Washington Visit of First Minister and Deputy First Minister

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:00 am on 25th September 2000.

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Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker 12:00 am, 25th September 2000

I have received notice from the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister that they wish to make a statement on their recent visit to Washington.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble First Minister of Northern Ireland, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

The Deputy First Minister and I will make a statement on our recent visit to Washington. The Deputy First Minister and I flew to Washington on 12 September. [Interruption]

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Order. I am somewhat surprised that the Member, having returned to the House of Commons, is not aware that the rules of that place also apply in large measure here, not least with regard to the bringing in of visual aids.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP

I was just trying to be helpful.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Order. Resume your seat.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble First Minister of Northern Ireland, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am sure that the subsequent sentences in this statement will be equally warmly received.

We were accompanied on the visit by the head of the Civil Service and other officials. Our purpose in visiting Washington at this time was fourfold: first, to brief President Clinton on developments here; secondly, to invite him to visit Northern Ireland while still President; thirdly, to meet other members of the Administration in order to build relationships in a number of important areas; fourthly, to pave the way for future visits by ministerial colleagues from the Northern Ireland Executive.

On Tuesday 12 September, we met George Mitchell to update him on developments. We had a useful exchange, and he expressed the hope that continuing progress to implement the agreement fully would be maintained so that Northern Ireland might have lasting peace, stability and reconciliation.

Our first engagement on Wednesday was a meeting with the Deputy Secretary for Education, Mr Frank Holleman. This meeting allowed us to express our appreciation for the high level of support and co-operation which Secretary Richard Riley has offered the Department of Education and the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment. Both sides wish this to continue and develop. The meeting addressed how the education system could best meet the needs of pupils of all abilities. We also looked at vocational training and noted the importance of partnership with employers in providing young people with the skills needed to find employment in their areas.

We welcomed the invitations extended to departmental officials from Northern Ireland to attend a conference in West Virginia last week on the use of information and communications technology (ICT) in education. Deputy Secretary Holleman thanked the Administration here for the invitation to US experts in special educational needs to visit Northern Ireland this autumn.

On Wednesday 11 September, the Deputy First Minister and I met President Clinton and his advisers. We thanked him for his tremendous input while in office in helping us to make progress here. We drew attention to the growing links between our Administrations, and both sides agreed that these contacts should be encouraged. We briefed the President on the progress that has been made by the new institutions here.

At this point I would like to hand over to the Deputy First Minister.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

We updated the President on the problems that society here continues to face, including the attacks by Republican dissidents and the senseless and needless violence in Loyalism, which has caused a number of murders. We stressed the need to secure the implementation of all elements of the agreement. Our views on police reforms and the need for further progress with the decommissioning of all illegal weapons were highlighted.

We invited the President to visit Northern Ireland again before he leaves office. He left us in no doubt about his high level of continuing interest in affairs here. He indicated that he would very much like to visit again, subject to finding a suitable time in his diary.

In a useful meeting with the Deputy Secretary of Labor, Edward Montgomery, we discussed a range of important matters, including the desirability of matching skills to the needs of employers, the best way of addressing the problem of long-term unemployment and how inequalities of pay on the basis of gender and disability can be tackled. We noted with interest projects being undertaken in the USA to tackle these and related problems. The importance of developing still better relationships and of learning from best practice in both jurisdictions was stressed.

We also briefed Madeleine Albright’s Deputy at the State Department, Strobe Talbott, on progress since the resumption of devolution, and we had useful discussions with both the British and Irish Ambassadors to the US.

In addition to the joint programme of meetings, the First Minister and I undertook a number of separate engagements.

In summary, both the First Minister and I regard our visit as having been very worthwhile. Besides the President, we met a wide range of influential people interested in the peace process and willing to offer genuine and concrete support. Above all, our visit showed that we can learn from the experiences elsewhere in tackling common problems. The development of our contacts can help us to learn lessons which will help us to meet the needs of the people of Northern Ireland. Increasingly, we too will have positive experiences and programmes to share with others.

The objectives of the trip were met. This was the first time that we had visited the United States as First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and the warmth of our reception was testament to the close interest and support for the new institutions which exist in the United States.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The statement by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister suggests that our views on police reform were put to the President. Was that view a concerted one, or, as the press has reported it, were two disparate points of view put forward in something that was more like a schoolyard squabble than the dialogue of statesmen?

I want the First and the Deputy First Ministers to apologise to the taxpayers of Northern Ireland for the Deputy First Minister’s change of coat half way through to take up his role as deputy leader of the SDLP. Instead of representing the people of Northern Ireland, he represented the views of his political party when speaking of police issues to important United States bodies.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

The First Minister and I are at one when representing the Executive on matters relating to the devolved Administration. On non-devolved matters, there are differences of view on important issues such as policing, but we both accept the importance of a police service which is accountable, widely acceptable to the community and representative of that community.

As Deputy First Minister, I was invited to speak to the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. In New York, I also undertook a number of engagements with the press and the British and Irish Consuls General. Prior to the visit, my office confirmed with the head of the Civil Service that it could be undertaken at public expense. Both the First Minister and I have undertaken separate visits on this basis before.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

Was the future of the Walsh Visa Programme raised by the Ministers at meetings with the US Administration?

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble First Minister of Northern Ireland, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

Yes, we discussed that programme with the Department of Labor and with Mr Walsh himself. The programme has had some teething problems, but there is a strong desire to continue with it.

Photo of Dr Dara O'Hagan Dr Dara O'Hagan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat. I refer to the meeting that the First and the Deputy First Ministers had with the Deputy Secretary for Labor, Edmond Montgomery. What emerged from their discussions on the problems of long-term unemployment and how to tackle inequalities in society here?

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

We had a very interesting meeting. The Deputy Secretary had a number of officials with him, notably those dealing with both racial and gender inequality. It was interesting to discuss the programmes they have for dealing with those problems. The most interesting thing from our point of view was that the difficulties they are experiencing with their programmes are often the same as we are encountering with ours.

We also discussed the Walsh visas. Among the first people we met at a reception in Washington were eight or ten young people who were there on Walsh visas. The way in which those young people comported themselves was a credit to all of us. They were able to make cases, not just for their own lives, but for all our futures. It is crucial that we maintain this type of contact. On the basis of that discussion, our background information and the meeting that we had with the Education Department — the Minister of Education, Martin McGuinness, has also been there and the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment, Dr Farren will go shortly — I have no doubt that there are elements in their programmes that we can learn from. They too are keen to learn from our life here.

Photo of Seamus Close Seamus Close Alliance 10:45 am, 25th September 2000

I thank the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister for their statement, and I am pleased to hear that they believe that the objectives of their visit have been achieved. This was their first visit as the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and, when such trips are undertaken, it is important that at no time should party politics be seen to intervene. I say so in the interests of the Assembly. As we have already heard this morning, whenever there are disputes and disagreements over sensitive issues and either the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister is, for whatever reason, inclined to don his party hat, that in itself brings the Assembly into a certain amount of disrepute. It also —

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Order. I must press the Member to put his question. This is an opportunity to put questions, not to make statements.

Photo of Seamus Close Seamus Close Alliance

Do the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister agree that this provides the enemies of the Assembly with an opportunity to take out a whip and beat us across the back? Do they agree that, in future, they should be seen to be operating in unison throughout the entirety of their trips?

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble First Minister of Northern Ireland, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

I think that there is a problem of perception. I can assure the Member that, in the meetings that we had in the White House and with those who have responsibility for labour and education, matters were presented — and this was appreciated by the people whom we met — in the spirit that he mentions. There is no point in meeting people who are well informed and putting up a false front. There are areas where disagreements exist, and that is known. Those disagreements were argued, not in a party political spirit, but in a spirit of informing people of what the position was and what the different perspectives were.

I can appreciate the perception that the Member has, but I believe that that perspective is largely formed by the quality of the reportage in this country, which tended to emphasise the points of difference and did so in a tendentious manner. Many of the people who were with us on the trip will confirm what I have said about the good spirit that existed and that things were presented in a mature and balanced manner.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

I thank the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister for their statement and congratulate them on the success of their trip to Washington. I wish to underline the importance of links with the United States and how important it is that we go there and are seen to be there.

With regard to the Walsh visas — and I realise that two questions have already been asked on that subject — can the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister explain how the company Logicon, which, I believe, majors more in defence matters, was chosen to co-ordinate the visa programme? Do they agree that insufficient resources were put into training and induction before the young people left for the visa programme? How do they intend to resolve that matter?

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

The first part of the question is a departmental matter, and must be addressed to the Minister responsible. It is not within our remit, but we will ensure that a full reply is given in writing.

With regard to the second part of the question, there have been problems with the Walsh visas; problems that were not of the making of any of the people who were responsible for the programme, and I believe that that fact was recognised. Sometimes things happen that are outside the remit of those who are in control. I believe that those matters will be resolved and that we all know what one of them is.

It is essential that we keep in contact with those responsible for various Departments in the United States and try to ensure that the qualities that those young people showed in Washington are developed. We should not be deterred on this issue, or on any other, by the type of hiccup that occurred in relation to the Walsh visas.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr DUP

Can the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister tell the House if it was during or after their meeting with the President of the United States that he expressed his full support for the implementation of the Patten Report and for Sinn Féin/IRA’s interpretation of it?

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble First Minister of Northern Ireland, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

I cannot comment on the second point, for I never heard the President use those terms. We had a 45-minute meeting with the President, which went a little over time, as such meetings sometimes do. There is no doubt at all about the extent of his interest and his pleasure at seeing things working here. We were able to give him a full account of the Assembly’s success and the way in which, despite the occasional sour comment from a certain corner of the Assembly Chamber, all of its Members are working hard together in a good spirit and pulling their weight.

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Cuirimse fáilte roimh ráiteas na maidine seo. I wish to welcome this morning’s statement. My interest lies in the meeting held on Wednesday 13 September with the Deputy Secretary of Education, Mr Frank Holleman III. This follows on from contacts with the Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, continuing to explore areas of educational co-operation for our mutual benefit. The statement says that the meeting addressed how the education system could best meet the needs of pupils of all abilities. This dovetails neatly with an inquiry into underachievement being conducted by the Education Committee. I should like to hear some further detail of what was discussed.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

The meeting was extremely interesting, and Mr Holleman was accompanied by a number of officials working in various sections of the US education programme. We discussed how lack of attainment is linked to social or economic deprivation and what programmes can be developed to combat the problem. They had some very interesting things to say. Attainment, especially in maths, is seeping right down into the core of their programme — something from which we could learn. They also pointed out the difficulties of the programme very honestly to us. Secretary Riley was not present — he was, quite rightly, at the hustings — but the effect of the contacts which have taken place between him, the Department here and various people in the Assembly is very important.

We discussed a range of matters, particularly vocational training and arrangements to ensure that students are given the appropriate skills to meet local employers’ needs. We also discussed the good co-operation already taking place, as evidenced by our education officials’ attending a recent conference in Virginia and by US experts’ visiting Dublin to share expertise on autism and dyslexia. Northern experts will also attend that meeting. Of these very positive meetings, this was probably the most interesting, at least for me. As they have been initiated, they should be followed up.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson DUP

I notice that the First Minister has made no mention in the statement of the party political canvassing on policing engaged in by the Deputy First Minister while they were in America. Is it not a fact that, once again, just as he has been conned by Tony Blair, Gerry Adams, Bertie Ahern and others, the Deputy First Minister — I should say the First Minister — has been conned by the First Minister on this issue of policing? Does the First Minister agree with the conclusions reached in this statement — that the visit was worthwhile and that the trip’s objectives were met? Were the objectives of the trip once more to denigrate the RUC and call on the President of the United States to endorse the changes which the SDLP and IRA/Sinn Féin wish to be made to the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill before Westminster? If that is the case, how can the First Minister claim that his party defends the RUC?

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble First Minister of Northern Ireland, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

Unfortunately that question was largely predictable, although the Member did at times get muddled between the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. The general sense of these predictable comments came across and has already been dealt with in previous answers.

Quite clearly, the objectives of the visit were achieved. The meetings in the White House and with other Departments were successful. We look forward to a visit by President Clinton, it is hoped before the end of the year, which will be welcomed generally.

On the specific points that he mentions, the key thing is that the agreement, which was endorsed by 71% of the voters in Northern Ireland, be implemented in full. That involves a whole range of matters, including matters of interpretation. However, the important thing is that the agreement is implemented in full, and we look forward to that.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Order. I am not accepting any further points of order.