Civic Forum

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:00 am on 6th February 2001.

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Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble First Minister of Northern Ireland, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party 12:00 am, 6th February 2001

I beg to move the following motion:

That this Assembly agrees that the Civic Forum shall offer its views on such social, economic and cultural matters as are from time to time agreed between the Chairperson of the Forum and the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

In addition, the Civic Forum shall be invited to offer its view on specific social, economic and cultural matters where the Assembly has by motion so requested.

Several months ago, when the question of this motion and of the making of arrangements to obtain the views of the Forum was first mooted by officials, my reaction was one of surprise, as I thought that this whole procedure was somewhat otiose. However, we are obliged by the agreement and the legislation to go through this process. The Belfast Agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998 both provide for a direct and immediate relationship between the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Civic Forum.

The agreement states that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will, by agreement, provide administrative support for the Forum, and — and I am coming to the main point — the Northern Ireland Act 1998, in section 56(1), says:

"The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister acting jointly shall make arrangements for obtaining from the Forum its views on social, economic and cultural matters."

One might have thought that those arrangements could be fairly open and informal, but subsection (2) says

"The arrangements so made shall not take effect until after they have been approved by the Assembly."

A consequence of the legislation, therefore, is that in order to fulfil our statutory obligations, and for the Civic Forum to function in the way that was envisaged, it is necessary that proposed arrangements be formalised by way of a motion which must be brought before the House for its endorsement. Although this may appear to be a formality, it is in fact vital for the functioning of the Civic Forum that a motion which provides for arrangements to take the views of the Civic Forum on the matters that it is entitled to consider be passed by the House.

The Civic Forum is one of the institutions established by the Belfast Agreement, and it underpins the principle of inclusivity on which the agreement is based. In shaping the Civic Forum, we tried to give effect to that principle of inclusivity by arranging a broad membership from civic society. On 16 February 1999 the Assembly approved proposals set out in a report brought forward by the Deputy First Minister and me on the establishment of the Civic Forum. As proposed in that report, the Civic Forum, comprising a chairperson and 60 members drawn from 10 specified sectors, has now been established.

The Forum is a unique body, and, given the range of members which has been pointed to it, there is undoubtedly a broad spectrum of views and experience that can help to inform the way in which Northern Ireland is governed. The Civic Forum will enable the Executive and the Assembly to engage in a structured, formal dialogue with important sectors of the community in the social, economic and cultural spheres. It will provide a channel for information to flow from a broad sector of civil society and for views to be expressed on social, economic and cultural matters.

The Forum has started work; it has met twice in plenary format and has identified its early objectives and work priorities. It has endorsed its vision statement. It has already given an important response to the Programme for Government, which we are considering carefully, and it has also decided to examine issues of poverty, peace building and lifelong learning. In bringing forward the motion we were conscious of the need to fulfil our legislative requirements in a way which reflected how we want to work with the Civic Forum, and for that reason we consulted with the Forum on it. The Forum is in agreement with it. Indeed, we amended our original motion to reflect the views of the Forum. It is important that the Forum should not be unduly constrained in its work, either by the Executive or by the Assembly.

The Deputy First Minister and I have always been sensitive to the need for the Forum to be an independent body which can bring independent views to the political process. For example, apart from our personal nominations, we were anxious to avoid a situation in which we were directly involved in the nomination process. While we accepted responsibility for overseeing the nominations to the Forum to ensure that fair and open procedures were adopted, the responsibility for those nominations lay with the organisations involved. I know that some parties have reservations about the motion today and that they are anxious that the Deputy First Minister and I will try, in some way, to stifle the scope of issues which the Forum itself may wish to consider, or that we will, in some way, veto the work which the Forum decides to do.

I want to assure Members today that that is certainly not our intention. Indeed, let me state without equivocation that the Deputy First Minister and I will not try to prevent the Forum from taking forward any item that it wishes to. Members may be interested to know that an earlier draft of the motion which was put to the Deputy First Minister and me for approval was more restrictive. It said that the Forum should offer its views on such social, economic and cultural matters as were referred to the chairperson by the First and Deputy First Ministers.

I regarded that as unduly restrictive. I said then, and I repeat today, that it is difficult for me to envisage our refusing to hear views on a subject defined as "social, economic or cultural." Therefore, with the agreement of the Deputy First Minister, I suggested that that sentence be recast to remove the requirement that the First and Deputy First Ministers agree the matters which the Forum can raise. We also engaged in consultation with the chairperson and members of the Forum on how the arrangements for obtaining views might better provide for a two-way flow of proposals between them and the Deputy First Minister and me.

The Civic Forum has itself approved the arrangements contained in the motion. That proposal provides for a work agenda to be jointly agreed by the chairperson of the Forum, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. It is not a mechanism for a veto. It provides for dialogue and for an agreed agenda to which the Executive, the Forum and the Assembly can work in a co-ordinated way. The chairperson of the Forum also believes that it provides the best basis not only for agreeing the Forum’s priorities but also for resourcing its work. Clearly, resourcing will relate to the work programme itself.

Of course, the Assembly will also want to develop its relationship with the Forum, to avail of its experience on social, economic and cultural matters. The terms of this part of the motion explicitly reflect the views of Forum members, who were understandably concerned that the requirement to take on work from the Assembly could overstretch the Forum’s resources and prevent its developing a coherent work programme. The motion therefore allows the Forum discretion about the issues remitted by the Assembly which it chooses to address.

In recognition of the views of the Forum, and at the request of its members, the Deputy First Minister and I have agreed that these arrangements will be reviewed at the end of the year alongside the already planned review of the Forum’s other arrangements. The review will, of course, allow for the views of the Assembly to be taken into account, and its outcome will be the subject of a report to the Assembly. In the course of developing our relationship with the Civic Forum I trust too that Members of the Assembly will give thought to how that review should be conducted.

We have also been considering ways in which the Forum can become more involved in providing views to Ministers and Departments. One proposal is for the Forum to be advised when Departments are carrying out public consultation exercises on relevant matters. The consultation documents could then be copied to the Forum, and it would be for the Forum itself to decide to which of these to respond.

Allow me to summarise, then, the key points which I hope the Assembly will take into account when considering the motion. First, the motion has been agreed with the Forum itself. Secondly, it will preserve the independence of the Forum. Thirdly, neither the Deputy First Minister nor I has any intention of preventing the Forum from addressing any issue it wishes to address, subject of course to resource considerations. These points illustrate our determination to allow the Forum the freedom to set its agenda. The arrangements will be subject to a review at the end of the year, and I believe that they provide a sound basis on which to proceed. It is now necessary for us as an Assembly to approve the motion and allow the Forum to get to work on the social, economic and cultural matters on which its advice will be so valuable.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP 10:45 am, 6th February 2001

I beg to move amendment 1: In line 1 delete all after "shall" and add

"consider and offer its views only on such social, economic and cultural matters as are from time to time determined by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and approved by the Assembly, or are determined by resolution of the Assembly, or are proposed by the Civic Forum and are approved by the Assembly."

The First Minister has made reference to what he described as an earlier draft of limited scope. I assume the earlier draft had his approval.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

I am sure, even from a sedentary position, that response will be recorded in Hansard.

The earlier draft was brought to the Business Committee and put on the Order Paper. It now seems that anything that comes from the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has not been cleared by the Ministers; the Business Committee, therefore, should ignore anything that has not been approved by the two Ministers.

But the First Minister is right when he says that the earlier draft was of more limited scope. The difference between the earlier draft and this one is the addendum on the Order Paper, which tilts towards the existence of the Assembly itself.

The basic question that the Assembly must consider is the nature of the body known as the Civic Forum. In this Chamber there are many opinions on what kind of body it should be. Of course, there are those of us who believe that there should not be a Civic Forum, who believe that it is a waste of time and money and who believe that the appointment of cronies of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to a body to discuss certain issues is of no real value to the Assembly. If we are to be honest with ourselves and the outside world, we should recognise that there is no shortage of advice from people who have an interest in issues that are within the purview of this Assembly.

Almost every day we receive invitations from bodies who want to give us their views to attend functions in the Long Gallery or wherever in this Building. All they need is an Assembly Member to sponsor the event, or they can even arrange a venue somewhere other than in the Building. No restrictions are applied to any group that takes an interest in social and economic matters on how they may influence the Assembly and, indeed, the Executive.

There is no need for the Civic Forum. Interested parties already know how to get their message to the Assembly and its Committees. This structured body is unnecessary and wasteful.

The second question concerns the make-up of the Civic Forum. Clearly, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have appointed a sanitised group that overwhelmingly reflects their views of society. The Forum is not representative of the community as a whole. In effect, it is made up of people who nod their heads in the direction of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. If we take advice from a body that does not represent the community as a whole, what value does it have? First, it is of limited value to have any group, and even more so to have a select group, that largely takes the view of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, having been appointed for that purpose. Indeed, one of the groups that most represents Unionism was deliberately excluded by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

I also want to deal with the body’s modus operandi. The nature of the body, if we approve the First and the Deputy First Ministers’ proposal or, even worse, if we approve the Alliance Party’s amendment, will be what the First Minister termed "an independent body". However, it is independent not only because it can give its opinion — though I have questioned that — but also because it has a life of its own.

It was never the Assembly’s intention, I hope, to create a second Chamber. We have had experiences of that in the past in Northern Ireland. When certain individuals in the first Chamber appoint a second Chamber, it becomes merely a matter of patronage. The nature of the body we are creating is important because it will have a life of its own. That was not implicit or explicit in the agreement or in the legislation. It is fairly clear in both that it would be giving opinions on matters on which it was asked to give opinions. It was not to decide for itself what it was going to consider and then give its views on to the Assembly.

That is a critical difference because of the issue of prioritising its work. If the body decides its own programme and the First Minister gives it work, or if the Committees or the Assembly give it work, which issue should take priority becomes a problem. Even worse than that, I suspect, the Civic Forum could decide that the First Minister’s or the Assembly’s issues were less important than the ones it was dealing with and, consequently, offer its views on its chosen matters. We need to be very careful that the body being created does what the Assembly wants it to do and nothing else. The basis of our amendment is that the Assembly should have control over the body. The body should only consider those matters referred to it by the Assembly.

Under the First Minister’s proposals a conflict is created. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, along with the Civic Forum chairperson, can decide the matters on which the Civic Forum can offer its views. The Assembly can do likewise. I imagine that many Members will have important issues — perhaps in their constituencies, or else general ones. I suspect that they will put forward suggestions about matters that are of some public interest and that the Assembly may feel it necessary to approve such suggestions. A workload will build up. The conflict is already there, with the Assembly on one hand and the First Minister on the other, both pumping in work to the Civic Forum. The Civic Forum is not excluded from making decisions about its own workload also.

Under the amendment that I have moved, the Assembly would be in control. The First Minister may have ideas. He can bring them to the Assembly, and the Assembly will determine whether they are referred to the Civic Forum. The Civic Forum may have views on what it should be discussing, but those will need Assembly approval. Likewise, any Member who has a view can also bring it to the Assembly for approval. In that way we will have some order in the proceedings, and the Assembly can prioritise the work that the Civic Forum should have. I can think of nothing worse than a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister appointing their cronies to a civic forum and then determining what those cronies discuss.

Of course, the First Minister says that attempting to direct and control this body is the last thing on his mind. The reality is that if he is going to be the one providing it with its workload, clearly he is not going to go out of his way to give it issues to deal with that might embarrass him or cause him difficulty. That is why the control of the Assembly is essential in these matters. It is not good practice to have two different masters, as proposed by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

The Alliance Party’s proposal is even worse. It is saying that a Committee can produce work for the Civic Forum, as can the Assembly, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and the Forum itself. The only way this can be properly ordered is for the Assembly to have overall control of the content of the items the Forum can consider and offer its views on and, indeed, of the priority those matters are given.

I hope I have raised issues that have not been decided by the Whips beforehand and that there will be some degree of open-mindedness by Members in determining how the procedures will operate in practice. What is being offered by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is open to future conflict between the Assembly and the Civic Forum, between themselves and the Assembly and, I suspect, between the Civic Forum and themselves at a later stage as well. What my amendment proposes will ensure that the Civic Forum gives its views only on matters approved by the Assembly by one of three separate routes. Each would have equal weight and validity, and give the Assembly its proper role. It should be accountable for any body set up under it.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance 11:00 am, 6th February 2001

I beg to move amendment 2. In paragraph 2, line 2, after "Assembly" insert

"or any of its Committees" and at end add

"The Civic Forum may also offer its view on any social, economic and cultural matters where it so resolves."

The motion from the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is welcome, and it would be more welcome if it had been slightly fuller and somewhat earlier. I have no difficulty in commending the motion to the House, although I would go further and recommend the second amendment, which would considerably strengthen it. The First Minister referred to some of the issues, and perhaps we will hear more from him and his Colleagues during the course of the debate.

The amendment stands in the name of Jane Morrice and myself. For the benefit of those who do not know, Jane Morrice is a member of the Women’s Coalition and not of the Alliance Party. I am sure she would wish to share the opprobrium being heaped upon the Alliance Party by Peter Robinson in proposing the first amendment. In this corner of the Chamber, at least, we believe that the Civic Forum is important and has a significant role. Our two parties have been firm supporters of that separate and independent role for the Civic Forum. We wish to see it implemented to the full, and that is why we put forward the amendment.

The arrangements being made for the Civic Forum flow from the agreement and the requirement to try to institute new arrangements which are fully inclusive across this society. As a Member of this Assembly, I make no apology for saying that a democratically elected body must have primacy. Indeed, in the case of legislation it is clear that we have the exclusive right. However, I do not believe that we are the fount of all wisdom in this society. There are other people in this community who have positive and useful ideas to put forward to us, whether informally, as has been suggested, or formally.

The formal mechanism for that is the Civic Forum. It brings civic society, in all its strengths, into the structures of government, and that will be a major benefit to us. A different perspective from those of us who are democratically elected will also be a benefit. It will enable us to view things in a wider way and look at different possibilities.

I would like to look at some of the comments that have been made over the last year or so. The Civic Forum, after its meeting of 6 December 2000, highlighted that one of its eight functions was

"to make a distinctive and challenging contributions to social, economic, cultural and environmental matters affecting Northern Ireland."

I do not believe that it can be distinctive and challenging if it has to be hidebound in the way it operates. In January 1999 the initial report by the Civic Forum study group to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, suggested that

"the Civic Forum should respond to policy issues being addressed by the Assembly but might also consider social, economic and cultural issues on its own initiative."

That was a clear follow-through from the number of submissions made to it.

The Belfast Trades Union Council stated:

"The Forum will, of its own initiative, debate and consider issues and come to its own conclusions".

On the other side of the economic divide, the CBI suggested:

"A pro-active role is needed for the Civic Forum — it should not be just consultative".

This is a clear indication of the kinds of views that are coming in, despite whatever differences those two groups may have. The opportunity they see is that the Forum could take its own initiative, and therefore be more beneficial to the structures of society.

Other comments have been made in the same way. Some of the groups which have rather smaller representation clearly see it as important. The Northern Ireland Council on Ethnic Minorities stated:

"The Forum has the ability to initiate its own investigations and reports, as well as commenting."

NICVA, representing a broad range of community activity, said:

"The understanding of voluntary and community groups is that as a consultative mechanism, the Civic Forum would be able to place issues on the agenda and to offer its reflection, experience and knowledge."

That is what we need from the Civic Forum — not something too hidebound within the Assembly structures or at the beck and call of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Indeed, they have commented on 25 September 2000. The Deputy First Minister said in this Chamber:

"The Civic Forum has to be different. It has to have its own mind and it has to bring an independent view to the political process. I hope it will."

On the same day, the First Minister said:

"There is a clear responsibility on us to make arrangements for obtaining the Forum’s views on a number of matters. Those arrangements could take several forms — they do not have to be exhaustive. It does not necessarily follow that the arrangements made to enable the Assembly to take the views of the Forum are exhaustive of what the Forum does."

That is our view, and it does not seem to quite come through in the motion as proposed, although, in proposing it, the First Minister has gone some way to address our concerns, specifically in the way he highlighted the term "independence". That is something that we would see as very necessary. I hope he can amplify on that a little bit more, later in the debate.

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

I just wish to repeat to the Member what I said in proposing the motion. I said that I found it very difficult to envisage circumstances in which we would not want to hear the Forum’s views on any matter coming within its remit on social, economic and cultural matters.

The motion is in its present form because of the need to have a degree of co-ordination and a programme. The programme itself will have resource implications, and we have to be concerned about that.

I want to make the point that the motion, in its current form, after consultation with the Forum, and with the agreement of the Forum, is the motion that the Forum wants. We brought forward the motion that it wants. I suggest to the Member that this Assembly perhaps should be cautious before imposing upon the Forum a motion that it does not want.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I take the First Minister’s comments with some interest. I am not sure whether the Civic Forum was actually consulted as to whether it wanted wider powers or whether it merely wished to be offered something narrower, which it had accepted gratefully. Perhaps — and it seems on this occasion we do at least have the presence of the First Minister — when he makes his winding-up speech he will be able to tell us whether he accepts that the thrust of our amendment is actually contained in the remarks that he made at the beginning, has made just now and, it is to be hoped, will make again later.

Is he going to tell the House clearly and simply that, although not explicit in the motion, the wide-ranging powers of the Forum to take its own initiative are what he and the Deputy First Minister envisage for it? That is something that would make a considerable difference to the way we view the motion as it currently stands.

I will speak briefly on the other amendment. Superficially, there are some similarities between the amendments. However, anyone hearing Mr Peter Robinson’s speech will be aware that there is little agreement. They have approached it from a different direction than us. We have major concerns with any suggestions that the Civic Forum must be bound by the Assembly. The whole point of having an independent Civic Forum is that it has a degree of independence. It is slightly ironic that, while the First Minister hints about independence, the other amendment seeks to constrain the Civic Forum to what the Assembly agrees it should do.

There seems to be some concern in Mr Robinson’s proposal about the business of the Civic Forum and what might be thrown at it. To some extent, our Committees are similar — a variety of responsibilities are thrown at them. They have clear legislative responsibilities, which they cannot divert from. They can initiate inquiries on their own account and are lobbied by a number of groups from different directions. However, most of the Assembly’s Committees are managing and ordering their business fairly well. The Civic Forum will probably be as capable in ordering its business as the Assembly Committees. Given the way we ran business in the House this morning, I am unsure if we are well placed to advise others on how to run theirs.

We seek maximum independence for the Civic Forum in co-operation with the Assembly and the Executive. Our amendment will make some difference to that, although the First Minister’s comments may go some way to address those concerns. However, we do not accept the thrust of amendment 1. At this stage, we are still in favour of amendment 2.

Photo of Carmel Hanna Carmel Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party 11:15 am, 6th February 2001

I welcome the motion from the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. I welcome the fact that it was agreed with the Civic Forum. There are signs that we are slowly moving away from the fixation on constitutional matters and towards an engagement with the economic, social and cultural issues that affect everyone in the community.

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

The Member says that the motion was agreed by the Civic Forum. When did the Civic Forum meet to agree the motion?

Photo of Carmel Hanna Carmel Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am afraid that I do not have that date. However, the First Minister indicated in his statement that there was agreement.

Given that these issues have been somewhat neglected for several years, there should be a sufficiently large agenda for the Forum to work through for many years to come. Indeed, I believe that the Forum — in response to the mood of the public — should inject some urgency into its deliberations. In order to capture the public’s imagination it should assemble and lay out its work programme. The Assembly and the wider community should not be comfortable with everything the Forum may say, and I hope its views will be challenging and innovative, for those are precisely the characteristics needed to find solutions to our problems.

In order to widen the scope of the Forum, I make a special plea that it should consider the role that Government structures and civic society here could play in fostering the concept of international development. I am aware that this is a reserved matter, but, as chairperson of the cross-party committee on international development, I would like to see some engagement with Third-World issues ultimately. I want them to be interwoven through all Government Departments in the same way as targeting social need.

We saw the recent devastation caused by the Indian earthquake, and many individuals have responded generously. However, I would like to see a response from the community as a whole. I ask the Civic Forum to take the issue on board. I will frame an appropriate motion to that end in due course. We have hard-won expertise in dealing with disasters. We have built up expertise in long-term development that could be transferred to developing countries in a mutually beneficially way.

I wish the Forum well. It is important that we hear and learn from diverse opinions.

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

I would like to know when the Forum met to agree the motion. We are entitled to know that.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

Give it to us now.

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

Tell us. I will sit down and let the First Minister answer. No, he does not want to answer. What is the use of bluffing the people outside the Assembly and of telling us that the Forum has agreed this resolution when the Forum did not have a meeting and did not agree this resolution? It may have been agreed with the chairperson, but it definitely was not agreed by the Forum.

People are saying that they are fighting for the rights of the Forum. If it was the right of the Forum to have a meeting and say that it agreed this resolution, why did it not have such a meeting? Does the Assembly say that the next time that the Forum tells us to agree a resolution, we have to agree it? Has this Assembly no independence? That is the key to this whole matter.

It is completely untrue for people to say that that body represents the whole of the civic community. I wonder how many sections of the community have no representation on that Forum. The people who make that claim put other people beyond the pale. What about the Loyal Orange Institution? It is a very large organisation, yet it has no representation on this Forum. It is therefore beyond the pale, because we are told by the Alliance Party that all real civic interests are on this Forum.

I know some things that happened when people were being picked for this Forum, especially in regard to the smaller church bodies in the Province. If the powers that be could have had their way, the smaller denominations would have had no representation on the Forum. Only after battling to get position were the smaller denominations given a — [Interruption].

Photo of Esmond Birnie Esmond Birnie UUP

Since the Member is unhappy with the failure, as he sees it, to have direct representation of the Orange Institution, why did his party not put down an amendment to that effect when this went through the House in mid-February 1999?

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

There was no point in putting down an amendment.

Let us talk about the churches. How were the churches going to be represented on this body? How were the smaller denominations that would call themselves evangelicals going to be represented on this body? It was by the pushing of the First Minister of an evangelical minister of the Irish Presbyterian Church, whose church was already represented on the body. I am not going to discuss fully the things that I know, but at another time I will. The smaller denominations dug their heels in and told the Irish Presbyterian minister concerned — who was the nominee of the Northern Ireland Office to chair the meeting — that he would not be on the Forum representing evangelicals because the smaller denominations had the right to have a voice on that body.

Let no one tell this House that the body was established to give representation to all views. It was brought into being to ensure that there would be no views of those who were opposed to the agreement. However, it did not succeed in the one instance of the smaller denominations.

Why is the Assembly, which is the elected body, being told that it must pass this resolution because it is the resolution of the Forum? The Forum has no right to dictate to the Assembly on what it should pass or not pass. We have been told — as the First Minister told the Alliance Party — that we cannot really oppose this because it is what the Forum has asked us to do.

There was a resolution that came before the Business Committee of the House. It was withdrawn by the First Minister, according to what we were told by the Speaker of the House. It was withdrawn because the First Minister said that he did not agree with it. Where did it come from? Who provided it to be put on the Order Paper? Why was it withdrawn just before the Order Paper was printed? Those are matters that the House should be given information on. Why hide those things if all in the garden is rosy and everything is open and above board? Why is the Assembly not told the whole story?

Why was the Assembly not allowed to approve an agenda that was already approved by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister? What were they afraid of? The Assembly is an elected body, and it has the right to know what that non-elected body decides upon. There are some people who are vocal in their support of the Civic Forum, but they do not have much basis in the electoral world that would give them respectability in any other sort of meeting. Therefore, they need not say that somebody in the organisation wants this or that, when they themselves scrape into the House.

The Assembly should have authority over those who are put into positions and paid public money to advise the Assembly on any matter. Their advice should be on subjects that the Assembly seeks advice on.

The Assembly should not roam round the world as if it were a replica of another body of which I am a member — the European Parliament. That Parliament roams round the world every time it meets. Its members go here, there and yonder and pass resolutions which are unheard and unheeded. The civic body should have its agenda agreed by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and not by its chairperson.

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

I am sorry that it has taken so long to obtain the answer that the Member sought earlier in his speech. In my introduction of the motion I said that the motion was agreed at a meeting of the Civic Forum. Dr Paisley asked when that meeting had taken place. It took place at Balmoral on 20 December. The Forum discussed the Programme for Government and also discussed and agreed the motion. On the same day the Forum’s management committee too agreed the motion.

I will also look at whatever information is available to my office regarding the matter of the smaller churches to which Rev Dr Ian Paisley referred. That was not known to me, but I will make enquiries.

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

It is nice to know that to get information one has to screw it out of the First Minister. Why did he not say that in his speech? He had to go and find out when the meeting occurred. I said that the Assembly was entitled to the information. It has now been told that the Forum discussed the motion at a meeting and suggested that it was proper.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

It is alarming that a body set up to give its views to the Assembly met in December, had a view on the way forward but did not tell the Assembly that view. It appears that the Forum whispered its view in the ear of the First Minister alone.

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

Stranger things will come out, when the First Minister does not know that his own office appointed the chairman of the meeting for the smaller denominations. A letter from his office went directly to them explaining the arrangements.

The First Minister had better make some enquiries about what is happening in his own office. That is obvious when he comes to the House and has to wait so long to find out about that meeting. I also want to put on record that I have my suspicions that the motion, as we have it today, came from the Civic Forum.

I will enquire of members of the Civic Forum about whether they discussed this exact motion. Why did the management committee have to discuss it if the whole Forum discussed it and said that that was what it wanted? The House needs to know the exact wording of what was given to the First Minister. Was it conveyed to him in writing? Were the words of the motion contained in that letter? That is what we are asked to believe today. I want it to be clear that when the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister approve the agenda, it will have to go to the Assembly. I want it to be clear that the Assembly, which will be advised by the Forum, should have the right to say which topics advice is required on. Will the Assembly have reports that it does not want advice on — for example, those that it has already made decisions on? The time has come for proper clarity on the matter. Why was the motion, in draft form or whatever, suddenly taken off the Order Paper, only for us to come back to it today?

Because of the way in which it was handpicked and constructed, the Civic Forum will not do a necessary job. It is weighted entirely in one way to back up a policy which puts gunmen into government and which seeks to destroy the constitution of this country.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 11:30 am, 6th February 2001

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

It is very illuminating to hear Dr Paisley talk about a body which he has opposed from the outset. Now he tells us that he will consult with it on how it conducted its business with regard to the motion — [Interruption].

Check your own comments.

In case hon Members do not recall his words, Dr Paisley said that he would go and ask the Civic Forum people —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Check Hansard. It is also interesting —

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The record will clearly show that Dr Paisley said that he would consult with members of the Civic Forum, not with the Civic Forum.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

That point of order was very interesting. In Mr Robinson’s earlier remarks he said that it was never the intention to have an upper house. I think those were his words, but I am prepared to check Hansard in the morning or to be corrected by Mr Robinson. He was not involved in the discussions on the Civic Forum and the Good Friday negotiations, unless perhaps he wants to acknowledge that he had some kind of proximity discussions with someone or other at the time. He is not really in a position to talk about the intentions behind the establishment of the Civic Forum.

I support the motion on behalf of Sinn Féin. That support is primarily based on the assurances given in the Executive and in the Chamber this morning. I oppose the amendment tabled by the Member from the DUP on the basis that the DUP has always opposed the Civic Forum. The DUP has been very consistent on that, and that is fair enough. That is its right. However, we will oppose anything that the DUP wants to do to restrict the functioning of the Civic Forum, as I am sure many others will.

We oppose the amendment tabled by Mr Ford and Ms Morrice because it is unnecessary. Members will acknowledge that the assurances given by the First Minister this morning satisfy most of their concerns.

In his comments this morning the First Minister exaggerated his embracing of the need for the Civic Forum and the kind of functions that most Members want to see.

As people have already pointed out, the original motion coming to the House — or at least going on the Order Paper — had to be withdrawn because of objections that it was clearly going to restrict the work of the Civic Forum. My party’s view is, quite simply, that the elected representatives here are ultimately responsible for legislation and for carrying out the wishes of the people who return us by way of the ballot box.

Nevertheless, we are very supportive of the need for a Civic Forum to ensure that we have a more inclusive way of doing business in our society. Therefore our very clear and fundamental view on the Civic Forum will always be on the basis that it is, and should be, an independent body. We welcome, and want to see, the Civic Forum adopting a challenging role in society as a whole.

We oppose anything that seeks to restrict the work of the Civic Forum. We are very satisfied with the assurances that we have received from our Ministers in the Executive and from the First Minister this morning. I welcome the First Minister’s comments and his assurances to Members that there will be no attempt whatsoever to restrict the work of the Civic Forum. We will not be supporting amendment 2, because Assembly Committees already have the right to invite submissions from any organisation, or individual, with a particular interest in any matter that the Committees are enquiring into.

Committees have invited views from a range of organisations, and we have also had situations where organisations and individuals have requested the opportunity to address the various Committees. After all, we are supposed to be sitting in public session quite often. Amendment 2 is unnecessary, but we are very happy to support the motion from the First and Deputy First Ministers.

Photo of David Ervine David Ervine PUP

I support the amendment in the name of the Alliance Party and the Women’s Coalition. I suppose that there are those of us who have scraped — as it has been described — into the Assembly or into political life. So far as I know, most of us took either third, fourth or fifth place and most of the sixth places were actually taken by the larger parties. One could argue that some of them say that they do not want to be here, but I get the impression that they could limbo dance under the closed front door with a top hat on.

This admonishment of the small parties and the Civic Forum is all very well. I would like to define that a little. I know some members of the Civic Forum who can talk in joined-up language, and who can do joined-up writing. They can actually speak without a script. They are people who manage affairs in banks, trade unions and churches, and who make practical efforts on a day-to-day basis, thus undoubtedly proving their capacity as citizens of this society to make a contribution.

I get confused when we ask citizens to make a contribution. Very often I hear the DUP or the less inclusive democratic parties of small nature — the UUAP, the NIUP, the UKUP and all those p’s with very few conveniences — use the word "inundated". They use that word a lot. When there is an issue of concern for society they are inundated by phone calls and suggestions from concerned members of their constituency that there is something wrong. Fair enough — politicians have to listen to the people. So, when we decide that there should be a group of people who are strategically placed to feed politics from the ground up rather than from the old, tired, unworkable politics from the top down, we are told that we should not listen when we are inundated. They really cannot have it both ways.

I am terribly worried. From the wording of the DUP amendment, it seems to me that the DUP actually trusts the nefarious, evil and reprehensible First and Deputy First Ministers more than it trusts the bad and terrible Civic Forum. There would seem to be that suggestion.

Photo of David Ervine David Ervine PUP

Well, that is how it seems to me, but there was a suggestion that it is perfectly all right for the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to direct what the Forum should do.

Photo of David Ervine David Ervine PUP

Not at this moment.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

He has made an allegation.

Photo of David Ervine David Ervine PUP

It is my choice. I will freely give the information I have when Dr Paisley gives the stuff about the ecumenical people that he held back. However —

Photo of David Ervine David Ervine PUP

Evangelical? Oh, sorry, perhaps he would not have wanted them on the Forum at all. Well, all those "e"s — you get mixed up. Touché.

What we are seeing from some Members is the "Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man" attitude. They say "Politics is my job, and don’t you be thinking of doing it. Away, and do what you do — churchman or trade unionist or whatever. Don’t be entering my regime, don’t be coming here and making any remote criticisms of what we might do or, indeed, offering us ideas on what we should do." Basically, that is what this is about. They are afraid of the dark. They are afraid of the positive attitudes that can come from those people. If someone were to be a shining light on the Civic Forum, would they be a threat?

I remember social development workers were always considered by some elements to be threats from all sides. Usually the parties with plenty of votes felt more aggrieved that community development officers existed and made some kind of commentary. One feels that we are seeking a self protection process.

On a more positive point, it was our hope and our dream and — certainly at the creation of the Civic Forum — our belief that we could have a group of people in society who might well be our alter ego in some ways. They might listen in places that we do not get to. They might develop attitudes and opinions worthwhile for us to hear. They could have fed us politics from the ground up. Not that any of us are devoid of being told by many people what is wrong on a daily basis, but it could be done in a structured, common-sense way, embracing many elements of society. I cannot, for the life of me, believe that we need to be afraid of such a concept. I think it was the Deputy First Minister, Séamus Mallon, who in a previous speech indicated that if they are going to be a crowd of nodding ducks then they are wasting their time and ours.

I value that the Civic Forum has been created because there is a paucity of civil society in relation to political affairs in Northern Ireland, especially within the community from which I emanate. There is not a civil society of great strength upon which we can rest our politics. We need to be challenged. We need to have others moving in similar fields and realms, especially on issues such as culture, economics and social affairs. It can be of no harm to this Chamber — no harm to the Executive — for those people to be developing attitudes, understanding what the people say, and moving around this country taking evidence from large numbers of people in public. What is to be afraid of there?

On another positive note, although not directly about the Civic Forum, the DUP did not want a Civic Forum, and it made that very clear. In fact, it was alluded to today. It also did not want the Northern Ireland Assembly. I suppose that you can take some comfort that if it uses the same effort to collapse the Civic Forum as it has to collapse the Assembly, then the Forum will grow to old age. That is a reality.

What we are hearing from the DUP is "Why is it not all in our hands? Why don’t we hold it all? Why don’t we control it all? Why would we allow these people?" You can hear that those people are distrusted, not because of who they are but because of who they are not. We have heard "Who they are not" referred to substantially in earlier speeches.

The people of Northern Ireland have a right to be heard. Political representatives are the natural vehicles for that, but there is a capacity for that alter ego of the Civic Forum to add to what we do, not diminish it; to benefit what we do, rather than detract from it. Those of us who are not afraid of the Civic Forum are often those who argue that it should have a broader and more sweeping capacity to stick its nose in where it wishes — within its remit, of course. The amendment that I support, in the names of David Ford and Jane Morrice, shows that.

There are parties in the Executive that will support the motion credited to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and there will be those in the Executive who will oppose it. We must talk to those who oppose it first. I have tried to address my remarks to them. Those parties in the Executive who support the motion must bear in mind the nature of opposition in this Chamber. Opposition has difficulty being heard and difficulty encouraging and engendering movement in our Government. Why do we propose that there are those outside this place who can be our alter ego? It is because we are frightened of the fiefdom — not any fiefdom that could be created by the Civic Forum, but a fiefdom that could, and just might, be created by the four large parties in this Chamber.

Those of us who want openness and the opportunity for interaction in society will support the amendment in the names of David Ford and Jane Morrice. We must stop playing games about what we want to collapse and what we do not like, and get on with business. Has it gone unnoticed that the DUP is shifting its language and its position? It is not "Collapse" any more; it is "Listen to our concerns".

Photo of Prof Monica McWilliams Prof Monica McWilliams NIWC 11:45 am, 6th February 2001

It is worth remembering how the Civic Forum came to be in the first place. Its establishment has been a long process. It was useful to hear Mr Peter Robinson remind us that it initially came about as a result of the agreement. It is on record that the DUP is opposed to that agreement and everything that is in it. Its position of opposition has been on record from then on.

However, I cannot find anything that reconciles that position with the DUP’s current position: "We did not like the agreement. We did not like the legislation. In fact, we did not like the working party that was established to decide on the sectors." For the record, it is not right to call people cronies when they have voluntarily given their time to participate in social, economic and cultural decision-making in this society. Nonetheless, the DUP took that view, and now it is saying that its disagreement with the Civic Forum is not because of the agreement, the legislation, the working party or the sectors that took so much time in deciding who should go forward, but rather because some of the evangelical churches are not fully represented or the loyal institutions are not represented.

Clearly, its current position is derived from that. I always find it amusing when someone uses the words "We must be in control." In this case, that does not surprise me, given that the Member who was speaking was Mr Robinson. I am often left wondering whether he wants the Assembly to have control of the various institutions we seek to establish, or himself. It would be great if we reached the stage of trying to "empower" people, rather than "control" them.

I am, however, very heartened that the Civic Forum has now been established, and it is extremely important to remind ourselves that participatory, as well as representative, democracy is good for this country. One of the reasons for the Civic Forum was that many people felt politically homeless. As a result of the bitter constitutional difficulties we faced, they did not feel that the time had come for them to engage in the political parties that currently existed. Many of them were very active politically — with a small "p" — in their work for informal politics. It is only right that as a result of that model of conflict resolution we produced, which has become known as the Belfast Agreement or the Good Friday Agreement, those people have a voice. They will perhaps be the stabilisers of the fast speed bike that was agreed in 1998.

I also take heart from the fact that resources have been set aside for the Civic Forum. If you are not in, you will not get any money to do what you wish to do. That would have happened had the Forum not been mentioned in the agreement. We had to work extremely hard on those last nights before the agreement to protect our wording on the Civic Forum and to ensure that it made its way into legislation. I am aware that the Northern Ireland Act 1998 says, as the First Minister told us earlier:

"The arrangements so made shall not take effect until after they have been approved by the Assembly".

I am heartened that this provision relates mainly to resources. The Assembly should have a view, since the budget for the Civic Forum is initially decided by the Assembly, and it will come to the Floor. However, it is right that the Forum should be given a certain amount of independence on social, economic and cultural matters — wide ranging as they are. The two can, therefore, be reconciled.

I am heartened that the First Minister says that he has no intention of restricting the work of the Civic Forum. The motion which came before the Business Committee at an earlier stage was aimed at doing exactly that. Nonetheless, the reason I support the amendment in the name of Mr Ford and Ms Morrice is to take issue with something which Mr Maskey said. The original motion, put down today by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, is still restrictive. It still suggests that a motion so requested has to be placed before the Assembly. The Civic Forum’s work on the Programme for Government did not come as a result of a motion in the Assembly. By putting that motion down, therefore, the work of the Civic Forum is still restricted, whereas Mr Ford’s and Ms Morrice’s amendment further opens it.

There are several points to which I would like the First Minister to respond. I am heartened that he says that there will be a review of the Civic Forum. Anyone who is reluctant to participate in, and support the work of, the Civic Forum will have another opportunity to participate when that review takes place. A working party was formed in which Assembly Members expressed views on how the work of the Civic Forum should go forward. I will be interested to see if those who chose not to become members of that working party — the DUP was one such party —participate in the review.

The First Minister has said that this review will take place after one year. Does he refer to the establishment of the date of the Civic Forum or to this year, 2001? The Civic Forum should be able to do some of its work before that review.

I also make a plea for more effective liaison between the Civic Forum and the Assembly. I agree that if the Civic Forum had been asked for its views on this motion, perhaps there could have been better liaison between the Assembly and the Civic Forum. I would like to see more formal liaison mechanisms. However, I am heartened by the First Minister’s comments. I will support the amendment.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I am speaking as a Member of the legislative Assembly and not as Chairperson of the Committee of the Centre. This motion was never presented to the Committee, so members had no opportunity to give their views on it. It is, however, good to see the Junior Minister, Mr Nesbitt, with us — [Interruption].

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

Is the Member saying that a matter which is the responsibility of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and, by the admission of the First Minister, worthy of being put before the Civic Forum, was never put before the Committee of the Centre?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Yes, I can confirm to Mr Robinson that this matter was never brought before the Committee of the Centre. Obviously, the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister thought it more important to take the issue to the Civic Forum than to bring it to the public representatives who are supposed to be scrutinising that Office.

As I have said, it is good to see the Junior Minister, Mr Nesbitt, here. He is a bit like the Scarlet Pimpernel:

"We seek him here, we seek him there", but seldom can he be found. It is good to see that he is here and looking so well. We were concerned for his well-being.

If we want to look at the basis for the Civic Forum we need to go back to the 1996 Forum elections. We had previously heard much about accountable democracy, especially from the Ulster Unionist Party. I took it that accountable democracy meant exactly that, and that it did not mean more quangos or more people who could not be called to account by the electorate. So, we had the 1996 elections which gave top-up positions for the 10 parties that achieved the highest percentage of the votes. Those top-up positions included people who were unable to be elected in the normal way. The Labour Coalition was nominated, wherever it has gone, as were the UDP, the Women’s Coalition and the PUP. We know that the Women’s Coalition has been detrimental to the community. Then we had talks and negotiations — [Interruption].

Photo of Prof Monica McWilliams Prof Monica McWilliams NIWC

That will get us more votes.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Yes, there might be another 10 votes for the Women’s Coalition.

During the talks process a number of these parties realised that in a normal election they would not be returned, so they decided to introduce a fallback position, which is the Civic Forum. Mr Ervine, in his 10-minute speech — if you could call it a speech; it was more bluster and codswallop — made a lot of noise but delivered very little. He made many accusations against the DUP and its stance on the Assembly and the Civic Forum.

I will make it abundantly clear what our position is on the Assembly. The DUP has always supported a devolved Administration for Northern Ireland. However, we do not support a devolved Administration that lets terrorists into government. Those two facts will remain at the centre of our policy. We believe in devolved government, in accountable democracy and in having a situation in which people can come to their politicians at a local level where decisions can be made. We also believe that there is no place in government for people who are closely aligned to, or are apologists for, terrorist organisations. On that point Mr Ervine will fundamentally disagree with our party.

What the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister propose is less public accountability — it is a triumvirate of the two Ministers and the chairperson of the Civic Forum, who will make decisions which will not come before the Assembly. I am surprised that some of the parties want the Assembly to have less influence and want the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to exert more influence than the Assembly. For that to come from the smaller parties, which often cry about this very thing, surprises me. I ask them to reconsider their position. In this case, they should seek to give the Assembly more authority and reduce that of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. They should take the opportunity to put their money where their mouths are.

12.00

As I understand it — and perhaps this can be confirmed later — the Civic Forum has had some problems in getting quorums for its committees, a number of which have had to be cancelled. Perhaps the First Minister should have been more careful when choosing who was going to represent him. For example, look at the representation that Mr McMichael has given in his council. He never attends it. The fact that the Civic Forum is having problems getting quorums comes as no surprise, given the record of some of the individuals appointed to it. I am not sure whether Mr McMichael has attended the Civic Forum. All I know is that he certainly does not attend his council.

Yesterday we were told that it cost £75,000 to set up the Civic Forum, with £110,000 having been spent thus far on running costs — a total of £185,000. That would have paid for about 47 hip operations. That would have created more nursery places for children. That could have employed another 12 nurses. We have lots of problems and needs in our society. We have people crying out because the roads are not gritted. However, it is OK to throw £185,000 at the Civic Forum. What has it achieved so far? I am not aware of any achievement that can be accredited to it. We may be at an early stage, but it should be producing something tangible and beneficial to the community if the money is going to be spent on it. The Civic Forum is a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Politicians should be at the beck and call of the general public if they are doing their job right. Many of us in the Chamber have constituency offices. I am not sure what some others do with their office costs allowance — they seem to be able to use it up, but they do not have constituency offices. Many of us do have constituency offices in which we hear the views of the public. In my constituency, I have received a mass of letters concerning, for example, the closure of the railway between Crumlin and Knockmore. I do not need someone from the Civic Forum to tell me about the problems that will be created if Translink is to close that line. My constituents are telling me about that. I have had many letters about the transfer procedure for children from primary to secondary school. Again, I do not need the Civic Forum to tell me what my position should be on that, because my electors are telling me the position that I should be taking. The opportunity is there for them.

A cabal has been created of people who are, in general, in tow with the pro-agreement parties in Northern Ireland. There has been a little tokenism — a couple of individuals have been included who would not necessarily be supporters of the Belfast Agreement. However, by and large, we have a group of people who support the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and who will be directed by them. What we will hear from the Civic Forum is not in reality what civil society wants. We will hear in May, all being well, what civil society wants, because it will have the opportunity to come out and express its opinion at the polling booths. I am quite positive that, among the Unionist community, it will not be expressing support for the Belfast Agreement.

In talking to people on the ground, both pro-agreement and anti-agreement, I often hear people saying that we need an Assembly in Northern Ireland, irrespective of whether it is this Assembly or the sort of Assembly that we would like to see, which would not involve having terrorists in government. I have yet to hear someone — be he pro-agreement or anti-agreement — say that we need a Civic Forum. I have not once heard anyone challenge me or criticise the position that we take. I do not think that there is a demand for the Civic Forum, but it has been constituted under the terms of the Belfast Agreement, so we will have to live with it. However, the work it does should be controlled by the Assembly rather than by the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the chairperson of the Civic Forum alone.

Photo of Mary Nelis Mary Nelis Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The First Minister has stated that the proposed arrangements for the Civic Forum, as it is within the remit of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, need to be formalised. He also stated that the Civic Forum has met twice, set up its programme of work and given an important response to the Programme for Government, which we would also like to hear. The First Minister also stated that he and the Deputy First Minister have consulted with the Forum and that the arrangements which they have put in place shall be reviewed at the end of the year. He did not, however, indicate which year. He also said that the Civic Forum supported the motion, that he and the Deputy First Minister supported the independence of the Forum and that they had no intention of preventing it from addressing whatever issues it chooses.

I welcome the First Minster’s statement on the independence of the Forum. However, he did not address the relationship between the Civic Forum and any independent consultative forum that may be appointed by a North/South Ministerial Council. The motion and the amendment of Mr Ford and Ms Morrice uphold the independence of the Forum to offer its views on such matters as it chooses and on such matters as the Assembly chooses. The motion clearly defines and expands the role of the Civic Forum from its original narrow remit within the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to give it a more complementary and progressive relationship with the entire Assembly. I am sure that the Assembly will benefit from that.

Of course, this does not square with the DUP’s assertion that the Civic Forum is a second chamber. Indeed, if the DUP had discharged its obligations under the Good Friday Agreement and involved itself in the working parties set up by the Assembly to determine the role and remit of the Civic Forum, it would know that it is not a second chamber — that that was never on the agenda. Given the DUP’s involvement here, I think that one Chamber is enough.

One of the tasks of the working party was to examine the role, remit, composition and relationship between the Civic Forum and the Assembly. Sinn Féin’s proposals at that time, contained in our report to the Assembly, supported the Good Friday Agreement by stating that a consultative Civic Forum should not be limited to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister or it would become nothing more than a performing poodle. We agreed that, within the new dispensation of the agreement, the Forum should have the potential and the freedom to develop its own work programme, and the second part of the motion makes provision for that. It should also be able to set its own tasks, make its own reports and act as a bridge between the grass-roots communities and the Assembly, or "between people and politicians", as Mr Ervine eloquently put it.

We argued that this would not happen if the Civic Forum were constrained in any way. I welcome the comments by the First Minister on the independence of the Forum and the fact that a review of these arrangements will be carried out if this independence is not upheld. It is important that the Assembly establish the parameters in which the Civic Forum shall interrelate with Ministers and Members. If the Assembly, by motion, requests the Civic Forum to offer its views on specific social, economic and cultural matters, that will be a step towards addressing the democratic deficit which has given us 50 years of Unionist misrule and 30 years of fly-by-wire British Ministers and their quangos. To Dr Ian Paisley’s comments about lack of representation, I respond "Your party did not participate."

I support the motion.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

I would like to explain why Mr Ford and I proposed this amendment. Mr Ford has explained it in great detail; I want to stress again that the intention behind the amendment is to ensure the independence of the Civic Forum. I am very pleased to hear Mr Ervine, Mrs Nelis, Mr Maskey and others mentioning the importance, in principle, of the independence of the Civic Forum.

We must make sure that this independence is never compromised. In spite of what has been said on the Floor this morning, the value of the Civic Forum lies in its power to put forward a non-party political position. As such, that opinion is and should be hugely valued by the Assembly, in spite of what Members of the DUP will say.

We have said that the Civic Forum will act as a support for the work of the Assembly, its Committees and the Executive. This is a positive thing. The Forum will provide hands-on or grass-roots expertise and experience of many different sectors. It will be an effective and expert support service for the Assembly on the development of legislation, administration and policy.

Many contributors have said that this body adds value. That is exactly what I believe it does. As Members know very well, the Women’s Coalition pushed to get the Civic Forum created by having it included in the Good Friday Agreement. It is important; it is value-added; and it offers new thinking and alternative options.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

When the Member uses the word "pushed", she indicates that there was some resistance. Who was resisting the formation of the Civic Forum?

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

The use of the word "pushed" is to show how enthusiastic the Women’s Coalition was to get this important issue through.

The Civic Forum should be about problem-solving and alternative thinking — I again refer to this corner — and, boy, do we need alternative thinking in Northern Ireland.

I want to refer quickly to some of the points made during this debate, starting with those made by the First Minister. I would like to quote him on his assurances that he and his Office are prepared to give independence to the Civic Forum. He said that it would be difficult to think that they would ever want to refuse to hear the views of the Civic Forum, and that means, when you turn it round, that the Forum can express its opinions on virtually whatever its members want. They have the freedom to set their agenda, and that is vital. We cannot restrict them — a point that we want to push with this amendment.

It was very enlightening of Ms Hanna to introduce the issues of Third-World development and international relations to the Floor of the House. This sort of issue is vital, and it would be worthwhile to explore whether it is possible for the Civic Forum to look at these matters, although they are reserved. I say "Why not?"

Dr Ian Paisley suggested that we talk about international matters and raised the matters of the European Parliament. He referred to the fact that the European Parliament roams around the world. I assume he was implying that roaming amounts to a waste of time. I must ask the good doctor why on earth he stands for election to the European Parliament every time one is called if he thinks that it is wasting its time roaming around the world. Why on earth does he then roam around between the seats of two Parliaments?

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

The European Parliament is convened on Thursdays. Members discuss all these issues, and they roam around the world. I do not roam around the world with them.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC 12:15 pm, 6th February 2001

I thank the Member for giving us that assurance. The European Parliament may not roam the world, but my understanding is that it moves from place to place and that Members move with it.

Mr Maskey and Mrs Nelis said that they were satisfied with the assurances they received from the Executive. As non-Executive Members, we need those assurances on the Floor of the House and on the record.

Mr Ervine, with his references to limbo dancing, gave a colourful presentation. He and Ms McWilliams spoke about the insulting way in which members of the Civic Forum were referred to as "cronies". It is totally inappropriate to describe the people who give their time and energy to the Civic Forum in this way. Mr Ervine also spoke about the real ability of the Civic Forum to work hard for the good of this society.

As Ms McWilliams said, there is a need for greater liaison between the Assembly and the Civic Forum. I understand that the junior Minister will be winding up. I would appreciate his taking up this point. Undoubtedly, there is little interaction.

Mr Poots asked what the Forum had done. It is hard to know exactly what the Forum is doing because there is no cross-fertilisation between the Civic Forum and the Assembly. Mr Poots is not in the Chamber, but I would like to assure him that the Forum is doing things. Later this month it will launch its response to the Programme for Government. It is not the kind of support that the DUP spoke about for the Executive, but the Forum will cast a critical eye over the document, and its response will be valued.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

An issue has been raised that goes to the very heart of the privilege of this House. Today we are debating the mechanisms by which the Civic Forum should be asked to offer its views to the Assembly. But here we have a Member telling us that the Civic Forum has already decided not only on how it will operate but also on a topic that it intends to give its views on — namely, the Programme for Government. That is a breach of the privilege of this House.

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will look into the issue and come back to you, Mr Robinson.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

I would like to remind Mr Robinson that the whole community was asked to comment on the Programme for Government. What is very important is the need for some formalised contact between the Assembly and the Civic Forum.

More interaction is needed, not only in the Executive but also on the Floor of the Assembly and in Committees. Mr Poots talked about the need to give the Assembly more authority. I agree with that aspect of Mr Robinson’s amendment. We are not just trying to give the Assembly more authority; we are trying to share that authority among the Executive, the Assembly and the Committees and to allow the Civic Forum to use its initiative. Its right to give opinions on matters it believes are of importance is necessary in order to underline its independence within its remit of the social, cultural and economic issues set out in the Good Friday Agreement.

I will conclude by saying once again that, from what we have heard, the First Minister did attempt to give us the assurances we are looking for. We would be grateful if those assurances could be underlined in the winding-up, because that is what the amendment is about. A warning was given about the First Minister’s saying that the Civic Forum has the freedom to set its agenda. I think the point he made was that it has the freedom to set its agenda, subject to resources. I would be grateful for an explanation of exactly what that means. So far we are concerned, it is important that the Civic Forum has the freedom to set its agenda, and we would like to have that clarified. We are looking forward to hearing what the junior Minister has to say.

The sitting was suspended at 12.23 pm.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair) —

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP 2:00 pm, 6th February 2001

This debate has raised some interesting and important matters which were not obvious at the beginning of proceedings. Two in particular need to be dealt with by those winding up on behalf of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

The first relates to a claim made by the First Minister that the motion was what the Forum wanted. He repeated that claim on several occasions during the debate. Indeed, when an SDLP Back-Bencher took it up, my party leader asked, in an intervention, how such a claim could be made as the Civic Forum had never voted on or discussed this matter. There were remarks — if they could be called that — or gestures from a sedentary position by the First Minister, which indicated that what my Colleague had said was quite inaccurate. This was followed up by an intervention from the First Minister when my Colleague spoke. The First Minister said his claim was inaccurate, that the Civic Forum had met on the issue and, not only that, he was able to give us the date — 20 December 2000 — as the record will show.

This information is inaccurate. The First Minister has misled this House, and he should be brought to the Assembly to apologise. The Civic Forum did not meet on 20 December 2000. Indeed, there have been only two meetings of the Civic Forum in plenary session. The first was in October in the Waterfront Hall, and some Assembly Members went along to see the occasion. The second was held in Cookstown, around 6 December. The motion the First Minister was waving, saying it had the approval of the Civic Forum, was never brought before that meeting. A motion was brought to that meeting for information only, but it was not discussed or voted on.

Peculiarly enough, it was the motion that the First Minister denied any responsibility for during his speech. It was the motion I referred to in my earlier comments — the one that was brought to the Business Committee, the one the First Minister said he had not approved. However, somebody in his office sent it to the Business Office and indicated that this was for the business for the following week. It was later withdrawn. Not only was it sent to the Business Office for inclusion on the Order Paper of the House; it was also sent to the Civic Forum. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind about that — I have the Civic Forum agenda. It has that initial motion on it, the one the First Minister said did not get his approval or, I assume, the approval of the Deputy First Minister either.

We now know that this was a motion approved of by the First Minister. It would never have been sent to the Civic Forum or the Business Office had it not got that approval. It is obvious that he wants to disown it now — for what reasons, I am sure we will discover later. The critical issue is that neither the earlier motion nor the later motion was ever brought for the approval of, or discussion by, the Civic Forum at any of its meetings.

The First Minister may have had a word in the ear of the chairperson he appointed, but the matter was certainly not subject to the approval of the Civic Forum. When he comes to this Assembly and claims that the blessing of the Civic Forum is upon his motion, he is being untrue. The Forum has never approved of the motion that he put before the Assembly today.

Even if the Civic Forum had approved it, what difference would that have made? Does the First Minister believe that because the Civic Forum says "This is how we want to deal with our business" we have to jump to accept this decision? Does he believe that, in some way, it is calling the shots? Who is running the Civic Forum? Are they running the Assembly, or is the Assembly running them? According to the First Minister, if the Civic Forum wants it, the Assembly should give it. Of course, nothing should be further from the truth.

These problems arise, I suspect, because Members do not know what the Civic Forum is doing. How could they? They should go along to the Library of the House of Commons and see how it is spending hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money, yet does not have even a minute of any meeting of the Civic Forum.

What was the purpose of the Civic Forum? To give its views to the Assembly. Yet we cannot even find out when it met, where it met and what it did when it met. This is a body whose single charge is to provide its views to this Assembly.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

Will the Member agree that it would, therefore, be very valuable to set up a formal procedural mechanism whereby there could be co-operation and an exchange of information between the Assembly and the Civic Forum?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

The Member heard my comments and views on what would be appropriate for the Civic Forum. While it is in existence, it needs to be controlled and ordered. Certainly, the mechanisms that are presently in place are quite inadequate. A body such as the Civic Forum is a complete waste of time. When one looks at the plethora of bodies and organisations in Northern Ireland that deal with Government matters one wonders how anybody in his right mind could have produced such a body.

We have representatives from Northern Ireland in the European Parliament. We have representatives, from this House and outside in Northern Ireland, in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. We have this Assembly. We have 26 local councils, 11 Government Departments, Statutory Committees and Standing Committees — probably over 20, perhaps 30, Assembly Committees of one variety or another. We have the British-Irish Council, the North/South Ministerial Council, a range of implementation bodies, sectoral meetings and a vast range of quangos. And on top of that, they want a Civic Forum. It just seems that we are a trifle over-governed — aside from the issue of the body’s size and the waste of expenditure it involves.

I see my Friend wants to say something on this matter.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP

Does the hon Member think that there is a grave danger of Northern Ireland ending up with many more chiefs than Indians and that, soon, the membership of these august bodies will outnumber the electorate?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

Some people out there will be quite offended if they are not given a position on one of these bodies. They will probably be able to go to the Human Rights Commission and claim that they have been discriminated against because they are not on one of the quangos that have been set up.

That was the first serious matter that was raised, and to which I referred. The First Minister needs to apologise to the Assembly for misleading the House by indicating that he had the Civic Forum’s approval of his motion, when clearly that was not the case.

The second serious matter arose in the speech of the Member for North Down, Ms Morrice. I do not know if the claim made by the Member is accurate. However, I raised a point of order at the time, because if it is accurate, it represents a serious breach of privilege. The hon Member’s claim was that the Civic Forum was going full steam ahead to provide its views on the Programme for Government to the Assembly. That is interesting, because today the Assembly is deciding the mechanism by which the Civic Forum will be asked to provide its views. Therefore, according to the hon Member for North Down, the Civic Forum has decided that it is going to do its own thing in advance of any decision being taken by the Assembly. It has decided what it is going to look at and give its views on. That is a serious breach of privilege. It is already taking on a life of its own.

A second serious matter arises from that. When I raised the point of order, the Member, in an attempt to excuse herself or the Civic Forum, said that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister had asked the whole of society for its views on the Programme for Government. That is not, of course, the case. They asked the whole of society for its view on the draft Programme for Government, and that is a critical difference, because this Assembly — wrongly, in my view — decided to approve the Programme for Government. Therefore, according to the Member for North Down, a body which was set up to give its views to the Assembly is now second-guessing the Assembly and judging whether the Assembly has done its job properly or not. That is not the business of the Civic Forum. That matter must be clarified in order to determine whether or not the information provided by the Member to the House was correct.

Both matters — that raised by the Member for North Down and the First Minister’s inaccuracies — go to the heart of the lack of available information on what this body is doing. This is a clear indication that it is not fulfilling the one charge made to it, which was to provide its views.

I want to deal with another matter, and I am glad to see Dr Birnie in his place. Dr Birnie thought that he would provide us with some of his wisdom. In an intervention, the Member asked my Colleague Dr Paisley why he had not put down an amendment which would have allowed members of the Orange Institution to be represented on the Civic Forum. Either the Member was trying to be mischievous or he was acting in ignorance — perhaps both. Of course, there was no need to put down an amendment. The range of bodies produced in the report made allowance for Orange Order representatives to be included, because cultural interests were to be catered for —

Photo of Esmond Birnie Esmond Birnie UUP

What was the problem then?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

The Member will find out very quickly what my problem is.

There was no prohibition on the appointments that the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister could make. There would have been no difficulty if they had wanted to include an official representative from the Orange Institution. When the statement was eventually made, no one in the House could procedurally amend it. We have no right to decide who the members of the Civic Forum are. Only the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have that right. The Assembly’s role is to approve or disapprove. We disapproved. We voted against it, and after the event we did the right thing and put down a motion in the Assembly which criticised the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister for excluding a significant section of Northern Ireland’s community.

The next comment came from a Sinn Féin/IRA representative, who seemed to think that I was not entitled to make any comment on what the intention was — either in the legislation or in the agreement — as far as the workings of the Civic Forum were concerned. I contend that I am so entitled, unless of course he is saying that the agreement sought to hide the intention behind the Civic Forum. If the agreement did not seek to hide the intention behind the Forum, then I am entitled to read the agreement and work out what the intention was. If there was no subterfuge in the intention, I am entitled to read the agreement and work out its signatories’ intention with regard to the Civic Forum. I must say that my record of working out the intentions of those who signed the Belfast Agreement is far better than the First Minister’s — as the courts have recently demonstrated.

Arising from that, the Sinn Féin/IRA representative concluded that because the Alliance Party and its close Colleagues in the Women’s Coalition had put down an amendment to include the Committees as the bodies that could give work to the Civic Forum, it was nonsense. Why was it nonsense? He said it was because the Committees had the right to get the views of individuals and groups and, therefore, the Forum was unnecessary. That goes to the heart of my argument. This Assembly has the right to get the views of anybody in civic society on any matter. And whether it has the right to or not, civic society is giving its views on all of these matters daily.

The Sinn Féin/IRA representative said that if it is coming to you, and you have the right to get it and hear it, and then all the rest is unnecessary. He is underlining the fact that the body is unnecessary because provisions are already in place for hearing the views of civic society. This is an unnecessary and costly duplication.

The next comment came from the PUP representative who read us a homily, which is not unusual. I was annoyed with him because I asked to intervene in his speech, and he refused at that point saying that he would let me intervene later, but then he sat down without doing so. I understand why he did that — his argument could not stand up. His argument was that the DUP by its amendment was showing that it had more trust in the hated First Minister and Deputy First Minister than in the Civic Forum. If he had read the amendment he would have seen that the "hated First Minister and Deputy First Minister" were being made subject to the will of the Assembly. They were being hauled back from their original motion.

The amendment was significantly different from the original motion. The original motion allowed the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to take these matters forward on their own volition. The amendment requires them to have the approval of the Assembly, in exactly the same way as the Civic Forum was required to have the approval of the Assembly if there were matters that it felt were proper to have discussed. So, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister were being dealt with in precisely the same way, and, because neither of them was trusted, it was subject to the will of the Assembly itself.

That would have been the reply had the Member for East Belfast had the grace and manners to give way to me when I sought him to do so. I do not know if his tongue was embedded firmly in his cheek when he spoke, but he suggested that there were people in this House who would see the Civic Forum as a threat. That comment caused some hilarity on this side of the House. I cannot see too many of my Colleagues shaking in their shoes at the prospect of Gary McMichael coming out of his forced retirement to take them on at the polls — or because of any other of the individuals that are there.

I will deal with his general view. He said that these are people who can make a speech without having it typed up for them, and who can do joined-up writing. Therefore, he thinks that we should get their views and that they cannot be considered to be cronies. One can have a well-educated crony. The ability to do joined-up writing does not stop people being cronies. Making speeches without having to refer to prepared manuscripts does not stop them from being cronies. None of those things are essential to someone being a crony.

The Member’s next comment concerned the anti-agreement Unionists’ position. He said that by being in the Assembly they were in some way supporting the existence of the Assembly and did not want to bring it down. Let me deal with that matter, because it seems to be of an organised type by a number of individuals, which will probably be their only defence in the run-up to an election.

In any democratic society, if one wants to democratically defeat a proposition that one finds to be anathema, there are options available. In this case the DUP considers that there are three. One option is to get the Ulster Unionist Council to live up to its manifesto commitments and ditch the deal. That is never going to happen. It is not going to happen because, at the height of the question, the Ulster Unionist Council did not take the opportunity to stop armed terrorist representatives from being in the Government. The Ulster Unionist Council voted in favour of letting them into the Government without decommissioning taking place.

The second available option is to get 60% of Unionists in the Assembly to veto the process. If that were done, the DUP would have succeeded in doing what Mr Ervine did not want it to do. The DUP tabled a motion that could have united Unionism more than anything else. The motion proposed to exclude those who were still engaged in acts of terrorism from being in government. Those people are still running guns into the country from Florida and, only a week ago, were caught in possession of loaded weapons in Cork in the Republic of Ireland. However, when the DUP brought the motion before the House, 55% of Unionists — a clear majority of Unionists in the Assembly — voted for their exclusion, but not the 60% that was required.

That leaves only the electoral annihilation option — the defeat of the First Minister and his team at the polls and the democratic defeat of the Belfast Agreement. That is the option that the DUP is choosing.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC 2:15 pm, 6th February 2001

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Will the Member explain what relevance this has to the motion?

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party

I was also having difficulty relating it to the motion. Mr Robinson, you are straying from the motion.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

This is interesting. It is a remarkable intervention. Why was it not made when the allegation was made by her Friend Mr Ervine? It seems that it is in order to have the remarks made by Mr Ervine, but it is out of order if I try to reply to them. People will read for themselves the level of consistency in that approach.

I am not sure why Monica McWilliams, the leader of the Women’s Coalition, spoke. Perhaps it was to draw attention to the parentage of the Civic Forum and to take what she might consider to be credit for its existence. However, her Colleague’s remarks show that there was no all-party desire within the negotiations for the Belfast Agreement to have a Civic Forum. In fact, I heard one Ulster Unionist describe the inclusion of the Civic Forum as something "to keep Monica quiet". On that basis, this extra tier of "government" exists only to please one of the negotiating parties to the Belfast Agreement, who did not seem to get anything else that she asked for during the process. Her contribution today was an attempt to take some ownership for it.

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

Does my hon Friend agree that the Forum is made up of people who wanted a place but who could not get directly elected?

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

It is very clear, particularly in the appointment of the UDP representative, that that is the case. There are many groups and organisations represented in the Civic Forum whose views I am sure Assembly Members will be happy to hear. Those views can be heard at any time, any day of the week. There is nothing to stop any representative from the churches, trade unions or business organisations from coming to see Assembly Members, and they do so. In spite of the Civic Forum’s existence, the bodies and groups represented on the Civic Forum still come to Assembly Members and give their opinions on matters that are before the House or on those that they wish to have brought before the House. It is duplication and an unnecessary and costly element to our society.

In conclusion, I commend the amendment to the House. Nothing said during the debate will take away from the amendment’s validity. At its very heart, it requires the Assembly to determine the business that the Civic Forum will consider, and its priorities, rather than have the Forum pressurised into dealing with various issues thrown at it from the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, the Assembly, its Committees and the Civic Forum itself. It is nonsense to do business in that way. The business should be under the control of the Assembly, the body whose views it should take into account and not question in the way that the Member for North Down suggests. The Civic Forum should provide its views solely to the Assembly on matters that the Assembly seeks to have its views on.

Photo of Mr Denis Haughey Mr Denis Haughey Social Democratic and Labour Party

Mr Deputy Speaker, I note that Mr Robinson spoke for 25 minutes. I trust that you will give me the same latitude.

I would like to thank the Assembly Members for their contributions to the debate — and I mean that most sincerely, as Hughie Green used to say. Even DUP Members have contributed significantly to the general mirth of the nation.

The Civic Forum is one of the key elements of the Good Friday Agreement. Therefore, it is very important that it be given a credible role to play in the process that we are engaged in. That role is one of providing independent views from a broad range of sectors in our society. It has become evident during today’s debate that some Members have sincere reservations about the motion tabled by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. I want to clarify the situation and give an absolute assurance to those Members.

The First Minister made it clear in his statement this morning that arrangements for the review of the Civic Forum will be completed within the year — by 21 October. That is the assurance that some Members sought. All concerns and representations will be taken into account at that stage. I will quote from the First Minister’s statement to allay the other fears over the independence of the Civic Forum and its freedom to pursue its own agenda:

"Indeed, let me state without equivocation that the Deputy First Minister and I will not try to prevent the Forum from taking forward any item that it wishes to."

The First Minister went on to say:

"That proposal provides for a work agenda to be jointly agreed by the chairperson of the Forum, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. It is not a mechanism for veto."

He continued

"The chairperson of the Forum also believes that it provides the best basis not only for agreeing the Forum’s priorities but also for resourcing its work."

Resourcing was raised on several occasions. The suggestion was made that the Civic Forum would be limited by its resources — that is to say that it would be given a certain allowance and forced to live according to its wits on the basis of the allowance made to it. That is neither the point nor the position. The following is the wish of the Civic Forum, as well as of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. If they, following discussion and consensus, agree on a set of priorities — according to the wishes of the Forum and according to the priorities as seen by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister — that will then set the agenda for finding the resources necessary to accommodate that agenda.

That is quite a different picture from the one painted by some Members this morning.

The First Minister said this morning that the chairperson of the Civic Forum had been assured that the Assembly would not stifle the work of the Forum. He accepts that, and the Civic Forum has approved these arrangements, which we believe will be beneficial to all parties. Let me quote further, just in case there is any doubt about the position. The First Minister also said — [Interruption].

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party

I do not think that it is customary during the winding-up speech. Please continue.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

It is absolutely customary.

Photo of Mr Denis Haughey Mr Denis Haughey Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am no expert on parliamentary procedure, but I thought that when a Minister was winding up a debate — [Interruption].

Let him have his say; it will add to the mirth of the nation.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

I do not know whether the Member was listening when I made my remarks. I made it very clear that the First Minister had been inaccurate. The Civic Forum has never seen this motion. The Civic Forum has never voted on or discussed this motion. The Junior Minister is repeating the inaccuracies of the First Minister. Would he not like to reconsider his position?

Photo of Mr Denis Haughey Mr Denis Haughey Social Democratic and Labour Party

I would not like to reconsider my position at all. I will get round to that issue in a moment.

I return to quoting what the First Minister said this morning:

"First, the motion has been agreed with the Forum itself. Secondly, it will preserve the independence of the Forum. Thirdly, neither the Deputy First Minister nor I has any intention of preventing the Forum from addressing any issue it wishes to address".

I hope that those words, taken from the First Minister’s statement this morning and repeated now by me to this House, will allay the anxieties of those who have genuine concerns here and who are not out to play a party game for party advantage.

It is sad, deplorable and very regrettable to see the intelluctual decline of a hitherto fine body of men, and a woman — the DUP. It is sad indeed to see the decline of the intelluctual powers of Mr Peter Robinson — a man who was renowned for the rigour of his analysis and the vigour of his mind. Out of respect to his friends and family, who must be distressed at his present state, I will devote my time only to a number of the most obvious of the absurdities that he came out with this morning.

First, he said that the Civic Forum would be a complete waste of time and money and that there was ample opportunity for all groups in society to make their views known to the Assembly and its Members. He then went on to argue that the Orange Order had been deliberately excluded from the Civic Forum and that it ought to be included. He went on to mention other Loyal Institutions. I am no expert on the other Loyal Institutions, but I understand that they include the Apprentice Boys of Derry, the Royal Arch Purple, the Independent Orange Order and a number of other bodies. If all of these other bodies were to be included in the Civic Forum, and Dr Paisley[Interruption].

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party

It is a point of order, Mr Haughey. You are requested to give way.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP

Is it in order for the Minister to repeat statements that are patently and clearly inaccurate, misleading and — at the risk of using unparliamentary language — untrue?

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party

Mr Haughey must be given the opportunity to rebut the statements that were made earlier.

Photo of Mr Denis Haughey Mr Denis Haughey Social Democratic and Labour Party

Mr Deputy Speaker, it is my clear recollection — and I think that Hansard will bear it out —

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

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. How can you say, in all saneness, that the Minister is entitled to rebut things that have been said when they were not said, as the record will make clear? Why does he not come to the real issue — this meeting of the Forum? When did it meet, and when did it give approval to this?

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party

Dr Paisley, I do not believe the latter part of that to be a point of order. I will look at Hansard. Can we please let Mr Haughey continue.

Photo of Mr Denis Haughey Mr Denis Haughey Social Democratic and Labour Party

Mr Deputy Speaker, I have a very clear recollection that the words "Loyal Institutions" were used. Now I am no expert on the Loyal Institutions, but I understand that they embrace the bodies that I have referred to. If all these bodies were to be included in the Civic Forum — I refer to the statement made by Dr Paisley about a number of bodies and sectors in civic society not represented in the Forum, and I think that Hansard will bear that out as well — that Dr Paisley and Mr Robinson wished, would that not double or even treble this scandalous waste of money that they complain about?

The second absurdity given voice to by Mr Robinson was that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister appointed their cronies to the Forum — that the Forum was "sanitised" by the deliberate exclusion of those whose views did not accord with those of the First and Deputy First Ministers. In fact, 54 of the 60 members of the Forum were appointed by processes devised by those sectors of society themselves, over which neither the First Minister nor the Deputy First Minister sought, had, were given or wanted any influence whatsoever. They were appointed independently. If it should be the case that those members of the Civic Forum broadly reflect the views of civic society — more than 70% of whom are in favour of the agreement — then DUP members will simply have to live with that, as they do generally in the community at large.

However, it seems strange to me that Mr Robinson, having claimed that this body was appointed by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and consisted largely of their cronies, then went on to complain that it would be far too independent and that it could not be given any freedom to look at issues that it might wish to look at because it might be far too independent. One must deplore and regret the decline of the powers of Mr Robinson, but that is a matter for his party and his associates to deal with.

Let me move to a finely crafted and intellectually compelling address to the House by my Colleague and Friend Carmel Hanna, who suggested that the Forum might be enhanced by an ability to look at Third-World issues and regretted that perhaps, under present arrangements, it might not be as outward looking as it should be. May I suggest to Ms Hanna, and the House, that in addressing European issues the European Union takes a close interest in Third-World issues such as aid and assistance and that those might well fall within the competence of the Forum to address.

I turn now to the issue that has given rise to the most hue and cry from DUP Members: when this issue was looked at by the Civic Forum. The First Minister assured the House that the Civic Forum addressed this issue on 20 December at Balmoral. Mr Robinson is perhaps technically correct in that it was not — [Interruption].

Photo of Mr Denis Haughey Mr Denis Haughey Social Democratic and Labour Party

Mr Peter Robinson used the terms "grace" and "manners" when talking about the intervention of the First Minister earlier. Of course, grace, manners, good humour, tolerance and open-mindedness are so characteristic of the DUP that one understands entirely Mr Robinson’s point of view. With regard to this uncharacteristic guffawing and bellowing, one has to wonder just how deep it goes — [Interruption].

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP

The more you say, the better.

Photo of Mr Denis Haughey Mr Denis Haughey Social Democratic and Labour Party

The venue was Balmoral. The date was 20 December. It was not a plenary meeting of the Civic Forum. All members of the Civic Forum were invited to the meeting. It was a very full meeting of the Civic Forum, and all members of the Civic Forum had an opportunity to look at the issue. This fact totally destroys the argument made by the DUP.

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

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. If the veracity of the First Minister — a spokesman of the House — is such an important issue, perhaps he will now tell us what the motion before this non-plenary meeting was.

Photo of Mr Denis Haughey Mr Denis Haughey Social Democratic and Labour Party

The point-of-order system is being abused because these people do not wish to listen to — [Interruption].

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP

Are you embarrassed? Do you want to be?

Photo of Mr Denis Haughey Mr Denis Haughey Social Democratic and Labour Party

Embarrassed? Does Dr McCrea understand the meaning of the word "embarrassed"? I doubt it. I hope that the time consideration will make allowances for all of this codology.

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

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Will you inform the House how long this debate can go on? Please inform the Minister.

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party

Again, Dr Paisley, that is not a point of order. The debate will go on until 4.00 pm.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP

Go on. The more you say, the better.

Photo of Mr Denis Haughey Mr Denis Haughey Social Democratic and Labour Party

That is something that I could not say for you, Dr McCrea. If you had kept your mouth shut, this country would be a safer place.

The First Minister commented on a number of the drafts of the motion that were prepared by officials. He considered some of these earlier drafts to be too restrictive in terms of the freedom that would be allowed to the Civic Forum. The original motion — which was submitted to the Business Committee — was a draft which had not yet been considered by the Executive. The Business Committee was aware of that. On foot of the discussion at the Executive, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister agreed to consult the Civic Forum on the motion before tabling it. The proposed motion was, therefore, withdrawn.

The motion was amended at the suggestion of the Civic Forum. The reason for this was that the second paragraph of the motion was regarded as being too restrictive or uncomfortable for it. It was concerned at the potential for being overwhelmed with requests for consultation from the Assembly. It was decided that built into the second paragraph should be the words "shall be invited" so that the Forum could, if necessary, prioritise the requests being made. The Forum further asked for the arrangements to be reviewed, and the Executive, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister were glad to agree to that.

Peter Robinson referred to the Civic Forum as a potential second chamber. The Forum’s officials have assured us that they have no intention of trying to be a second chamber. Rather, they want to be a resource to those who are developing policy. They want to be a body with the time and space to deliberate on difficult or cross-cutting issues and to provide a view that reflects the considered response of a diverse range of interests in this community.

An allegation was made that the Forum was hand-picked by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. I have already dealt with that issue. The evidence is there that processes were set up in order to ensure that the Forum would be representative of a broad range of interests in the community.

There has been a considerable misrepresentation of the situation regarding the Orange — [Interruption].

Mr Deputy Speaker, I am not prepared to speak against the background of this cacophony.

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:45 pm, 6th February 2001

I have called for order several times. Please continue, Mr Haughey. I know that it is difficult with this background noise. [Interruption]. Order.

Photo of Mr Denis Haughey Mr Denis Haughey Social Democratic and Labour Party

There has been considerable misrepresentation of the position vis-à-vis the Orange Order. The Orange Order was invited to be part of the consortium that nominated members to the Forum. The report agreed by the Assembly provided that the cultural traditions group of the Community Relations Council, along with major cultural organisations, should be invited to form a consortium for the purpose of nominating four individuals from the cultural sector. It was anticipated that the major cultural organisations would include the Orange Order. No applications were received from organisations directly related to the Orange Order, or from the Orange Order itself.

In a Forum of 60 members it will never be possible to represent every single interest in the community, but among the members now appointed there is undoubtedly a very broad spectrum of views and experience. A formal review of the structures and effective operation of the Forum will be carried out within one year of its becoming operational. That will provide an opportunity to reconsider the membership.

A further point made by Mr Robinson and Dr Paisley was that the Assembly should control the Forum agenda. I know that control plays a very big part in the thinking of the DUP, but not such a large part in that of other Members of this House who are properly, and in a principled way, democratic. The DUP is saying that it does not want to hear what it does not want to hear. I have to say that that is a major surprise, coming from people with the reputation for open-mindedness, tolerance and the fair consideration of all points of view that has become so justly characteristic of the Democratic Unionist Party.

David Ervine made reference to the ability of the Civic Forum to stick its nose into the affairs of the general community. That is exactly what the Forum was set up to do — to stick its nose into all kinds of affairs, and to let this Administration know the views of a wide range of interests in the general community.

Monica McWilliams said that the Forum had its origins in the agreement, and, as the First Minister said, there is no intention of attempting to fetter or circumscribe the independence of the Civic Forum in regard to the work that it chooses to undertake.

Mr Poots referred to quorums. As I understand it, the Civic Forum does not have a quorum system, and we are not aware of any Forum meeting that had to be abandoned because of the lack of a quorum. If Mr Poots has any evidence or information to the contrary, perhaps he would make it available to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

Dr Paisley referred to the question of the smaller evangelical Churches. The five Church nominees were selected by a process developed by the Churches Consortium. The Churches Consortium had 12 members and was chaired by an official from the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. It was made up of five representatives from the Irish Council of Churches, five from the Roman Catholic Church, one from a grouping of churches known as the Caleb Foundation, and one from an organisation of smaller evangelical groups known as ECONI. They agreed that the five nominations would be as follows: two from the churches associated with the Irish Council of Churches, two from the Roman Catholic Church, and one from the smaller evangelical denominations. To fill the last place, an advertisement was placed in the regional papers, so that anyone from any of the smaller evangelical churches could apply. The representative from the smaller evangelical churches on the Forum is Pastor David McConaghie.

The allegation has been made that the Forum is simply a fallback for people who failed to be elected to the House. Members of the Civic Forum were appointed on the basis of their experience and ability to contribute to discussions of important social, economic and cultural matters. The six appointments made by the First and the Deputy First Ministers were intended to complement the selection of the nominating bodies. Representations were made to the First and the Deputy First Ministers and any perceived gaps were filled.

If the Member who raised the issue is referring to the leader of a political party — Gary McMichael — it was considered desirable for the UDP to be represented in the Forum by its leader. The First Minister was perfectly entitled to make that decision.

The question was raised about why the Civic Forum was to give its views on the Programme for Government before proper arrangements were in place. The drafting team for the Programme for Government had to complete its consultation by 15 January 2001. Arrangements for the Civic Forum were not in place by that date, and in the interim the First and Deputy First Ministers invited the Civic Forum to respond to the draft Programme for Government.

I would also point out that there have been 160 responses to requests to comment on the Programme for Government.

That covers most of the points that were made. I recognise that much of the brouhaha that came from the DUP Benches has nothing to do with the Civic Forum at all. It has more to do with the party’s ongoing search for some kind of partisan advantage. That this disfigures the business of the House on a regular basis will come as no surprise to Members.

Photo of Mr Denis Haughey Mr Denis Haughey Social Democratic and Labour Party

No. I have all the information I need.

I should also refer to the further point made by Mrs Nelis in connection with the North/South consultative forum. At the last plenary meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council, in September 2000, it agreed to initiate a study on the North/South consultative forum. Progress is being made on the study, and a report will be made to the next plenary meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council, following which a statement will be made to the Assembly.

If I have missed any points — and some serious points were made here today in spite of all the brouhaha — I will search Hansard and make sure that the Members who raised them get a written reply.

In conclusion, I commend the motion to the House.

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

There is still time left. I take it that Members, as in another place, can use that time.

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party

No Member has asked to speak after the winding-up speeches. On that basis, I will put the amendment Question.

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

That does not matter. In another place, they just have to stand up and can use the time.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP

Of course, the reason no Member put his name down to speak after the closing speech of the Minister is that no one could anticipate whether the Minister would use all the time available. However, in another place, it is quite in order, if a Minister’s closing speech does not utilise the time allotted for the debate, for anyone else who wishes to speak to be allowed then to do so.

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party

The convention in this place is different from that in another. The convention here has always been that when a Minister has finished his winding- up speech the Question is put.

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

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Minister seems to think that when he is winding up he should give way to nobody. I tried to make him give way. I want to put it on the record that what I said in the House about the other churches was the truth. I know all about it. What he said was totally inaccurate.

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

In fact, it was not just inaccurate — it was false.

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party

That is not a point of order.

Question put,

The Assembly divided: Ayes 25; Noes 59.

Ayes

Fraser Agnew, Paul Berry, Gregory Campbell, Mervyn Carrick, Wilson Clyde, Nigel Dodds, Boyd Douglas, Oliver Gibson, William Hay, David Hilditch, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, Robert McCartney, William McCrea, Maurice Morrow, Ian Paisley Jnr, Ian R K Paisley, Edwin Poots, Iris Robinson, Mark Robinson, Peter Robinson, Jim Shannon, Denis Watson, Jim Wells, Sammy Wilson.

Noes

Ian Adamson, Billy Armstrong, Alex Attwood, Roy Beggs, Billy Bell, Eileen Bell, Esmond Birnie, P J Bradley, Joe Byrne, Joan Carson, Seamus Close, Fred Cobain, Robert Coulter, Annie Courtney, John Dallat, Duncan Shipley Dalton, Ivan Davis, Bairbre de Brún, Arthur Doherty, Mark Durkan, David Ervine, John Fee, David Ford, Sam Foster, Tommy Gallagher, Michelle Gildernew, John Gorman, Tom Hamilton, Carmel Hanna, Denis Haughey, Joe Hendron, Derek Hussey, Billy Hutchinson, John Kelly, Danny Kennedy, James Leslie, Alban Maginness, Seamus Mallon, Alex Maskey, Kieran McCarthy, David McClarty, Alasdair McDonnell, Barry McElduff, Alan McFarland, Eugene McMenamin, Pat McNamee, Monica McWilliams, Jane Morrice, Conor Murphy, Mick Murphy, Mary Nelis, Dermot Nesbitt, Danny O’Connor, Dara O’Hagan, Eamonn ONeill, Sue Ramsey, Brid Rodgers, John Tierney, Jim Wilson.

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance 3:00 pm, 6th February 2001

In view of the assurances given by the Minister I seek leave to withdraw amendment No 2. Unlike Members of the DUP[Interruption].

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

Unlike Members of the DUP, Mr Deputy Speaker[Interruption].

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party

Order. The Member who moved the second amendment has sought leave to withdraw it. Are Members content?

Several Members:

No.

Question,

Main Question put.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 57; Noes 28.

Ayes

Ian Adamson, Billy Armstrong, Alex Attwood, Roy Beggs, Billy Bell, Eileen Bell, Esmond Birnie, P J Bradley, Joe Byrne, Joan Carson, Seamus Close, Fred Cobain, Robert Coulter, Annie Courtney, John Dallat, Duncan Shipley Dalton, Ivan Davis, Bairbre de Brún, Arthur Doherty, John Fee, David Ford, Sam Foster, Tommy Gallagher, Michelle Gildernew, John Gorman, Tom Hamilton, Carmel Hanna, Denis Haughey, Joe Hendron, Derek Hussey, Billy Hutchinson, John Kelly, Danny Kennedy, James Leslie, Alban Maginness, Seamus Mallon, Alex Maskey, Kieran McCarthy, David McClarty, Alasdair McDonnell, Barry McElduff, Alan McFarland, Eugene McMenamin, Pat McNamee, Monica McWilliams, Jane Morrice, Conor Murphy, Mick Murphy, Mary Nelis, Dermot Nesbitt, Danny O’Connor, Dara O’Hagan, Eamonn ONeill, Sue Ramsey, Brid Rodgers, John Tierney, Jim Wilson.

Noes

Fraser Agnew, Paul Berry, Norman Boyd, Gregory Campbell, Mervyn Carrick, Wilson Clyde, Nigel Dodds, Boyd Douglas, Oliver Gibson, William Hay, David Hilditch, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, Robert McCartney, William McCrea, Maurice Morrow, Ian Paisley Jnr, Ian R K Paisley, Edwin Poots, Iris Robinson, Mark Robinson, Peter Robinson, Patrick Roche, Jim Shannon, Denis Watson, Jim Wells, Cedric Wilson, Sammy Wilson.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly agrees that the Civic Forum shall offer its views on such social, economic and cultural matters as are from time to time agreed between the Chairperson of the Forum and the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

In addition, the Civic Forum shall be invited to offer its view on specific social, economic and cultural matters where the Assembly has by motion so requested.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP 3:15 pm, 6th February 2001

I wish to raise a point of order. As it may require some sort of consideration, I will be happy to wait for a ruling.

During the course of our debate on the Civic Forum the First Minister made statements which clearly were inaccurate. They were compounded by the Junior Minister in his response. The Library does not have any minutes of Civic Forum meetings, but I have received paperwork via a member. That paperwork makes it clear that the issues which the First Minister and the junior Minister indicated had been raised, discussed and decided upon by the Civic Forum were never on its agenda and were never decided. The House has been misled. The Speaker should look into the matter and decide if flagrant disregard of accuracy is permissible for an Assembly Minister.

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party

Obviously, I cannot respond to that immediately. Please make those papers available to the Speaker’s Office. We will examine Hansard.