Tourism: Foot-and-Mouth Disease

Oral Answers to Questions — Enterprise, Trade and Investment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 26th March 2001.

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Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP 2:45 pm, 26th March 2001

6. asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to give his assessment of the impact of the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease on the tourism sector.

(AQO 1180/00)

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP

The impact of foot-and-mouth disease on the tourism sector is widely acknowledged. Economic consequences are factored into risk analyses constantly being reviewed by the Executive group chaired by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. I have maintained close contact with tourism industry representatives and discussed recovery plans at a recent forum with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

I commend the Minister for meeting with tourism representatives last week and for his concern for this sector. Does he agree that my constituency of East Londonderry — which markets itself as the "Causeway Coast" — is suffering more than most in the present difficulties? Following the meeting the Minister said that compensation for the tourism sector was a UK-wide issue, with which I agree. Will the Minister assure me, however, that he will raise the matter at the earliest opportunity with Tourism Minister Janet Anderson to see whether compensation may be available?

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP

I am aware of the matter that the Member referred to, and of his constituency’s involvement with tourism. Representatives from his area were in evidence at the meeting last Tuesday of the various interests in tourism. It was an emotional meeting, insofar as many of the members there with small businesses dependent on tourism were in dire straits. Some of them were contemplating signing on the dole, while a number of them indicated that their turnover for the month had been as low as £100.

Anybody who confines the problem surrounding foot-and-mouth purely to the farmers is mistaking the point. The tourism industry is in severe difficulties, as we have seen from the remarks of my colleague Janet Anderson and the comments of Jim McDaid, my opposite number in the Republic. They are suffering great difficulties there. I assure the Member that we are in constant contact with the Department in London. I have raised the matter with the Executive before and will be doing so again later this afternoon. We are looking at this question, which must be put in the national context. We are also working on a recovery plan, which we will put into operation as soon as it is possible to lift restrictions, so as to help the industry get back on its feet before much more damage is done.

Photo of Mrs Annie Courtney Mrs Annie Courtney Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Minister has already acknowledged the damage that has been done to the tourism industry, particularly in rural areas. Last night, the Minister of Tourism in the Republic of Ireland announced measures to provide compensation — possibly grants — to those affected. In view of that, will the Minister — I understand that it is not his decision alone, that he will have to work with his Assembly Colleagues — see whether a similar scheme could be adapted for those affected in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP

Today I followed up comments made by Mr McDaid with regard to compensation. He was referring specifically to parts of County Louth. The suggestions that were floated were not dissimilar to ones that are being mooted in London — delayed VAT payments, rates issues and other matters. We are closely monitoring those, although VAT and revenue issues are not the responsibility of this Assembly. The Minister of Finance and Personnel is aware of this and if there is any package on a national basis, we will expect our share of it and will take whatever action we can. However, the Executive is constantly monitoring the situation in the hope and expectation that we can get an early resolution.

Photo of Gerry McHugh Gerry McHugh Sinn Féin

A Cheann Comhairle, in consultation with other Ministers, does the Minister see the opportunity to do something in relation to tourism? If we can get some sort of regionality for part of the North, will there be scope to look at certain sectors, such as areas of County Fermanagh? Maybe something can be done to allow some inward movement of people into areas that will not affect agriculture and have no connection with livestock. That might alleviate some of the pressure on areas that are designated for tourism in particular. What they are suffering is serious, but we must not allow anyone to cause more problems in relation to foot-and-mouth itself.

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP

I am conscious of the difficulties in the Member’s constituency. I have had a number of representations from that area in the past few days. Last Thursday, I hoped to be in the position to begin removing some of the restrictions, but then we were confronted with the County Louth case. There was also a threat over the weekend in regard to County Donegal, which I am pleased to say has now passed.

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development has made it clear that as soon as veterinary advice permits, she will bring forward proposals. I fully support that. I know the damage that is being done. I was talking to the Northern Ireland Tourist Board this morning. We are actively involved in the preparation of a recovery plan dealing with people taking holidays in Northern Ireland.

I am aware of the fishing interests, in particular in County Fermanagh, where it might be possible to go ahead at an earlier stage with wet fishing. Members will understand, however, that, for obvious reasons, my Colleague the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure felt compelled to close down the public fishing estate. All these things must be put in the balance, and I hope that the Executive will address them later this afternoon.

Photo of Seamus Close Seamus Close Alliance

Following some of the Minister’s comments, I am concerned that the message that will be going out is that we in Northern Ireland are somewhat restrained or curtailed in what we might be able to do for the tourist industry, which is suffering as a result of the foot-and-mouth crisis, and that we will have to wait for the actions of others in the Departments across the water or in the South. Surely, as tourism is a devolved issue, can our Executive not take direct action to help those who have suffered? That is the message people would like to hear.

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP

What the Member says is technically correct, and I agree. We are not currently restricted by what is or is not happening in London, Dublin or anywhere else. To begin with, in relation to movement we have had a more strict regime here than that in Great Britain. The evidence all around us clearly indicates that that was the right thing to do. The Republic was able to get regionalisation in 36 hours. That is the only way in which we are restricted. We believe that there is a very strong case for regionalisation, but that must be sought from the Commission by the United Kingdom Government. I believe there is a meeting tomorrow, at which such a decision could possibly be taken.

That is the key issue, because the kind of promotion that you do must be linked to the availability and ability of people being able to move around, and the desirability of allowing them to do so. Therefore our own regime with regard to restrictions on movement is the key deciding factor. We are not looking over our shoulder to see what London or Dublin is doing. I can assure the Member that I am in daily touch with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, which is actively pursuing their programme. There is a meeting of the various tourist interests later this week to plan the campaign, and resources have been made available. The programme will be announced when it is ready.