In light of the public health situation, Parliament Buildings is closed to the public. No public tours, events or visitor activities will take place, until further notice. 

However, Assembly business continues. Check the business diary for Plenary and Committee meetings.

Official Report: Tuesday 08 December 2015


The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.

Assembly Business

Resignation of Member: Pat Ramsey

Mr Speaker: Before we proceed to today's business, I have an announcement to make. I wish to advise the House that I have received a letter from Mr Pat Ramsey giving me notice of his intention to resign as a Member for the Foyle constituency with effect from 31 December 2015. I have notified the Chief Electoral Officer in accordance with section 35 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. I am satisfied that the requirements of Standing Orders have been met.

I also want to say a brief word, having worked with Pat for many years as a Derry city councillor and then as an Assembly Member. I also worked with him on the Assembly Commission when I was appointed Speaker. I just want to express my appreciation for the service that you have provided to this Assembly. Thank you very much, and I wish you all the very, very best of luck for the future.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Plenary Business: 7 December 2015

Mr Speaker: The first item of business is the consideration of business not concluded on Monday 7 December. You will be glad to hear that we concluded all the business on yesterday's Order Paper, so we will move on.

Ministerial Statements

Ms Ní Chuilín (The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Before I commence my statement, I, too, wish Pat and Chris all the very best. Pat is a great public servant and is liked by everybody across parties, which is sometimes rare for this place, and I wish him, Chris and the girls all the very best.

Mr Speaker, with your permission and in compliance with section 52 of the NI Act 1998, I wish to make a statement regarding the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) inland waterways meeting, which was held in the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig, County Monaghan, on 6 November 2015.

The Executive were represented by me as Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure and by junior Minister Emma Pengelly from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The Irish Government were represented by lead Minister McHugh TD, Minister of State with special responsibility for Gaeltacht Affairs, and Heather Humphreys TD, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. This statement has been agreed with junior Minister Pengelly, and I am making it on behalf of us both.

The meeting was chaired by Minister Humphreys TD and dealt with issues relating to inland waterways and its constituent agency, Waterways Ireland. The following topics were discussed and decisions taken where appropriate.

The Council received a progress report from Dawn Livingstone, chief executive of Waterways Ireland, on the activities of Waterways Ireland, including the following: management and maintenance of waterways continued, with over 95% of waterways remaining open for navigation in the period from April to October; capital expenditure focused on infrastructure repairs, with embankment strengthening and wall and bridge repairs; development work to refurbish waterside facilities and to extend towpath development is being enabled through third-party funding of €1,020,000; the dredging of the River Finn phase of the restoration of the Ulster canal from Upper Lough Erne to Castle Saunderson has been completed; Waterways Ireland is working with local authorities to explore options for the development of a greenway along the route of the Ulster canal; and 112 events were offered sponsorship support.

The UK winner of a 2015 Living Waterways Award was Row the Erne, a community-based organisation that is facilitated and supported at Waterways Ireland's headquarters. Ministers noted the update on Waterways Ireland's work to maximise the benefit of EU funding opportunities. The Council approved the determination made by Waterways Ireland regarding legacy scale linkages for Northern-based staff. The Council consented to a number of property disposals. The Council approved the appointment Ms Georgina McIntyre to the post of chief executive of the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB), on the basis of a seven-year, fixed-term contract, subject to the final agreement of the contract of employment. The Council agreed to meet again in inland waterways sectoral format in spring 2016.

Mr McCausland (The Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure): I thank the Minister for the report on the meeting. In length, at least, it is a modest report. Given the reference to the use of Waterways Ireland's headquarters by Row the Erne, a community-based organisation that was faciltated and supported there, and that there have been comments regarding the scale of the headquarters in Enniskillen, whether it is larger than actually needed and whether some of it could be sublet or used by others, has there been any progress on that, and is this an example of that sort of thinking?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Chair for his question. I agree that concerns have been raised about the size of the Waterways Ireland headquarters building in Enniskillen. Perhaps, if there is excess office space that people could make use of, that should be explored. I think that this is an example of where that has happened. I am not aware of any other requests for space, but I will try to find out whether there have been requests and if they have been facilitated; or, if there is still additional space, what plans there are to have that space filled in future.

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. Can the Minister outline the main priorities for Waterways Ireland in 2016?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I think that the Member will join me in ensuring that we continue to recognise the achievements of Waterways Ireland in keeping navigation open. It is now at 95% and over. I think that its priority is to ensure that navigation is kept open and that another priority is the restoration of the Ulster canal. As the Member will have had a chance to see in the statement, Waterways Ireland is actively exploring other opportunities for additional funding through European routes and is looking at partnerships with other nations and countries, particularly on canals and waterways, to ensure that it not only gets additional funding but helps the sustainability of the waterways currently open.

Mrs McKevitt: I thank the Minister for her statement. Rightly so, Waterways Ireland has concentrated in its progress report on capital expenditure. It focused on infrastructure repairs, embankment strengthening and bridge repairs. Can the Minister tell the House whether any of those plans have been thwarted because of the extreme weather conditions that we have seen over the last week, and with more to come?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her comments and her acknowledgement of the work of Waterways Ireland in keeping the navigation system and waterways open. I am not aware of any adverse impact as a result of the weather conditions. However, as we get the reports, even those from yesterday and today, I am keeping a daily watch on them. After today, I will ask for an update. I know that Waterways Ireland has a very good and effective working relationship with county and district councils. It takes a partnership approach to all government agencies, irrespective of the jurisdiction in which they are based. It has certainly done that in the past, and I have no indication that it will not happen if needed this week or in future. It will be willing to do whatever it can.

Mr Cree: I thank the Minister for her statement. Two points caught my eye. The first concerns a substantial sum of money from third-party funding for towpath development. Can she tell us where that is likely to take place? The second concerns the Ulster canal. We have been told that Waterways Ireland is exploring options with local authorities for extending a greenway along the canal. That would be helpful. Can she give us a bit more detail on that, please?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I know that blueway developments are very successful, and some funds have been received from some Departments for them. In Enniskillen, our colleague Michelle O'Neill was involved in exploring options for blueways and, indeed, greenways.

On the Ulster canal restoration, as the Member may be aware, dredging has taken place on the River Finn. Waterways Ireland is looking at how it can extend that from Castle Saunderson to further afield. Through the work of the inter-agency group, and from meetings with local representatives that Minister Humphreys and I have had recently, it was very clear that there is a good energy. A can-do approach is being taken to try to secure additional funds — known as third-party funds — to look at opportunities to open up not only the canal but the walkways around our waterways. That is a really good development, and we are all keen for it to continue.

Ms Lo: I have complained before about the brevity of the Minister's statements on previous meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council. I think that this is the worst that I have ever seen. The statement was very, very brief. It would be more helpful if we got more details so that we could ask you more questions. I do not understand why there is a reluctance to provide more details in statements. I want to ask questions. On EU funding opportunities, you could have told us something more about what opportunities and what work have been generated through maximising funding. Then —

Mr Speaker: I am waiting for a question.

Ms Lo: What does "legacy scale linkages" mean? Can the Minister elaborate on that, please?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member has complained in the past. I am not aware of her approaching either Waterways Ireland or Foras na Gaeilge for additional information, or even, for that matter, coming to me in between statements on one sectoral format meeting and another. Notwithstanding that, the statement was agreed by both Departments and reflects the joint communiqué. As for the linkages, there are differences in pensions and travel costs between members of Waterways Ireland staff, depending on the jurisdiction. I am sure that the Member will agree with me that it is important to ensure that all pensions and travel costs, as well as any other employment-related matters, are synergised across the island.

If the Member wants any additional information, I am open to receiving questions and answering them as best I can, but she needs to be proactive as well. If she is so discontented or unhappy with the level of detail provided, there is nothing stopping her from asking questions.


10.45 am

Mr Hilditch: I think that the difficulty with a short statement is finding something to ask on the issue. One thing that jumps out, Minister, is the European funding opportunities. Will you work with the Agriculture Department, for instance, on the rural development programme to potentially try to provide mix-and-match schemes?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I know that the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and Simon Coveney in the Irish Government have been working with Waterways Ireland to explore opportunities. Indeed, many bodies are trying to do that. There has been a great collaborative approach between Enniskillen and Monaghan and Cavan councils. That was evident in planning, first with the environmental impact assessments, and then with the planning regulations that were achieved. That partnership and relationship have continued. They will be pursued, and I will do whatever I can. Indeed, Waterways Ireland will do whatever it can to try to maximise opportunities to ensure not only that there is additional funding but that opportunities are not lost, particularly along the waterways.

Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagraí agus cuirim fáilte roimh an ráiteas s’aici anseo ar maidin. I thank the Minister for her statement this morning, which I welcome. Which stakeholders are represented on the inter-agency group that has been set up to examine all options for the Ulster canal? Does it include elected representatives?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her question. At this stage, the group does not include elected representatives. When Minister Humphreys and I met stakeholders after the NSMC meeting, that issue was raised. In fact, I met some representatives before the meeting and raised it in advance with Minister Humphreys. While the county councils are involved in the inter-agency group, and while that is appreciated and accepted, it was felt that elected representatives need to be involved because they are the real voice of the councils in trying to ensure that the direction that the councils are going in is appropriate to the needs of the people they represent. It would also mean that there would be better involvement and participation and, sometimes, a better joined-up approach. It is anticipated that, in the not-too-distant future, elected representatives will be involved in the inter-agency group.

Mr Dallat: In the lead-up to Christmas, I am in a very buoyant mood, and I readily acknowledge that Waterways Ireland has done a great deal to transform the River Bann from a large drainage system into what could be the Riviera of the North. Will the Minister assure the Assembly that everything possible is being done to encourage private investment that is capable, in the long term, of creating many sustainable jobs in leisure, hospitality and tourism?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question. I know that Waterways Ireland has been extremely proactive and has met tourism sectors right across the island. As I mentioned earlier, it is working with local government and Departments to try to ensure that there is a better joined-up approach, particularly to events and sponsored events. You will see from the statement that it was successful in securing sponsorship for at least 112 events. It is also looking at using our waterways and canals to add to the tourist product. I know that it is has spoken to, for example, the Heritage Lottery Fund and some private trusts about the possibilities. Some of that work was particularly evident in the restoration of the Ulster canal, where an inter-agency approach was taken. However, it is not resting there; it is looking for opportunities right across. I think that it has been very proactive and I am content that the same energy and focus will continue in the future.

Mr Allister: Why have the 2014 annual accounts and reports disappeared off the radar? When the Minister made a statement six months ago, she advised of the advanced state of preparedness of those accounts. Yet, in this statement, there is not a single mention of them. So, where have they gone? As for the 2016 business plan, has that yet been approved?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The business plan has been approved. The Member asks the same question after each statement on a sectoral meeting, so he should know that the accounts have to go to both Finance Departments and both Comptrollers and Auditors General before being read into the record of each jurisdiction, the Assembly and the Oireachtas. At that stage, the accounts for Waterways Ireland are in preparation, and, while there is a delay, it is much better than it was in previous years.

Ms Ní Chuilín (The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Mr Speaker, with your permission, and in compliance with section 52 of the NI Act 1998, I wish to make a statement regarding the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) Language Body meeting that was held in the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig, County Monaghan on 6 November 2015.

The Executive were represented by me as Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure and by junior Minister Emma Pengelly from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The Irish Government were represented by lead Minister McHugh TD, Minister of State with special responsibility for Gaeltacht Affairs; and Heather Humphreys TD, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. The statement has been agreed with junior Minister Pengelly, and I make it on behalf of us both. The meeting was chaired by Minister McHugh TD, and the following topics were discussed and decisions taken, where appropriate.

Ministers noted progress reports from the chairpersons and chief executive officers of Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster-Scots Agency, which included the following achievements relating to the period from June 2015 to October 2015. The app for the new English-Irish dictionary was launched at Oireachtas na Gaeilge, and the Foclóir Beag was added to the online dictionary and language library. The Clár Leabhar Gaeilge campaign, under the auspices of the marketing support scheme for the Irish language publishing sector, is progressing well, with branded stalls in place in 15 shops. The Irish language scheme for primary schools is being implemented, and new digital facilities are available from junior infant level to second class. Funding was provided for youth projects, including 92 summer camps to cater for 3,800 children, which is an increase of 200 from 2014, with 74 groups organising youth activities during the year in addition to the 428 Gaeltacht scholarships for young people here.

The promotion of Ulster Scots in education included the award of flagship status to six schools; the enrolment of 12 schools on the flagship starter programme; the delivery of five after-school clubs and 10 workshops; and two further east-west twinning projects between primary schools. Two key events were organised, comprising a conference in Trinity College Dublin to mark the 700th anniversary of the arrival of the Bruces in Ireland, with an attendance of 300; and an Ulster-Scots heritage day in Raphoe that had an attendance of 450. Support was provided to 21 summer schools, 12 community festivals and 12 community showcase events. Public awareness of Ulster Scots was increased through 19 group visits to the Discover Ulster Scots Centre, the publication of two editions of the Ulster-Scots newspaper and the establishment of a further three blue plaques around Ulster, celebrating pivotal figures from Ulster-Scots history.

Ministers also noted progress on collaboration between Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster-Scots Agency, including two joint events as part of a community relations and cultural awareness week, comprising a lecture on Irish and Ulster-Scots elements in place names in Northern Ireland and a panel discussion on language traditions in Belfast; engagement in year 2 of a programme to raise awareness of Irish language and linguistic heritage and Ulster-Scots culture, heritage and language in post-primary schools; and the ongoing evaluation of the possibilities of participation in the United Youth programme under OFMDFM's strategy Together: Building a United Community, which seeks to provide an outlet for 10,000 young people who are not in training, education or employment.

The Council noted that the field audits of the 2014 accounts have been completed, and, following work by the Comptrollers and Auditors General to finalise the accounts of each agency, it is envisaged that the consolidated language body annual report and accounts for 2014 will be laid by spring 2016. Ministers noted that the agencies of the language body continue to engage in the identification of possible opportunities to maximise the benefits of EU funding.

Ministers also noted that the Ulster-Scots Agency is continuing to explore opportunities under the INTERREG transnational programmes — the northern periphery and Arctic programme, and the Atlantic area programme, including the organisation of a workshop for the latter. The agency has applied to join the European route of industrial heritage network, which has 200 members in 43 countries, and is monitoring progress with the development of the LEADER/rural development programme whereby there may be opportunities to promote Ulster-Scots heritage.

Ministers noted developments arising from Foras na Gaeilge's success in securing EU funding for the Other Words literary project under the Creative Europe programme, and that two working groups — one internal and one with the six lead organisations — continue to assess other opportunities, including Slí Cholmcille — the Colmcille heritage trail. Advanced discussions have been held between Foras na Gaeilge, Argyll and Bute Council and Derry City and Strabane District Council with the aim of submitting a preliminary application under the Atlantic area programme. Work is ongoing to identify other eligible partners outside Ireland and the UK.

Larger partnership projects are being explored by the lead organisations EU funding working group. One of those organisations, Conradh na Gaeilge, has submitted an application under the recent round of the ERASMUS+ programme under key action 3 for youth structured dialogue. A larger project focusing on Families and Schools Together (FAST) for Gaeltacht and Irish-medium schools is being investigated.

The Council noted the key features of a revised scéim phobail Gaeilge/Irish language community scheme, which includes transition from a three- to a four-year scheme, the consolidation of progress to date and the facilitation of new communities to avail themselves of the scheme by increasing the number of possible grantees from the current 19 groups to a maximum of 26, which is an increase of 37% The Council noted a maximum grant level of €37,000 in year 1, rising to €40,000 in year 4, including 80% of the employment costs for development officers, and it noted a new focus on sustainable development in the communities, which will empower groups to retain ownership and stewardship in their target areas and ensure that permanent outcomes result from funding.

The Council noted that Glór na nGael, as the lead organisation in community and economic development through its network of development officers, will have a role in fostering, sharing and encouraging good practice in funded projects and will provide a mentoring, support and advice service to organisations whose applications do not meet the required standard for a grant offer. Ministers approved the revised scéim phobail Gaeilge/Irish language community scheme for implementation from 1 July 2016.

Ministers received a presentation from the CEO of the Ulster-Scots Agency outlining the agency's cross-border activities, consistent with its legislative remit for the promotion of greater awareness and use of Ullans and Ulster-Scots cultural issues. They noted the wide range of key activities that have been expanded on in both jurisdictions, including music and dance tuition; the Ulster-Scots flagship scheme; North/South school twinnings; a post-primary curriculum pilot project; annual community picnics; heritage research and the development of heritage trails; continuing support for Monreagh Heritage Centre; blue plaques; touring exhibitions; the organisation of an Ulster-Scots heritage day; and a conference on the Irish-Scottish world in the Middle Ages.

The Council agreed that its next language body meeting will take place in the spring of 2016.

Mr McCausland (The Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure): Historically, if we go back to the early days of these two organisations, there were difficulties with annual reports and accounts. Are we getting much closer to the point at which they are entirely up to date and that those difficulties have been addressed?

The Minister's statement mentioned the Irish language community scheme. She referred to:

"a new focus on sustainable development in the communities, which will empower groups to retain ownership and stewardship in their target areas".

Will the Minister explain what that means in practical terms?


11.00 am

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Chair for his questions. The current position regarding outstanding annual reports and accounts is moving on from where it was in the past. As the Chair knows, even in his previous role, there was a significant backlog of accounts which was of neither of our makings — it preceded us — but we are certainly heading in the right direction. The 2013 accounts were laid in the Assembly and in both Houses of the Oireachtas in June of this year, and we are proceeding with the 2014 accounts for both the Ulster-Scots Agency and Foras na Gaeilge.

In relation to Scéim Phobail Gaeilge, it is felt that smaller groups do more of the coalface community development. They should look at securing their future for the next four years, and try to develop and help groups that are not only practising and participating in the Irish language, but those who are learning the language and giving support to parents and grandparents in the wider community, in after-school groups and provision for young people and teenagers. It goes right across the whole of the North. If there is any work to be picked out as an example of the successes of Foras na Gaeilge, it is Scéim Phobail Gaeilge. It is, in my opinion, one of the best examples of its work.

Mr Ó hOisín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an dara ráiteas seo aici anseo ar maidin. I am delighted that the Minister has alluded to European funding in both statements. How can Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster-Scots Agency access it, and what discussions has she had with both bodies?

Ms Ní Chuilín: Chief executives and chairs of both organisations gave a report at the last sectoral meeting in November. It is true that Foras na Gaeilge has been able to proceed in a much more speedy way because there are natural linkages. I know that it is working with Macedonians, Swedish, Basques and Slovenians, particularly around minority languages in their written forms. There was almost a natural place for Foras na Gaeilge to apply for European funding.

In fairness to the Ulster-Scots Agency, it is trying to explore opportunities as well and it is looking at and discussing transnational and interregional programmes. The agency is not there yet. It needs to make a decision as to which programme it should apply to. Applying to Europe is very intensive, both in terms of human resources and finances. It needs to put that recommendation to its board and then pass it on to us before making a decision. It is certainly doing a lot of the preliminary work which will help it make a decision on which fund to apply for. It is actively considering all those opportunities as we speak.

Mrs McKevitt: I thank the Minister for her statement. Under the "Joint Projects between both Agencies", Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster-Scots Agency, the statement says that there is:

"Ongoing evaluation of the possibilities of participation in the United Youth Programme under OFMDFM’s Strategy "Together Building a United Community"".

Will the Minister outline to the House what programme she envisages being delivered to the 10,000 children who are not in education, employment or training?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The emergence of the Executive's Together: Building a United Community strategy has, I believe, presented many Ministers and Departments with additional opportunities to try to provide a better all-round approach to service delivery. Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster-Scots Agency have identified possible opportunities, and they have done that through working jointly. The Member has already cited the joint working referred to in the statement, using both the Irish language and Ulster-Scots culture and heritage, particularly around place names. The feedback, particularly from teenagers and young adults, is that that is something that has been particularly useful. It is trying to get those young people, who are not in training, education or employment, engaged in programmes that may be a gateway or provide opportunities for them to get involved in other schemes or other service provision.

I think that both Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster-Scots Agency should be commended for seeing these opportunities and trying to exploit them, particularly for a group of young people which, by and large, has been very hard to reach.

There is an opportunity here to do it and to do it in a cross-community way.

Mr Cree: I thank the Minister for her report. There are indications in your report that certain expense headings will be extended into the next Budget year. I am just wondering this: how can you do that, bearing in mind that we have not started the Budget process? How, indeed, will that dovetail into a Budget process?

Ms Ní Chuilín: All the Departments and their ALBs and, in the context of this discussion, their constituent North/South bodies will have received their indicative budgets. Going into what will be primarily a new mandate for both Governments, they have begun and will continue with discussions on what a new mandate and new Ministers in both jurisdictions will perhaps have. They have a flat budget, which is an indicative budget at this stage. Anything else will be on top of that. I know that, in relation to Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster-Scots Agency, there have been concerns raised about the need for additional funding, particularly if they want to explore some of the opportunities that we have just spoken about, which may mean additional support. Some of that may come from T:BUC, but some needs to come from central funds. While they have a budget at the minute, which is an estimated budget, they are looking at increasing that for the new mandates in both jurisdictions.

Ms Lo: I thank the Minister for her statement. I just want to go back to the question on participation by the two agencies in the United Youth programme. Is the Minister aware that DEL is piloting the programme but that there is money allowed only for this year and none designated for next year? I wonder whether the Minister can comment on that.

Mr Speaker: Someone's phone is interfering with the microphone system. It is not you, Minister; you are not guilty. I ask Members to check their phones, please. Minister, sorry about that.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I assure you, a Cheann Comhairle, that my phone is behaving itself.

Perhaps the Member would like to ask her party colleague what he is trying to do to work through the T:BUC programme, because I know that other Ministers and I have already begun the process. Budgets are indicative from one year to another, so we have had our budget for the programmes until the end of this mandate. I know, through the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, that it is looking for that programme to be continued. As I said, I assume, and I have no evidence to say otherwise, that the Minister for Employment and Learning, along with other Executive colleagues, is already working on plans for future delivery.

Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster-Scots Agency have identified opportunities through T:BUC. They have already got a proven track record and great experience through their joint approach to using place names as a conduit to further discussion, and they have done it in a cross-community way. I believe that the Member and other Members have given credit to them in the past. If we can continue that into the future, I think that it will go a long way to help to meet the aspirations of the T:BUC programme.

Mr Humphrey: I thank the Minister for her answers so far. I encourage everyone in the House to visit the new Discover Ulster-Scots Centre in Belfast. It is an excellent experience, and congratulations to those who established it.
A disparity exists between Ulster Scots and the Irish language — a disparity in funding for the agency and Foras na Gaeilge of 8:1, and the Minister's pet project Líofa has made a £1·1 million investment in the Irish language. What is significant in the statement is what is not in it. Where is the work that is supposed to be going on for the equivalent of a Líofa for Ulster Scots? Where is the parity and equality that was promised for Ulster Scots?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I resent the accusation that I have pet projects, and it is regrettable that the Member continues to use and abuse the Irish language in the Chamber. As he knows, the Líofa programme is not part of the NSMC statement. Maybe he just did not bother reading it before he came in; that would not surprise me.

I have asked the ministerial advisory group on Ulster Scots for a similar type of programme and believe that one will come forward in the new year. I ask the Member to use his influence, particularly with the agency over the next period of months, to try to support and help it with a better delivery of product for the Ulster-Scots culture and heritage. I do not believe that it would want to be part of any commentary that he has made about pet projects. That is not where it is coming from, and he really needs to take a leaf from its book.

Mr Humphrey: No answer.

Mr McCausland: Double up on the dose.

Ms McCorley: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas. I thank the Minister for her statement. Mar is eol don Aire, tá buarthaí móra ann maidir le cur chuige Fhoras na Gaeilge ar an Scéim Phobail Gaeilge (SPG) i gcomparáid leis an togra infheistíochta. An dtig leis an Aire sonraí a thabhairt ar an dóigh a dtabharfar tacaíocht don SPG le hinbhuanaitheacht a fhorbairt uaidh seo amach? As the Minister is aware, there are huge concerns about Foras na Gaeilge's approach to the SPG and the investment that has been given to the dictionary project by comparison. Will she give details on how the SPG will be supported so that it has better sustainability?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for her question. I share her concern. I, too, have met many representatives of Scéim Phobail Gaeilge from across the North. While they welcome the opportunity for the programme to be extended from three to four years, there appears to be some clarity needed on the availability of running and operational costs. That needs to be clarified, and I will do my best to ensure that it is.

Concerns have also been raised, not just by people in Scéim Phobail Gaeilge but by recipients of the services provided by the groups, particularly those provided by the six lead core-funded groups. Everybody can see what Conradh na Gaeilge does, but there is concern about the rest and what support Foras na Gaeilge can give, particularly to groups in the North. I accept that and hope that that can be resolved as soon as possible.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a ráitis. Ba mhaith liom a fhiafraí den Aire cad é an tionchar a bheas ag na ciorruithe Thuaidh agus Theas ar obair Fhoras na Gaeilge san am atá romhainn? I thank the Minister for her statement. What effect will budgetary cuts, North and South, have on the operation of An Foras Teanga, the language body, in the time that lies ahead?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member will be aware that I have been consistent in ensuring that the percentage of cuts has been minimised, and that has been the pattern over a period of years. I have met colleagues in the Irish Government to state the case for the need for those services, particularly in the North in the absence of an Acht na Gaeilge or anything else. It is vital that I continue to do that. I am, however, concerned that, unlike the Arts Council, Foras na Gaeilge needs to demonstrate to me and, indeed, to Ministers McHugh and Humphreys, how it is absorbing efficiencies rather than passing them on fully to the groups, as that has an impact on the outcome of delivery and services.

I am sure that the Member was here when I answered my colleague Rosie McCorley's question about the Scéim Phobail Gaeilge. That is an example of where a small amount of money would go an awful long way with a big outcome. As the Member will be aware, the legacy of that scheme — I know that he is very supportive of it — will endure. I am still having those discussions with Foras na Gaeilge and, indeed, with colleagues in the Irish Government.

Mr Allister: Where is the 2016 business plan? When was it approved? Why is it not mentioned in the statement? What is the budget, and what efficiencies does it embrace?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The business plan is not mentioned in the statement because it has not been agreed yet; it is still under consideration. The budget at this stage is still over £12 million. As I said to Mr Leslie Cree, that is the indicative budget for the language bodies until the preparation of budgets for the new mandates. Those conversations will continue. When the business plan is agreed, it will be brought forward for consideration to the next NSMC sectoral meeting in spring 2016.


11.15 am

Mr Dallat: In this season of goodwill, love and peace, which, I hope, extends to the Chamber, I ask whether the Minister agrees that cultural tourism is one of the fastest-growing tourism markets. Does the meeting between Argyll and Bute Council and Derry City and Strabane District Council indicate that there is an appreciation that cultural tourism is a very significant part of our tourist market? Will that mean that the aspirations of the research done by people such as the late Robert Welch of the then University of Ulster will now come to fruition and that Ireland and Scotland can exchange and appreciate all the cultural things that they have in common?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I thank the Member for his question and, indeed, for his Christmas cheer. There are some people in the House who definitely need a hug, but I am certainly not up for that. [Laughter.]

Mr Humphrey: I would give that a bye-ball.

Mr Campbell: As long as she is not coming towards you.

Ms Ní Chuilín: To be frank, I would not even ask Buddy the Elf to hug you, Gregory, but anyway.

In response to the important question that the Member asked, I can say that opportunities are being discussed, particularly for tourism. Indeed, the work around the Colmcille heritage trail and the Ulster-Scots Agency, with their east-west dimension, was purely focused on exploring opportunities. The Ulster-Scots Agency in particular, in its work in Donegal and Cavan, has looked to exploit tourism opportunities. I believe that that is an example of bringing added value to what is already there. In fact, when we are talking about our cultural heritage, it will help the tourist boards on both sides of the island to have experts here. People who are practitioners in the field can add to the value brought.

Mr Speaker: That concludes questions on the statement.

Executive Committee Business

That the Departments Bill [NIA 70/11-16] proceed under the accelerated passage procedure.

The motion was tabled, in accordance with Standing Order 42(4), to seek Assembly approval to the Departments Bill proceeding under the accelerated passage procedure.

Accelerated passage is an exceptional procedure. It allows a Bill to proceed without the normal Committee Stage, and less time than usual can elapse between legislative stages. On Monday of last week, in advance of the Bill's introduction in the Assembly, junior Minister Pengelly and I attended a meeting of the OFMDFM Committee, as is required by Standing Order 42(3). We had to explain the reasons behind the accelerated passage procedure being needed for the Bill, the consequences of it not being granted and the steps taken to minimise its future use for OFMDFM Bills.

I am pleased to say that the Committee heard our explanations, questioned us and supported the proposal for the accelerated passage procedure by a majority vote. I wish now to explain those same issues to the Assembly and to seek Members' support for the use of the procedure for the Departments Bill.

Reform of the structures of government here has been an issue for a long time. There was a commitment in the Programme for Government to agree changes to the structures that would apply in the next mandate. In 2012, the Assembly and Executive Review Committee produced a report on the reduction in the number of Departments. The report identified areas of commonality broadly comparable to what is now being proposed. The policy proposals underpinning the Bill were the subject of detailed consideration during the political process that led to the Stormont House Agreement in December of last year. That agreement determined on a nine-Department model to be established in time for the 2016 elections, with a future allocation of departmental functions to be agreed by the parties.

The Executive discussed departmental restructuring on several occasions earlier this year and decided on the names and responsibilities of the future Departments. On 2 March 2015, the decisions that had been reached by the Executive on the new departmental structures in consequence of the Stormont House Agreement were announced in a statement by the First Minister to the Assembly. He set out a future model of nine Departments with all the powers, functions and services of the current 12 Departments. The allocation of responsibilities was further refined during the recent talks process.

The purpose of the Departments Bill is to establish the framework for a new nine-Department structure. It renames seven Departments and dissolves another three. It also makes necessary amendments to the Departments (NI) Order 1999, which provides the basis for the existing 12-Department structure.

I will now detail the reasons why accelerated passage is needed for the Departments Bill. Although it had initially been hoped to introduce the Bill at an earlier stage, it is only now, with the conclusion of the recent talks process and the publication of 'A Fresh Start: The Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan', that it has been possible to bring it forward.

'A Fresh Start' reaffirmed the commitment to reduce the number of Departments from 12 to nine in time for the 2016 election and committed to the introduction of the Bill to the Assembly no later than the end of November 2015. It would, of course, have been preferable for the Bill to be introduced in time for it to move forward under the usual processes, but, as with the other Stormont House Agreement matters, progress on departmental restructuring became possible only following the conclusion of the talks process and the establishing of a new consensus with 'A Fresh Start' three weeks ago.

It is essential that the new structures are ready immediately following the 2016 Assembly election so that an Executive can be formed on a nine-Department basis when the next Assembly convenes. To achieve that, it will be necessary for the Departments Bill to complete its passage with sufficient Assembly time left for a debate and affirmative vote on the separate transfer of functions Order that is needed to allocate functions to Departments. That Order can be made only once there is legal certainty regarding the names of the future Departments, which can be achieved only if the Departments Bill has completed its passage by February 2016.

The consequences of accelerated passage not being granted are severe. If it were not granted, it would mean that restructuring could not take place in 2016 and that the incoming Executive after the election would be formed on the basis of the existing 12-Department structure. It would be extremely difficult to achieve restructuring between elections without major disruption to the Executive and the political institutions. Those special circumstances have occasioned this exceptional request to the Assembly for the use of accelerated passage.

The commitment in 'A Fresh Start' to a better way of doing business together should reduce the likelihood of such circumstances reoccurring and future use of accelerated passage by OFMDFM. 'A Fresh Start' has provided a basis for addressing some of our most intractable issues. In relation to departmental restructuring, it has made it possible for us to move forward, but the opportunity needs to be taken quickly, and we ask Members to support the Departments Bill being progressed by accelerated passage. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Lyttle (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister): Mr Speaker, I seek your indulgence, very briefly, to add my tribute to outgoing MLA Pat Ramsey. It has been a privilege and a pleasure to get to know Pat and to work with him on the Employment and Learning Committee and on a number of all-party groups in the Assembly, including the one on learning disability. Pat is a compassionate and courageous MLA, and he has been a passionate advocate for some of the most at-risk and vulnerable people in our community. I extend my best wishes to him in his retirement on behalf of myself and the Alliance Party.

In relation to accelerated passage for the Departments Bill, I will initially speak on behalf of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister as its Deputy Chair. The rationale for the request for accelerated passage has been set out by junior Minister McCann, along with the rationale for the Bill.

Junior Ministers met the Committee on Monday 30 November, which fulfilled the requirements of Standing Order 42(3), which states that, where it is thought that a Bill should proceed by accelerated passage, the Minister or Member in charge shall:

"explain to the appropriate committee -
(a) the reason or reasons for accelerated passage;
(b) the consequences of accelerated passage not being granted; and, if appropriate,
(c) any steps he or she has taken to minimise the future use of the accelerated passage procedure."

The First Minister announced the decisions that had been reached by the Executive on the proposed new departmental structures to the Assembly on 2 March 2015. It is, in the opinion of the Committee, regrettable that it has taken nine months for the legislation to be introduced and that, as a consequence, it is unlikely that a full Committee Stage will be possible, subject to the Assembly's agreement to the motion.

Junior Minister McCann advised the Committee that it would have been preferable for the Bill to be introduced in time for it to complete normal passage through the Assembly. However, she also explained that the Bill needs to pass through all stages before the transfer of functions Order, which is the mechanism by which the functions and the detail of each Department will be considered, can be introduced. It is in the consideration of the transfer of functions Order that the detail of the changes to departmental structures and functions will be scrutinised. Without the use of the accelerated passage procedure for the Departments Bill, progress to the transfer of functions Order and the new nine-Department structure would not be in place in time for the Assembly election next year. Given that no functions of government are being removed and no polices terminated as a result of the planned restructuring of Departments, the Committee agreed by a majority to support accelerated passage.

If I may, Mr Speaker, I will speak very briefly as an Alliance Party MLA. We support the reduction in the number of Departments and will set out the rationale further in the Second Stage debate. The Departments Bill is a simple aspect of that process. The Bill is relatively short and just names the new Departments. In our opinion, the real scrutiny should fall on the transfer of functions Order. The Alliance Party wants to ensure that all the remaining time can be focused on that, with detailed discussions at the OFMDFM Committee and on the Floor of the Assembly. Therefore, support for accelerated passage should not be misrepresented as curtailing scrutiny. On the contrary, it should be considered as maximising the opportunity for scrutiny where it matters. The Alliance Party will certainly play a full role in that scrutiny to ensure that we devise an efficient Executive structure that can deliver for everyone in Northern Ireland.

Mr Lyons: I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate on this motion and, I hope, in the Second Stage debate that will follow. We have before us a Bill that I believe now has the support of people and of Members right across the House. I understand that there is some concern about accelerated passage. However, I think that it is necessary for us to grant accelerated passage if we want the Bill to become law, which is, I think, what everybody here wants. That was not always the case, however. My party has been calling for this for a long time, but there was opposition. As a result of the Fresh Start Agreement, we have the necessary cross-community support, and it is only now that we can proceed. We would have loved the Bill to have been introduced at the start of the mandate, with the opportunity for the proper scrutiny required. However, at this stage, we have a choice: to grant the Bill accelerated passage or not have the Bill at all.

I understand that, by not having a full Committee Stage, there will be less scrutiny. However, Members have the Bill before them and can see that it is very simple. The Bill simply changes the names of the Departments and reduces their number from 12 to nine. As Mr Lyttle said, the real work and the real scrutiny will come when we talk about the transfer of functions Order, which OFMDFM has said that the Committee will have time to look at. The Assembly will have to approve that as well. In addition, the determination of ministerial offices and functions will have to be approved by the Assembly.

Before any of that can happen, we need to make sure that the Bill progresses through all its stages. It is very clear that, if we do not grant accelerated passage today, it is likely that the Bill will fall. The junior Ministers made it very clear that it could not be completed in time without it. I believe that we should grant accelerated passage because we should not give up the opportunity to have this much-needed reform of the Assembly and Departments. If everything went to plan, we would all want to have the additional Committee Stage, but that is not possible. We have this choice to make, and I think that it is right that we move forward and give it accelerated passage. I support the motion and encourage other Members to do the same.


11.30 am

Mr Hazzard: Go raibh maith agat. I do not wish to add an awful lot to what Members have said; I will probably accelerate my comments. We are all touching on the same issues: reform has been needed for quite a while, and that has been agreed between the parties for quite a while. We have had cross-party support for the reform of our Departments, how we do that and a reduction to nine Departments. As the junior Minister and the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee outlined, the real work will be on the transfer of functions Order and the scrutiny and debate during Second Stage, which, of course, is to follow this. It is important that we have accelerated passage to allow us to get to a better place for Departments. It is what the public and the parties want. I support this accelerated passage, but it is right that we touch on the use of accelerated passage and the fact that we need to be careful about where and how often we use it. I am more than happy, however, to support accelerated passage in this instance.

Mr Attwood: I apologise to the House: I was delayed upstairs at an event when the Deputy Chair of the Committee spoke.

I will take up Mr Hazzard's last comments. It should be the operating principle of the Chamber, whether it is accelerated passage or any vehicle that sidelines or goes around the good authority of the Chamber, that the Chamber should caution itself against any such approach, so that it is rarely used as opposed to routinely used. Unfortunately, we have had examples, even in the last two or three weeks — such examples might increase in the coming two or three months — where the option of an accelerated mechanism, either accelerated passage or a legislative consent motion, has become the practice or attempted practice of some. Whether it was yesterday's LCM, which was rightly defeated, the LCM on welfare reform — the 2012 and 2015 versions — which were wrongly supported, or today's proposal for accelerated passage for the Departments Bill, we need to caution ourselves about going down that road routinely rather than rarely. By using it routinely, we are degrading the character and content of devolution, the good authority of the House and the achievements of democratic struggle in this part of Ireland over many years, which brought into life the institutions that we now value. We need to be cautious about going down this road.

I know that that is broadly the view of all parties, although, in my view, that has been challenged over the last number of weeks by the option of accelerated mechanisms being preferred for a number of matters relating to the authority of the Chamber to the point at which we had an accelerated mechanism yesterday that visited on the people of Northern Ireland not just the 2012 but the 2015 version of welfare reform. The dilution and degrading of devolution, never mind the impact of all that, has been referred to as a "technicality".