Community Relations Council

Oral Answers to Questions — Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:30 pm on 30th April 2001.

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Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance 2:30 pm, 30th April 2001

3. asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to explain the delay in appointing eight representatives to the Community Relations Council.

(AQO 1323/00)

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

I refer the Member to our written response of 2 April to question 2173/00. The making of appointments was initially hindered by the suspension of the Assembly between 11 February and 29 May 2000. More recently, the Department initiated a triannual evaluation of the Community Relations Council. We also announced in the Programme for Government our intention to carry out a major review of community relations policies. In these circumstances it was decided that it would not be appropriate to make further appointments to the Council before we had an opportunity to consider the outcome of the evaluation and the policy review.

I assure the House that we remain fully committed to tackling the divisions that remain in our society. We will, by means of the review, and the subsequent strategy, ensure that we have effective policies in place to do that.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I thank the Minister for that response, but it leaves me a little baffled. I understand that the suspension of this Assembly in the early part of last year prevented the making of appointments. However, in a written answer which I should have received on 16 March, but did not receive until 2 April, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister told me that interviews took place on 7 and 21 February and, in their response to me on 19 February, they indicated that appointments would be made soon. The interviews took place on 7 and 21 February 2000, but I received my response on 19 February 2001.

It appears that the three-month suspension of the Assembly managed to delay matters for an entire year. I cannot understand how the First Minister could have failed to make any appointment if, as they state, community relations policy is a priority for this Executive. Is this failure to appoint staff to such a vital community relations body for over a year to be taken as a suggestion that we believe in the conspiracy theory of politics of this nature, rather than the cock-up theory?

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

I assure the Member that a conspiracy theory was the furthest thing from our minds. I accept that there was a delay in informing those who had been interviewed of their position. We have written to those people, explained the position, and we have apologised for that delay. We have also instructed officials to review procedures for handling such matters to ensure that similar situations do not arise in the future. But the question still remains: would it have been better to go ahead and make appointments prior to the review and the assessment of the community relations policy? Alternatively, would it have been better to await the review and make the appointments on the basis of what might be a re-evaluation of policy and operation?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP 2:45 pm, 30th April 2001

I am sure that the Minister agrees that the issue of community relations is a crucial one. Is it his view that the current aims of the Community Relations Council remain appropriate?

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

I believe that the broad general aims are appropriate. The Community Relations Council has operated under very difficult circumstances through many difficult years. However, its priorities, needs and requirements change as other factors change in our society. Unfortunately, one thing has not yet changed, and that is the attitude of those in our society who do not regard community relations as important. The hon Member and I have seen examples of it quite recently in our constituency. We must make the North of Ireland a better place, and the more we can improve the policy of the Community Relations Council, the better it will get.