Discussions with Chairman of the Policing Board

Oral Answers to Questions — First Minister and Deputy First Minister – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:30 pm on 23rd September 2002.

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Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 2:30 pm, 23rd September 2002

9. asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister what discussions it has had with the Chairman of the Policing Board.

(AQO 159/02)

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

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will take questions 4 and 9 together. There have been several informal discussions between Ministers and the chairman of the Policing Board on the location of the police training college. We are aware of the board’s interest in the Maze site. However, our use of that site is subject to the terms of our agreement with the Treasury, which cover all the sites to be transferred to the Executive, free of charge, under our reinvestment and reform initiative. Those terms include an undertaking on our part to plan the development of each site strategically, with a view to maximising the benefit of the economic and social regeneration of local communities. To this end, members of the reinvestment and reform initiative project board have recently visited all the sites, and we look forward to receiving their advice. In the specific case of the important site at the Maze, we must also take into account proposals for the development of the adjacent Ministry of Defence site at Long Kesh. As far as I am aware, there have been no discussions with the chairman of the Policing Board on any other matter.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr DUP

The First Minister deliberately failed to answer the part of the question that interests most people. Does he support the proposal to locate a new police training college at the Maze site? That is critical, given that his party unanimously endorsed that position at a Policing Board meeting. Is it the case that, at a meeting over the summer months with the chairman of the Policing Board, he suggested that the Maze site was worth £1 million per acre and that, as a result, he could not justify giving that land to the board? Does he now stand as the impediment to progress in the creation of a first-class, twenty-first century training college for police officers in Northern Ireland? Will he now commit himself to locating a police college at that site?

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

I am afraid that, yet again, Junior is misinformed. I have had no meeting with the chairman of the Policing Board. There was a telephone conversation. I did not make the comment that he attributed to me. I do not know who may have said it, but I certainly did not, and I do not know where that invention came from.

I refer the Member to my original answer. The Maze site was transferred to us free of charge. If the Member thinks about that for a moment, he will realise the enormous problems we would face if we subsequently transferred to the Northern Ireland Office property that was given to us free and for a purpose. Clear conditions are attached to the use of the property. We would experience considerable difficulties with the Treasury if we departed from them.

There is a further factor to be considered. The total area, including not only the Maze site, but the Ministry of Defence property, amounts to more than 300 acres. The site is centrally located at a strategic point in Northern Ireland. It is clearly irresponsible to deal with this in a piecemeal manner without considering how to maximise the benefit in the broader sense, not only financially, but socially, for Northern Ireland as a whole. I would have thought that the Member’s colleague in the Department for Regional Development would want to reconsider strategic plans in view of the significance of this site rather than fritter the opportunity away. Of course we want to see a first-class police college there, but the Member should be more responsible and not propose to squander significant assets in such a way.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The First Minister made a very convincing argument for placing the police college at the Maze site. It is strategically placed, in a central location, and there is an abundance of land. Those are all good reasons to support locating a police college there. Is Mr Trimble saying that he is opposed to setting up a police college on a central site? People want more police officers on the streets, and his office is holding back better policing by delaying the opportunity to develop a police college.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble First Minister of Northern Ireland, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party 2:45 pm, 23rd September 2002

The reason for the delay in establishing a new police college, one of the few proposals in the Patten Report that we favoured, is the Treasury’s failure to provide the appropriate finance. That is a reserved matter for the Northern Ireland Office. I support plans for a first-class police college, but its provision is a matter for the Northern Ireland Office and the Policing Board. Many sites in Northern Ireland could be considered. Mr Poots might wish to seek the views of his constituents in the Maze area.

Photo of Patricia Lewsley Patricia Lewsley Social Democratic and Labour Party

The First Minister must find it at least ironic, and at worst contradictory, to answer a question on a site for a new police training college two days after he threatened the Police (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2001, to which his party Colleagues on the Policing Board contributed. Is the Policing Board seeking to use the Maze Prison site, the Ministry of Defence site, or both?

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

I am sure that Ms Lewsley is very glad that on Saturday we managed to save the agreement, to give it another chance to succeed and to prevent it from collapsing, which it otherwise would have done. We need to put that in context.

In response to Ms Lewsley’s question, we have only the Policing Board’s press release to go on. The board stated that the new police training college could be located on the Maze site, and it made reference to "the extensive site at the former prison". No reference was made to the adjacent Ministry of Defence site at Long Kesh. Any use of part of the Maze site would have to take account of the whole area. The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has not made a decision on the matter because it is unable to do so. However, we have asked the reform and reinvestment initiative project board for its advice, and we think that the matter should be considered strategically.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Question 6, in the name of Mr McNamee, has been withdrawn. Questions 1 and 5 were fully withdrawn and will not receive written answers.