details.aspx Minutes Of Evidence Report

Official Report: Minutes of Evidence

Committee for The Executive Office, meeting on Wednesday, 13 October 2021


Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Colin McGrath (Chairperson)
Mr John Stewart (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Pádraig Delargy
Mrs Diane Dodds
Mr Alex Easton
Mr Trevor Lunn
Mr Pat Sheehan
Ms Emma Sheerin
Mr Christopher Stalford


Witnesses:

Mrs O'Neill, deputy First Minister
Mr Givan, First Minister
Dr Denis McMahon, The Executive Office



Ministerial Briefing: Mr Paul Givan MLA, First Minister; Mrs Michelle O’Neill MLA, deputy First Minister

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): I welcome the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to today's meeting. Thank you very much for coming along. As ever, the session will be reported by Hansard and a transcript will be published on the Committee's web page. I invite you to give us a short presentation and then we can go to questions.

Mr Givan (The First Minister): Thank you, Mr Chairman. I hope that you and your colleagues can hear me clearly. I express my gratitude for this opportunity to meet the Committee for the first time in my role as First Minister. I picked up earlier that this will be your last meeting as the Chair of the Committee.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): It is the effect that you have on me, First Minister. [Laughter.]

Mr Givan: I hope that the two are not related and that you are not able to continue in the role in order to scrutinise me. I wish you well in whatever is next and will wait for the announcement to see who will replace you in due course.

You will also have noticed that we are accompanied today by Denis McMahon. I am very happy to introduce Denis formally to the Committee as the new permanent secretary at the Executive Office. I know that you will hear from Denis after this session on the October monitoring round and that you are planning to discuss his role in the Department with him next month.

I have no doubt that members will have a series of questions on work across the Department. However, if you will indulge us, we would appreciate the opportunity to brief the Committee on three key issues and to update you on the latest position.

The first is about the pathway to recovery and lifting COVID restrictions. That continues to be a huge priority for the Northern Ireland Executive. Members will be aware that COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on our citizens, our health and our economic and societal well-being. The pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges in Northern Ireland, necessarily diverting resources and operational delivery from longer-term objectives in order to ensure an immediate and coordinated response to COVID. I am sure that you will understand that we needed to do that, but it has not always been easy.

The Committee recently had a detailed presentation from Karen Pearson and her team on the pathway to recovery, which highlighted the challenges that we face. Those challenges must be met, but it is also important to understand that the crisis is a driver and an accelerant of change. For example, COVID has led to a fundamental digital transformation in how our public services are delivered. People are working and innovating online and finding new and more agile ways to deliver for our people.

As members know, the Executive's 'Building Forward: Consolidated COVID-19 Recovery Plan' was published on 2 August. The plan is not about getting us back to where we were previously but about providing a foundation for economic health and societal renewal. It is an integrated recovery plan with 83 highly impactful interventions that will be progressed over the next 24 months in order to deliver recovery for all our citizens under four strategic recovery accelerators. Those are sustainable economic development; green growth and sustainability; tackling inequalities; and the health of our population.

We focused on interventions that will have tangible impacts within the next six months. Those are cross-cutting in nature, which demonstrates the collaboration between Departments, arm's-length bodies and stakeholders, which are also being funded. Actions are focused on objectives, such as targeting support to companies in order to drive innovation; stimulating the economy through green growth; increasing digital inclusion; and restoring and improving mental health services.

The plan presents significant opportunities to achieve impact that is greater than the sum of its parts, both in terms of what can be progressed and what can be delivered through cross-cutting departmental action. That represents an approach with an immense potential to transform public service delivery, and, as such, we are hopeful that it will form a foundation for the achievement of longer-term outcomes.

I will hand over to the deputy First Minister, and she will come back to me before we conclude these opening remarks.

Mrs O'Neill (The deputy First Minister): Good afternoon to everybody on the Committee. Chairman, I just picked up that you are moving on to different pastures, so I wish you well with all that and thank you for the constructive way in which we have been able to work. As the First Minister said, we also have Denis McMahon on the call, who is the new TEO permanent secretary. No doubt you will also have a good, constructive working relationship as a Committee with Denis.

Thank you for the opportunity to briefly touch on a number of things before we take questions from members. The Committee will know that managing our response to COVID, alongside our recovery plan, has very much been our focus over recent months, and we have continued to steer a course through the pandemic. However, it is also important to reflect on how far we have come in the past six months, not just as an Executive or as Members of a legislative assembly but as a society.

When we last appeared at the Committee in April 2021, children and young people had been back in the classroom only for a number of days, and we were just starting to lift some of the restrictions gradually. Those restrictions were necessary in order to suppress the virus, but they had a huge impact on all parts of our society. We were always very clear with the Committee and the wider public that a cautious and steady approach informed by medical and scientific advice was the best way to keep moving forward on a pathway out of restrictions. Very much in line with that approach, we have been able to make further significant easements to the restrictions since then. That includes more families and friends being able to get together, a fuller return to retail and hospitality, the resumption of sports and the arts sector and a return to events, to name but a few. Last week, the Executive agreed further steps out of restrictions.

That is all very welcome progress, but it is crucial that necessary steps are taken to minimise the risks associated with mixing in all those environments. Going forward, mitigations must go hand in hand with relaxations. That will very much be based on a partnership approach. There has been extensive engagement across all sectors about implementing the appropriate mitigations. We have been very encouraged by the response across a wide range of areas to date.

Work is ongoing, with the hospitality sector in particular, to ensure that businesses and venues are prepared and equipped to put in place the recommended mitigation measures in advance of relaxations taking place. It is hugely important that we continue to take steps that can become the foundation for the future, with safe and resilient communities, innovative and inclusive business models, green growth and sustainability and a healthier population. I will hand back to Paul.

Mr Givan: Thank you. I will turn to the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union and the implications of the Northern Ireland protocol. Junior Ministers provided the Committee with an update a few weeks ago. It may be useful for us to reiterate that position. Although the five parties in the Executive have differing opinions on the merits of EU exit and the protocol, we are united in our commitment to work together to achieve the best possible outcome for our citizens and businesses.

We welcome the recent extensions of the grace periods. While that is only a temporary solution, it avoided a cliff edge for our businesses and it provides the time and space for permanent solutions to be found. The proposals that have been put forward by the UK Government's Command Paper and the European Union's non-papers do not fully address the concerns of our business community. We therefore welcome the ongoing discussions between the UK Government and the European Union about finding permanent solutions. As you are aware, we expect further developments later today and in the coming days. When details are received of any further proposed solutions, our officials will analyse how well they address the challenges faced by our businesses and citizens.

As we have indicated many times, businesses here continue to call for certainty, simplicity and affordability. That means that solutions must be long term, workable and create the least possible disruption to all our communities. It is not sufficient to continue to extend uncertainty with stopgap solutions. Without certainty about future requirements, our businesses will be unable to plan ahead, which will impact on their investment and overall competitiveness, hinder their growth and have a negative effect on the overall health of the economy as we continue our recovery from the impacts of COVID-19. Businesses also highlighted the fact that they need time to implement any agreed solutions. I hand back to the deputy First Minister.

Mrs O'Neill: It is important to recognise, again, that, while all those on the Executive have different views on Brexit, we are united in our pursuit of a resolution to the issues. It is essential that we collectively recognise the complexity and cross-cutting nature of many of the factors that have an impact on the local economy as a result of Brexit. We need to acknowledge that any potential solution that might work for one sector could have unintended consequences and a detrimental impact on another sector, and we must plan for that not to happen. For that reason, it is important that there is enhanced engagement by all stakeholders with the Executive and with local businesses on the development of solutions so that we can ensure that all parties and sectors are fully aware of all the impacts and that any proposed solutions will work for our communities in practice.

Mr Givan: Finally, and certainly not least, we welcome the chance to update you on our continuing commitment to victims and survivors. I know that the Committee is focused on that area, and rightly so, given the importance of the issues. The strategy, as originally conceived, had a 10-year time frame that ended in 2019. In November of that year, the then head of the Civil Service approved an extension of the strategy for two years, with the option to review or extend for a short period. We are considering an additional extension to allow time for the new strategy to be developed. In doing so, we are aware of the impact that the strategy will have on people, families and communities. We are therefore determined to get the strategy right. In the meantime, while it is being developed, we continue to focus on delivery.

We assure the Committee that the new strategy will be victim-centred and that it will be developed by TEO in cooperation with the Victims and Survivors Service (VSS), the Commission for Victims and Survivors (CVS) and a variety of stakeholders, including funded groups and individual victims and survivors. The process will take place in three separate phases, phase 1 of which is almost complete. That examines the co-design process, CVS research and relevant evaluations and is also identifying emerging themes and patterns. The final event in that phase is due to take place in October.

The second phase will explore the themes and patterns through the establishment of a series of co-design groups. We hope to invite individual victims and survivors' groups and relevant stakeholders to sit on those groups. The intention is that the working groups will identify key areas for inclusion in the new strategy. The third phase will result in a draft new strategy and public consultation. It is anticipated that it will be developed and ready for consultation by July 2022.

I ask the deputy First Minister to close our opening remarks.

Mrs O'Neill: In conclusion, we recognise that there continues to be a real need for support for bereaved victims and survivors. Until recently, the VSS provided self-directed assistance payments and health and well-being support to bereaved individuals who had registered before 31 March 2017. We are pleased that the payment scheme for victims administered by the VSS reopened in April 2021. Alongside that, the victims' payments scheme for permanent disablement opened on 31 August. To date, there have been 691 applicants to that scheme. The first cases have been passed for medical assessment after eligibility assessment by the board.

Following a presentation at the Committee last week by the chief executive of the Commission for Victims and Survivors, you wrote to us about the recruitment of a new Commissioner for Victims and Survivors. To give you an update, the closing date for applications for the post is Friday 15 October, and interviews will commence in the week beginning Monday 15 November.

We acknowledge that the appointment has taken time to get to a conclusion. It is a hugely important post, however, and it was important that we approached it in the right way. We are on track to see a new commissioner announced in the next three months. They will have a key contribution to make as we shape the next strategy for victims and survivors. They will also have a central role in continuing to develop services for victims and survivors, and another key role for the commissioner will be to ensure that the new payments scheme delivers in the best way possible.

Until the appointment is made, the commission's chief executive officer, as designated accounting officer, has authority to maintain the day-to-day running of the commission, ensuring that relevant approved business plan targets are progressed in the interim.

I will finish on this point: much, much more has been achieved than can be fitted in to a short presentation to the Committee. We have come through a very challenging time in the pandemic, and it is hard to cover all that in a short time. To cover a few other things that we have been dealing with, the Communities in Transition programme has seen the development of 34 programmes and a strong focus on participatory design with communities. A total of 80,000 people have participated in 508 of our Urban Villages projects, with solid good relations outcomes. A senior resource to lead on work on the violence against women and girls strategy has been appointed. That will support us in tackling critical and cross-cutting issues. As part of the COVID response, our Department made £1·2 million available to support travel agents through a very difficult period. We have increased the minority ethnic development fund and crisis fund and undertaken a review of racial equality legislation. Awards of £28 million have been made to the victims and survivors of historical abuse, and, last week — all members will be very alert to this — we received a report that has given hope to survivors of mother-and-baby homes and Magdalene laundries. We are committed to turning around our response to that very shortly. Since our last appearance at Committee, we also took part in a plenary meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC), and the former First Minister and I hosted a meeting of the British-Irish Council (BIC) in Fermanagh. Those meetings provided a chance to discuss key issues and to share knowledge and information on shared challenges and opportunities to benefit all our people.

I hope that you found that helpful, Chair. We will hand back to you and members.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): Thank you very much for the update on the work that is taking place. We appreciate getting all that information on some of the areas in which we certainly have been interested and on which we have written to you for updates. It is good to get the updates on where those issues are. I appreciate that, given the circumstances, it has been quite a number of months since you were with us and that a fair bit of work will have taken place. Hopefully, it will not be as long until the next time that you are with the Committee to give updates and when less work will have been undertaken in the intervening period.

The opportunity to get clarification is really important at these meetings. I am interested in getting clarification about yesterday's High Court ruling that the snubbing of the North/South Ministerial Council meetings by the DUP was unlawful. Yesterday, I noted that the First Minister said that the PEACE PLUS funding had a particular theme that relates to health and associated funding, so he signed off on that meeting taking place, subject to the deputy First Minister approving that through urgent procedure.

DUP members on this Committee and in other places have been telling us that there was no need to sign off on the almost £1 billion that was to come from the PEACE PLUS funding, but I think that we heard yesterday that that has now changed. It requires signing off, which some of us on this Committee have been saying all along. Losing that funding would put people's jobs, livelihoods and communities in peril, because the good work would not take place. Deputy First Minister, will you give us an update on your view of that attendance and on who will be attending that meeting about the PEACE PLUS programme?

Mrs O'Neill: Thank you for that. I have been vocal on that matter, both on the Floor of the Assembly and publicly. The DUP's inaction on nominating Ministers to the North/South Ministerial Council undermines our politics and the fact that we have three component parts of our politics here: the relationship in the North in the Executive, our North/South relations and our east-west relationship. All those things are interdependent, and one does not work without the others. I welcome the ruling by the court this week. It should not have to be that way, but I welcome the ruling by the court, and I encourage the DUP Ministers who boycotted our North/South Ministerial Council meetings to get on with doing their jobs and get back to business.

An immediate risk was identified, and I have spoken about that, as I said. The risk related to the £1 billion programme. It is a huge programme that makes an enormous contribution, as you identified, Chair, to our local economies and our community and voluntary sector across a whole range of areas where that investment is much needed. The Finance Minister, Conor Murphy, brought those papers to the Executive and sought clearance. However, that did not happen until yesterday evening.

The programme needs to go to a North/South Ministerial Council meeting. There will a health sectoral meeting, and Conor has obviously welcomed the agreement to now progress the PEACE PLUS programme and the removal of the DUP threat to undermine the programme, but, at the request of the Finance Minister, as joint heads of Government, Paul and I agreed that the Minister of Health will bring that paper and speak to it at the health sectoral meeting that is scheduled for 14 October, which is tomorrow. It is a £1 billion fund that will support projects for young people, health initiatives, environmental programmes and job creation. I hope that that progress on the PEACE PLUS funding marks an end to the DUP's damaging and illegal boycott of the North/South Ministerial Council.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): Deputy First Minister, you said that it will be Minister Swann who will attend that meeting tomorrow to deal with something that is ultimately a responsibility of the Executive Office. Is it convenient, First Minister, that it is an Ulster Unionist Minister who is going? Is that being done to save face that you got it completely wrong in the DUP?

Mr Givan: The meeting that is taking place on Thursday is in line with our party's position when it comes to matters of health. You rightly and accurately reflected on what I said in the Chamber yesterday: PEACE PLUS funding has significant amounts of moneys when it comes to collaboration around health. Therefore, in line with our party position on that, we have cleared the paper for PEACE PLUS through the urgent procedure mechanism and the North/South meeting. It could not have taken place without my approval of the agenda, the date and the attendees. The fact that Robin Swann will be the Minister who will be there does not negate my responsibility as First Minister to sanction the meeting, therefore making it an officially scheduled meeting of a North/South body.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): That almost sounded like, "Yes, we got it wrong and we've rectified it", but I do not think that we chose exactly the same words.

In response to your statement in the House on Monday on the NSMC meeting, I asked about the infrastructure commission, which is one of the 83 areas of the Executive's COVID recovery plan. The deputy First Minister said that she supported the commission but did not really answer my question. I am going to have a go to see whether you will answer it, First Minister. The commission has been agreed by the Executive. Can we get that confirmed? Will you confirm when it will be progressed so that the infrastructure commission can be established?

Mr Givan: The infrastructure commission is one of the areas in the COVID recovery plan that the Executive signed off on. In the establishment of such a body, it is important that we look at what we do currently and then at what the commission would look like. The Executive Office has given its approval for our permanent secretary to take forward work to engage with permanent secretaries in other Departments in order to carry out that assessment. That will provide advice to us in the Executive Office as to what the next steps will be. The report contained a clear recommendation that the Executive Office would be the sponsor Department for the establishment of such an infrastructure commission. Therefore, it is important that the Executive Office has that assessment carried out so that we can proceed to the next steps of the process. I have given approval that our permanent secretary will move that work on, and he will lead on it.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): I welcome the fact that it is proceeding. Let us hope that it can be brought about quickly so that that work can continue for infrastructure.

Minister O'Neill, finally from me, your counterpart in the Executive Office got very tetchy at Executive Office questions on Monday regarding vaccinations. He compared COVID — a highly transmissible virus — and the vaccination for it with taking medicines for depression, heart disease and cancer, which are not transmissible. The public want to see leadership. They need to know that they can trust the Executive. When they see the First Minister get so rattled in the Chamber about vaccines and vaccine certificates, it is difficult for them to have a great deal of faith in it. Deputy First Minister, do you think that it is important that we send out a clear message that everybody who can take the vaccine takes it, so that we can help our health service?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes, of course I do. The vaccine remains our best defence against the virus. While we have made huge strides forward, as I made clear from the outset, we still have a way to go. A significant vaccination programme is being rolled out. That is ongoing. We are now getting to the stage of booster vaccinations. I encourage all to take up the vaccination. It is the difference between life and death, and hospitalisation or not, and it will make a difference to the overall longer-term impact if you happen to contract COVID. Our message still is that we encourage everybody to take up the vaccination. It is crucial in the time ahead, particularly as we move from a regulatory space into a guidance space, that we are as one on the message. It is really important that we — not just me or the other Ministers but all parties and colleagues across the Assembly Chamber — speak with one message. It is crucial that we make it clear that the vaccine is our best defence. That is where all our attention should be focused.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): Do you think that it is appropriate leadership to hide someone's decision about whether or not they have been vaccinated?

Mrs O'Neill: You have the First Minister at the meeting, Chair. I suggest that you put the question to him, given that it is targeted at him and his party. I have stated publicly that I have taken the vaccine. All our representatives in the Chamber have taken the vaccine. The consistent public message is: please take the vaccine, if you can, because it is the best defence.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): Is there anything that you want to add to what you said on Monday, First Minister?

Mr Givan: Thank you, Mr Chairman. I echo what the deputy First Minister said about encouraging people to take up the vaccine. Indeed, that is what I said in the Assembly Chamber on Monday when one of your colleagues asked about that. I indicated that I wished that people who have not received the vaccine would do so. The point that was being made was that we have a long-established position that, when it comes to people's private health, medication and the things that they receive, that should be private. Of course, it is perfectly reasonable for a doctor in your GP practice to ask you about it or for a business to ask for proof of vaccination, which we are encouraging them to do, before you enter an event.

What I do not believe is acceptable, however, is what happened on Monday when a political colleague demanded to know what other political colleagues have or have not received when it comes to their healthcare. I do not think that that is appropriate. You, Mr Chairman, talked about whether it is right for people to hide their decision on the issue. We need to be careful that we do not get into some kind of shaming culture on this. I have engaged with constituents and members of society right across Northern Ireland who, for a number of reasons, have not taken the vaccine. Some of them have a medical reason. Some of them have a phobia of receiving a vaccine. Some may have ethical reasons. I do not think that it is helpful to deploy coercive, shaming-type tactics. I certainly have not heard of that approach being used by those in the medical and scientific professions or the Department of Health. It is wrong to politicise whether or not someone has been vaccinated, which is what your colleague did on Monday.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): My point, First Minister, was that it is about leadership. Given that we are asking people who can take the vaccine to take it and advising various establishments to check whether people have had the vaccine before they come in, it is not too much of a stretch for the representatives who make those decisions and who can take the vaccine to detail whether they have done so. To me, that is leadership. I have been part of the decision-making in the House, and I am happy to say that I have taken the vaccine. I do not think that there is any shame in saying that.

I hope that we can continue to send out a clear message that everybody who can take the vaccine should do that so that they can provide maximum safety in our community, especially for our health service. We only need to look at the health service figures for the number of unvaccinated people in hospitals and ICUs to see quite clearly that that is where some of the danger lies. We need to spread the message as much as possible that people should take the vaccine so that we can protect them and the health service. I hope that that message continues to be sent out.

I will open the meeting up to members' questions now. As expected, given the gap since your last attendance, there is a full list of members wishing to ask questions.

Mr Stewart: Thanks, First Minister and deputy First Minister, for your time and your answers to the Chair. I want to follow on from Colin's last point about the vaccine etc.

We have come so far, as you will agree. Collectively, we have done a lot and been through a lot in the past 16 or 18 months, no small thanks to the NHS and the unbelievable work that it has done.

On political responsibility, though, there is an onus on us to call out those in society who are not only COVID deniers but anti-vaxxers. There are times when some leeway is given in the House and on social media to elected representatives who are dog-whistling and are giving credence to some of the anti-vaxxers. I am interested to hear your thoughts on that. Should they be called out by political leaders, rather than being given space to spread this malicious nonsense?

Mrs O'Neill: Thanks for your question, John. I agree with you: it is so important that we keep promoting the issue of the vaccine uptake. We are really going out of our way to try to reach out to people. It has been made very easy to get your vaccine, whether that is through your community pharmacy, your GP or pop-up clinics. We have also seen establishments using their premises. There are innovative ways in which we try to reach people. We are finding it more challenging with the younger cohort, and all that we can do is keep trying to attract people by giving them the right information. The anti-vaccination and anti-COVID message that people promote is bad for your health. It is misinformation. One of our biggest challenges throughout the pandemic has been the issue of misinformation. It is important that we tackle it head-on, dismiss it where it is wrong and provide appropriate and correct information. I encourage people to take their information from the appropriate places, such as the Public Health Agency, the Department of Health's information systems and our own information systems. Let us drown out as much as we can the anti-vaccination and anti-COVID messengers.

Mr Givan: I echo what the deputy First Minister said. The Executive Office is very much part of the communications strategy and the rolling out of its theme, which is:

"Every vaccination brings us closer, together".

That is on a whole range of platforms. The Executive Office, working closely with the Department of Health, has identified what the best messages are and how we effectively communicate them. There is also a dedicated section around myth-busting when it comes to the vaccine. I know from speaking to people that, initially, there was controversy over the development of the AstraZeneca vaccine in respect of fetal cell lines. The Pfizer vaccine was synthetically developed; there were no fetal cell lines. Therefore, if that was an issue for people about one particular vaccine, there are other vaccines about which we are categorically able to say, "That has not been developed on the basis of aborted fetal cell lines". That should help to overcome some ethical issues that some people may have. I know that that was an issue at the very start of the programme.

I agree with what has been said. The development and roll-out of the vaccine was by far the most effective tool in getting us to where we have now got to. We are now entering the autumn and winter period. We intend to launch our contingency plan next week, at the heart of which will be the next phase of the booster programme for those who are in the over-50 category and vulnerable. It is about trying to make sure that we have as high a level as possible. The vaccination programme will be a central component part of that when we launch it next week.

Mr Stewart: Thanks, First Minister. You talked about where we have got to. Like, probably, many elected reps — or maybe I am just quite sad — I have 'Moving Forward: The Executive's Pathway Out Of Restrictions' pinned on the wall. I ticked off each of the milestones as we went along and hit them. I could not quite hear you when you were giving your contribution earlier: is that still a live document, or has it been left off now and, when you are looking at the easing of restrictions, it is on more of an ad hoc basis? Does that document still play a role in how we are getting out of the restrictions?

Mr Givan: With regard to the pathway document, you are right to highlight that we have had around 40 easements between July and where we are today. When we get to the end of October, there will still be three areas that will be in a regulatory format. Whilst others will have moved out of regulations, there will still be guidance associated with that. In some of those areas, the pathway has been completed: we are at the end point of various phases. When we launch our autumn/winter contingency plan, it will provide a more holistic picture of where we are currently and of the next phase, which will take us through the autumn/winter period. The document that will be the more authentic document and the key reference point is the contingency plan, which will be published next week.

Mr Stewart: Thanks for that. Just another point that I suppose is related. I asked you a question in the Chamber yesterday, First Minister, and you said that you are an optimist. Despite being an MLA in Stormont for the last couple of years, I remain optimistic, and I think that we are all in this for the right reasons. You both outlined the importance pieces of work that are being carried out by your Department. However, given that we are heading into winter, with the fuel crisis, the social crisis, the health crisis and everything that we are in, it is imperative that the institutions remain up and running so that we can supply security and political stability for Northern Ireland. What are you doing together to ensure that stability? Do you both agree that we need to see

[Inaudible owing to poor sound quality]

committed to in New Decade, New Approach (NDNA), to ensure that Ministers can remain in place in the terrible event of Stormont coming down through political action?

Mr Givan: Junior Minister

[Inaudible owing to poor sound quality]

Citibank, and it referenced the need for stability for ongoing investment. It is a company that operates on a global scale, and it is talking about where to move its money within its organisation. It operates out of over 90 different countries, and it needs to make sure that, when it is going to its investors in the likes of New York, it can say that there is political stability to justify and give confidence around that. Those points that you made are well made, and I will add the very extensive legislative programme that the Assembly has to get through before the end of the mandate. I very much want to see the mandate completed, not just for Executive business but because I have tabled a private Member's Bill, which Christopher Stalford has now taken over, and I really do not want to see it fall. It is in that context that I very much want to see a satisfactory outcome over the next number of weeks.

The EU will publish its proposals later this evening, and the UK Government will then engage over the next number of weeks to see whether we can find a resolution. I said in my opening remarks that, for political stability and for the wider business environment that we are operating in, we need to have a permanent solution. That is what we need to get at the end of the next number of weeks. I hope that we get to the position where the institutions are able to keep operating. I do not want to spend this meeting rehearsing the position that my party and I have articulated publicly as to why we have got to where we have got to as a result of the protocol. We want the UK Government to honour their commitment in New Decade, New Approach, which was that we should be part of the internal market of the United Kingdom without those east-west barriers. Let us collectively put our shoulders to the wheel, so to speak, and really push for a satisfactory outcome over the next number of weeks.

Mr Stewart: I am sure that you will not disagree with that, deputy First Minister.

Mrs O'Neill: Of course I want to see a satisfactory outcome, and I concur on the point that you made around stability and certainty. That is what the public want and deserve. That takes us all to work together. I am here because I want to work with the other parties and I want to be able to provide that stability and certainty on the way forward. I want to be able to work with others when it comes to delivering public services, creating new and better jobs and defending our health service, but the reality is that one party in the Executive is holding everybody else to ransom and is threatening the stability and certainty of our politics. If you want to diagnose a problem, you need to diagnose it properly. Shame on those who are involved in threatening the stability of our institutions for their own party interests or for their own electoral interests, whilst the rest of us are trying to work together.

I welcome the fact that, today, we will see the publication of proposals by the EU side, who clearly have engaged and listened to stakeholders here. That is crucial. Let us listen to the people who are involved and who found the lateness of the deal that was struck challenging, who have been trying to find new ways of working with a new Brexit and a new trading reality that was always going to come about as a result of Brexit. We are yet to see the proposals, but I am encouraged by what I have been briefed on what we can expect from the EU side today. I think that it will provide that stability and certainty.

I am less encouraged — maybe "not encouraged" is a better way to put it — by what I have heard from the British Government this week, and, in particular, from David Frost. He is dialling up the rhetoric and talking about new red lines such as the European Court of Justice. That does not bode well or create good mood music to try to find solutions, which is what the public want us to do. I have played my part in that, and I encourage the British Government and the EU to honour the agreement that was signed up to by both sides. The British Government signed up to the withdrawal agreement and the protocol; we now expect to see that implemented. I hope that both sides can enter into the next few weeks with a determination to come out the other side with an agreement that provides the certainty and stability that you referred to in your initial question.

Mr Stewart: I have one last point that it would be remiss of me not to point out. Much of the legislative agenda and important work that is going on now could probably have been achieved in the three years from 2017 to 2020, had we had a Government then. I do not think that anyone is completely blameless in this. I am busting to see the stability that this country needs.

Given where we are now, the way that the Executive Office operates and the role of deputy First Minister and First Minister, do you agree that the time has come to see the creation of the office of the joint First Ministers? If that is the case, do you commit to doing that?

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): I will offer that to either of the joint First Ministers.

Mrs O'Neill: Yes, I am more than happy to take that question. Thanks for the commentary, John. I concur with you. I am bursting to see the same stability that you have referred to. That will take a collective effort, including the effort of your party, because your party is still on the ground that we cannot have an Irish language Act and should not legislate for the Irish language. Let us work together to make a more inclusive society. Let us work together to build a better future for all our young people. Let us work together to create better jobs. Let us work together to improve people's lot in life. I am certainly up for that, and I look forward to working with you in that vein.

It is really interesting that we are having a conversation about changing the title of the office at a time when there is a prospect of a nationalist First Minister. This title was good enough 23 years ago; it was good enough five years ago when Martin McGuinness first mooted a change. Why is it not good enough today? It nearly stinks of nationalists need not apply, and that is not good enough. There is no going back to that era; we are only going forward, with a progressive outlook on society and by working together. I am up for that. However, as things stand today, I am the joint head of Government. I am the joint First Minister; that does not change. Ultimately, it will be the public — the wider electorate — that decides who they want to return as the largest party and, therefore, who will go into the office of First and deputy First Minister.

Mr Stewart: Thanks, deputy First Minister. That was not my intention. This issue has been on the cards for quite some time. Many parties and elected representatives have been calling you exactly that — joint First Minister — and that was the reason for the question. First Minister, do you want to offer anything on that?

Mr Givan: Thank you for the question, John. I want stability. I can point to a whole series of issues that have been unlocked since I took up the role of First Minister. The legislative programme had been stuck in the Executive, and we needed to take that forward. At least six or seven Bills have now flowed out of the Executive. I continue to seek to have a smooth working Executive, whilst managing the macro environment that is buffeting the Executive. That is at a UK Government and at a European Union level with respect to the protocol. There are macro elements that are creating a lot of turbulence. I very much see my role as navigating through the Executive in a mature and professional manner the day-to-day bread-and-butter issues that affect all our people, and that is the approach that I have taken to my role.

I want to see stability going forward, but we are a little bit in danger. I do not want the Committee session to end in a row, but there is a little bit of revisionism about people threatening the institutions. At my appointment, one party was threatening not to reappoint on the basis of a narrow sectional interest. If a deputy First Minister had not been appointed, that would have created huge instability and the collapse of the institutions. We need to be careful about how people are trying to present themselves as the custodians of the stability of these institutions, because that certainly was not the case earlier this year.

The titles of this office emanate from the Belfast Agreement, and, ultimately, it is for the people to decide. I make no apology that, as a unionist, I want to have a pro-Union First Minister, because I think that that is important internationally and for our place in the United Kingdom, but it will be for the public to decide who holds this office. I have every confidence that when it comes to the election, whenever that is, the people of Northern Ireland will want to have Northern Ireland's pro-Union majority reflected in the holder of the office of First Minister. I welcome the fact that for those who did not regard the position as being important, because they referred to the "joint First Minister", it clearly is very important, otherwise the issue would not be being made in the way that it is being made by nationalists and republicans.

Mr Stewart: Thank you both for your time.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): Given the number of issues that people are facing with regard to the economy, infrastructure and education, the fact that we have spent about 10 minutes bickering about a title says very much about those who participated in that bickering. I think that we should move on if we can.

Mr Lunn: Thanks to the First Minister and deputy First Minister for attending today. I do not want to extend the bickering, but I do want to ask you about the report on flags, identity, culture and tradition (FICT).

Mr Lunn: We have had discussion about this through Assembly questions and so on, and it is fairly obvious that one side of the Executive Office is quite happy to see this report released and that the other side — yours, Paul — is unhappy to see it released. This saga has been going on for, I think, about 18 months and it is with its second working group, and there is no sign of any white smoke. What is holding it up? That question is probably for you, First Minister.

Mr Givan: Thank you, Trevor, and thank you, Mr Chairman. I will answer the questions that members of the Committee put to me. It was not me, Mr Chairman, who raised the issue of the titles of this office in my opening remarks.

On FICT, I did agree at the Executive meeting on, I think, 23 September that that report should be published. Indeed, in advance of this Committee meeting, I also authorised, from this side of the office, the Committee to receive a copy of that. I think that it is the least that we should expect that the scrutiny Committee has a copy of that report, but I want to see it released into the public domain. I provided that approval at the Executive meeting on 23 September, so there is no hold-up on my part in having that report published and made available to the public.

Mr Lunn: First Minister, that is around the time when you answered a question for written answer from me. That answer really stonewalled the issue, and there was no indication then that there was imminent possibility of release. What has changed? When is this Committee going to see this report? It is three or four weeks since 23 September.

Mr Givan: Yes, and it is recorded in the minutes of that Executive meeting where I gave my approval for it to be published. I have no issue with the report being made publicly available. It was paid for by the taxpayer, and the taxpayer should see it. I am more than happy for it to be put into the public domain and more than happy for this Committee to get a copy of it. To me, it should be in the public domain, and I have no issue with having it made publicly available to members of the Committee or, indeed, wider society. There is no issue on my part.

Mr Lunn: I am glad to hear it. Deputy First Minister, do you have any comment about the situation?

Mrs O'Neill: Yes, Trevor. Thanks. You are consistent on asking about this, and rightly so. I want to see the publication of the report. However, where I think — or, sorry, where I know — the difference is is that I want to see it published in its entirety, but also the accompanying implementation plan. How are we going to turn around and deliver the things that the report has asked for? The previous First Minister from the DUP agreed that we would have the publication of the report and that we would publish the implementation plan. The current DUP First Minister does not have the same view, so the blockage does not lie with me. That is where I want us to get to as quickly as possible. If we get the publication of the report, let us also have the implementation plan.

Mr Lunn: Let me get this straight, if you do not mind. The First Minister says that the report can be published and that he has no issue with that. Does that mean, First Minister, that you object to the publication of the implementation plan that should accompany the actual report?

Mr Givan: The issue there, Trevor, is that there is an ongoing piece of work that the junior Ministers are involved in on considering the report and its recommendations. That ongoing piece of work should not be a precondition to the report's being made publicly available. So, whilst the junior Ministers continue to examine the report and engage around it, the report should be put into the public domain and be provided to the Committee. That is the basis on which I have approved it. It is in the minutes of the relevant Executive meeting that I approved the publication of the report and want to allow the junior Ministers and the working group that is involved to continue to engage in their work. We would also get the benefit of the public reaction to the report and of all Assembly Members being able to react to what is contained within it. All of that would be very helpful and would feed into the consideration of the report that the junior Ministers are involved in.

Mr Lunn: OK, thanks for that. Chair, I just have one more question, and it is not particularly contentious, so maybe we will get some agreement. I have been asked by a group that is involved in traditional music to get your comments on the remit of the office of cultural identity and expression.

Mrs O'Neill: Obviously, we hope to see that legislation progress over the course of this month. That is the commitment that was made by Brandon Lewis on behalf of the British Government. At this stage, things are on target for that legislation to progress. Once we have that principal legislation through, we will be able to talk at length about the functions of the office, where it fits in and where groups and individuals like those involved in the traditional music industry can fit in. It will be a very positive thing for us all to promote culture, language and all our interests and for us to see how we can do things far more positively together. I hope to see progress on that, Trevor, before the end of this month.

Mr Givan: Obviously, the office of cultural identity was something that was very important to my party during the discussions around New Decade, New Approach. It is not just about traditional music; we very much recognise the huge role that the faith community, for example, has to play in our society and want to ensure that there is a voice for the very divergent cultural expressions that we have. At the point when the office is created, it will have a very important role, not just when it comes to considering traditional music but the wider aspects that it will have to take into account.

Mr Lunn: Thanks for that. Traditional music affects both sides of the community, if you have to talk in those terms. What community or stakeholder engagement has taken place or will take place on the remit of the office?

Mrs O'Neill: We expect that the legislation will comprise three Bills — if you remember, there are three Bills that will run together. Those will be laid in Westminster before the end of this month. Then there will be a lot of engagement to be had on the office, the make-up and structure of the offices and roles of the commissioners and the director for the office of culture and identity. That is where you will see a lot more stakeholder engagement. I will be happy to provide you with more information when we see the legislation going through and move on to that next phase. We will be able to come back then and talk to the Committee at length. That would be more appropriate time to answer a lot of the questions that you have raised today.

Mr Lunn: OK, thank you.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): Let us hope that one of the first tasks of that culture department is not to publish a flags report with an implementation response, or else they will be in for a very dodgy start to their work.

Mr Sheehan: Has the AERA Minister corresponded with you both, as he is required to, to tell you whether he will attend the NSMC meeting on Friday on the environment and marine aquaculture?

Mrs O'Neill: You are right that that is the next meeting. We have had no correspondence from the AERA Minister to advise us of his reason for not attending. I have written to my counterpart in my office, Paul, because it is his duty to nominate another unionist Minister to attend. I am yet to receive a response.

Mr Givan: Thank you for the question, Pat. In response to quite a number of questions in the Assembly, I asked, "When is a scheduled meeting a scheduled meeting?". Although the secretariat may suggest dates for meetings of North/South bodies, a scheduled meeting only becomes such when the Executive Office signs off on it being an official meeting with an agreed agenda and agreed date. There is no scheduled meeting that Mr Poots has to attend. As I outlined yesterday, a Minister is required to attend only at the point that such a meeting becomes officially sanctioned by the Executive Office. There is no meeting scheduled for Friday that I have agreed by way of its agenda, date or attendees.

Mr Sheehan: That is interesting, Paul, because the onus is on you to nominate another unionist Minister if the AERA Minister is going to be a no-show. It is then the responsibility of you and the deputy First Minister to jointly approve the agenda and papers for the meeting. Are you going to do that for the meeting this Friday?

Mr Givan: Well, Pat, the Minister for Agriculture is not a "no-show", because there is no show unless the Executive Office agrees the agenda, date and attendees. Only then would I need to nominate a replacement for a Minister who is unavailable to participate in that meeting and to —.

Mr Sheehan: OK. Let us take a step back, Paul.

Mr Sheehan: The Minister who is supposed to be attending a meeting must correspond with you and the deputy First Minister to indicate whether or not he will attend the meeting. Is that not right?

Mr Givan: Procedurally, when a meeting is scheduled, I think that that is the correct process, but a meeting has not been scheduled. A meeting only becomes scheduled on the basis that I outlined in the Assembly yesterday and that I just repeated in response to your questions.

Mr Sheehan: OK, so, if a meeting is pencilled into the diary —. Do you agree that a meeting is pencilled in for Friday?

Mr Givan: No. I do not. The secretariat —.

Mr Sheehan: So, there is no meeting on Friday? There is not supposed to be a meeting on Friday?

Mr Givan: There has not been ministerial sign-off for a meeting to take place on Friday. Although provisional dates may be suggested by the secretariat, it becomes a scheduled meeting only when there is ministerial sign-off. That is when it becomes a scheduled meeting. Therefore, in respect of there being a scheduled meeting on Friday, a meeting has not been pencilled in. Any Ministers that show up will be showing up to a meeting that is not officially scheduled. For it to become an officially scheduled meeting, the Executive Office — therefore, me — has to sign off on the agenda, the date and the attending Minister. That has happened in respect of the meeting on Thursday that Robin Swann will attend. That was the process for that meeting. No such process has been followed for Friday. Minister Poots will not, therefore, be a no-show on Friday, because a meeting has not been scheduled to take place on Friday.

Mr Sheehan: If there is not going to be a meeting, why would Ministers notify the Executive of their attendance? I listened to what you said. This is the second time that I have had to listen to it. You said the same in the Chamber the other day. You obviously had one of your Members lined up to ask a question about scheduling. Let us be clear. Walk us through the process of how the meetings are organised and of why Justice Scoffield judged the actions of DUP Ministers, who are boycotting those meetings, to be unlawful. Walk us through that process.

Mr Givan: Minister Poots has not communicated with the Executive Office.

Mr Sheehan: Does he not have a responsibility to do so?

Mr Givan: No, because no meeting has been scheduled, for the reasons that I have just outlined. As I said yesterday, part of the judgement that I have been able to read talks about those seeking to take political advantage of the court processes. I feel that the best way to resolve the wider issues that we face is through a political resolution, and I urge people —.

Mr Sheehan: Sorry, Paul, I do not want a political lecture on this. Have Ministers Mallon and Kearney notified the First Minister and deputy First Minister that they will be attending a meeting on Friday as accompanying Ministers?

Mr Givan: I do not know the answer to that. They may well —.

Mr Sheehan: You do not know?

Mr Givan: They may well have done, but, until there is an officially scheduled meeting [Inaudible.]

Mr Sheehan: No, sorry. You "do not know" or "they may well have done" — which is it?

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): OK. We need to —.

Mr Givan: With respect, Pat, you cannot change the facts around what this meeting is about. I appreciate that it does not suit the narrative that you want to portray, but —.

Mr Sheehan: I am asking a simple question: have other Ministers notified the First Minister and deputy First Minister that they will be going to the meeting on Friday?

Mr Givan: I do not know the answer to that, but I am repeating now —.

Mr Sheehan: Why do you not know the answer?

Mr Givan: Well, I am repeating this at considerable length now. It is somewhat immaterial if Minister Mallon and others have notified the Executive Office that they intend to attend a meeting. Until it becomes an officially scheduled meeting, there is no such meeting to take place on Friday. The only scheduled meeting that has been sanctioned by the Executive Office is the one on health, and I outlined in the Assembly the process for that. Once a meeting is scheduled, other Executive colleagues are notified of it, and we also notify the Speaker of the Assembly that a meeting has been scheduled. Other Executive colleagues have not been notified about the meeting on Friday and the Speaker of the Assembly has not been notified about the meeting on Friday because there is no officially scheduled meeting to take place on Friday. Any Minister who shows up at that is doing so for purely political presentational purposes.

Mr Sheehan: Two other Ministers have notified the First Minister and deputy First Minister that they will be attending a meeting on Friday, but there is no meeting? Come on, Paul.

Mr Givan: Correct, Pat.

Mr Sheehan: Come on, Paul.

Mr Givan: You have got it now.

Mr Sheehan: Paul, your actions have been judged as being unlawful. You are the First Minister. You have a responsibility to nominate another unionist Minister. When will you start upholding the law?

Mr Givan: Pat, I always uphold the law, and I do not want this meeting to degenerate into whose credentials uphold the laws in these political institutions, because I think that the public will be very able to discern for themselves which party has the track record of upholding the law.

I want these political institutions to work. The resolution to these issues is not to be found through legal recourse, and I encourage people to resist the temptation to do that and, instead, put their energy into finding a political resolution. That will be the best way forward for the stability of these institutions.

Mr Sheehan: OK. I want to move on to another subject. The British Brexit Minister said last week that increasing North/South trade is a problem that needs to be solved. That is far removed from the assessment of farmers, manufacturers and business leaders in our community. Given David Frost's comments yesterday, does that not expose the cynical and duplicitous nature of the British Government in relation to the protocol? That question is for both Ministers. Thanks.

Mrs O'Neill: I am happy to answer.

Mr Givan: Michelle, you come in, and I will come back after that.

Mrs O'Neill: I concur, Pat. I think that it draws into question the motivation behind the British Government's approach. At a time when the rest of us want to find solutions and certainty, the British Government are drawing new red lines and nearly moving the goalposts, which is totally unacceptable given where we are at this point in time.

We all know — you, the majority of Committee members and the majority of MLAs — what the protocol does. It prevents a hard border on this island, safeguards the Good Friday Agreement and protects the all-island economy. We also know that the backdrop to all this is that Brexit has been foisted upon us. The majority of people here did not want it. The protocol gives us that protection. David Frost let the mask slip when he referred to the increase in North/South cooperation in trade and said that that was a problem. I cannot see how that is a problem. I have always wanted to find a reasonable way forward and solutions and to minimise any disruption to trade, North/South and east-west. It is for those who negotiated and agreed the withdrawal agreement and the protocol to answer why they are now saying that it is no longer fit for purpose, when, clearly, it is about protection against the worst impacts. It begs the question of why the Tories, supported by the DUP, are trying to undermine what has been achieved in the protocol.

We are where we are. I hope that the practical proposals that we will see over the next short while from the EU, on how to make the protocol work and how to make it easier for businesses to correspond with what is required of them in respect of SPS checks etc bring solutions and stability. I hope that all sides put their best focus on trying to find that way through. Some speak about binning the protocol. That is not what is going to happen. It is an international treaty; it must be adhered to. However, there are issues that need to be resolved, and, working with stakeholders, we have always been focused. I welcome the work that has been done on the EU side to work and engage with local stakeholders to identify the challenges and to find solutions. I suspect that that is what we are going to receive from the EU side this afternoon.

Mr Givan: I will pick up on that. Thank you, Pat, for the question. On the displacement of trade, I can understand why some colleagues wanted to highlight that there has been increased North/South trade as a result of businesses having to identify alternatives to their supply chain. However, while that evidence is something that other people wish to welcome, it is also the evidence that justifies the triggering of article 16, because the protocol was never designed, at least by those who advocated it, to displace east-west trade with North/South trade. Those who advocated the protocol did not advocate it as a way to thwart east-west trade and generate enhanced trade on a North/South basis. In fact, that is the evidence that justifies article 16 in that circumstance.

We can pick over the bones of the past and point to how we got to where we are, who bears responsibility and so on, but, for my part and that of my party, we never supported the Conservative Party signing up to the Northern Ireland and Ireland protocol. In fact, we voted against it at Westminster when we had an opportunity to protect Northern Ireland in those circumstances. I am hopeful that we now have recognition that there needs to be change and that a new arrangement needs to be found to provide us with that free trade on an east-west and North/South dimension. I want us to have frictionless trade within the United Kingdom and with the Republic of Ireland. That is something that we are all agreed on. Let us encourage the UK Government and the European Union to get us to that place. If we can get to that place, it will be to the benefit of all our people.

Mr Sheehan: I have a final comment, Chair, if you do not mind. I cannot imagine why you would want to be in exactly the same position as Britain, which has empty supermarket shelves, petrol stations that are running out of fuel and other shortages and problems. Thank goodness that we have the protocol to allow businesses to establish other supply lines.

Mr Givan: I will comment on that point, Mr Chairman, because I asked a related question at one of our four-nations calls that we have most weeks. Great Britain has had a particular problem with HGV drivers. We do not have the same problem. We have a much more resilient market when it comes to fuel supply. So I am not sure that we can pin the fuel supply disruption in Britain, for example, on Brexit. We had a more resilient local situation in relation to those issues.

Mr Sheehan: And Brexit had nothing to do with it.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): OK, thank you for those questions and answers. I am not sure, First Minister, whether, on the North/South issue, we went from philosophical to 'Yes, Minister' to chicken-and-egg about when a meeting is a meeting. I am sure that when we look at Hansard, we will be able to pore over that and work out exactly which one of those three it was.

Is Diane Dodds still with us? I know that she had to go at 3:15 pm, but if she is still there, she may want to ask a question. Are you still with us, Diane?

Mrs Dodds: Yes, thank you, Chair. Good afternoon to everyone. I have a couple of questions that I want to ask, not with the same interrogation techniques but with sincerity, I have to say.

You started off, First Minister, talking about the recovery plan and its four target areas: sustainable economic development; green growth; tackling inequality; and health. One section of our community that has most felt the impact of the pandemic is our young people and children. Where does education sit in the recovery plan? Will we see the same budgetary and financial commitment to education that the Finance Minister and, I presume, the rest of the Executive have given to health? That is massively important, and if we are to recover properly, we cannot forget the impact of the pandemic on children and young people.

Just to develop that theme a little bit further, the second element of my question is about future-proofing economic recovery. One of the ways to do that is to build our skills capacity. We need to do that very rapidly because this economy is changing very rapidly. We are now becoming a high-tech manufacturing economy and an IT economy and so on, and we are competing with the best in those areas. We need to develop our skills, but to do that, in my view, we will need a fully ring-fenced skills budget for Northern Ireland.

I noticed today that the Republic of Ireland Government have dedicated €42 million in their Budget for skills. If its economy is to be future-proofed, Northern Ireland needs to develop our people's skills. What do you think about a dedicated skills fund for Northern Ireland?

Mr Givan: Thank you for the question, Diane. You are absolutely right about the impact on our young people. When we look at the figures relating to those who were hardest hit financially, for example, we see that it was primarily young people and women, because they were in the types of industries, such as hospitality and services, that were closed down.

When it comes to education, the pandemic showed where a lot of inequalities exist. Some young people had iPads and the appropriate IT and some schools were ready for all of that. However, there were other schools that were not in the same place. Undoubtedly, the past 12 months has highlighted a lot of inequality in education. Tackling that inequality is a key theme of the recovery plan.

As you rightly highlight, the skills aspect is a key element of economic recovery. It is about trying to make sure that people have the right skills. When you were Economy Minister, you will have heard about the number of businesses that wanted to offer jobs to people but were not able to get the skilled workforce. That pressure does not solely exist in Northern Ireland; there is real pressure on businesses across the United Kingdom to have the appropriate skills in their workforce. There needs to be a very focused effort when it comes to providing those skills with our further education colleges and universities, and that requires a dedicated financial resource. That is an area in the Budget. Recently, we had a discussion as an Executive around the kind of priorities that we want to see in the three-year Budget. There is a real opportunity, with that three-year Budget cycle, to look strategically at how we allocate funding, and that economic recovery and a skills-based workforce will be vital in order to make further progress.

Mrs O'Neill: I do not need to add too much to that. As has been said, we have an opportunity with the three-year Budget cycle to be able to plan for the future and to make sure that we properly invest in a longer-term, thought-out strategy, particularly around skills and our children and young people. That is very much to the fore of the conversations that we are having about our plans for the future. Children and young people have a role to play in each and every one of the recovery areas, and we need to support them in each and every one of them. That is all that I will add to that.

Mrs Dodds: Thank you, Chair. That is excellent. I look forward to ring-fenced budgets and, perhaps, looking at priority for the Education budget. Yesterday, I noted in the debate that the Education budget has suffered a cut of 5% in real terms, despite there being 6% more children at school. That leaves it in a very tough position going forward. If we are to truly recover, we have to invest in education and in children and young people.

I will continue with the recovery theme, because it is hugely important that people listening to the Committee understand that it is a priority for the Assembly and the Executive. I noticed recently that the Dublin Government have published their national recovery plan. Some of the actions also relate to Northern Ireland. What discussion have officials had around that plan, First Minister and deputy First Minister?

Mr Givan: The national development plan has been published, and you are right: references to Northern Ireland are made in it. Certainly, at a ministerial level, I am not aware of there being engagement in the development of that national development plan. It is a matter, ultimately, for the Republic of Ireland Government when it comes to what they are going to produce. However, as the plan talks about things in Northern Ireland, it would have been appropriate, I think, for information to have been shared around that. I am not aware of any particular engagement around that, but I am quite happy to say that we will seek to look into that to find out whether engagement took place.

Mrs O'Neill: We have ongoing engagement between officials. The national development plan was only published last week. One of the headlines in that programme is the Shared Island unit. The funding for that will be doubled until 2030. Again, all that much-needed investment and the doubled funding is in jeopardy because of the threat from DUP Ministers to not attend North/South Ministerial Council meetings, where all those things get thrashed out and discussed at ministerial and official level. I hope that that comes to an end and that we are able to progress the much-needed funding that has been earmarked for the Shared Island Fund, which takes in a whole range of vital infrastructure projects that we have been working with the Irish Government on. We will continue to do that over the years ahead. There is a lot at stake with the North/South Ministerial Council meetings, given what they can deliver. I look forward to being able to delve into that additional funding in more detail over the weeks and months ahead.

Mrs Dodds: I want to come back on that for a second. I have had my share of North/South Ministerial Council meetings. I never really had anything much to do with the Shared Island Fund in any of them. It is strange that another Government are indicating what should or should not receive investment in another part of another jurisdiction.

I will move on from that. There are a lot of misconceptions about the threat to PEACE PLUS money.

I will quickly reiterate for information that the European Union and the Irish Government are contributing €258 million to the PEACE PLUS fund, the British Government are contributing €560 million, and the Northern Ireland Executive are contributing €150 million. Unless any of those four sides was going to say, "The game is up; we are not doing it", there never really was any threat to the PEACE PLUS money. I note that the British Government are putting more into the PEACE PLUS fund than everybody else put together.

I apologise to everyone that I have to go, but I have another meeting that has to happen.

Mr Easton: Thank you for your presentation. I have a few questions on things that I need to get my head around. Paul, am I right in saying that you have approved the release of the flags and identity report? Have I picked that up correctly?

Mr Easton: Who is holding it back? Has the deputy First Minister approved it from her end? Why, if you have —

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): Alex, I do not mean to be rude by interrupting — and it is up to the First Minister whether he responds — but we have already done a full round of questioning on this and we had that very question. I do not know whether you were listening. It is up to the First Minister whether he wishes to answer, but we have already had those questions.

Mr Givan: Just to confirm, Mr Chairman, Alex covered it accurately: I have approved the report's publication and release.

Mrs O'Neill: Not to rehearse old ground, but let us be clear: all parties were represented in the FICT group, and all parties have the report that is yet to be published. I absolutely support the publication of the report. I support not just the facts of the report but, equally, how we will implement it and how we will improve things. That blockage is not with me.

Mr Easton: Chair, with all due respect to you, there has not been a clear answer on this. I do not know why the report is not getting out there, because nobody is giving us a clear answer. Anyway, the next question —

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): For clarity: the DUP would publish the report but not with the annex, and Sinn Féin does not want to see it published unless it has the annex. Therefore, it is not getting published. That has been fairly clear from them today.

Mrs O'Neill: Chair, that is actually quite unfair and incorrect. The Executive response needs to be agreed, and that is yet to be agreed. That is the implementation piece that needs to come forward —

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): In fairness, deputy First Minister, it is the department of disagreement. We know that no decisions come from it. We will go back to Alex, please.

Mrs O'Neill: Chair, with all due respect, to clarify again: I want to see the report published, but, equally, I want to see the Executive response as to how we will turn around and implement the recommendations from the report. That is also important, and it will take everybody around the Executive table working together.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): But it will not happen because it will not get joint approval.

Mrs O'Neill: The Executive need to agree collectively the response regarding implementation.

Mr Easton: OK. It is as clear as mud, Chair. Maybe I should go on to the next question.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): Yes. Let us move away from flags because we will just not get clarity from the Executive Office on it, but I am sure that we will continue to pursue it. We will go back to you, Alex.

Mr Easton: The cultural Act or the Irish language Act, or whatever it will be called, will be pushed through Westminster, which is very much not the way that I would want it to be done. How is Westminster planning to do this in its Bill? Will it pick it up directly from what has been agreed under New Decade, New Approach or from documentation coming from the First Minister and deputy First Minister's office? How does Westminster propose to go ahead with the Bill that it is foisting on us? Do we even know?

Mr Givan: That is a question that Alex and the Committee may want to ask the Secretary of State. My view on this, as on all devolved issues, is that it should be dealt with through the Northern Ireland Assembly. There are multiple examples of Westminster having overreached. I am committed to devolution, but we have seen a series of examples of that principle being breached by Westminster. It did it on a number of issues when these institutions were not operating properly. This would be another example of it breaching the devolved settlement. The Assembly is best placed to manage these issues. What the Secretary of State plans to do, when he is going to do it and the content of the Bill, should he move one, are matters for the Secretary of State. I am not in a position to answer for him.

Mrs O'Neill: The political commitment is that the three pieces of draft legislation will be moved together before the end of this month. They will be a direct lift of what was agreed politically here. This is a political agreement that was made many years ago. It is a political commitment that was reneged on by parties to agreements over many years and on many occasions. I am glad that there is now a way forward. I am glad that rights for those with an Irish national identity will now be delivered. I look forward to the detail, the legislation being tabled and the Committee having a chance to work its way through the detail of that.

I find it disappointing, Alex, that you do not support an inclusive society. In 2021 and as we move forward, all of us benefit from the richness of our diversity. All of us benefit from bringing who we are to the table, and from sharing and encouraging each other. It is unfortunate that you do not share that view, but, of course, you are entitled to hold your view.

Mr Easton: Chair, never once did I mention what I support. I do not know where the deputy First Minister got those words to put into my mouth. Anyway, we will not go there.

My next question is about the Northern Ireland protocol. The EU is saying that it is willing to offer fewer Northern Ireland border checks as the way forward. Reducing border checks really does not resolve the situation of having the Northern Ireland protocol, which places a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Will the First Minister or the deputy First Minister confirm that business between us and the rest of the United Kingdom has been affected considerably more than trade between us and the Republic of Ireland?

Mr Givan: Thank you, Alex. We know that businesses have been impacted, because businesses tell us that their ability to source goods from Great Britain — that movement from Great Britain into Northern Ireland — has been impacted. Indeed, that is why some of the supply chain has recalibrated to source from the South or other parts of Europe. That is why the protocol is harmful. From those who advocated it, it was not meant to displace the movement of goods and the supply chain.

It is not just businesses. It has also impacted on citizens. When they go to get different goods, it is, "We are unable to ship to Northern Ireland". The ability of our businesses and citizens to source goods from Great Britain has been impacted. There has been no North/South friction, but east-west friction has been created.

Mrs O'Neill: The majority of people here rejected Brexit. The protocol gives us some protection and shelter from the worst impact of it. I have never wanted to see friction North/South or east-west. I have always wanted that to be minimised. I hope that the proposals that we have today allow us to move forward and provide the certainty and stability that so many people crave.

Some of the rhetoric of the British Government this week, particularly about the European Court of Justice role being a new red line, and their moving of the goalposts is not helpful. It is certainly not what our society at large wants to see. I hope that there will be progress this week. We all have to work on that basis. However, a real conversation is needed, given the new trading realities in a post-Brexit world. We always knew that Brexit would not be good for us. We always knew that it would cause damage. What we have is mitigation of the worst excesses, in the form of the protocol. That will remain, but I hope that the solutions that will be proposed by the EU today will give us some way of moving forward.

Mr Easton: The Northern Ireland protocol has made the lives of everybody in Northern Ireland much poorer. It does not matter what side of the divide you come from. It has affected businesses. At times, you cannot even get cat food in Tesco; that is how ridiculous the whole thing is. Everybody is poorer for the Northern Ireland protocol, in my opinion.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): Alex, you have asked three questions, and we are nearly two hours into this session. We will pop on to other members now.

Ms Sheerin: We have had a mammoth session, so I thank both Ministers for their contributions. I have a couple of remarks and questions, which I will group together for expediency.

At the start of your remarks, you mentioned the independent investigation into the mother-and-baby institutions in the North and the recommendations that emanated from the report that was released last week. You have spoken about the incomprehensible pain and trauma that those institutions inflicted on women, girls and children from across the North. Do you agree that the only way that we will deal with the fallout from those institutions is through a joined-up and comprehensive approach, and that the implementation of the recommendations needs to be a priority?

Michelle, you and I have today sent condolences to the family of the woman who was, sadly, murdered in tragic circumstances between Knockloughrim and Gulladuff in our constituency of Mid Ulster. A live investigation is ongoing, obviously. I reiterate my sympathy to her family and all who are impacted. The community is in a state of complete shock and sadness at what has happened. She is the eleventh woman to be killed since the beginning of lockdown. You have mentioned the violence against women and girls strategy. Misogyny is the root cause of domestic violence and violence against women and girls. Do you agree that a joined-up approach, with the implementation of that strategy as a priority, is the only way to tackle that issue?

On a completely unrelated note, I am frustrated at the failure to appoint the panel of experts for the Ad Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights, which I am involved with. That blockage is not coming from the Sinn Féin side of the Executive Office, but the delay is unacceptable. I would appreciate your comments on that as well.

Mrs O'Neill: Thank you for that. I absolutely concur with you about the need for us to maintain the momentum that was achieved with last week's publication of the report on mother-and-baby homes, Magdalene laundries and workhouses. The only way that we will be successful in turning that around and responding as we should is to be connected, joined up and compassionate.

At the core of this are women who have been traumatised and brutalised, whose babies have been stolen from them and who have been denied information at every turn. We have an opportunity to build on the momentum that was achieved by the report and to respond. I am glad to say that officials are looking at that at this moment. We expect to have recommendations for discussion in the Executive at the end of the month or in the first week of November. The report is a significant piece of work that we want to respond to very quickly. We will keep the Committee apprised of developments on that.

Secondly, you talked about the lady who tragically lost her life in our constituency of Mid Ulster. It is such a distressing and horrible incident. What has happened to this woman is cruel. She is the eleventh woman to lose her life since the start of the pandemic. Society as a whole should sit up and listen to that, and realise that we need to take action. These are not isolated incidents. It is not just something that happens now and then. There is a real threat to women's lives every day.

As has been recognised, we do not have a strategy for tackling violence against women and girls. I am glad to say that we, as an Executive, have decided collectively that we need to address that. As part of the Executive's response to this escalating problem, there will be an Executive Office-led strategy. I am glad to say that we have made progress and brought someone in to lead this work. Claire Archibald, who will probably have a chance to present to the Committee, has been brought in to lead this strategy. She has hit the ground running on engagement. We want this to be about co-design. She will work with the women's sector, bring forward ambitious solutions and make sure that we get a first-class strategy in place as quickly as possible. I assure you that we are actively engaged in that.

Finally, you raised a question on the bill of rights and the panel of experts. The member is, of course, right: the blockage in progressing the appointments does not sit with me. I am very keen that we deliver this New Decade, New Approach commitment. It will benefit everybody, not just a few. It is a good and healthy thing. It gives community, social and economic rights to everybody in society. It is about rights across the board, and we will all benefit from it. I hope that we can get progress on that.

Mr Givan: Thank you for the questions, Emma. For the sake of time, I will not pick up on the first two issues. We agree on how to get progress on them. On the issue of violence against women and girls, Claire Archibald, who is currently deputy head of legal services in the Departmental Solicitor's Office, is joining the TEO team to lead this work. We really want to push this forward. Claire is a highly competent individual, and she will put momentum behind this to take it forward. Let us make progress on that.

We are agreed on the recommendations of the truth recovery design panel. We want the Executive to be in position to take the next steps on that issue. We have not had a chance to touch on it in this session, but, tomorrow, the deputy First Minister and I will meet the six institutions in respect of historical institutional abuse and, particularly, the subject of redress. We want to see more progress on that issue and to take a step forward.

On the panel of experts, as I have noted on a number of issues, we, in the Executive Office, work really hard to get consensus and agreement and find a way forward. It seems to be that, when consensus is not found, the stock line is now, "The blockage is not on my side." On my side, we have identified three expert panellists. If DFM wants to sign off on them, we can do that. I do not think that the way to go about this is to say, "You do not agree with what we say. Therefore, the blockage is not on my side". The nature of the Executive Office requires consensus to be achieved and a collective approach to be taken. When you do not get your way, it is not good enough to say, "The blockage is not with me." If we want to unblock that issue, there are three experts there and we can make progress.

It is my understanding that the Committee has taken expert advice on a bill of rights from a range of individuals. The stage of the mandate and where the Committee is at needs to be held in consideration. The way to get progress, on not just this issue but other issues that require consensus, is to get to the middle ground rather than holding to an absolute position; that is not the way to get progress. It has been presented that, somehow, the DUP is the blockage. Progress has been made in the Executive Office, and the wider Executive, where we have found common ground, rather than by the various parts holding out until a particular position is achieved.

Ms Sheerin: As best evidenced by your position re the protocol and staying in the institutions. Thank you, Chair.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): Thank you, Emma. You got a long answer on the fact that it is very difficult to get answers from the Executive Office. However, we are well versed on that in the Committee.

First Ministers, you will be pleased to hear that the final question will be from Christopher Stalford.

Mr Stalford: Paul, can you tell me how many North/South Ministerial Council meetings there were between 2017 and the restoration of devolution?

Mr Givan: I think that that would be none.

Mr Stalford: Zero, yes, and that was because the institutions had collapsed because certain people had issues that they wanted to be addressed. When we are given high-blown lectures about our responsibilities and preserving the institutions, it is very important that people reflect on their previous actions.

Has there been any indication of the concessions that the EU plans to propose on the protocol today?

Mr Givan: I am not aware that our officials who deal with EU exit have been given sight of those proposals yet. Some information may well have been received through political channels. I have not had that information through either official or political channels, although the general thrust of what the European Union intends to propose has been well trailed on social media accounts.

Mr Stalford: The fact that concessions are on the way makes those who called for rigorous implementation look a bit foolish.

I want to raise an issue that Diane touched on: the impact of school closures on children. I should declare an interest that I have four children who are going through primary school. Can you assure me that, in the event of further lockdowns over the winter — obviously, we all hope that we do not get to that point — the very last thing to close will be our schools?

Mrs O'Neill: Chair, I am happy to come in on that. As Christopher would expect me to, I will pick up on some of his earlier points. I will then be happy to pick up the point on lockdowns.

People will not be fooled by DUP revisionism. The public wants us to deal with the issues that weigh heavily on their minds: COVID recovery; building our society after the pandemic and everything that it has meant, such as the impact on mental health; the fact that our waiting lists are at a ridiculous point; and everything else. The public wants us to focus on those issues, and that is what I am here to do. I hope that positive developments come out of the EU proposals today. However, let us be extremely honest about the fact that the protocol is in place to mitigate the worst excesses of the hardest possible Brexit that your party helped to deliver.

Secondly, the protocol remains in place. We have always been trying to find solutions and ways to make things easier for people to operate day-to-day. We have always been up for that. The three things that are afforded to us by the protocol — protection for the all-Ireland economy, no hard border on this island, and the protection of the Good Friday Agreement — remain today as they did when the British Government signed up to the protocol. As I said, I hope that we find sensible solutions and simplifications, including a bespoke sanitary and phytosanitary arrangement and customs checks, and everything else that we have always been trying to find a way forward on.

This may be my last contribution to today's meeting; I do not know. I hope that there is a positive outcome from what is delivered today. I encourage all sides to work together to try to find solutions.

Mr Stalford: That is some distance from "rigorous implementation", but I suppose that, later today, we will find out how much of the protocol the EU is prepared to demolish. Hopefully, we will get to the final point of full demolition and removal.

Mrs O'Neill: Perhaps, Christopher, if it helps, I will clarify that I still insist on rigorous implementation of the protections of the Good Friday Agreement, the all-island economy and no hard border on the island. What is proposed today will not take away from that, but thank you.

Mr Stalford: If you still insist on making it more difficult to operate a business in Northern Ireland, that is some stance.

I asked the First Minister a question about schools. I wonder whether you could come in on that, sir.

Mr Givan: Yes. Thank you, Christopher. You are absolutely right about the autumn/winter contingency plan that will be published next week: reimposing measures that closed down schools and businesses would be the absolute last resort. We would need to be in a very bad place to do that. You serve on school boards of governors. I serve on three of them, with over 2,000 children in those schools. I recognise, as you do, the incredible work that the teaching profession put in at a time when schools were unable to open. From speaking to teachers and parents, I know that it is no substitute for being in a classroom and being able to physically meet children. None of us wants to get to that.

Of course, the best tool with which to avoid the measures that were introduced previously has always been the roll-out of the vaccination programme. Now, 89% of the adult population has been vaccinated, and the percentage of people who are fully vaccinated is in the high eighties. Therefore, I very much hope that we will not be in that position. The successful roll-out of the vaccination programme means that we should not be in that position. We all continue to play our part in that respect. I agree wholeheartedly that schools absolutely have to be protected. We need to deliver our world-class education in the school environment.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): Apologies for building your hopes up, Ministers, that that was the last question. I believe that Pádraig is looking to come in for a question or two, so we will pass over to him.

Mr Delargy: You cannot get rid of me that easily, Colin. I wanted to come in on a different point and say that it was great to see joint First Minister Michelle O'Neill at the Magee campus in Derry last Friday. That was to launch the first degree-level apprenticeship in manufacturing and engineering. That is being done through cooperation between Ulster University and Mid Ulster Manufacturing and Engineering Growth and Advancement. Will joint First Minister O'Neill explain the Executive's commitment in NDNA to bring 10,000 students to Magee?

Mrs O'Neill: Thank you for that. It was great to be in Derry again on Friday and at the Magee campus, because I am very passionate about the project that we launched. I think that this is the first ever degree programme of that nature on this island: an apprenticeship programme that helps a young person to get a degree, come out of university with no debt and have on-the-job experience. That is beneficial for the whole manufacturing and engineering sector, which is desperate for people to come and work in it. It is a win-win for the individual student, the engineering and manufacturing sector, and for Magee, which is the first in the field to offer that.

As I certainly detected in all my conversations on Friday, there is a real vibrancy in the city. People are enthused about a whole lot of things that are coming down the tracks, whether it is the investment in Magee for the graduate entry medical school or the 10,000 additional places that I am fully committed to working with all stakeholders to deliver. That will be a real, much-needed boost to a city that has such a great university offering and tourism potential. I am very passionate about all the projects that we are involved with in TEO. When you combine the advancements at Magee, the city deal funding, the north-west development fund and the fact that the North/South Ministerial Council has just discussed developing more research projects with universities across the north-west area, you see that the potential for the future is very exciting. I am certainly committed to working with you, other representatives in the area and stakeholders to bring forward all those plans.

Mr Delargy: Brilliant. Thanks very much for that.

Mr Givan: May I pick up on that, Chairman? Pádraig, welcome to your new role in the Assembly. I can remember a time when I looked young as well, so resist ministerial office. It will age you if you take it. You are very welcome to the Committee. I wish you well in your role as an Assembly Member for Foyle.

I have been to Magee. I was there for the launch of the graduate school of medicine. There is fantastic potential for the development of the north-west. I am excited about its prospects as well. My colleague Gordon Lyons talked about the investment that the Department for the Economy has put into the north-west. Indeed, people in other parts of Northern Ireland will start to ask, "What about us?". The north-west has huge potential. It has a great population. With the investment in the university comes business investment, because you have a skilled workforce. That will help to provide great opportunities for the north-west. My colleague Gary Middleton, who is a junior Minister, has a particular interest in seeing that constituency be successful, as do I.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): Thank you for that. I was going to make this quip: did you ever look young, Paul? I have always known you to look like that, but I remind you of the threshold that you crossed yesterday when you became 40. It goes downhill very quickly.

Mr Givan: I thought that life began at 40.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): Once again, happy 40th birthday for yesterday. Life only begins at 40, apparently.

Mr Givan: Thanks for going easy on me, Colin. I appreciate it.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): I had an easy paper round. Thank you both very much indeed. It was a mammoth session. Slight dig: it has been six months since we last saw the First Minister and deputy First Minister, so there was a lot for us to cover. Hopefully, we can get you back up again some time soon. Thank you for sitting through nearly two hours of questioning. That is very much appreciated.

Mrs O'Neill: I am more than happy, Chair, to come in every time that we are invited. I do not believe that we have refused an invitation yet. We will continue to take those up. Thank you.

The Chairperson (Mr McGrath): We have been inviting you since May to come along, and it has taken you until October to attend. We will put the invitation in now, and maybe we will get you back before the next election. Thank you very much indeed. We will leave it there. Goodbye.

Find Your MLA

tools-map.png

Locate your local MLA.

Find MLA

News and Media Centre

tools-media.png

Read press releases, watch live and archived video

Find out more

Follow the Assembly

tools-social.png

Keep up to date with what’s happening at the Assem

Find out more

Subscribe

tools-newsletter.png

Enter your email address to keep up to date.

Sign up