitated his execution. A photograph and address were supplied, weapons were procured, and roadblocks were removed at the last moment to ensure a clean getaway for his killers.
I have worked with some of the families whose loved ones were killed by the state, and I know how angry and aggrieved they are that their loved ones — and they themselves — are constantly demonised and made to feel like second-class citizens, and that their pain and grief do not matter.
Mr McFarland: Will the Member give way?
Ms J McCann: No; you have had your say. [Laughter.]
People on all sides of the conflict must be open to that, and all participants — including the British state — must take responsibility for their actions over the past 35 years. I was pleased to hear David Burnside saying that there were many players in the conflict.
Now is the time to establish an international independent body, with the resources necessary to investigate the past and recover the truth for all the relatives whose loved ones died in the conflict. Any other such process would not be fair or equal and would make people feel that they were being treated as second-class citizens. Go raibh maith agat.
Dr Farry: I fear that this debate will not reflect well on the Assembly. At a time in which the Northern Ireland people are expecting us to be getting down to the business of building a better future for all, ding-dongs among the unionist parties, among the nationalist parties and across the Chamber do not serve that purpose. The enthusiasm with which some Members are engaging in this debate, compared to their lack of engagement in legislation on a way forward, reflects poorly on them. Rather than erecting obstacles, Members must face up to the challenge of ensuring that past issues are dealt with sensitively and responsibly.
The Alliance Party will support the motion and the amendment, although, no doubt, it will be concerned about some Members’ comments. For some time, dealing with the past has been a missing element in the Northern Ireland peace process. Arguably, the matter should have been considered long ago, and it is regrettable that we are only now getting round to it.
Sinn Féin’s Jennifer McCann has a problem with how the Eames/Bradley group was set up — it is the only show in town, and there will not be another means with which to deal with that matter. Therefore, if Members are serious about dealing with the past, let us engage with that group as it stands rather than dreaming up future mythical bodies. We must grasp the nettle now.
Until now, the problems of dealing with the past have been handled piecemeal, and that has damaged our society’s ability to move forward and build reconciliation. Such a process must be consistent with building a shared future.
Attention must be given to several additional matters: a day of reflection, on which people can build as they see fit; memorials, over which, given events in past weeks, the Assembly is struggling and concerning which we have created a major long-term problem; the demand for a forum at which people will be able to tell their stories and have those stories placed on the record; and, perhaps the most thorny issue, truth recovery. Of course, no truth-recovery proposals will attract universal buy-in; however, it is important that such proposals are devised as, and considered part of, an overall package.
Members must also reflect on the imminent appointment of members to a victims’ commission, rather than the former Victims’ Commissioner. Some people believe that the victims’ commission will be capable of handling the matter of dealing with the past. However, it is important to draw a distinction between, on the one hand, the Eames/Bradley group’s aims, which concern society-wide issues of where we have come from and how we can move forward; and, on the other hand, dealing with the concerns of individual victims who, for the past 30 to 40 years, have been disgracefully neglected. Those people deserve relief, by means of proper financial compensation and by ensuring that proper services are in place to deal with their needs. Given OFMDFM’s responsibilities in this matter, I am concerned that that Department is not represented in the Chamber to respond to the points raised in the debate.
It will be necessary to encourage people to come forward in order to co-operate with any truth-recovery process, and the notion that the state’s actions can be entirely uncovered is unrealistic. However, organisations do have a role to play, most notably the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries, which must come forward to discuss their actions. In addition, I daresay that some political parties here have other matters that they need to put on the record.
It is worth putting on record that although both unionist parties are having their own internal row about who was the worst offender, they have, at different times over the past 30 to 40 years, quite deliberately tried to subvert the state. Let us not duck that issue: those parties have questions to answer in that respect.
When it comes to providing incentives to people to come forward, I fear that we may have missed the boat, not least with the failure to link the early release of paramilitary prisoners with wider issues. In that context, there has been a leak from the commission regarding ideas about the recognition of a war and the consideration of an amnesty. My party clearly rejects both those notions. It is important to ensure that justice can remain to be done and that history is not rewritten.
Lord Morrow: This is an interesting debate, and as I listen to those who have contributed already, I begin to wonder about the real motives of the proposer of the motion. It is good that he comes here once in a wonder. It is remarkable that he has such concern about this matter, for he is seldom here and he refuses to serve on a single Assembly Committee — he is too busy doing other things. I do not know what we owe this motion to, but we are delighted to have the Member here, and we will have to acknowledge his appearance once in a wonder.
He has proposed a motion that is, to say the least, quite confusing. From its first utterances, the Consultative Group on the Past set down markers as to the direction in which it wanted to go. I suspect that it has sought not so much to find a way whereby victims could be dealt with in a proper and right manner, but, rather, to deal with the perpetrators. That is amazing; but that is society at large, and it is the way that human beings turn out. The current situation is that everything seems to revolve around those who carried out the atrocities — do not worry about the victims; they are just victims. The current line of thought seems to be that the victims just have to pick up the pieces and go on.
The early utterances of the Consultative Group on the Past did not set down markers that it was on the side of the victims. It asked whether the past could be dealt with by having the situation declared as a war — a war? If that were to happen, what would the group’s next move be? I suspect that it would be to ask whether the perpetrators could be given an amnesty. We had one dose of amnesty in this country that sickened everyone to the pits of their stomachs. We saw prisoners who were given an amnesty walking out of prison in the most triumphalist way. Quite frankly, I do not believe that the community in Northern Ireland, no matter from which side of the spectrum, is up for another dose of that. We have had it once, and we have seen the results.
It is one thing to be repentant of one’s crimes; it is quite another for prisoners to walk out of a prison having been told by the consultative group that what they did in the past was as part of a war. It was no such thing. It was nothing short of sheer bigotry by intolerant terrorists who ethnically cleansed the border areas and drove people from their homes. The Eames/Bradley group may feel that it can put another one over on the whole community, but in the ruthless campaign of the past 35 years, there have been innocent victims on both sides, and my condemnation is equal, and always has been. In the 35 years that I have been in public life, I have never said that one side was more victimised than the other. Innocent people on both sides of the community were slaughtered — there is no other word that can be used.
Mr T Clarke: The Member referred to a previous amnesty. Perhaps he will come to that later, but will he highlight who brought about the first amnesty in Northern Ireland?
Lord Morrow: That is a salient point. I must refer to Mr Burnside, because he was at pains to castigate my party. He was conspicuous by his silence when he should have told the House that it was his party that signed up to the amnesty for terrorists to be freed back onto the streets. Mr Burnside is not responding to that comment, so I presume that he accepts that that was the situation. It is up to him to say whether he still thinks that that was the right decision. I will give way to him if he wants to address the issue. I notice that he is not taking up the cudgels, because he knows it to be absolutely true.
It is significant that the Minister who is absent today — Conor Murphy — seems to have a direct line to the IRA.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member’s time is up.
Lord Morrow: That is a pity.
Mr Molloy: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I reject the motion and the amendment. They were proposed to be divisive, and they have succeeded in being so. Judging by the SDLP’s amendment, I think that it does not understand the role of the Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past, or, according to Mr Attwood, it has rewritten the group’s remit.
Mr McClarty: The Member said that the motion is divisive. Was last week’s event celebrating the life of Mairéad Farrell meant to bring people together?
Mr Molloy: If people were forward-looking and were dealing with the past in a collective way, that event could have brought people together. However, people chose to be divisive and to ignore the past. We are talking today about the Consultative Group on the Past, yet minds are closed about how we can deal with the past. Therefore, I take the Member’s point.
The consultative group cannot be independent, because it was set up by, and reports to, the British Government. Therefore, the group’s report will be ignored in the same way as the Sampson Report, the Stalker Report and others were ignored by the British Government. Not only did the British Government ignore some of those reports, but they put them down, and shot the messengers, to ensure that they would be unable to participate in any further inquiries. If the British Government were intent on dealing with the truth, they would have dealt with those inquiries.
Talks at Weston Park resulted in agreement on the establishment of independent, international inquiries into some deaths, including that of Pat Finucane. However, the independent and international aspect of those inquiries disappeared completely after those talks. There has been much talk about victims and their role, yet their wishes have been ignored, and they have been omitted from the consultative group. Their demand for an independent, international inquiry has been written out of the equation completely, and the British Government have acted as if they are the authority on setting up inquiries, which they are not. They are not neutral by any means; they are combatants and were involved in the conflict situation. They directed their own forces, set up loyalist murder squads, armed them and colluded with them to ensure that the right people were taken out. They encouraged others to murder the citizens over whom they claimed to have jurisdiction, but they reject that line.
The British Government should explain the truth about what they were involved in. They are the Government, so there is nothing to stop them from doing that. They could have ended the Bloody Sunday Inquiry very quickly by simply admitting the truth about their involvement in Bloody Sunday. That would have been a simple line from the British Government, but that would have tied them back to the British Cabinet, in the same way that the murder of Pat Finucane was directed back to the British Cabinet, and they did not want to accept responsibility for that.
There can be no hierarchy of victims. Some people in the Chamber would like to say that one person was a victim and another was not, but there can be no hierarchy. The conflict went on in this country; the issues involved went right across the board, and the British Government were clearly the masters of all sides of it. We must expose all that in order to ensure that we get to the truth.
The Consultative Group on the Past has said that it does not envisage holding inquiries, talking to victims or suggesting anything more than a mechanism to move the situation forward. That is why the SDLP amendment is wrong; it does not deal with the issue of what the Consultative Group on the Past was supposed to do in the first place.
Let us have what we really require — an independent, international inquiry that will get to the truth of the matter and treat all victims equally, so that we can move forward.
Those who are charged with examining the past and exposing the truth have an important role. However, in looking into the past, we should learn lessons on how to create a vision for the future. We, in the Chamber, have an opportunity to ensure that the Eames/Bradley group is set aside. It was a transitional measure — a talking shop — and a way of putting down the victims. Let us move towards a situation in which we can get to the real truth of the issue.
Mr Paisley Jnr: The Member for South Antrim Mr Burnside opened the debate by qualifying exactly what his motion said and by claiming that he did not want to support some sort of corporate Ulster sponsorship of Bloody Sunday Inquiry after Bloody Sunday Inquiry. Neither do we. No sensible Member wants to devote that amount of wasted resources to such a process. However, that disguised the fact that he did not qualify what he ought to have qualified. He did not really establish what his motion means.
We, on this side of the House, want to know what he was really talking about when he asked for the Government and all their apparatus to fully support a commission that has not even come to interim, let alone final, conclusions. He is asking the House to handcuff itself entirely to whatever outcome might emerge from Eames and Bradley. That would be lunacy — total madness — and the Member for South Antrim would impose that madness on this House and on the Government.
Let us face the fact that he did not really address the issues raised by the Eames/Bradley group. The House deserves to have a proper debate on the subject, but, today, we have had far from a proper debate on any of the issues posed by the Eames/Bradley group. However, we got the real nub of what Mr Burnside was saying. The real motive and bitterness behind his motion was shown by his throwaway line to a Member from my party. He said:
“I will not be giving way to Paisleyites”.
We got a real sense of the man’s bitterness and of official unionism at its very worst. That is what he projected in the Assembly today.
Mr Burnside asks for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to support the police. He must have forgotten what happened on 8 May 2007. Perhaps he was not here; perhaps he was away on other business. On that date, every single party to Government made an oath to support the police, the courts and the rule of law. The Ulster Unionist Party collectively failed to negotiate that for the Assembly, yet it willingly went into Government after Government with the parties that the Member now condemns.
The Member also claimed that certain Members have blood on their tongues. Yet, as Lord Morrow of Clogher Valley mentioned, David Burnside stands today not as the jailer who locks up the gangsters, but as the man who stands with the keys by his side after leaving the gates open and letting the terrorists walk over the red, bloodied carpet, welcoming them into Northern Ireland by supporting the Belfast Agreement.
The Member forgets the indisputable fact that the unionist people of Northern Ireland rejected his brand of unionism a long time ago, and they continue to reject it, because it offers them no hope whatsoever.
I ask the question, and it is important that an answer is given. Will the DUP give co-operation to the Eames/Bradley group? Of course, many of our party members have met the group; our position as a party has been put to it, and I understand that those meetings are ongoing. Until the Eames/Bradley consultative group reports, however, no one should give it a post-dated cheque. I will not dismiss the Eames/Bradley group out of hand, the way Sinn Féin would like to do, because, just as we should not endorse it until we see its report, neither should we dismiss it out of hand until we see the report’s contents.
There has been a one-sided debate in this Chamber today. First the Ulster Unionists attacked the Democratic Unionist Party — because that is all that they seem capable of doing nowadays — and then we had a Sinn Féin Member, Ms McCann, writing and telling her one-sided version of history. We saw a grotesque vista of what republicans believe is that one-sided version of history; indeed, we witnessed it for some moments last week in this House, when they held that grotesque celebration of the life of Mairéad Farrell. As someone who was a student at Queen’s University with Mairéad Farrell, I say that that person and her colleagues got everything that they deserved on the rock of Gibraltar — make no mistake about it.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Paisley Jnr: Finally, I turn to something that Alex Attwood said —
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mr McFarland: I am not sure what Mr Paisley Jnr is talking about, because the motion seems to have nothing to do with what he just claimed. Dealing with the past is a complex and fraught issue; we have had over 3,500 dead, over 40,000 injured and many others left with psychological damage. There can be few families in the Province who have not been affected in some way.
Of course, after the 1998 agreement, we were full of hope. However difficult it was, I still believe that we did the right thing, and 10 years later, the DUP has agreed with us, and is now sitting comfortably in Government with the former chief of staff of the Provisional IRA. Everyone is now agreed that what happened in 1998 was a good thing.
The deal in 1998 was that we would draw a line under the past, however difficult it was, and we would move on. However, the difficulty is that one grouping here, the republicans, has not moved on. Since 1998, we have got ourselves into what amounts to a one-sided truth commission, and there has been interference with the Police Ombudsman’s office. That office was created to examine the actions of police officers as we move forward; however, it went straight back to examining historic cases. Various inquiries, as well as the Historical Enquiries Team, are digging around in the past to try to bring some closure to victims on what actually happened. The Historical Enquiries Team is a good organisation — I was a member of the Policing Board when it was set up and I supported it — but it has now started to exceed its remit and to interfere in the past.
If everyone were to tell the truth, perhaps some sort of system could be established to work out what went on over the past 30 years. However, the fact is that the paramilitaries will not tell the truth. Martin McGuinness has made it clear that he is not allowed to do so, because of the green book, and Mr Adams says that he was never in the IRA. I suspect that the Governments cannot, and will not, tell the truth, because they would have to start uncovering agents, which could perhaps lead to people being killed. Moreover, the civilian population was running around the place, identifying members of the security forces to republicans. Those people were subsequently murdered. Many people here have things from the past that they wish to hide. The question is, do we want to spend 50 years picking sores? That is what will happen, and this society will never settle if we spend the next 50 years doing that.
What is this move to establish a one-sided truth commission about? It is about republicans trying to persuade the world that they had no option for the past 30 years but to run around murdering people, so corrupt and awful were the Government here. That is what it is about; it attempts to rewrite history, and that is wrong.
Concerning the collusion issue, if the security forces were so tied in with loyalists as to organise murders, why is it that, in the entire 30-year period, only 40 republicans were killed by loyalists? Either the loyalists were absolutely rubbish at killing people — which we know they were not, because they ran around the country slaughtering innocent Catholics — or there was not the level of collusion that republicans like to think that there was. The statistics do not bear out their proposal.
We need to refocus on the victims, as they are the most important part of the process. The victims’ families need some form of closure. Many of them want to know what has gone on — that is absolutely fair, and HET should be able to help them with that. Victims’ families should be told, and have a right to know, as much as possible. However, a point comes when it must be established whether finding out, for example, that a neighbour was the person who fingered your husband to be shot is going to lead to family feuds and trouble continuing for another 50 years. There have been cases of families feuding in west Belfast, and it something that is prevalent in the Middle East. Once family feuds start, they can be difficult to settle.
Families need closure, and the victims need support. Victims need financial support, but they also need to tell their stories — being allowed to record what happened is important for victims — and, of course, they need family support.
The Eames/Bradley consultative group is a good idea, broadly speaking. It is not yet clear what the group is going to produce, but its findings need to be handled very carefully. We pick at the past at our peril. It could go on forever and prevent our society from ever settling.
Mr Durkan: We have been treated to some excursions into the past during this debate. We have also heard conflicting versions of what the Eames/Bradley consultative group’s role is, and we have heard conflicting objections to the terms of the motion and the amendment.
The motion does not tie anyone to endorsing the outcome of the Eames/Bradley exercise. It requests support for, and co-operation with, the operation of the Consultative Group on the Past. All parties have already expressed misgivings about some element of what has been reported from, or attributed to, either the Eames/Bradley group or some of the submissions made to that group. Those misgivings have been expressed again during this debate.
However, all Members must recognise that commitments and promises have been made to victims and to the wider community in relation to issues from our past and issues that affect our present and future circumstances. Those promises were not kept — neither by the political process collectively, nor by the two Governments. Victims want to see some effort being made to address those issues. The SDLP does not consider either the proposed victims’ commission or the fact that there are now four victims’ commissioners designate to be perfect — we would have gone about that a different way. However, if the victims’ commission exists and if it is the one means of addressing victims’ issues, all parties should co-operate, engage with it and get on with things so that the most can be made of the opportunity presented by the commission.
Similarly, although we may have misgivings about who put the Eames/Bradley group together and about its remit, if that group is the one body considering this issue, we must ensure that we make the most of it, because a wider exercise in truth recovery may result from it.
Sinn Féin Members say that they do not support the Eames/Bradley group. Francie Molloy told us that that group is simply a transitional body and a talking shop, appointed by the British Government, on a remit established by the British Government. That is the same Francie Molloy who was quite prepared to be nominated and appointed Deputy Speaker of a transitional, talking-shop Assembly, by a British Government, on a remit established by the British Government, and completely controlled by the British Government.
Mr Molloy: Will the Member give way?
Mr Durkan: No, the Member will not give way, because Sinn Féin Members have not been giving way to anybody else.
Eames/Bradley may well be a transitional body. I hope that it can be a transition to something much more comprehensive for the treatment of the past. Sinn Féin has also criticised the amendment, even though it covers many of the criticisms that Sinn Féin Members have raised about the Eames/Bradley group. Sinn Féin Members say that they are concerned about there being a hierarchy of victims, and that all the players in the conflict — all the people who have truth to contribute — are not being addressed. Nevertheless, our amendment, which covers precisely those issues, has been rejected by Sinn Féin. Therefore, there is complete dishonesty in Sinn Féin’s position.
There is also dishonesty in the DUP’s position. The two parties are quite happy to debate and fight about the past and unite effectively in voting against the motion and the amendment. Although they are prepared to ghettoise victims on the one hand and patronise them on the other, they are not prepared to ensure that there is a serious process that delivers truth about the past, truth about particular incidents and atrocities, or truth that focuses on wider political responsibility.
Why did we stay locked for so long in the conflict and political paralysis that gave reign to the levels of violence and suffering that we experienced? The fact is that, time after time, people rejected the very institutions and arrangements that they are now embracing. It is an irony — and irony in politics is just hypocrisy with panache. Some people have turned out to be the best practisers of the very things that they preached against for years.
However, the rest of us have the right to ensure that the story of the futility and brutality suffered by people during the Troubles — when the political accommodation that we now enjoy was always available — is properly told. Sinn Féin and the DUP want to connive to ensure that that does not happen. From their different vantage points, they will snipe at Eames/Bradley and at other efforts to look at the past, and they will pretend that they will give us the best future. Between them, those two parties either excused or produced some of the worst of our past. They will never give us the best future — they will not even give us truth in this debate, never mind truth from a wider truth-recovery exercise.
Mr Campbell: We are trying to deal with the motion and the amendment, which has been accepted by the Ulster Unionist Party. Thus far, the Eames/Bradley consultative group has engaged under three headings. It has engaged in a consultation process; I and many other Members were engaged fully in that process and were content to do so. The group either had a leak, or something that was constructed to be construed as a leak. Two issues were raised as well as the consultation process. The first was the matter of the past 30 years being described as “a war”, and that brought about significant opposition and concern, which was not confined to the unionist community. The second issue was the possibility of extending an amnesty to people who took part in the killings during those 30 years.
The context in which the motion has been tabled has been set for us. There is the consultation process, in which Assembly Members and members of the public fully engaged. As I recall, that was the case in other consultation exercises. When Chris Patten embarked on his exercise to review policing in Northern Ireland, he engaged in a full consultation process, and got a similar reaction to the Eames/Bradley group. We know the outcome of the Patten consultation. Some people who expressed full support for Chris Patten, and who proposed the exercise, railed against the outcome. When that happened, Chris Patten wanted to know what those people had expected.
If we give our full support and co-operation to the Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past, then, in a few months’ time, or whenever the outcome is arrived at — and if that outcome is similar to what we know now — people will ask whether we were not the same ones who fully endorsed and gave our support and co-operation to a process the outcome of which we will then be criticising. What on earth are unionists thinking about if they are willing to give full support and co-operation to the group given what we already know? That group wants to describe the past 30 years of sectarian shooting, bombing, murder and mayhem as a war.
Some people say that we should co-operate fully with the group that is —
Mr McFarland: Will the Member give way?
Mr Campbell: No, I will not give way.
Those people want us to co-operate fully and support a group that is leaking that sort of information: the same group that is saying that an amnesty should be considered for all those who were engaged in such activities in the past.
The DUP knows that now. The Ulster Unionists knew that when they tabled the motion, but they went ahead anyway, and yet they wonder why some parties will not support the motion. The Assembly must deal with the past, and I take on board the honourable Member for Foyle Mr Durkan’s point to that effect.
However, the past must be dealt with in a manner that does not encapsulate everyone who died under one heading. Sinn Féin wants to do exactly that; it wants the people who set out to murder in Loughgall to be treated in the same way as those whom they killed before arriving in the village. That cannot be done. There are murderers and there are the murdered, and there is no equivalence between them. Anyone who agrees to a process that arrives at such an equivalence does the work of those who want to ensure that a veil is put over the past and that the past is described in terms that ensure that everyone is treated the same. Unfortunately, whether deliberately or through accidentally wording the motion —
Mr Durkan: Will the Member give way?
Mr Campbell: No, because I am about to finish.
Unfortunately, the motion’s wording enables certain people to get away under a smokescreen, by saying that they were as much victims as anyone else.
The DUP cannot fully support a process that will try to equate the murderers with the murdered. Let us deal with the past appropriately, so that innocent victims will genuinely be able to say that they have had their day in court and that their cases have been heard and dealt with. Their loved ones and those who murdered them must not receive the same treatment.
Mr Armstrong: The refusal of the IRA to meet the Eames/Bradley consultative group came as little surprise to many of Northern Ireland’s unionist family. I have long wondered at the inconsistency of the republican position on dealing with the past. When republicans are faced with many awkward questions, their answer is that everyone should move on.
However, moving on is the last thing on Sinn Féin’s mind when it comes to the hugely expensive Bloody Sunday Inquiry. Sinn Féin is more than happy to call for similar inquiries into any injustice, whether real or imaginary, that they consider can be laid at the door of the British state.
Republicans have long supported the fanciful notion of a truth commission based on the South African model. They conveniently ignore the fact that the deputy First Minister rendered such a body powerless by his statement to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, in which he said that he would not break his oath of silence to the IRA. If a key member of the IRA is unable to tell the truth about his involvement, equality demands that the same protection be afforded to others, from whatever side, who might be expected to appear before a truth commission.
Even if the IRA were to co-operate with a truth commission, how could anyone trust the word of an organisation that has repeatedly lied about its activities? To name but a few examples, the IRA lied about its involvement with the disappeared; it denied the murder of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe; and it denied the Northern Bank robbery. The IRA’s lack of engagement with the Eames/Bradley group is a lesson to everyone who wishes to spend millions of pounds on a truth commission. In the absence of the main dealers in mayhem and murder, such a body would end up pursuing show trials of members of the security forces, who daily risked life and limb in a bid to thwart the terrorists. Truth would be the IRA’s first victim.
Mrs Long: I do not wish to reiterate everything that Dr Farry said about the Alliance Party’s position on dealing with the past and its legacy. However, it must be recognised that that is probably the most important and sensitive challenge that faces our society. The issue goes beyond the victims and those directly affected by violence, although they comprise an important group.
Those who have been affected indirectly by violence, as well as future generations, who live under the shadow of the past, must be considered. We must deal with, for example, the context of the conflict, the impact that it has had over the past 40 years, and the ongoing effect that it has on society both now and in the future. Let us be clear: there is no agreement, either in the House or in wider society, about those issues. I have no doubt that some Members may argue that the clock must not yet start ticking on those 40 years. If so, that point that must be discussed further.
The consultative group’s purpose is not to get consensus on those or other issues; it is simply to identify the breadth and range of issues that must be discussed and the mechanisms that could be used to deal properly and satisfactorily with areas of conflict. Therefore, the SDLP’s amendment causes no conflict, given that the groups that it lists should be involved in scoping that exercise in order that those mechanisms can deal with all the issues properly.
It is sad and slightly depressing that, rather than adopting a mature and measured approach to dealing with issues, Members have allowed the tone of the debate to become one of finger pointing and accusation, mainly with a view to scoring political points and undermining opponents. On different occasions, all Members have contributed positively and negatively to the conflict. All of us should, therefore, hold up our hands and try to do something about it. Members can argue about the degree to which we carry blame, but we should, at least, be mature enough to face realities.
Reconciliation in the context of a divided society will be a painful process. Elements of the consultative group’s final recommendations will be painful — or even unacceptable — to Members. I have two comments to make about that. First, it is still right for the Assembly to co-operate fully and support the group’s operations in order that it can be afforded the best chance to devise a solution. Secondly, rather than examine any of the group’s recommendations one at a time, it is important that the Assembly considers them as part of a package.
When they discussed those matters in the Preparation for Government Committee and the Programme for Government Committee, Members recognised that a more holistic, rather than piecemeal, approach is needed. Such a piecemeal approach has, frankly, done more harm than good to societal relations. The tit-for-tat approach that is taken to public inquiries is just one example of that. It has caused serious frustration because, first, it creates the impression that high-profile victims or cases are more worthy of attention and investigation than others. That in turn compounds the hurt that is felt by people who have lost loved ones. Secondly, by its very nature, it tends to focus on state and security force actions. Such a view can create imbalance, given that paramilitaries are not subjected to the same scrutiny as those organisations. Therefore, the Assembly must proceed in a manner that ensures that all those issues are dealt with.
Alan McFarland gave voice to the valid concern that we may simply end up picking over the past and reopening old wounds. However, history shows clearly that those wounds are festering, rather than healing. If problems are not dealt with, they will resurface, not in the managed context of a process, but simply one at a time, thus destabilising further the political progress that has been made. The Balkans, for example, teach a salutary lesson to those who believe that a line can simply be drawn under the past and that history does not need to be dealt with.
Finally, my party does not want to rewrite history, nor will it accept a selective edit of it. Issues of the past must be examined holistically and in the round. If the cycle of violence that has blighted this island for a long time is dealt with properly, it can potentially be broken. Although we do not want to rewrite history, perhaps we can move forward and start to write the new and better future that people elected us to deliver.
Ms Purvis: I support the motion and the amendment. The amendment renders the motion more inclusive. The situation in question applies to all sections of society, including victims and survivors.
Dealing with the past is difficult. However, that does not mean that it should be ignored. It is crucial to the stabilising of the future for several reasons. The increasing cost of inquiries and retrospective investigations, which some Members have already mentioned, is cause for concern. Although a person’s right to seek justice or truth, as he or she sees it, must not be undermined, the question must be asked as to whether, in the context of ever-decreasing resources, those matters could be dealt with another way.
The constant revisionism from both sides of the House, which is reflected in the rest of society, is another reason. Perhaps one official narrative on the past 40 years is a possibility. With collective responsibility, we can zoom in on the truth and cut off the propaganda that sits so far from it.
Whatever the solution may be, we, as a society, need to deal with our past in a comprehensive and collective way. The Consultative Group on the Past may offer a set of proposals, and it is incumbent on all Members to give those serious consideration and engage in a rational debate in order to come to a collective decision on how we, as a society, deal with our past.
Healing Through Remembering is an organisation — of which I am a member — that has conducted a lot of work on this issue. Its work is not a secret, and I commend it to this House as the first serious and comprehensive examination of how we can get to grips with our past.
Our past is continually encroaching on our ability to move forward and to build a better and shared future. The debate about the Maze site is one example of that. Other debates in the Chamber are also examples of how different interpretations of what happened and how blame is apportioned cause not only instability in this Government, but in the communities that were most affected by the conflict. The language and actions in the House have a knock-on effect outside this Chamber.
On one side of the House, there are those who argue that the Troubles were a security problem, that discrimination did not exist and that all that was needed, therefore, was more Army and police to deal with the problem. We are living proof that the so-called security problem required a political solution based on equality, human rights and accountable policing.
On the other side of the House, there are those who believe that the conflict was ideologically driven and that it was a war against the Brits to end years of colonial rule. In other words, they believe that the British presence in Ireland was the cause of the conflict. That conflict has ended and the causes have been addressed; not by the Brits leaving, but by human rights, equality, a campaign for an Irish language Act and bobbies on the beat. Playing to the gallery may improve their standing in their constituencies, but is it helping to build the type of society that they want to live in?
There is no question that people on all sides committed acts of violence. However, we all need to take responsibility for our actions or inactions during the conflict, and everyone should ask themselves the question: what would I have done differently? Mrs Long talked about that during her speech. Every citizen, organisation and institution — from those who committed acts of violence to those who are no less culpable in the creation of a divided society that dehumanised the other community to the point of abject hatred — needs to ask itself that question.
Which Churches rightly condemned murder, bombings and shootings from their pulpits, but continued to preach that theirs was the one true Church and that others were wrong? What woman or man rejoiced when an IRA man blew himself up, or cheered when a UVF man was shot dead? Who listened to the police messages on the radio waiting to find out if the latest bomb killed “theirs” or “ours”? Who vetted their children’s friends to ensure that the other sort was not among them? Who propagated the notion that a Prod could be spotted because their eyes were close together, or that Taigs had horns or tattoos on their heads? These are questions that people should ask themselves. Did they teach their class by the book? Did they report a news story objectively? Did they nurse a patient attentively? Did they provide a house on the basis of need? Did they welcome people to their homes — and I am sorry that certain Members have left the Chamber — when those people were not democrats, and then condemn them as traitors and an abomination when they became democrats?
Some acknowledgement is needed by all who have lived through the past four decades. It is vital to the debate that we all engage honestly and fully in order to build a shared and better future.
Mrs D Kelly: It is a widely held belief that the Troubles in Northern Ireland began in 1969. Although there is little doubt that the years that followed 1969 saw some of the most appalling examples of man’s inhumanity to man, there is an increased acknowledgment — as Mr Burnside pointed out — that the Troubles started in 1966. The first recorded deaths came during that year when two Catholic men and an elderly Protestant woman were killed by the UVF. Many people now believe that those acts marked the start of the Troubles.
Heightened political and sectarian tension created the backdrop for those murders, and there are people in this House who must ask themselves what role they played in creating that environment.
Over the years of the Troubles — from 1966 to 2003 — 3,697 people were brutally murdered, and thousands more suffered physical injuries and mental trauma. According to ‘Lost Lives’ — the only existing memorial to all those who died — extremist republican paramilitary organisations were responsible for 58·3% of those deaths; loyalists for 29·7%; and the security forces for 9·9%. The greatest single taker of life was the Provisional IRA, which accounted for almost half the deaths. It is worth noting that, of the civilian dead, the majority were Catholic. It is shameful that Sinn Féin Members have attempted to rewrite history today, rather than acknowledge the part that their paramilitary wing played in those deaths.
As Members from the UUP and the Alliance Party recognised, victims’ and survivors’ groups have made simple requests for truth and justice, in order to deal with the legacy of the past. Many do not believe that anyone will be brought before the courts for the murders of their loved ones — but they want to know the truth about what happened.
The amendment clearly cites those organisations that have the power to bring closure to the quests for truth of the families of victims. No discussion about the past is complete without recognising the inhumane suffering that has been inflicted on the families of the disappeared — as Mr Armstrong quite rightly said. They continue to be denied a Christian burial for their loved ones. I reiterate the SDLP’s call to the IRA to return the bodies for a Christian burial.
I take offence at the remark that Mr Burnside made about defining the victims — as they see themselves — of Bloody Sunday. That was uncalled for. He is quite right to point out that the year dot did not begin on May 8 2007. The opportunities for building a better future — and for ending conflict and violence — existed over the past 30 years, but were denied to the people of Northern Ireland by the actions of both the DUP and Sinn Féin, who pulled down all those who attempted to lead us into a better future.
Dr Farry and Mrs Long spoke of how issues of more critical importance should be discussed in this House. Not only have the DUP and Sinn Féin said that they will not support the findings of the Eames/Bradley group — just as they will not support the cost of division report — but they want to bury the strategic-futures audit that was commissioned and completed in 2007. One of the commitments in the St Andrews legislation was to tackle poverty; but the DUP and Sinn Féin have no strategy for dealing with that, and wish to bin once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
The all-party panel work on the Maze/Long Kesh site has also been forgotten about, as the DUP and Sinn Féin attempt to revise their pasts. In its attempt to rewrite the past and rubbish all things that came under direct rule, Sinn Féin failed to mention its support for the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill. Conor Murphy rushed to Westminster to welcome that legislation, which would not only have given an amnesty to all, but would have set out to cover up the truth about what happened.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member’s time is up.
Mr McNarry: The big question is whether the political wing of the Provisional republican movement — which is represented in the Executive — will support and fully co-operate with the Eames/Bradley group, or whether it will choose to repudiate the Assembly by following the lead of the Provos in refusing to meet or co-operate with the Consultative Group on the Past — therefore confirming that, although it holds office in Government, its participation and policies are controlled by the grace and favour of the Provo high command.
Of all the people with a past, the House and the public deserve to know where those Ministers stand on that issue. If the Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past is to be credible, its terms of reference must be addressed fully. Its remit includes making recommendations on any steps that might be taken to support Northern Ireland in building a shared future that is not overshadowed by the past. That is a mighty — almost impossible — task when one considers the events of the present and how they are linked to the Provisional movement, which believes that its role in the past is nothing of which to be ashamed.
Take the eulogising of a dead Provo terrorist and the marking of an office shrine to her in the Building last week. Take the temerity and the bravado of the deputy First Minister in the same week as ‘Rambo’ hit the cinemas. The deputy First Minister regaled us with fact, not fiction, when he said that, had he had the opportunity, one particular Sunday in Londonderry, he would have killed any British soldier. Did he have the opportunity? Well, did he? This is the same man who thinks nothing of his violent past and who dismisses awkward questions with a “let’s move on” quip. However, in reality, he is unable to give up on his past. Those two illustrations — and, unfortunately and regrettably, there will be more to come — are accurate pointers that the Provos are incapable of moving on for fear that they will destroy the myths, legends and lies that they have created.
Nothing that the Assembly can do can change the past, but, ultimately, everything that we do changes the future. That is good enough reason for us to be here, striving to make devolved democracy work. However, the Eames/Bradley group has its work cut out. How can it conclude that events of the past will not overshadow the future, when hardly a day passes by that does not bring in the present and expose republican thinking and its false denials? Take the following quote:
“The British State are protagonists in this conflict”.
Note the use of the present tense in that statement. It was made not five, 10, 20 or 30 years ago — that quote was lifted from Sinn Féin’s website only last October, and it was made by Francie Molloy after his meeting with the Eames/Bradley group. That is the very same Francie Molloy MLA who sits in this British devolved Assembly, who accepts Her Majesty’s pay cheque and allowances, and who is even entitled to extra pay for his role as an honourable Deputy Speaker. What is he telling us? Is it that the British — which is code for all unionists — remain protagonists and that, moreover, in his view, the conflict is not over? Who, therefore, can fault unionists for disbelieving when we are unable to differentiate between the republican-speak of the past and that of the present? Who can blame unionists for having serious reservations about including republicans in our future? Do they — both wings of the Provisional movement — really expect unionists to entertain a future built around a mandatory coalition Executive that embrace one party that is sustaining a culture that justifies terrorism and seeks inclusivity to hero-worship those who forfeited their lives when on a mission to kill or maim innocent people? Do they really expect unionists even to work with those who are now intent on demolishing the historic symbols built in and around Parliament Buildings? Let me answer that: if they harbour such expectations, they will fail.
I have not yet heard a logical case, reason or argument that casts doubt in my mind that there is not a significant difference between those who upheld the law of this country and those who, in my lifetime, procured arms, identified targets, erected signs depicting a “sniper at work”, lay in ditches ready to ambush, hid behind women’s skirts, robbed banks, peddled drugs, ran fuel rackets, smuggled, showed no respect for human life, made and detonated bombs, and kidnapped, tortured and executed men, women and children. The comparisons prove that there is a massive difference between those who wore a proper uniform and served to uphold the law of this country, and terrorists — I side with those who upheld the law.
However, here I am, along with fellow unionists and other MLAs, playing a pivotal role in striving to make this devolved legislature respected, worthwhile, meaningful, long-lasting and — moreover — legitimate. We are desperate to deliver a viable, stable and economically successful Northern Ireland. Against high odds, and in spite of my own intolerances, I am willing to give the Assembly a chance.
I ask all Members to endorse the motion for its content and, in doing so, help encourage the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to lead by example and demonstrate to others that unless the truth is told about the past, the story is not worth telling. The motion refers to two men who both have pasts about which the Eames/Bradley group would want to hear. However, who will judge the pasts of others? Who is capable of recognising the truth? There is no case being made from this side of the House for a truth commission — that is not what the motion is about. If people suspect that a truth commission would be told a pack of lies, no one would believe anything that it had to say.
The motion identifies how two men who hold high office can help the Eames/Bradley group. It has nothing to do with what the Eames/Bradley group may report on — that is a debate for another day. The motion is about how the First Minister and the deputy First Minister can help the group operate and contribute to its work.
One party in the Chamber can vote against the motion and, in doing so, vote with republicans as a collective against the victims — that choice is theirs.
Mr Campbell: It is an amnesty.
Mr McNarry: It is nothing to do with an amnesty. It is your choice. What you decide will be on record — people will look at the vote, not the rhetoric. Not the amnesty, Mr Campbell —
Mr Campbell: Yes, yes, yes.
Mr McNarry: You are wrong. You have dug yourself into a hole, and you cannot get out of it. I commend —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I ask Members to make their remarks through the Chair.
Mr McNarry: I apologise for not directing my remarks through the Chair.
Mr Deputy Speaker: That is OK.
Mr McNarry: I commend the motion — it is worthy of the support of the House, and I hope that Members act accordingly.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 37; Noes 52.
Mr Armstrong, Mr Beggs, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns, Mr Burnside, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Cree, Mr Durkan, Mr Elliott, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Mr Gardiner, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr A Maginness, Mr McCallister, Mr McClarty, Mr B McCrea, Dr McDonnell, Mr McFarland, Mr McGimpsey, Mr McGlone, Mr McNarry, Mr Neeson, Mr O’Loan, Ms Purvis, Ms Ritchie, Mr K Robinson, Mr Savage, Mr B Wilson.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr P J Bradley and Mr Burns.
Ms Anderson, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Lord Browne, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Dodds, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Ms Gildernew, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr G Kelly, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mrs McGill, Mr M McGuinness, Miss McIlveen, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr McQuillan, Mr Molloy, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Murphy, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Mr Paisley Jnr, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Ms S Ramsey, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr S Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr McQuillan and Mr Spratt.
Question accordingly negatived.
Main Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly calls on the First Minister and deputy First Minister to give their full support and co-operation to the operations of the Eames/Bradley Consultative group on the Past.
Mr Deputy Speaker: There being no further items on the Order Paper other than Question Time and the Adjournment debate, I seek, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until Question Time, which begins at 2.30 pm. The sitting is, by leave, suspended.
The sitting was suspended at 2.15 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair) —
Modern Accommodation in Schools
1. Mr Campbell asked the Minister of Education to detail the progress made to ensure that primary and post-primary schools in the East Derry/Londonderry constituency have modern and appropriately designed educational accommodation. (AQO 2392/08)
The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá obair thógála ar siúl faoi láthair ar dhá scoil nua a athsholáthar.
Building work is under way on two new replacement schools: a new school for Carnalridge Primary School, Portrush, will cater for 260 pupils at a cost of £1·65 million; and the new school to facilitate the amalgamation of Burnfoot, Dungiven and Largy primary schools will cater for 115 pupils at a cost of £0·93 million. Construction work on those projects is due to finish in June and August 2008, respectively.
Planning is also under way for a new replacement school building for Ballykelly Primary School, which will cater for 410 pupils at an estimated cost of £3·1 million, and it is anticipated that construction work on that new school will start in late 2008 or early 2009.
The Department of Education (DE) will, therefore, be spending approximately £5·68 million on new school buildings in the Member’s constituency. A proposed major capital scheme for Dominican College in Portstewart is also at economic appraisal stage, and a feasibility study is being undertaken to examine the future requirements of Coleraine Academical Institution and Coleraine High School. A capital scheme for Coleraine College is on hold due to uncertainties on the provision that will be required in the area for the longer term.
Mr Campbell: The Minister will be aware of the state of many schools that she has not mentioned. Some of them are over 50 years old, and many of them are in a dilapidated condition. Remedial work is carried out almost annually on some of them, such is the extent of the decline of the buildings. Despite that, the pupils and the staff do their best. When will the Minister bring forward a programme of work to systematically replace those out-of-date buildings?
Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat as an cheist sin. The Department is considering minor works applications from St Mary’s High School, Limavady — Scoil Naomh Muire, Léim an Mhadaidh; Roe Valley Integrated Primary School; St Matthew’s Primary School, Limavady — Scoil Naomh Maitiú, Léim an Mhadaidh; St John’s Primary School, Dernaflaw — Naomh Póil, Doire na Fleá; Coleraine Academical Institution; Dominican College, Portstewart — An Coláiste Doiminiceach, Port Stiobhaird, nó Port na Binne Uaine; St Patrick’s and St Joseph’s Primary School, Garvagh; and St Paul’s College, Kilrea.
The project for Dominican College and the potential projects for Coleraine Academical Institution and Coleraine High School are at an early stage, and we are looking at when the minor works programme will be brought forward. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Dallat: Recently, the Minister said that capital schemes would be guided by area-based planning and a sustainable schools policy. Does that include current schemes? If so, when will those schools know whether their schemes will go ahead?
Ms Ruane: In considering the need for capital expenditure at any school, the Department of Education takes full account of all existing provision in the area. My Department has a duty to consider all published development proposals. As Members will know, proposals come from different organisations, and I consider each one on its merits. Members will be glad to know that the chairpersons of the area-based planning central group and the five local area groups are meeting after Question Time.
Mr Brolly: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. In East Derry, which schools’ minor works applications are the Department considering?
Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat as an cheist sin. Is iad na scoileanna a mbeimid ag déanamh oibre orthu: St Mary’s High School, Limavady; Roe Valley Integrated Primary School; St Matthew’s Primary School, Limavady; St John’s Primary School, Dernaflaw; Coleraine Academical Institution; Dominican College, Portstewart; St Patrick’s and St Joseph’s Primary School, Garvagh; and Coláiste Naomh Póil, Cill Riabhach — St Paul’s College in Kilrea.
Education Committee: Policy Proposals
2. Mr A Maskey asked the Minister of Education to outline any policy proposals that she has received from the Committee for Education since May 2007. (AQO 2516/08)
5. Mrs O’Neill asked the Minister of Education to detail the proposals that she has received from the Committee for Education in relation to post-primary transfer. (AQO 2515/08)
Ms Ruane: Ó athbhunaíodh an cineachadh ar 8 Bealtaine 2007, ní bhfuair mé oiread is togra polasaí amháin ón Choiste Oideachais.
Since restoration of devolution on 8 May 2007, I have not received a single policy proposal from the Committee for Education. Other Committees have conducted inquiries, produced proposals and published reports. The Public Accounts Committee, for example, has published eight reports and another three are in the pipeline. To date, the Education Committee has not submitted any reports or policy proposals, but I look forward to receiving answers to the questions that I put to it. I have asked it to present me with consensus proposals. I will treat seriously any proposals that it produces.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Minister, is that also the answer to question 5? Are you answering those two questions together?
Ms Ruane: Yes, it is. I am sorry — I did not explain that I wished to answer questions 2 and 5 together.
Mr A Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. During an earlier exchange, a member of the Education Committee described its role as “marking the Minister’s homework”. Is the Minister satisfied that she has provided sufficient policy detail to allow the Committee to exercise that function if it wishes?
Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat. Tá brón orm as sin.
Policy scrutiny, as everyone knows, is a key role of the Committee, but it is not the Committee’s only responsibility. The Committee exists, in the first instance, to provide advice to the Minister and to assist with policy development.
I have provided extensive information to the Committee. I have met with it on no fewer than seven occasions. Week after week, officials from the Department of Education’s top management team appear before the Committee to answer questions on papers that the Department has spent hours preparing at the request of the Committee.
The Assembly has been functioning for almost a year now. In that time, my Department has spent thousands of personnel hours servicing the Education Committee by producing papers, preparing responses, giving evidence, answering questions and providing clarification to facilitate yet another set of questions.
To date, that has been entirely a one-way process, which has cost the taxpayer thousands of pounds. It is now March, and the Education Committee has yet to produce a single scrap of paper. The time is fast approaching when it may prove necessary to decline such interminable and evidently unproductive requests.
I had a very good meeting with the Committee last Tuesday, the Committee had a good meeting on Friday, and I hope that we will have a new era in relations between an tAire Oideachais agus an Coiste Oideachais.
Mrs O’Neill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. In order to further assist the Committee in its role, will the Minister confirm on how many occasions she has attended meetings of the Committee and whether she is willing to attend, as appropriate, in the future?
Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I have met with Education Committee on four formal and three informal occasions. Four meetings related explicitly to post-primary transfer and/or the future of post-primary education, as outlined in my statement of 4 December 2007.
In case there should be any ambiguity — I do not like ambiguity, I like to deal in detail — the dates are as follows: on 18 May 2007, I attended a meeting that related to the role, structure and functions of the Department of Education; on 25 May 2007, I attended a meeting on the review of public administration and post-primary transfer; on 20 November 2007, I attended a meeting, in closed session, to discuss the draft Budget, Programme for Government and investment strategy; and on 31 January 2008, I attended a meeting to discuss post-primary transfer. Informal briefings were also given on 5 November 2007, on classroom assistants; 4 December 2007, on post-primary transfer and the future of post-primary education; and 4 March 2008, on area-based planning. [Interruption.]
I must raise my voice because I am being interrupted.
I also met the Chairperson — Cathaoirleach —of the Committee on a number of occasions; I met the education spokesperson of each party; and, at the appropriate time, I will be happy to meet the Committee about relevant issues.
Ms Lo: The Minister says that the role of the Committee is to advise her on policy development. Is it the job of the Committee to put forward to her individual policy proposals? The role of the Committee is to scrutinise and to help.
A Member: When will the Minister answer the question?
Mr Deputy Speaker: The question has been asked; therefore, Members should be orderly when listening to the Minister.
Ms Ruane: One of the Committee’s roles is policy scrutiny; however, another is to advise and assist, and I have yet to see any evidence of that. That said, I hope that we are entering a new era, and I look forward to working with all the members of the Committee. There is enormous change in the education system, and it behoves us all to work well together. I look forward to continuing to work with the Committee, the parties’ education spokespersons and other Ministers in the Executive. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr K Robinson: Ich danke Ihnen, Herr Delegieter Präsident. Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Given the fundamental nature of the Minister’s proposed restructuring of the education system and the Education Committee’s relatively limited resources, does she think it fair to burden the Committee with resolving issues for which she is responsible?
Ms Ruane: Muchas gracias por la pregunta. I thank the Member for the question.
I consider the Committee to have an advisory and assisting role, and, as I said, it is important that we all work together to bring about the required changes. I also welcome the Member’s speaking in another language, although I am not sure which one it was. Nevertheless, it is good to support different languages.
Cuirim fáilte roimhe sin, nó tá sé an-tábhachtach ar fad. It is important to speak different languages in the House.
Academic Selection: Legal Status
3. Mr Moutray asked the Minister of Education to outline the legal status of academic selection in existing legislation. (AQO 2500/08)
Ms Ruane: Thug an tOrdú Oideachais 1997 agus a rialacháin tacaíochta creatlach reachtúil don chóras reatha de roghú acadúil i scoileanna gramadaí.
The legislative framework for the present system of academic selection in grammar schools is in the Education Order 1997 and its supporting regulations. By virtue of the Education Order 2006, that legislative framework will lapse with effect from transfer 2010.
Article 28(1) of the Education Order 2006 gives the Department the power to specify, through regulations, the admissions criteria that schools may use. Article 28(2) of the Education Order 2006 precludes the Department from including academic admissions criteria in any future permitted admissions. Article 28(2) has not been commenced.
That legislative position makes the introduction of new admissions criteria regulations contingent on a resolution of the future of academic selection. Without such a resolution and regulations, there would be an absence of law and an unregulated system.
A lapse into unregulation would not safeguard academic selection, as independent and unregulated academic selection is a prospect fraught with administrative and legal perils. That is why I have always been clear about the need for consensus, and I intend to introduce proposals that reflect the legislative position and the wider need for reform in post-primary education. On 4 March 2008, my statement on area-based planning was a key element of that wider process.
Mr Moutray: Given that academic selection is protected in legislation, will the Minister confirm that her final proposals will reflect that fact?
Ms Ruane: I do not accept that; it is not what I said, and it is not the position. The legislation makes the commencement of the abolition of academic admissions criteria subject to an Assembly vote, and it makes the introduction of new admissions criteria regulations contingent on a resolution of the future of academic selection. Without such a resolution and regulations, there would be an absence of law and an unregulated system. A lapse into unregulation would not safeguard academic selection, as independent and unregulated academic selection is a prospect fraught with administrative and legal perils. I repeat: that is why I have always been clear about the need for consensus, and I intend to introduce proposals that reflect that position.
Mr Gallagher: Given that we have had academic selection for 60 years and that there is wide agreement about the damage that labelling and stigmatising so many of our children as failures has caused, will the Minister assure Members that new arrangements will not include any form of academic selection?
Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat. I agree that academic selection and the transfer test have not been good for our children. As I have said in the House on many occasions, testing children at the tender age of 10 or 11 and marking them on the results of two one-hour tests is not the way forward. There is broad consensus on that and on the fact that 14 is a more appropriate age for a child to transfer. I have also said that I will introduce proposals and that my aim is to end academic selection in the North of Ireland.
Mr B McCrea: Bearing in mind that there has not yet been a debate on academic selection and that there remains a possibility that it will be retained, would it not be advisable for the Minister to instruct the Council for the Curriculum, Examination and Assessment (CCEA) to investigate possible alternatives to the 11-plus, even if only on a contingency basis? There is still time to find a proper solution that would meet the needs of those who are in favour of academic selection. However, it is imperative that we start now.
Although I accept the Minister’s position on, among other matters, article 28(2) of the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, and given that we do not want to end up in a regulatory minefield, all that I am proposing is a contingency position. Will the Minister assure the House that she will instruct Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) to start some preparatory work?
Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat as an cheist sin. I have made it clear that the 11-plus will take place for the last time this year. I am glad that the exam is going, because as I said earlier, there is broad consensus that it is not the way forward. Many other countries throughout the world that have education systems that do not have the tail of underachievement that we have do not have academic selection at all. Indeed, they are particularly shocked to find that we have selection at 10 or 11 years of age.
I will not instruct CCEA to organise another test; that is not the right way to proceed. We have had the 11-plus for far too long, and far too many young people have been told that they are failures. We must introduce new proposals, which is what I aim to do. We have time to do that, so we must be careful not to create the myth that there is not enough time.
Area-Based Planning: Consultation
4. Mr Lunn asked the Minister of Education to outline the consultation that she will undertake with parents in relation to the new area-based planning process. (AQO 2403/08)
Ms Ruane: Aithním an riachtanas lena chinntiú go gcluintear guth na dtuismitheoirí in aon phróiseas pleanála bunaithe sa cheantar.
I recognise the need to ensure that parental voices are heard in any area-based planning process. Full-blown area-based planning will be an important responsibility of the new education and skills authority, which will draw up plans on how best to meet local educational need. In developing the role of the new authority as part of the review of public administration, there will be consultation with stakeholders on proposals for area-based planning. Parental views will, of course, be accommodated in the consultation process.
In my statement on March 4 on the area-based planning process for the post-primary sector, I explained that central and area groups are being set up in local areas to develop plans for post-primary provision. There will be consultation on those plans, and contributions from parents will be an important part of that process. In developing my proposals for this area, I have deliberately sought views from boards, the maintained, integrated and Irish-medium sectors, and parents and communities.
The delivery of the entitlement framework will require the implementation of the area planning of provision. That offers the prospect of greater flexibility and a greater ability for provision in any area to be responsive to parental demand. I am determined to get a view of the way forward from a sectoral, community and parental viewpoint.
Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for her answer. Will she encourage community audits and deliberative polling techniques in the course of the consultations in order to obtain valid parental opinion?
Ms Ruane: As I said earlier, after Question Time, I will meet with the six chairpersons and the joint chairperson of the local and central area-based planning groups. I do not want to pre-empt the work of those groups, because it is their job to move things forward, but I will tell them that we need the maximum possible consultation with local communities. If people have ideas, we will consider them.
Mr Durkan: I have withdrawn my supplementary question.
Mr Kennedy: Is the Minister aware of the recent joint statement issued by the leaders of the main Protestant Churches — the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church and the President of the Methodist Church — expressing their concern at the exclusion of transferor representatives from their rightful places on the new area-based planning groups? Will she take some friendly advice? Will she stop needlessly alienating the Protestant and unionist communities on this and other education issues?
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Ms Ruane: As the Member will know, I am aware of the joint statement. To avoid any lack of detail, I spoke to one senior transferor representative last Tuesday and to another on Friday. I assured the chairperson of the Transferor Representatives’ Council that I had taken their comments on board and had listened carefully to what they said. I assured him that my area-based planning proposals and committee make-up were built on inclusion rather than exclusion.
The person whom I spoke to on Friday said that the council was reassured, and thanked me for that. I then heard ‘Sunday Sequence’ and contacted the programme to inform the presenter that transferor representatives are being included in the central group. [Interruption.] Excuse me, I did not interrupt you, Danny — I did not interrupt the Member.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Minister has the Floor. The longer we remain on this stairway, the less opportunity there will be to ask questions. When Members ask questions, please allow the Minister to answer them.
Mr McNarry: Tell her to answer the question.
Ms Ruane: If Members would not keep interrupting me, I would be able to answer the question.
I was very clear on ‘Sunday Sequence’ yesterday about the membership of the central group and the five local groups. I do not know how much clearer I can be.
I want the process to be built on inclusion, and I want to ensure that all the stakeholders are represented. I want to ensure that this is a good process in which we are doing something unique — building a new education system throughout the North. It is vital that all the educationalists are part of that. I look forward to working with the Christian Churches, and I look forward to working with representatives from other faiths.
Miss McIlveen: The Minister said that transferor representatives will no longer be guaranteed places on boards of governors, as of right, under the new review of public administration proposals. She has deliberately excluded transferor representatives from places on groups that will plan the future of all our schools throughout Northern Ireland, and she is only making a token gesture of permitting one transferor representative to be appointed as a chairperson.
Since this Minister continually proclaims her adherence to equality, what equality impact assessment has she carried out in setting up the area-based planning groups? She has seen fit to have a representative from the Irish Republic on those groups, and not someone who has given dedicated service throughout the years; therefore, how will she address that issue?
Ms Ruane: I have to repeat myself again, because the Member may have not been listening. The transferor representatives are on the central group and they are on the five local groups — there is no exclusion. People should not make an issue out of something that is not an issue. Go raibh maith agat.
St Patrick’s and St Joseph’s Primary Schools, Ahoghill: Amalgamation
6. Mr Storey asked the Minister of Education to outline the current position of the review of her decision to amalgamate St Patrick’s and St Joseph’s Primary Schools in Ahoghill. (AQO 2502/08)
Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. At the beginning of the previous school term, pupil numbers at St Patrick’s Primary School dropped significantly, as some parents chose to educate their children elsewhere. The approval of the amalgamation of St Patrick’s and St Joseph’s primary schools in Ahoghill was given at the time on the basis that there should be further consideration by the trustees on the educational needs of the children in the area.
Following the decline in numbers at St Patrick’s Primary School, the Department raised with the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) the issue of whether it was appropriate to proceed with an amalgamation, rather than simply to pursue a closure proposal.
Concerns have been expressed about the deficits at the two schools and the fact that they must be met by the North Eastern Education and Library Board when amalgamation occurs. In any case, such costs would be met if closures, rather than amalgamation, were pursued. In addition, a closure proposal for St Patrick’s Primary School would have to be the subject of a new consultation exercise. The important issue is that it must be the best way in which to meet the educational needs of the children.
Mr Storey: So that she is under no illusions, I can say to the Minister that, as a member of the Committee for Education, I have no intention of doing her homework for her as well as marking it. I am refering to previous comments that she has made.
With regard to the amalgamation of those two schools in my constituency, will the Minister publish the outcome of the review? This is another example of her mishandling a situation in my constituency, and she has paid absolutely no regard to the needs of parents and pupils. She is well aware that, in the case of one of the schools, parents have decided to send their children to a school in Portglenone. It is quite clear that the Minister made her decision without any consultation with parents and pupils.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Will the Member ask a question, please?
Mr Storey: Will the Minster give financial assistance to the North Eastern Education and Library Board, which now has a deficit of more than £500,000 as a result of the Minister’s bad decision on the matter in Ahoghill?
Ms Ruane: With all due respect, the Member is the last person whom I would ask to do my homework for me, because I would be worried about the mark that I might get. I would rather do my own homework, thank you — [Interruption.] — I did not interrupt the Member.
The board has received its budget, and it has made no representation to me on that matter. I ask the Member to stop playing politics. Amalgamations are difficult enough, and parents will make choices that are not always possible to anticipate. We must build a society and schools in which children feel safe no matter where they may be.
Mr O’Loan: Will the Minister confirm her support for all educational sectors, in line with parental preference? Does she agree that the best course of action would be for everyone, including elected representatives, to give their full support to the new school in Ahoghill – St Paul’s – so that parents will have confidence in it for the future?
Ms Ruane: First, it is important that we have diversity in our education system and that parents can chose the type of sector that they want — be it Irish medium, integrated, controlled or Catholic maintained. That is important, and I agree with the Member. It must be said that, because of certain issues in society, communities have not felt safe. We must deal with those issues collectively, and we must deal with sectarianism in our society.
Secondly, I am liaising with CCMS on the new school, and I do not want to pre-empt its consultations. However, I will come back to Members on that issue.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the Minister outline how the new school can be considered viable in the light of the recommendations in the Bain Report?
Ms Ruane: Viability, particularly in rural areas, is not simply a question of enrolments. A complex range of factors must be considered for sustainable schools, including the quality of the educational experience; the financial position; leadership and management; accessibility, which is a particular issue in rural areas; and links with the community.
At the time of the decision about amalgamation, it was explained to CCMS that further consideration needed to be given to the educational needs of the children in the area for the longer term.
1. Mr McCallister asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to detail how his Department participated in the recent management month. (AQO 2420/08)
The Minister for Employment and Learning (Sir Reg Empey): Management month is an awareness-raising initiative that is co-ordinated by the Management and Leadership Network on behalf of my Department. With the exception of some commercial sponsorship, my Department provides most of the funding for the planning, promotion and delivery of management month.
Officials attended eight of the 11 publicity events, including all of the local roadshows, to advise on the Department’s support programmes. I addressed the management and leadership conference at the end of February, and my permanent secretary presented management awards at that event.
Mr McCallister: I thank the Minister for his reply. What measures are being taken that are particularly directed at improving the management and leadership performance of small and medium-sized firms?
Sir Reg Empey: The area that is at most need is the small and medium-sized enterprise sector, which constitutes the bulk of Northern Ireland businesses. My Department currently provides £260,000 of annual funding for the Management and Leadership Network. The funding arrangements between my Department and that network have expired and require review, and an independent review on the value for money of that funding is outstanding. The existing funding arrangements will continue, pending the outcome of that review, and we will attempt to establish during that very short process whether we are establishing management and leadership skills in the small and medium-sized sector. We will be asking whether that funding is adequate, whether it is working, whether we are getting value for money, and, more importantly, whether we are succeeding.
Additional new support programmes that are focused on improving management capabilities in small and medium-sized enterprises are at the core of the issue. The INTRO programme has been designed to accelerate the development of young managers. We have also established the Management Analysis and Planning programme — or MAP for short, which is yet another acronym for Members to recall — which provides up to £7,000 of support specifically to help small organisations improve management capabilities, in line with corporate objectives. A total of 100 companies have engaged in that programme since its introduction last September.
Scottish Government Counterpart
2. Mr Cobain asked the Minister for Employment and Learning what contacts he has had with his counterpart in the Scottish Government. (AQO 2419/08)
Sir Reg Empey: Following the appointment of Fiona Hyslop MSP, I wrote to congratulate her, and to suggest a meeting to discuss common goals. That resulted in a visit to the Scottish Parliament and a meeting with the Minister on 30 July 2007.
Mr Cobain: Did the subject arise of offering additional support to students from Northern Ireland who are going to Scotland to study?
Sir Reg Empey: Yes, that topic certainly arose. At a meeting of the British-Irish Council in this Building in July, I met the Scottish First Minister. Following that discussion, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister have also raised that issue with the Scottish Executive on a number of occasions.
The Scottish First Minister agreed to examine ways, short of providing tuition-fee support, of providing additional help to students from Northern Ireland who are studying in Scotland. As a result of a subsequent meeting with my Scottish counterpart, consideration is being given to a number of options, including the introduction of a travel-scholarship bursary, and more targeted use of hardship funds, which each of the Scottish universities currently offer. Any student can apply for those funds if he or she is experiencing hardship. Members will be aware that more than 5,000 students who are domiciled in Northern Ireland are currently studying at Scottish universities.
Mrs M Bradley: After his engagements with his Scottish counterpart, does the Minister have any hope for any form of higher-education co-operation that would compare with the scoping study that was announced recently between the University of Ulster’s Magee campus and the Letterkenny Institute of Technology? Will the Minister comment on that example of potential for co-operation?
Sir Reg Empey: A specific question has been tabled on the latter matter, but there is no formal engagement on the same scale as that which is currently underway with the Letterkenny college. However, we are open to collaboration and we continuously co-operate with our colleagues in Scotland — and Wales and elsewhere — because we are aware of the fact that we send a very large number of students to Scotland every year. Indeed, a disproportionate amount of our students go there, and that is a matter of great concern.
With regard to the latter point, discussions are ongoing with our colleagues in the north-west, specifically to see if it is possible to improve that co-operation. The Member will be aware that my Department, along with the Departments of my counterparts in the Irish Government, Micheál Martin and Mary Hanafin, will be holding an all-island skills conference later this year, based in the north-west. One of the issues to be discussed is co-operation in border areas and sharing labour-market intelligence to establish that training providers in those areas — those based in further and higher education institutions as well as other training organisations — are training people to meet the needs of local employers. That is, therefore, a considerable area, in which I hope our co-operation will prove to be successful.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Part of my question has already been answered. It concerned ongoing meetings with Minister Mary Hanafin in the South, learning from each other and sharing experience and ideas about how the education and learning system here can contribute to the economy.
Sir Reg Empey: There is no doubt whatsoever that the Members who attended the first meeting of the reconvened British-Irish Council in Armagh last summer had a very full discussion. During this meeting, Minister Martin indicated the extent to which the Republic’s economy had been improved and fuelled by the training provided by the FE sector, and he emphasised the link between that training and the needs of business.
Clearly, therefore, that training has contributed to the Republic’s success, and I assure the Member that part of the Department for Employment and Learning’s strategy is to see the further and higher education sectors as being specifically linked to the needs of business. That is why we are holding the conference later this year. Initially, we will concentrate on the border areas, simply because we felt that was appropriate. Part of our agenda is co-operation with FÁS, as well as with other organisations under the authority of those two Departments in Dublin. That will continue as we examine the potential positive impact of our joint endeavours, particularly in the border areas that — as the Member knows only too well — have suffered considerably over the last 30 or 40 years.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 3 has been withdrawn.
FE Lecturers: Early Retirement Regulations
4. Ms Lo asked the Minister for Employment and Learning for his assessment of the impact of recent changes to the regulations governing early retirement for further education lecturers. (AQO 2480/08)
Sir Reg Empey: In the current financial year, 40 further education lecturers have taken redundancy under the teachers’ premature retirement compensation scheme. In view of available resources, no further redundancies can be supported under the scheme during the 2007-08 financial year, which ends on 31 March. That does not rule out the possibility of further redundancies being effected under the scheme later in the current academic year, when they would normally occur. Any delay in the redundancy programme should be short term, and will not disrupt college reorganisation plans that may result from mergers.
Ms Lo: I thank the Minister for his response. I understand that a decision was made recently to discontinue paying for add-on years for teachers in schools — will that decision impact on lecturers at further education colleges?
Sir Reg Empey: Let us be clear: the scheme could not take on any more redundancies this year, simply because it ran out of money. It is a very expensive programme because it involves paying added years. In the next financial year, my Department will provide some transitional help; ultimately, however, the cost of paying added years will fall to the employer. That will apply equally to teachers and university lecturers, because they are both served by the same scheme.
I am confident that the further-education sector will not be inhibited, however this situation is exceptional because of the college mergers, as more people are availing themselves of the scheme than would normally be the case.
However, it will balance out, and in due course equilibrium will come back into the market. Nonetheless, no more applications can be accepted for the current year.
Mr Spratt: The Minister is aware that several lecturers were promised that they would be put into the early retirement scheme. I can understand why they have not been added to this tranche, but has the Minister had any discussions with the employers regarding the lecturers who were promised early retirement in the Southern Regional College? Those lecturers did not apply for jobs in the new amalgamated colleges. It is important that the commitments that were made be dealt with. Has the Minister had discussion with the employers to ensure that that will happen?
Sir Reg Empey: I am aware of those issues. However, I cannot deal with specific colleges. The lecturers who were given reason to believe that they would be included in the scheme will take priority. There have been discussions, and as soon as practicable in the next financial year — which begins next month — those individual cases will be at the top of the queue. I hope that all commitments can be honoured, but it was not financially possible to include those lecturers in the early retirement scheme in the current financial year.
Mr Durkan: Does the Minister recognise that there is an apparent contradiction for many people in further education? The Department cannot recognise the case for pay parity between college lecturers and teachers, but the change to the early retirement scheme for teachers was automatically extended by the Department. People are told that comparability applies on one occasion but not another. Will the Minister address the issue of hard charging in the longer term in relation to early retirement provisions?
Sir Reg Empey: There is no doubt that the burden of charges will fall to the colleges. We have rehearsed well the arguments in the House about pay parity, and the Member knows that I am sympathetic to that argument. However, people must be careful. Parity on pay is one matter; parity on contract is another matter. If we were to start down that road, we would open up a Pandora’s box. We can deal with this issue. It has been a short-term problem. As the Member knows, the Department of Education operates the scheme. The scheme has been under exceptional pressure this year, and I suspect that that will ease. However, in future the colleges will have to bear that burden. An exceptional number of people have been seeking to use the scheme this year because of the reorganisation, but that will not continue. The colleges know and are prepared for the fact that they cannot expect the Department to provide the added years, although it will help them out in the short term as best it can.
Ensuring Access to University Education
5. Mr Hamilton asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to detail the steps that he is taking to ensure ease of access to a university education for people from deprived backgrounds. (AQO 2481/08)
Sir Reg Empey: In the academic year 2007-08, my Department allocated approximately £2 million to support widening participation in university education for people from deprived backgrounds. That includes the Step-Up programme at the University of Ulster and the Discovering Queen’s programme. In addition, a widening participation premium is paid to the universities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Support measures for the students include higher education bursaries and maintenance grants.
Mr Hamilton: For all sorts of reasons, children in care are among the most deprived groups in our society. The Minister is aware of the low educational attainment of children in care in Northern Ireland. Will he assure the House — and groups that work with children in care to help them attain higher educational achievement, such as Include Youth — that no barrier will be put in the way of children in care gaining access to higher education?
Sir Reg Empey: When I visited Include Youth’s headquarters, I spoke to the students, some of whom are aspiring to go to university. I was immensely impressed by the distance that some of those young people have travelled, from extremely difficult backgrounds and under difficult circumstances. My Department addresses the issue in two ways: first, the maintenance allowance here is at least £500 higher than its equivalent elsewhere; secondly, Northern Ireland has a good record of getting people from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education — we are head and shoulders above the rest of the UK in that respect.
I have made increasing the educational attainment of young people in care a priority for my Department, and I assure the honourable Member that those individuals who are struggling are uppermost in my mind and in the minds of departmental officials. The figures illustrate that Northern Ireland is leading the United Kingdom in increasing the educational attainment of that group of young people. I commend Include Youth, and I recommend that Members visit organisations that work with those young people, some of which do so in extreme circumstances. People in Northern Ireland should be proud of their work.
Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat. I also welcome the Minister’s commitment to ensuring that no barriers are placed in the way of young people in care who want to access further and higher education. However, does he agree that the retention of a university campus in an area of high deprivation is one of the best ways to ensure ease of access? Given that up to 45% of the students who attend St Mary’s University College in west Belfast come from deprived backgrounds, will the Minister outline whether the Department has explored how to maintain that success and, taking such best practice on board, extend it to other areas?
Sir Reg Empey: I am not sure that I heard all the Member’s points. The educational performance of young people living in areas of deprivation, such as north and west Belfast, is improving. It is beginning to get closer to the Northern Ireland average, although there is still some considerable way to go. The Department recognises that additional support mechanisms must be put in place, given the circumstances that exist in areas of deprivation, the profile and backgrounds of many of the young people and the enormous struggle that they face. The normal process whereby people simply apply for places in further and higher education off their own bat is not enough for young people from deprived areas. They need help, support and back-up to create sufficient self-belief to enable them to take the required leap forward.
The evidence supports the view that progress is being made in deprived areas, and at a faster rate than in any other part of the country; everyone should take some satisfaction from that. However, anyone who considers that the level of educational attainment is anywhere close to where it must be is foolish and wrong. The community has an enormous distance to travel even in improving basic essential skills, never mind improving access to university education. The Member who posed the question is perhaps more aware than most in the House of what I mean and of the resources that are being targeted to try to ensure that people from disadvantaged backgrounds figure largely in any future progress.
Mr Cree: I too thank the Minister for his comprehensive replies. Will he share with the House details of the specific initiatives to improve social access to higher education, and will he outline the financial assistance that is available?
Sir Reg Empey: As I said, a principal form of financial assistance is that the maximum maintenance allowance for Northern Ireland students is at least £500 higher than that of their counterparts in the rest of the UK.
The Department has maintained that throughout the current comprehensive spending review (CSR) programme, and it has done so specifically because it believes that it is an important fundamental policy objective.
Furthermore, the universities offer bursaries, and although it has been agreed with the Department that they should provide a minimum of £300 additional assistance, in practice they offer far more. During the current year, both universities have provided approximately £1,000, which is far a greater sum than they are obliged under contract to provide. I understand that the universities are re-examining bursaries, because other issues are tied up with them, such as the subjects that students are taught.
By any standard, the Department has made proposals and has implemented more comprehensive measures to help people who are from disadvantaged backgrounds. That is why higher levels are being achieved. That success is a combination of the recognition that that is the policy that should be adopted and of practical financial provision to ensure that finance is not a barrier. The Member will also be aware that both universities operate various hardship funds for which students who are from less-well-off backgrounds can apply.
Training for Success: Review
6. Mr Dallat asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to outline the terms of reference of the review of Training for Success, including its time frame; and whether or not it will consider (i) training opportunities for part-time workers; (ii) the capacity to award contracts to specialist training organisations addressing the needs of hard to reach groups; and (iii) the amount paid to apprentices in the construction industry. (AQO 2453/08)
Sir Reg Empey: The terms of reference of the review of Training for Success are: first, to determine how well the new provision is being implemented; secondly, to identify any administrative problems; thirdly, to identify any gaps in provision and determine how they can be dealt with; and, fourthly, to make recommendations for any changes to the programme in the light of the review.
The Department met with the training suppliers in December 2007 and again in January and February 2008 to discuss possible revisions. The Department will be in a position to consult the Committee for Employment and Learning in March or April. Primarily, the review will examine the structure and content of training provision. The current level of available resources prevents the funding of part-time workers. A working group has been charged to examine separately whether Training for Success meets the needs of young people with disability and special needs. That group will report by June 2008. Finally, the review will examine how minimum rates of pay could be included as a condition of the Department’s funding for training. At present, employers set the final rates of pay.
Mr Dallat: The Minister will be aware that the appointment of people from outside Northern Ireland has been a prominent feature of today’s news. He will also be aware that a company called Carter and Carter Group plc was awarded the apprenticeship contract, but withdrew from it after six months. That company had no staff, premises or involvement in Northern Ireland. Can the Minister assure the House that the review will consider all those aspects and will deal with individuals who would benefit from the contract, particularly those who are over 25 years of age?
Sir Reg Empey: I wondered which Member would get to that matter first. I have won a bet with my officials, who now owe me a tenner.
This matter is quite serious. I want to make it clear that the provision of training contracts is carried out under European legislation. The Department contracts with the Department of Finance and Personnel’s procurement division, which runs competitions on our behalf. The procurement division is also consulted — as it was in the case to which the Member has referred — on the management of a contract and on any concerns that my Department has with that.
People must understand that there is no legal requirement for a company to have premises in Northern Ireland. A company in Northern Ireland can apply to provide training in Czechoslovakia, regardless of whether it has premises there. That is part of the European system. The Department simply applied that precisely and to the law in Northern Ireland, having taken DFP’s advice.
I hope that the Member will not mind if I take a bit longer to answer his question; I am sure that he wants to hear the details. He will be aware that that company was contracted to deliver level 2 and level 3 training in transportation operation and maintenance. That training began in September 2007.
The Member will be aware that the founder and chief executive of that company was killed in a helicopter crash last year and that the company got into difficulty and had its shares suspended. Nevertheless, it has been provided with resources from its banks, and it is still trading. Furthermore, it recently won a large contract from the Department for Work and Pensions.
We asked the Education and Training Inspectorate to undertake an assessment of the training that took place from September 2007 to January 2008, which is normal practice. The inspectorate reported strength in the standards of training that were achieved in the workplace and in the direct training provided in body repair and refinishing. However, it also reported deficiencies in direct training, in arrangements for monitoring and assessment, and in the provision of training facilities, recruitment and support for trainees outside the greater Belfast area.
Taken together, those deficiencies represented a breach of the company’s contract with the Department. The company was asked to remedy those deficiencies by 1 March 2008, but informed the Department of Finance and Personnel’s Central Procurement Directorate on 28 February 2008 that it could not give the assurances and guarantees required to continue with the provision. As such, the contract was ended on 1 March 2008. My officials are currently arranging for those young people affected to be accommodated by other training organisations to enable their training to continue.
That is the detail of that particular issue. We had to ensure that any decisions taken complied with European law, which is why we engaged the Department of Finance and Personnel’s procurement division.
Mr Shannon: The Minister is aware of the expansion of the retail sector and of the necessity to develop the hospitality industry, especially in the light of the current increase in tourism throughout the Province, although I, of course, have a particular interest in the Strangford area. As those sectors are largely made up of part-time workers and operate seven days a week, does the Minister agree that a strategy is required to deliver vocational training and qualifications to those hard-to-reach employees?
Sir Reg Empey: I recently visited People 1st, one of the providers of training for the hospitality sector — I think that I have got the name right. That industry faces a mixture of problems: there is an issue not only about the esteem in which the community holds that particular industry, but, let us be honest, about pay and conditions. My Department cannot be responsible for all such issues.
I notice that the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has entered the Chamber, and this issue is relevant to him. Tourism is one of the sectors with the greatest potential for expansion, as is evidenced by the open-topped buses that tour Belfast. Compared to our nearest competitors, we are operating at just over half of our potential.
We are acutely aware of the problem. Over the past few years, we have perhaps lost our way a bit regarding the provision of the training; however, it is now much more focused. The industry realises that, in the recent past, we have been relying heavily on migrant labour. If that labour disappears, where are we going to be left? That will be a big issue in the future.
I understand fully the need for strong and effective training for that sector. I assure the Member that my Department, and, indeed, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, is fully engaged in that sector. We believe that there is huge potential for growth in Northern Ireland.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 1 stands in the name of Barry McElduff, who is not in the Chamber. Therefore, we will move on.
Highly Skilled Jobs
2. Mr Elliott asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail the steps he was taking to attract more highly skilled jobs to Fermanagh. (AQO 2431/08)
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Dodds): The Programme for Government includes a target to promote 6,500 new inward-investment jobs, 5,500 of which will have salaries above the private-sector median. Those targets refer to Northern Ireland as a region; they are not broken down to a subregional level, including Fermanagh.
Invest Northern Ireland offers its clients — wherever they are located in Northern Ireland — access to a large suite of programmes that are designed to improve their productivity and become internationally competitive. Those are demand led, and depend on clients submitting viable development projects.
Invest Northern Ireland client and business-development executives work closely with prospective and existing clients to identify growth opportunities. In the Fermanagh and South Tyrone area, that work has led to almost 900 offers of assistance. Since 2002, that assistance has been worth £24·9 million. That work has also generated investment of £132·2 million in the constituency, including support for 11 new foreign direct investments from key companies such as British Telecom and Quinn Direct.
Mr Elliott: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does the Minister accept that tourism is one of the leading investment opportunities in Northern Ireland and in Fermanagh? With no signature project in the county, or even the constituency, what progress has been made by his Department on the Destination Fermanagh strategy?
Mr Dodds: I thank the Member for his question. He is quite right to talk about the importance of tourism, and that mirrors the question that has just been responded to by the Minister for Employment and Learning.
Fermanagh places a very strong focus on tourism. The entire tourism sector is earmarked for strong growth, which will be reflected in the number of visitors to Fermanagh and the amount of spend on tourism in that area. The five tourism signature projects are designed to promote Northern Ireland as a major tourist destination for out-of-state visitors. Fermanagh’s tourism sector received a strong boost with the growth in numbers of profitable hotels and, notably, with the recent opening of the Lough Erne golf resort and spa. That represents a very positive development in relation to tourism provision in the Fermanagh area.
Mr Gallagher: Fermanagh is an attractive place to live, and it has a great deal going for it. There is to be investment in a new skills centre in Enniskillen, but the area lacks research-and-development facilities. Has the Minister’s Department examined the possibility of developing such facilities in the area? Has he considered that in a cross-border context, because money may be made available from the Republic of Ireland for the development of that type of facility?
Mr Dodds: I would be very happy to look into that matter. Some of those issues are dealt with in co-operation with other Departments in the Executive. We want to see the creation of more highly skilled jobs in Northern Ireland, and the type of centre that the Member referred to would help to promote and sustain those.
There are ambitious targets in the Programme for Government for more highly skilled jobs, which will be for the entire Province. It is important that Fermanagh and other areas play their part in that. I am pleased to note that there have been major investments in the Fermanagh area recently, which have provided highly skilled jobs. I hope that there will be more announcements along those lines in the not-too-distant future.
Lord Morrow: The Minister is no doubt aware of recent job losses in County Fermanagh. Can he tell us the position in respect of the recent closure of the Moy Park plant in Lisnaskea?
Mr Dodds: Moy Park formally closed its Lisnaskea plant in September 2006. That decision was taken as a direct result of global pressures on the poultry industry. The company had been in close contact with Invest Northern Ireland, and it has received selected financial assistance. The company sold the factory to Western Brand Group in October 2006.
Invest Northern Ireland is currently in negotiations with Western Brand Group on a range of initiatives. I am hopeful that those negotiations will result in a very positive outcome, but we will have to wait and see what happens.
Tourists Arriving By Air
3. Mr Shannon asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail (i) the number of tourists arriving directly into Northern Ireland by air from (a) Europe, and (b) the United Stated of America; and (ii) to provide his assessment of how these figures compare with the position over the previous five years. (AQO 2485/08)
Mr Dodds: In 2007, an estimated 89,367 staying visitors arrived directly into Northern Ireland by air from mainland Europe, which represents a 244% increase since 2002. In the same year, an estimated 17,649 staying visitors arrived on direct scheduled flights from the United States. There were no direct scheduled flights from the USA five years ago, but that figure represents a 139% increase since 2005. I am sure that all Members will agree that those figures are very encouraging and reflect the significant increase in Northern Ireland’s international air connectivity that has taken place in recent years.
Mr Shannon: I thank the Minister for his very positive response, as air travel is important now and for the future. Will there be any new direct routes between Northern Ireland and mainland Europe and between Northern Ireland and the USA in the near future? I believe, as do many other Members, that there is great tourism potential to be realised by introducing such routes.
Mr Dodds: I share the Member’s view that direct international connections offer enormous potential for tourism and investment. Recently, an investor in Northern Ireland who provided services and trade with the United States told me that the direct flight between Belfast and Newark in New Jersey was an extremely positive development that greatly facilitated business dealings.
At present, 36 direct scheduled flights fly from Europe to Northern Ireland, providing direct access from 10 European countries. In addition, Aer Lingus plans to operate two further scheduled flights from mainland Europe — namely from Nice and Paris — into Belfast International Airport. Those flights are due to commence shortly, along with a flight from Las Vegas which will be operated by MyTravel. However, it should be noted that Jet2 recently announced that its flight to Prague will cease this month.
By way of context, those direct international flights and connections are in addition to the 43 air routes now operating into Northern Ireland out of Great Britain, Canada, the Isle of Man, Jersey and the Irish Republic. The picture is very positive compared with the situation just a few years ago.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. What percentage of visitors to the North from Europe and the USA travelled into Dublin and subsequently travelled North?
Mr Dodds: I will write to the Member with those statistics and ensure that a copy of my response is left in the Library for all Members to see. As I said, the number of visitors travelling directly to Northern Ireland from both Europe and the States has improved significantly. There has also been a significant increase in the number of visitors travelling into Northern Ireland via the Irish Republic. It is my desire — and I am sure that it is the desire of all Members — to persuade those visitors who travel to the Irish Republic but who do not travel to Northern Ireland to visit here. It is essential, given the investment in Tourism Ireland and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, that tourist numbers increase. I am determined to see that happen, and I am sure that we would all agree that that would be a positive move. To ensure that that happens, we must invest not just in marketing but also in the signature projects. We must also invest in skills and in hotels and other accommodation to ensure that when people visit, they have a first-class experience and somewhere decent to stay.
Mr K Robinson: I am heartened by the Minister’s comments. Is he aware of any special plans that Tourism Ireland has to capitalise on the US investment conference in May? Will the Minister ensure that in order to maximise the total impact of that prestigious event, conference delegates can see the tourist sights and facilities that Northern Ireland has to offer?
Mr Dodds: I thank the Member for his question. He will not be surprised to hear that many suggestions are being made on how best the conference can be organised to maximise Northern Ireland’s investment and tourist potential.
I am keen to use the time with those who are coming to the maximum advantage of all of Northern Ireland. We are carrying out consultation and discussion, not just with businesspeople and the stakeholders who are part of the steering group, but we are planning to consult with local councils, community organisations and others. Part of that work will involve ensuring that people will have an opportunity to see parts of Northern Ireland not only from a business perspective but as potential tourist locations also.
Review of Public Administration
4. Mr Craig asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail the discussions he has had with local councils in relation to the review of public administration. (AQO 2423/08)
Mr Dodds: I had a constructive meeting with representatives from the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) and local government officials on 13 December 2007 to discuss the review of public administration (RPA). The meeting focused on the departmental functions that would be transferred to local councils and on the wider work that my Department is undertaking to develop a new enterprise strategy for Northern Ireland. In addition, departmental officials have had a number of positive engagements with local government representatives in relation to RPA.
Mr Craig: I am pleased to hear that the Minister is meeting representatives from local government, and it is good to hear that he plans to devolve some powers to local councils. Does the Minister intend to keep responsibility for petroleum licensing with local councils?
Mr Dodds: I was pleased with the positive engagement that we had with local government in the areas that my Department is responsible for and that are to be transferred. It is proper to ensure that the policy framework underlying RPA — to strengthen local government while retaining effective local and regional bodies — is upheld. That is the approach that my Department is taking.
Members may be aware that, following public consultation, it had been proposed that petroleum licensing be transferred from local councils to the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland. I met with representatives from the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE), NILGA and the chief environmental health officers in February 2008. At that meeting, I proposed — and it was agreed — that petroleum licensing should remain with local councils but that, under a new dual approach, they would work in partnership with a fuel/oils liaison group to be established in the Health and Safety Executive.
That is the right and proper approach. Although it may be different from what was suggested under direct rule, I do not apologise for changing the policy because it is now in line with the strengthening of local government through RPA and creates a more effective regime to ensure that petroleum licensing is enforced as consistently and effectively as possible on filling stations across Northern Ireland.
Mr Durkan: The Minister referred to his meetings with local-government interests. Across the region, local government supports local enterprise agencies and their umbrella organisation, Enterprise Northern Ireland, which — along with councils — shared concerns about the possible loss of traction in support for local enterprise and social-economic activities under previous RPA proposals. The Minister has met with enterprise agencies. What assurances has he offered Enterprise Northern Ireland in support of its efforts to help the start up of small businesses, and how can those assurances be squared with recent decisions on funding for the Start a Business programme?
Mr Dodds: The Member will be aware that one issue before the Department was where responsibility for social economy, and issues surrounding it, should lie. I have decided that the responsibility should remain with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, a decision which has been welcomed not just by those in the social-economy network but also by Members.
I have had a number of meetings with people involved in the social economy and with Enterprise Northern Ireland. As regards the Start a Business programme, the suggestions and proposals that we are putting forward will help benefit help business start-ups.
The proposals mean, as was always intended, that bids will have to be made for the delivery of that programme. The changes to the content of the programme have been widely welcomed, and they are in line with the review that was carried out to ensure that the maximum amount of assistance is put in to developing start-up companies from small entities into larger entities and to develop more of them into exporters. That is needed for the new Northern Ireland economy.
Mr Beggs: The RPA has now been going on for some seven years. Does the Minister accept that an outsider would consider that the process is taking an inordinate amount of time to complete? Will he agree that, if positive progress cannot be made shortly, the review of local government will lose credibility? Furthermore, does the Minister agree that the failure to implement changes that would enhance local government’s planning and economic development role could inhibit the Northern Ireland economy from reaching its full potential?
Mr Dodds: I am sure that a lot of Members share the Member’s frustration with the length of time that it has taken to sort out the review of public administration. When the Assembly was set up again, the consensus in the House was that the matter should be considered by the locally devolved Administration and by local Members. There was a degree of scepticism and concern about the way in which direct rule Ministers had been pushing forward on the policy. The fact that we decided to take a bit more time to consider what was best for the people of Northern Ireland, rather than what direct rule Ministers thought was best, was widely welcomed in the House and outside it.
However, we want to move forward as quickly as possible. I understand that proposals will come before the Executive soon. I have always been keen to ensure that if any of the economic development and tourism functions for which my Department is responsible can be delivered most appropriately at local government level, they should be delivered at that level. My Department has played a constructive role in moving the RPA process forward.
Assisting Local Businesses
5. Mr Armstrong asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail Invest Northern Ireland’s policy for assisting businesses that need to relocate, because of growth, but wish to remain in the same locality. (AQO 2425/08)
Mr Dodds: Invest Northern Ireland provides a range of property solutions to enable its client companies to implement growth projects. The agency acquires suitable land, procures the development of the relevant infrastructure, manages the assets and sells sites in support of client-company expansion plans. Client demand for land is now at a record level, mainly due to the shortage of good-quality affordable land in Northern Ireland. Land that has remained vacant for many years is now more attractive and is subject to client interest.
Where possible, Invest NI will seek to facilitate in situ growth projects with its clients. However, the scale of the proposed expansion and/or the restrictions of the land that is available at an existing site may mean that that is not always possible. In such cases, Invest NI works with the client to identify other potential sites and suitable locations through its online property database, and by using its contacts with commercial estate agents across the Province. In addition to its own landholding, which is available to client companies, Invest NI actively markets land and property that is held in the private sector through the online database, which can be accessed through its web portal.
Mr Armstrong: Invest Northern Ireland sees its client companies that export as its main businesses. Between the new business starts and the exporters, there are many growing businesses that need encouragement. Is the Minister satisfied that enough is being done for that significant sector of businesses?
Mr Dodds: We must never be complacent or totally satisfied. We must push on as hard as possible to ensure that every available opportunity to maximise return to the economy is taken. The Member raised an important point about local indigenous companies. The key to driving forward the economy is to get more and more of those companies to become more outward-looking, export-focused and export-orientated.
When considering use of the public purse and public intervention to meet the demand for land, and for property solutions, the Member will be aware that we must bear in mind value for money to the taxpayer. We would be rightly criticised if we were to simply favour one local employer or company over another if there were no extra added value to the economy.
Therefore, we must adopt that basic criterion. It is a question of bringing extra value to the economy through either foreign direct investment or growth of local business and finding solutions — including property solutions — that fit best in that context.
Dr McDonnell: The main issue raised with me by business owners is that it takes three years to receive planning approval for a proposal that may create 20, 30, 40 or 50 jobs. Will the Minister detail what discussions, if any, he has had with the Minister of the Environment to address the planning obstacles faced by businesses that want to expand, relocate and develop their business?
Mr Dodds: That is an important point that has been made in the House previously, not only in the context of investment opportunities. I am sure that the Minister of the Environment is aware of those concerns. From my Department’s perspective, Invest NI seeks to ensure that a significant amount of land in Northern Ireland is zoned for industrial purposes for the needs of client companies. We also work closely with the Planning Service to develop area plans. By ensuring that land is appropriately zoned, we can provide the private sector with an opportunity to develop land for industrial development purposes.
Invest NI will, at times, intervene to resist change-of-use applications that relate to significant portions of land. That is to ensure that land will be available to meet the concerns that are raised constantly in the House. Sometimes that is done in the teeth of bitter opposition from local councils and local representatives who submit competing interests. That is fair enough, but maintaining a balance is not simple, and the Department understands that land prices are rising and land is more valuable in the context of residential developments.
We must examine the issue of planning not only in the context of the Member’s question about speediness in the planning application process but to ensure that enough good land is available to meet the needs of local companies and foreign direct investors. It is a question of balance.
Mr F McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the Minister confirm that Invest NI has coaxed and cajoled Aetopia — a west Belfast-based software company — to relocate from its base on the peace line on the Springfield Road to help fund units at the Titanic Quarter? Given that the people of west Belfast and the Shankill area are calling for more economic investment, why would Invest NI encourage employment and successful businesses to leave the area?
Mr Dodds: I cannot answer that question because I did not receive notice of it and am not aware of the details that the Member mentioned. However, I will look into that matter. I know people who work and live in north and west Belfast and the greater Shankill area, and it would take an awful lot to cajole and force them into doing anything against their will.
However, as Members are aware, the issue of location of job opportunities must be addressed. It is important that every area receives a fair share of investment opportunities. Statistics show that only approximately 40% of workers in the West Belfast constituency live there. Ensuring investment in Lagan Valley, South Antrim and other areas of Belfast is important in order to provide job opportunities for the residents of West Belfast. The figures are similar in other parts of Belfast. Location is important, but it is not the be-all and end-all, because people will, quite rightly, seek job opportunities beyond their local area.
Promoting Northern Ireland
6. Mr Storey asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to outline the steps that Tourism Ireland is taking to promote Northern Ireland in those locations in North America and Europe that operate direct inward flights. (AQO 2442/08)
Mr Dodds: Tourism Ireland is planning a number of campaigns to promote Northern Ireland in North America and Europe, which will focus on direct-access gateways. That body is working closely with carriers and other industry partners. In Germany, for instance, Tourism Ireland and easyJet will run an advertising campaign for the Berlin-Belfast service; in France, Tourism Ireland will link with Aer Lingus in staging a co-operative advertising campaign to launch the Paris-Belfast route, which opens on 31 March; and, in Spain, an e-marketing campaign is planned for April to highlight the accessibility of Northern Ireland, and extensive promotions will run to support the new Barcelona-Belfast service.
In North America, Tourism Ireland has secured major exposure for Northern Ireland in the Continental Airlines vacation brochure for 2008. Furthermore, Tourism Ireland will undertake an advertising campaign in April in major newspaper titles in the southern states that target the Scots Irish.
Mr Storey: I thank the Minister for his reply. He mentioned promotional campaigns that have been carried out in such places as Germany, France and Spain. Are similar initiatives being considered in other European countries, especially the likes of Hungary, to and from which direct flights from Belfast have been introduced recently?
Mr Dodds: The Member highlights an important issue. Northern Ireland now has the opportunity to win tourism and visitors from areas beyond those to which we traditionally looked for visitors. As some Members said, when one mentions Europe, one thinks invariably of such countries as France, Germany and Spain, and when considering countries further afield, one normally thinks of the United States. However, Hungary, for instance, offers an opportunity for us. When the flight service was launched between Budapest and Belfast, Tourism Ireland arranged for a large number of journalists to travel the route so that they could get a flavour of what Northern Ireland had to offer at first hand.
Northern Ireland and its direct access gateways have been a key feature for Tourism Ireland at a number of travel fairs throughout Europe.
Mr Brolly: Go raibh míle maith agat. Given that the Irish language identifies, adds character to and is attractive to tourists to Ireland, how is the Minister seeking to exploit — visually and otherwise — the promotion and development of the potential of our native language in this part of the country?
Mr Dodds: I have said on a number of occasions that the cultural tourism opportunities that are provided by Ulster Scots, festivals, parades and the Irish language contribute to Northern Ireland’s tourism potential. People tend to come to Northern Ireland — or to any region — for a mix of reasons, not solely for one reason. Sometimes when they come to a region, they see an opportunity to explore something that they had not thought of.
The Irish language is the same as anything else. It is being promoted through websites, Tourism Ireland, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and so forth, and it is a matter for those who are involved in the language to ensure that they maximise the marketing opportunities that are available to them.
Mr Savage: Our American cousins are only now becoming aware of the Scots-Irish connection to their early Presidents from the eastern states. What is Tourism Ireland’s strategy to capitalise on the Americans’ interest in their roots?
Mr Dodds: The Member makes an important point, and, as I said in my response to Mr Storey, Tourism Ireland secured major exposure for Northern Ireland in the Continental Airlines vacation brochure. Furthermore, Tourism Ireland has undertaken an advertising campaign for April in newspapers in the southern states and in the states that the Member referred to, which target the Scots Irish or, as we know them, the Ulster Scots. A lot of effort is, therefore, being put into the American connections. I am keen to encourage that, because every opportunity to maximise the number of tourists that come from the United States — in markets that were untapped — is to be welcomed. The new resources that I have given to Tourism Ireland and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board for that purpose should be used to maximise visitors who come to Northern Ireland from all quarters.
That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker.]
Housing in the Village Area of South Belfast
Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that the proposer of the debate will have 15 minutes to speak. All other Members who wish to speak will have approximately eight minutes.
Mr Spratt: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am delighted that the Business Committee has afforded me the opportunity to bring to the Floor a major issue in my constituency of South Belfast. The Village area and wider Donegall Road community is an area that suffered from years of neglect under direct rule. Deterioration for 30 years has resulted in over 30% of the housing stock in the area being unfit for purpose in the twenty-first century.
Some of the housing in the greater Village area ranks among the worst in Northern Ireland. Yes, there are some very good houses in the area. For others, however, massive improvement is needed to address such issues as damp, lack of heating and no inside toilets, to name but a few. Although some areas were redeveloped several times during the Troubles, a community one mile from the centre of Belfast suffered and was ignored. It is in areas such as that that devolution must make a difference. Loyalist areas suffered greatly during the Troubles and we must now look at ways in which we can put right the years of neglect. Devolution — and we as representatives in a devolved Administration — have a duty to make better the lives of those who elect us. A basic right is that people have good housing.
This debate was tabled well in advance of the announcement by the Minister for Social Development Margaret Ritchie of her financial commitment to the regeneration of the Village area. I warmly welcome that commitment and thank the Minister for her interest in the matter. When I spoke to the Minister about the need for urgent action in the area, she was ready and willing to listen. Now that the announcement has been made, the community wishes to thank her. The community also wishes to thank the Minister of Finance and Personnel, my party colleague Peter Robinson, for giving the Minister for Social Development the necessary financial resources to give the people of the Village better housing. As with Ms Ritchie, I noted that Mr Robinson had a real desire to help the area in any way that he could. Some people pointed a finger at Peter Robinson for failing the Village: it is quite clear that he played a vital role in delivering for the area.
Amid the euphoria of some people in the Village community, however, others are concerned about how regeneration will be rolled out. The Minister for Social Development must try to alleviate the concerns of those people. They welcome her commitment to regeneration but are unclear how it will be brought about. I have sought answers on the matter from the Department for Social Development. I welcome the Minister’s taking the time to attend this debate and hope that she can provide me with some answers. I have not yet had any clear indication from the Department on the way forward.
I have received correspondence from homeowners who have no association with any group in the Village but who are concerned about what regeneration holds for them. They are worried that, after redevelopment, they might not get a house of a similar size to their current property. They are also concerned that a personal financial penalty will be the price paid for the regeneration of the large quantity of social-housing stock.
I urge the Minister to continue to press ahead with plans for redevelopment, but to attempt along the way to alleviate the fears of some who live in the area. Furthermore, I urge the Minister to make it clear when the regeneration process will commence, and to ensure that the community is kept well informed as the process is rolled out. The Department for Social Development and the Housing Executive must listen to the wishes of the community as they formulate the details of regeneration. Information, and how it is conveyed to the community in the Village, will be essential. We do not want hold-ups or obstacles. A community that is kept well informed about the decision-making will be the key to the whole process.
As part of the regeneration process, we must also address the massive problem of vacant properties in the Village area.
A large number of properties in Donegall Avenue, Soudan Street, Kitchener Street and other streets are blocked up. Indeed, many properties have been blocked up for a number of years. That is a major problem requiring urgent action. One of my constituents informed me recently that vermin can be seen in Donegall Avenue in broad daylight — an area that is home to young families. We must ensure that such risks are eliminated as soon as possible. Vacant properties become a breeding ground for vermin and must be dealt with.
I am encouraged by the presence of my fellow South Belfast MLAs in the Chamber. I am sure that they wish to contribute so I have no intention of hogging the debate. I assure the Minister that I will continue to pepper her with Assembly questions on the matter — at the infancy of the process and as it rolls out. All parties can unite around this issue, and there should not be any attempts to marginalise a particular party. The community must get behind what is happening. We cannot allow this great opportunity for regeneration to be lost; if that were to happen, the suffering of my constituents would be the cost.
The community is broadly behind regeneration but I accept that there are differences in opinion about some of the specific details. Therefore, I urge the Department for Social Development to treat each constituent with due care and consideration, and endeavour to alleviate their concerns. We want a sustainable community in the Village and wider Donegall Road area, with the quality of housing that the good people there deserve. The basic services that any sustainable community requires must also be in place. There is a large population in the area and yet there is no doctor’s surgery that is easily accessible for pensioners. That is one of the further aspects that need to be addressed by the Assembly and local representatives.
The most urgent concern is housing, but I assure my constituents that that is only one issue that I will be working on in an attempt to make the entire Donegall Road, and the Village, a better area to live in. I thank the Minister for attending the debate and look forward to hearing what she has to say.
Mr A Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I commend the Member for putting the plight of the residents of the Village area on the agenda this afternoon. I welcome the opportunity to address the matter along with the Member and the other representatives of South Belfast. I, too, thank the Minister for being in attendance for this afternoon’s debate.
I strongly commend the residents of that area. They have come together and put a renewed focus on the needs of the people in that area, particularly in recent years. Some individuals and organisations have worked tirelessly for a number of years. However, in recent times, many more people have come on board, which has put much greater focus on the plight caused by substandard conditions in the district. It is to their credit that the matter is now being addressed by the Minister, both in her budget and in her statements in the House. The Minister’s contributions have been very welcome, particularly — I am sure — to the people who live in that area.
Since being elected as a representative for South Belfast, I have had a number of meetings with people from that area. They have begun to recognise that the area has been neglected for far too long. I do not need to rehearse that this afternoon, but many people in that area felt aggrieved at the degree of neglect that they had suffered: they felt strongly that their wishes and demands had not been listened to. I hope that that is fundamentally changing. Indeed, the Minister recently made announcements that greatly encouraged those people.
People from the Village and surrounding area have placed their concerns about housing conditions on the public record very well; particularly those, for example, in which older residents have had to live in, and endure, conditions that are totally unacceptable nowadays.
All those conditions have been clearly identified. As Jimmy Spratt said, it is not simply a question of housing; there are other infrastructural deficits in the district. There is a need for more localised retail outlets, doctors’ surgeries, and activities for young people in the area.
I place on record my thanks to the local management of the Housing Executive, who have worked hard with the community in recent years to help it to formulate its ideas and give it support and help in quantifying its needs. Not all sides agree with one another week in week out; nevertheless, in recent times there has been much more co-operation than previously. That benefits the people of that community.
There is no question that communities close to the city centre feel much aggrieved; similar conditions may be found in the Markets and in parts of the Lower Ormeau. In this day and age that is unacceptable.
I commend all those who have come together on this matter in recent years, although I do not forget those who have been working on it for a long time. Their efforts have put the issue back on the agenda. I have made the point at residents’ meetings that what residents do not need is more glossy documents explaining their problems and making false commitments. They are a legacy of the past.
I commend all those who have made the plight of the residents of the Village a matter of public importance and one that is now obtaining some redress.
I welcome the Minister’s recent announcement that £7 million will be spent on the area and, in the longer term, the investment of £100 million. I would appreciate if the Minister could outline the time frames involved and the first steps.
I ask the question posed by Jimmy Spratt: to what extent will the community be structurally involved in discussions? They live in the area, and we want them to have ownership of their community and to rebuild it in a positive and sustainable fashion. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr McGimpsey: I speak as a representative of South Belfast, not as Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
I welcome the debate. This is not the first time that the House has discussed the Village, but it is an appropriate time to do so. The Village has the largest concentration of unfit housing anywhere in Northern Ireland. We have seen other areas of Belfast systematically redeveloped over the past 25 or 30 years, whereas the Village and that end of the Donegall Road have been singled out for omission by the authorities throughout that period.
That has created deep frustration and anger in the Village, as people have watched their community deteriorate and their young families drift away. Fourteen per cent of houses are blocked up and large numbers are unfit for habitation. The balance of the community has been skewed: young families and middle aged people have left, leaving the elderly.
As I have said before, it is an indictment of the Housing Executive that it has allowed such housing conditions to continue for so long. However, I pay tribute to the people of the Village and to the organisation that represents them — the Greater Village Regeneration Trust. Over the past 11 years, it has led the fight from the ground up. It is a community-driven initiative that will not take no for an answer. The trust has refused to accept that the area is earmarked for destruction and redevelopment in another way. It has campaigned constantly over the years.
I am well aware of that because, over the years, I have been involved and played my part, although that has been small compared to the efforts of the communities in that area, which all want redevelopment.
I arranged for direct rule Ministers, such as John Spellar and David Hanson, to visit the Village area, and they smiled, gave the right answers and nodded in the right directions; however, nothing happened. Therefore, I was delighted when devolution occurred, and one of the first things I did was to invite Margaret Ritchie for a walkabout in the area in order to let her see the conditions and to discuss matters with the Greater Village Regeneration Trust and the local community. A consequence of having a Minister with the power and inclination to take the Housing Executive by the scruff of the neck and move things along has been that that initiative has clearly made a huge difference.
In addition, she refused to accept the draft Budget, which would not have enabled her to do anything in the area. By arguing and fighting for additional money, she has been able to identify further resources, and I therefore welcome Margaret Ritchie’s announcement of the Village area’s redevelopment, beginning with an investment of £7 million and followed by — in positive answer to my request — a further £100 million redevelopment initiative.
The key considerations now are the pace of delivery and ensuring that pressure is maintained on the Housing Executive to approve plans and business cases in order that the redevelopment package can proceed and that the area and community can be saved and allowed to regenerate itself.
Given that the Housing Executive has now been given the authority and a push from the Minister, I look forward to hosting another visit to the Village area in the near future, if the Minister is available, in order to review progress, and I will be interested to hear from her what will be happening on the ground in the ensuing months.
In this day and age, it is absolutely unacceptable for people to have to live in such conditions. No people — in any society — should be asked to live in the conditions that exist in many of the houses in the Village area, which includes the largest concentration of unfit housing — 1,300 houses — anywhere in Northern Ireland. It is a shame and a disgrace and an indictment of the past 30 years, and I look forward to rapid redevelopment in the near future and to hearing from the Minister at the end of the debate.
Dr McDonnell: I echo the sentiments of those Members who have already spoken and, no doubt, those who will come after me. In particular, I thank our honourable colleague Mr Spratt for securing this Adjournment debate. Like him, I have worked with some of the people from that area, particularly those in the Greater Village Regeneration Trust (GVRT), who were forced to scream in despair about the housing situation. I felt strongly about the issue, but, like others, I had difficulty getting the message through while direct rule existed.
There is, and has been for a long time, a housing crisis in the Donegall Road, or Village, area of South Belfast. In extreme cases, the people who reside there, many of whom are elderly, are forced to live in atrocious housing conditions reminiscent of those in a Dickens novel. Their houses have no heat, electricity or running water, and others — the lucky ones — have only outside toilet facilities. It is totally unacceptable and shameful that, in 2008, people must endure such primitive circumstances.
If we are to be honest with ourselves, we must all share a little bit of the responsibility. Although primary responsibility rested with direct rule Ministers, we should all share a sense of responsibility that the situation in our community was allowed to continue and that people were left for so long to feel the despair that was evident in every discussion that I had with them.
We must ask ourselves why those people were abandoned and forced to live in such atrocious conditions for so long. That question will hang in the air until we have remedied their circumstances. They were left to suffer years of abandonment and neglect under direct rule. Despite the undeniable reality that many houses in the area were unfit to live in, and the hard fight that the local community put up for redevelopment and regeneration, the community leaders were misled from time to time, and all the residents got were empty promises that, in the end, went unfulfilled. That continued until a few weeks ago, when, on 25 February in the Assembly, the Minister for Social Development, Margaret Ritchie, gave an explicit and unwavering commitment to that community, which has been backed by substantial resources. We are grateful to her for that.
In that statement, Margaret Ritchie allocated £7 million to tackling the crisis immediately, with £100 million to follow. In Margaret, we have a Minister who is determined and committed to bring to an end the misery that has been endured in the Village for a long time. One of her first acts as a Minister was to visit that area with me and Michael McGimpsey and a number of others, and she very quickly pledged her support. She saw the conditions of the houses in the area and the misery experienced by the people living in them. She saw the lack of sanitation and washing facilities in many of the houses, and saw elderly people who were housebound, with little support, and with none of the mod cons that most of the rest of us take for granted. Unlike direct rule Ministers, she has kept her word and has followed through on her commitment.
The refurbishment of housing in the Village may be the biggest plank in the regeneration of the area, but we must look at other planks of that project and view it as a whole. The green light has been given on housing and, at last, regeneration can start. Meetings will take place between planners and the community to finalise some of the details of that redevelopment. The people are finally being listened to, but the situation in the Village can teach us a few things. That shows us what a determined community can achieve.
I have been pleased to work with community organisations there, particularly the Greater Village Regeneration Trust. I commend Paula Bradshaw for her tremendous and sterling effort as the trust’s director. I also commend the hard work of Councillor Bob Stoker, aided and abetted by the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, in his capacity as a constituency MLA. They have worked very hard to highlight housing need in the area and have pushed the regeneration agenda.
The regeneration of the Village and the work that has begun there is one of the best examples of how devolution can work for all of us, and how it works for local people. I do not believe that that would have had happened if a direct rule Minister were still responsible for housing, instead of Margaret Ritchie. The public delight of ordinary people in that community was clear to see on the various television programmes that were broadcast after the Minister’s statement.
I do not want to take too much comfort from the show so far — it is important to get things moving even more quickly than we had anticipated. It is possible that a unanimous agreement may not exist locally, and there may well be a public hearing. However, we should not allow that to constrain the work that must be done now. The story does not end here — the regeneration and redevelopment of the Village must extend beyond housing.
I have a particular concern about education in the Village. Three primary schools in the area are in a run-down condition and are in difficulty. A new amalgamated primary school is required to replace them. The children there also need a secondary school with which they can identify.
I do not want to take up any more time, but I thank all those who are involved. I thank Mr Spratt for securing the debate, and I thank the Minister for the tremendous lift that she has given to the people of the Village. I look forward to continuing this debate some other time. A good start has been made, but there is more to be done.
Ms Lo: I thank Mr Spratt for securing the debate. Housing is a very important issue for South Belfast, so I welcome the Minister’s recent announcement to regenerate the Village. Redevelopment of that area was discussed for almost nine years, but very little happened during that time.
Like other Members, I commend GVRT and the housing focus committee for taking a very active role in the consultation process and for lobbying the statutory bodies and MLAs.
Since becoming one of the MLAs for the area, I have spoken to the trust on several occasions about the redevelopment of the Village. Last week, I took a walk around it with Paula Bradshaw and saw the poor housing conditions. I support fully the Department for Social Development (DSD) plan to proceed immediately, and I endorse the views of previous Members who have spoken about the need for speedy action to begin redevelopment in the area.
However, change brings uncertainties, doubts and concerns to any area. My constituency office has received correspondence from local homeowners, and we attended a meeting of a local homeowners’ association. Indeed, I will represent some of their views. Although they support the overall regeneration idea, some residents are concerned that they have not been consulted properly or fully, and they would like to have a greater say in future plans and processes. Therefore, any future DSD consultation on the overall redevelopment must bear in mind that anyone who is interested should be included in the overall process.
Homeowners in the area feel that they have invested a great deal of time and money in their homes, and, understandably, they are afraid that their investment may be lost completely. They have fears about not being guaranteed a similar home to their current one, or, through vesting, about being offered less money than their home is worth. The Department should assure those homeowners that they will be treated fairly and that they will be eligible for the house-sales scheme, with an appropriate discount of the market value.
There are also fears that the number of housing units will be reduced, forcing some people to move out of the area. There are concerns about the possible disintegration of the community. The Department must be open and transparent in its planning process, and it must inform residents as soon as possible of the streets that will be replaced, the type of housing that will replace them and the number of new houses that will be built. Like other Members, I call for immediate action on the redevelopment of the area.
Mrs Hanna: I thank Mr Spratt for raising the issue of housing in the Village area. As Members will know, most of the Village is in the Blackstaff ward, and I was first elected to Belfast City Council for the Balmoral electoral area in 1997 and then to the Assembly in 1998.
I hope that Mr Spratt feels that the immediate £7 million housing regeneration package for the Village that was announced by Margaret Ritchie on 26 February — before he tabled this topic for debate — is a good start towards addressing housing needs in that area. As the Minister made clear, the designation of the Village as an urban-renewal area will kick-start a full redevelopment process and trigger a total investment of, hopefully, around £100 million.
I commend the Minister on what she has done. Although she has been in office for less than a year, she went to see for herself the appalling housing conditions in the Village. She took some flak, and she made certain commitments. As she said, the people in that area have been strung along for many years, with promises made by those with power and influence. She is the first person who has backed up her promises with substantive proposals, and I commend her for that.
In 1996, the Housing Executive offered the area a regeneration plan, which, unfortunately, was rejected for various reasons. As the Minister said, it is now “all systems go” for the work to begin to tackle the housing crisis in the Village.
The Minister said that people there have had to endure — as we have seen — substandard housing for far too long. She gave her word that she would not forget those people, and with a housing budget allocation increased and finalised by the Minister for Finance and Personnel, within three weeks she set aside specific resources for work to begin. That is power-sharing Government in action at its very best — two Ministers from parties with divergent views working together flexibly, efficiently and speedily for the benefit of those for whom the need is greatest.
I am old enough to remember Belfast in the late 1960s, when I trained as a nurse in Belfast City Hospital close to the Village. The M1 motorway divided long-established communities on the Donegall Road and Broadway with devastating effect. That was compounded by nearly four decades of paramilitarism, which has had an oppressive influence on sound working-class communities such as the Village.
The people of the Village, like everyone else, simply want peaceful, prosperous lives for themselves and their families. They want the paramilitaries off their backs. In that regard, I welcome the news that the UFF so-called Grim Reaper mural at Tavanagh Street is to be painted over. I congratulate bodies, such as the Greater Village Regeneration Trust, who speak for those who want positive change and the many other bodies, such as the Windsor women’s centre, which have been supporting people in the area for many years.
The deprivation indices for Blackstaff ward in the 2001 census were some of the worst in Northern Ireland and showed that the ward lagged far behind anywhere in South Belfast and beyond. The test of this welcome package will be the deprivation indices for 2011. I am confident that when those indices are compiled, even though I will not be in the Assembly, they will be a true measure of the Village’s transformation.
The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): First, I thank Mr Jimmy Spratt for giving the House the opportunity to discuss the housing needs of the Village. I am very pleased to set out the position in relation to that area, but I also wish to thank the other Members from South Belfast. In fact, it has been an interesting debate, to which all six MLAs for the constituency contributed. No doubt that shows their interest and their in-depth concern for the area.
Let me say at the outset that the Village issue was one of the first challenges to arrive on my desk. I said then, as I still say, that housing is my number-one priority. I was determined to go and see the issues for myself. I walked the area with local representatives, namely the Member of Parliament, Dr Alasdair McDonnell, and the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and MLA for South Belfast, Michael McGimpsey. We met a group of residents, including, amongst others, Tommy Morrow, Bob Stoker and Paula Bradshaw from the Greater Village Regeneration Trust and Billy Dixon from the Blackstaff Community Development Association. Therefore, I became very familiar with the problems and issues and with the different opinions on how the problems should be addressed.
I said that if I could find the resources, I would do my best to help. Many Members will be familiar by now with the background to this issue, given the publicity that it has achieved. However, I want to be sure that everybody has the facts — the Village is a large, generally residential area, containing more than 1,300 homes and almost 50 commercial or social premises; some 4,400 people live there. Most of the dwellings were constructed in the early 1900s and are high-density terraced housing, mostly two-up two-downs, as well as some, more modern, three-bedroom terraced houses, and some larger three-storey terraced houses.
The structural housing problems are, therefore, mainly associated with age and the related lack of modern, or even basic, facilities in some of the houses — although not as many as may sometimes have been portrayed in the media. I have seen those at first hand. Population and demographic trends compound the problem. There has been a distinct movement of families away from the Village and an influx of individuals and single-parent families. Demand and supply of housing are consistent, but single households make up 60% of the waiting list for social housing, while family households constitute just 20%.
However, it was clear that the community was determined to make the best of the situation, and I commend it for its efforts and all its work to highlight the situation. Several physical regeneration projects have already been implemented: the development of sites at the former Disabled Care Centre, the former Co-Op site on the Donegall Road, and the site at Rydalmere Street. There is a very strong community spirit in the Village, and my Department continues to support the community in its endeavours. Only this morning, on my instruction, my departmental officials met the residents and the Greater Village Regeneration Trust for a long, in-depth meeting that lasted nearly three hours to deal with the specifics.
Some 440 residential properties in the Village are deemed unfit, and a further 400 are considered to be in disrepair. All unfit and in disrepair property is privately owned. When I visited the area, I saw for myself just how poor some of the accommodation was, and I was determined to do something about it. It is against this background that we have been trying to formulate a new housing strategy to deal with the problems of the Village. For a significant time, officials from my Department and the Housing Executive have been in close contact with community groups, residents, and political representatives from the Village.
Surveys of the housing conditions and of local opinion have been carried out to determine the best way forward, while trying as far as possible to protect the Village’s inherent sense of community. We arranged a Village planning day and have held subsequent meetings — the latest was this morning — to bring together the differing shades of opinion and to provide an opportunity for all to voice their concerns. There is complete agreement on at least one issue: we must address the worst housing conditions first and as quickly as possible. In the short term, we have been taking steps to address the immediate needs of those vulnerable people in greatest need; for example, the Housing Executive has promoted the use of grant aid for improvements to housing in the private sector. In addition, re-housing has been offered where necessary and feasible. Our warm homes scheme will continue to be used to install insulation and to upgrade heating for people who qualify and who wish the work to be done.
In the long term, we will continue to work with the community and its representatives to optimise housing and regeneration opportunities. Innovative private-sector contributions must also play a part in the Village regeneration proposals. A major urban regeneration plan to transform the Village has been in preparation for some time now. However, I acknowledge that there have been repeated delays during direct rule and a growing frustration among Village residents and their representatives. Mostly, people just wanted to see some movement — a start to the process. In my statement to the Assembly two weeks ago, I made that start, because I am determined to assure every resident and every public representative for South Belfast that I want my announcement translated into action.
The initial vesting will be authorised by the end of this month, with the area being declared an urban renewal area. That will kick-start the full redevelopment process and trigger an investment of around £100 million for the area. That money still has to be earmarked, but it is likely that the vesting process will not be completed for another two years.
The £7 million investment that I announced recently represents the beginning of a long-term project that will lead to the revitalisation of the area and, hopefully, of the community itself. As we all know, the area is very close both to the city centre and to M1 access. The Village should be a desirable place to live, and I want to do my bit to make it so. Nothing has happened for years, and now I, along with my officials, have got matters moving. I do not underestimate the operational difficulties that will arise as a result of the redevelopment. The key point is that the wait is over: work is now starting.
Members raised various issues, with which I will try to deal now. However, if time constraints do not allow me to do so, I will write to the Members concerned.
Jimmy Spratt raised the issue of community involvement. I assure him that the community will be totally involved. Immediately following the declaration of the area as an urban renewal area, a representative from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive will visit each home to assess residents’ needs.
The question of which streets will be affected by the urban renewal was also raised. The streets being considered are in the area that is bounded by Donegall Road, Glenmachan Street, Tates Avenue, Donegall Avenue, and the railway line. The area around Monarch Street, Monarch Parade and Lower Rockview Street to the north side of the Donegall Road is also included.
A further meeting was held this morning with Village residents and the Greater Village Regeneration Trust to discuss what will be done with the £7 million. Various things will happen immediately after the declaration of the urban renewal area.
Alasdair McDonnell asked what I am currently doing to alleviate the plight of the people in the area. We are continuing to promote grant aid for improvements to private-sector housing; where practical, we will rehouse those who want to be rehoused; and we are promoting the installation of energy-efficient heating under the warm homes plus scheme.
Other issues were raised regarding certain people who live in the Village area. I have taken those points on board and will discuss them with the Members who raised them. Anna Lo asked what compensation will be available to owners whose homes are acquired. As well as the market value of the property, owners are entitled to a home-loss payment, which is 10% of the market value of the property, and to a disturbance payment, which is negotiable. In answer to Alex Maskey’s question, the urban renewal area will be established after the Housing Executive board has made its declaration.
I assure the people of the Village, Mr Spratt, the representatives of South Belfast, and the Members who contributed to the debate, that I am determined to translate my statement into action.
Adjourned at 4.43 pm.