Brussels Office for Northern Ireland

Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 4th December 2000.

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

I thank the Assemblyman for the question.

Work on the office has been proceeding since the summer, and it is expected that it will open in early March 2001. Procedures for staffing the office are progressing and will be completed early in the new year.

The office will provide a focal point for developing and advancing the Executive’s policies in Europe. It will facilitate Ministers and their officials in building contacts at the heart of Europe, so that we receive early warning of policy developments and can lobby in pursuit of our interests. It will provide a base for Ministers and officials from which they can operate when in Brussels.

The staff of the office will be appointed by the Northern Ireland Executive and will be members of the UK permanent representation, thus giving them access to meetings and to a level of information that they would not otherwise have. At the same time, the separate premises will provide a focal point for Northern Ireland in Brussels, helping us to develop a distinct and positive profile within the EU.

Photo of Séan Neeson Séan Neeson Alliance

The premises in Brussels were identified some time ago. Can the Minister explain the unacceptable delay in establishing the office, bearing in mind that the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament have had facilities there for some time?

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

I share the Member’s frustration with the delay. The lease on the office premises adjacent to the European Parliament in Brussels was signed earlier this year, but progress in setting up the office was delayed by the suspension of devolution. On the restoration of devolution, work on the office resumed. We had hoped that it would be open earlier than March, but the need for consultation with a wide range of interests caused some delay. The Member is absolutely right about the delay.

The work of fitting out the office must meet all Government procurement requirements and all security and health and safety requirements. We have also been concerned to ensure that the layout and facilities of the office meet the requirements of the Executive — in particular, facilities for seminars, meetings and receptions. Space will also be needed for visiting Ministers and officials, as well as for the resident staff of the office. The design of the premises has now been approved, and a contract will shortly be signed with the managing agents. Work on fitting out the premises will begin this month and will be completed by March, by which time staff will be in place. I hope that it will be finished, and I repeat that I share the Member’s frustration about the delay.

Photo of P J Bradley P J Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the opening of the office in March. It will be a good day for the Assembly when we have an office in Brussels. How will the office of the Executive in Brussels assist in the promotion of Northern Ireland in Europe?

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

It can do so in several ways. First, it can give us a separate and unique identity in Brussels, without taking away any of the political clout available through the UK permanent representation. That is important because people in the EU regard the Northern Ireland situation as unique.

Planning for a European marketing campaign involving the First Minister, Sir Reg Empey and myself in early 2001 is at an initial stage. In those circumstances the office in Brussels would help to facilitate the promotion of the Executive’s policies in key areas such as agriculture, structural funds and inward investment. The office will also provide an opportunity to showcase Northern Ireland products and services, and to boost trade and tourism in particular.

Crucially, the office will give us a full-time voice at the heart of Europe, which will be able to help us only if we put our message across properly. The Executive must get straight to the heart of Brussels and the European Union without any further delay.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 3:00 pm, 4th December 2000

Can the Deputy First Minister outline what contact there has been with the Northern Ireland Centre in Europe (NICE) about the creation of a one-stop shop? Also, will the office be for the use of Assembly Members, or only for Executive use?

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

I thank the Member for his question. There are two parts to it. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are expecting confirmation from NICE on its ongoing position. It is hoped that that will happen very quickly. NICE has been in consultation with the Department of Finance and Personnel regarding funding for a relationship with the district councils and the presentation of a wider view, taking district councils into account. Formalisation with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has not yet taken place.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

I ask the Deputy First Minister to bring his answer to a close.

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

There will be an office in the new building for all those who seriously, and collectively, want to sell the produce of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

In an earlier supplementary question, a Member mentioned a statement by another Member who holds the office of Lord Mayor of Belfast. It is normal practice when a Member is named and some response is made that that Member is given an opportunity to respond. The Member in question has asked for that opportunity.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson DUP

I appreciate the opportunity to reply to a most selective and despicable attack by the SDLP in the House. Over the past six months I have had extensive contact with the Chinese community in Belfast. Indeed, I have many further engagements lined up with them. I count many people in the Chinese community as my personal friends. I therefore find it particularly hurtful that this selective attack has been made.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

I ask the Member to be brief in his response.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson DUP

The issue that the Member referred to was a response to attacks that were made in one week across the community. That week seven pensioners were attacked in their homes, four women were attacked late at night in service stations or shops, and four attacks were made on members of the Chinese community. I stated that those attacks reflected the general decline in the community. I said that all crime was to be condemned and that it was wrong to simply attach a particular reason to that crime when there had been no police, court or any other evidence, and when that kind of reason only sought to stir up racial hatred in the city.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

The Member has had a reasonable opportunity to set the record straight.

Two points have been raised, by Dr Paisley and Mr Trimble.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

Was it in order for the First Minister to refer in the House to a letter which he had received from a Minister without giving the contents of that letter, and completely hiding from the House that he had had a full reply? Rather than give a reply to that letter, he tried to put a gloss on something that the DUP was doing. The First Minister need not shake his head.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Order. The question is whether the matter is in order. It is in order for Members to quote less than a full letter — that is clear. That what is said may not be helpful, acceptable or congenial is not a matter of order. However, the Member has made his point.

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

I have two points to make in relation to points of order.

It is not in order for people to make allegations that are not accurate. I did not quote any letter; I merely stated that I had written to make an enquiry. It appears from the comments that have been made that there may have been a reply to that letter. I will read it with interest when it reaches me.

My original point of order, Mr Speaker, was that I would welcome a detailed ruling from you — which might not be appropriate off the cuff — as to when it is appropriate for Members to make personal statements. Many attacks are made on Members. I can recall many occasions when those in the Member’s corner of the Chamber attacked me. I have not sought an opportunity to make a personal statement, but it would help Members if you, Mr Speaker, were to give detailed consideration to the circumstances in which personal statements are appropriate so that we might all make them when we are attacked.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Order. I am happy to oblige the First Minister. I must advise Members that making unparliamentary comments from a sedentary position is no more acceptable than making them from a standing position.

We have come to the end of questions to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and, I trust, to those matters which have arisen from them.