Regional Chamber of the Congress of Regional and Local Authorities of Europe: MLA Appointment

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:45 am on 1st October 2002.

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Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance 11:45 am, 1st October 2002

I beg to move

That this Assembly appoints Seán Neeson MLA as its nominee to the Regional Chamber of the Congress of Regional and Local Authorities of Europe.

The Congress of Regional and Local Authorities of Europe is one of those bodies that rejoices in having an unpronounceable acronym. It was established in 1994 by the Council of Europe — not by the European Union. As a result, it represents 41 countries, which range from Portugal to the Russian Federation and from Cyprus to Iceland. It is significantly larger than the European Union, with which the Assembly deals more often.

Two chambers represent regional and local authorities. There are 291 full members, 18 of whom come from the UK. Of those 18, one Member of the Scottish Parliament, one Member of the National Assembly for Wales, and one Member of our Assembly sit in the chamber of regions.

The congress advises the Committee of Ministers and the parliamentary assembly at the Council of Europe, and provides a forum in which the experience of members of local and regional authorities across the continent is pooled. In doing so, it organises conferences and prepares reports on local democracy, especially that which is developing in central and eastern Europe. The congress also monitors the European Charter of Local Self-Government, to which the UK signed up in 1998. The Assembly has some catching up to do in terms of the powers and responsibilities of local government.

I have already said that one MLA sits as a full member in the chamber of regions. Cllr Jim Dillon of Lisburn City Council represents district councillors from Northern Ireland in the chamber of local authorities.

I have pleasure in proposing Mr Seán Neeson as the Assembly’s nominee to sit in the chamber of regions. He has had a keen interest in European matters, which dates at least from when he was elected to the previous Assembly in 1982. Before devolution, he regularly attended meetings of the EU Committee of the Regions as a representative of Northern Ireland. He has the ability to represent the range of opinions that are in the Assembly.

I am grateful to David Trimble and Mark Durkan for supporting the concept that this nomination should go to a member of a party that is not in the Executive. I am unsure whether they acted in their capacities as the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, or merely as party leaders, but I welcome the support of the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP. As well as taking party considerations into account, Mr Trimble and Mr Durkan also readily agreed to my suggestion that Mr Neeson would be an excellent choice personally.

I frequently criticise the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, which is my function as an Opposition Member. However, it is appropriate that I should generously praise the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP for their support.

Photo of Mr Maurice Morrow Mr Maurice Morrow DUP

Is the Member apologising to them?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

No. I am happy to accept anybody’s support when they show some grace, but that is not always forthcoming.

As for the amendment, it is for Members to choose how they view the two candidates. It is certainly not my position to criticise Edwin Poots. However, I was slightly surprised when I read the amendment, specifically because Mr Poots was described as

"Chairman of the Committee of the Centre".

I accept that that Committee has a remit to shadow OFMDFM in all aspects of its work, including European matters, but that remit overwhelmingly refers to European Union matters, not wider European issues.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

Mr Paisley clearly wants to talk about waste, but we shall wait to hear what he says later on.

It should not be assumed that the Chairperson of the Committee of the Centre should be automatically proposed as the Assembly’s nominee on a matter that concerns the Council of Europe, as opposed to the European Union.

Mr Poots is a member of the same city council as Mr Dillon, who sits as a representative of local authorities, and whom I mentioned earlier. Although the relationship between Mr Poots and Mr Dillon appears to be fractious, they both belong to the Unionist family. To provide a more balanced representation for Northern Ireland, and taking into account Mr Neeson’s personal qualities, it is appropriate that he should represent the Assembly in the congress. I have pleasure in proposing Mr Neeson as the Assembly’s nominee.

Photo of Mr Maurice Morrow Mr Maurice Morrow DUP

You were a Unionist for a while too, David.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr DUP

I beg to move the following amendment: In line 1, delete "Seán Neeson MLA" and insert

"Edwin Poots MLA, Chairman of the Committee of the Centre,".

Edwin Poots had hoped to be in the Chamber for today’s debate, but he is chairing the subcommittee of the Committee of the Centre’s EU inquiry. He will endeavour to join us at some point during the debate. In chairing that subcommittee, Mr Poots has the confidence of the House. It is nonsense to say that neither the House nor the Committee of the Centre has any interest in a widening Europe, and I shall put that argument to rest. The European Union is widening and it is essential that Northern Ireland, as part of a member state of the European Union, play its role and contribute to that debate.

I agree with Mr Ford’s analysis of the history of the Congress of Regional and Local Authorities of Europe. However, it would be wrong to accept that the Committee of the Centre has no interest in a widening Europe. It does have an interest in that important issue, and the Assembly must continue to play its role.

My party leader has received the largest share of the European election vote in Northern Ireland not once, not twice, but on five occasions. In 1999, 192,762 people put the DUP and its leader first in the European election, because they recognised that the DUP’s voice was essential to represent Northern Ireland authentically in Europe.

My party’s voice must also be heard in the appointment of the Assembly’s nominee to the regional chamber of the Congress of Regional and Local Authorities of Europe, and it would be wrong to set it aside in this matter. The DUP was kept off the Committee of the Regions, on which the Alliance Party had a member. The Northern Ireland representation on that committee was woeful and disappointing, and the voice of Northern Ireland was not properly heard. It is our hope that that situation will not be repeated in such an important body as this.

Both the SDLP and the UUP already have representation in the regional chamber of the Congress of Regional and Local Authorities of Europe through council. Given the support that my party enjoys on European issues in the Province, it must be represented. It would be wrong to put a party into that body that would be boxing above its weight.

I do not want to participate in a slanging match or a history lesson about the Alliance Party’s stand on European issues. However, in the European election in 1999, the people of Northern Ireland gave the Alliance Party 2% of the vote, because its voice was not authentic on European issues and was unrepresentative. Mr Neeson was the candidate who received that 2% vote. We would be doing the House a disservice if we ignored what the people of this country said only a few years ago on that issue.

Our nominee, Mr Edwin Poots, has been a local councillor for the past six years. He has distinguished himself as the Chairperson of the Committee of the Centre, an appointment that was supported by the House. He led the Committee in its most recent European report, which demonstrated an in-depth knowledge of European matters in the context of the European community and on the issue of a broadening Europe. It is essential that the person appointed has such experience and knowledge, and, as I said, he has led that Committee on European matters. That report received the endorsement of the House, and it follows that the person best placed to take on this role is the Chairperson of the Committee of the Centre, which has a brief to consider European issues.

Edwin Poots is young, and it would send out the right message to appoint a young person, irrespective of party background, to represent a young and dynamic Ulster. It would be wrong to overlook that important point, because Northern Ireland has one of the youngest populations in Europe. Too many people would dismiss that, but it is one of our strong points.

It gives me pleasure to support the amendment. I hope that Members will consider the political and non-political arguments and will appoint the candidate who is capable, has the required knowledge and expertise, and has had the Assembly’s support when dealing with European issues. If that happens, this body will be able to genuinely represent people’s wishes and concerns.

I spoke to the SDLP and Ulster Unionist Party Whips, and it was made clear that neither of the nominees had the official support of those parties. It seems that something was said to Mr Ford to indicate that Mr Neeson would be regarded as the unofficial nominee of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. That is what was imparted this morning. The Whips said that the parties would not be voting on this, but they should vote, and they should vote for our amendment.

Members should not be left with the impression that Mr Neeson is the official nominee of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. If he is, Members may wish to consider whether they want to support someone who may be in the pockets of the First and Deputy First Ministers because of that. That would not send out the right signal. Mr Poots, however, has the support of the Assembly because he has been Chairperson of the Committee with responsibility for European issues.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP

When I was listening to David Ford’s eulogy, in which he spoke of the UUP’s and SDLP’s support for his nominee, I was minded to warn him of the exhibition that he made of himself when he became the back end of a horse for a day and produced the sort of political material that, in equine terms, the back end of a horse might produce. He was then totally shafted, because, having received some sort of a promise of a review, he got absolutely nothing. He displayed a degree of political judgement that would make one wonder.

David Ford’s candidate was formerly the leader of the Alliance Party, and, curiously enough, was succeeded by Mr Ford, who is now attempting to hand out some sort of consolation prize. Mr Neeson, who we are about to suggest should represent us, displayed even more monumental political misjudgement than his new leader when he decided that the Alliance Party would withdraw its candidates from contesting certain constituencies, including North Down. I make no apologies, not so much for pointing out what happened to Bob McCartney, but for pointing out the dire consequences of that decision for Mr Neeson, whose position was rapidly usurped by his current benefactor.

12.00

Now we are required to support Mr Neeson. However, what support has he received from his own party? It failed to put him forward as a parliamentary candidate, despite his being party leader, and subsequently it gave him the bullet when it came to his continued occupancy of the august position of leader of a party that —

A Member:

He still has a party.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP

He may have a party, but it seems to dissolve itself when elections approach. Mr Paisley Jnr has mentioned the debacle of his European representation in rather kinder terms than I would employ.

Let us look at who the Assembly is intending to send forth as its representative — a person who has not distinguished himself in his own party, who has been dismissed or discharged as being suitable for the party leadership, and who has not enjoyed the support of the rank and file of the people who voted in the European election. He is now being offered some sort of consolation prize as the party representative. If the Assembly wants to send forth as its plenipotentiary in these matters such an exhibit of political success, so be it. However, before it does so, Members should take stock of just what this candidate has offered in the past and what he now has to offer in what may be the autumn of his political career.

Photo of Mr Danny O'Connor Mr Danny O'Connor Social Democratic and Labour Party

I support the motion and Mr Neeson’s appointment. Mr Neeson is a decent, honourable man with a pro-European attitude. He would do the Assembly proud as its representative in Europe. Are we seriously to believe Mr McCartney and those from the DUP who suggest that we should send an anti-European to Europe to represent our interests? The DUP leader went there to destroy Europe. We want someone who can represent us in a more positive manner. Seán Neeson is the person for the job, and I will support him.

Photo of Derek Hussey Derek Hussey UUP

Is Mr O’Connor suggesting that the majority in the House is pro-Europe?

Photo of Mr Danny O'Connor Mr Danny O'Connor Social Democratic and Labour Party

I suggest that the majority in the House would be happy to accept all the money, jobs and benefits that come from Europe.

Photo of Mr Maurice Morrow Mr Maurice Morrow DUP

I suspect that all the useful things that need to be said have already been said. However, some of Mr Ford’s remarks require comment.

It is ironic that the Alliance Party has made a nomination, bearing in mind some of the comments of my Colleague Ian Paisley Jnr. It must be remembered that when Mr Neeson — who, by definition, is a decent individual — submitted himself to the electorate, he was able to achieve only around 2% of the popular vote. I am sure that he has reflected on that, and I am surprised that he has let his name go forward in the light of his performance in the European election.

For 20 years or more, my party has consistently topped the poll in European elections. Would it not be right and proper for that to be reflected in the Assembly’s nomination?

Mr Ford said that it would be verging on a tragedy if two Unionists, namely, the one —

Photo of Mr Maurice Morrow Mr Maurice Morrow DUP

Mr Ford inferred it. He said that Mr Jim Dillon from Lisburn City Council was one of the nominees, and that there would be another nominee from that council. Mr Poots would not be nominated as a member of Lisburn City Council; he would be going forward as the nominee of the Assembly. Mr Ford found it — [Interruption].

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

Does the Member not think that it would be more appropriate if the nominee were pro-European rather than anti-European? Or, perhaps I am wrong in that it is not from an anti-European stance that the DUP is making its nomination.

Photo of Mr Maurice Morrow Mr Maurice Morrow DUP

I hear what the Member says. However, she is an intelligent lady and she has been watching the results. She knows who has topped the poll consistently. The leader of my party has taken a stance on Europe, and we should not try to walk past what the people say. Ms Morrice may want to do that in the Women’s Coalition, and that may be why it secured such a mammoth vote. However, what Ms Morrice is trying to say goes past me; I do not accept her point. It would be a total irony if Mr Poots were not the nominee of the Assembly.

Mr Neeson is a member of a party that is decreasing by the day, and, as Mr McCartney said, under his leadership it decreased even more — and that was because of him. It is imperative that Mr Poots be the nominee. After all, Mr Ford became a Unionist when it was politically expedient to do so, and I am sure that Mr Neeson will be pro- or anti-Europe whenever it is politically expedient to be so.

Photo of Jim Wilson Jim Wilson UUP

I call Mr Kieran McCarthy to make his winding-up speech.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

It does not take too long to respond to the positive comments in this debate, and I thank Danny O’Connor for making nearly all of them. It is bizarre that all the examples cited by DUP Members about Europe dealt with the European Parliament, which was precisely the point that I made earlier. This motion relates to the Council of Europe and not to the European Union.

When the DUP had a party member on the Committee of the Regions in the European Union, he managed to attend about one meeting in four. We could all indulge in petty sniping.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

No. I sat and listened to the Member’s rubbish earlier — [Interruption].

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. When a matter of factual inaccuracy is stated, even in a winding-up speech, the Member should, in all conscience, give way so that the accurate position can be given on the Floor of the Assembly.

Photo of Jim Wilson Jim Wilson UUP

It is entirely up to the Member whether he will give way.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I will bow to the former Minister’s advice.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr DUP

The Member should be aware that the DUP’s nominee at that time was an alternate member who was never entitled to go to any of those meetings. When the person from the Benches over there who was supposed to attend meetings did not go, he did not inform the DUP’s nominee of his right to go, so he was not entitled to do so. That should never be allowed to happen again.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I accept that I failed to use the word "alternates", and I apologise for that. It was certainly my understanding at that time that, rather than Mr Paisley’s pointing the finger in this direction, the DUP member was an alternate to an Ulster Unionist, and the Alliance member was an alternate to an SDLP member. Mr Neeson, as the Alliance alternate, attended at least as many meetings as either of the full members. I cannot understand why other members did not speak to their alternates on those occasions.

The debate started off with some moderately sensible comments but degenerated into petty sniping from the Benches on my left. I applaud Seán Neeson’s courage in stating the case for Europe, and, when he has had the opportunity, in playing a practical part at European level, principally in European Union institutions. He has shown that he can stand up for what is right for Northern Ireland, and he deserves the confidence of the Assembly to represent us.

Question put,

The Assembly divided:

Ayes

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

Noes

Alex Attwood, Joe Byrne, Seamus Close, Annie Courtney, John Dallat, Duncan Shipley Dalton, Bairbre de Brún, Sean Farren, David Ford, Tommy Gallagher, Carmel Hanna, Denis Haughey, Joe Hendron, John Kelly, Kieran McCarthy, Donovan McClelland, Alasdair McDonnell, Gerry McHugh, Eugene McMenamin, Pat McNamee, Francie Molloy, Jane Morrice, Conor Murphy, Mick Murphy, Sean Neeson, Danny O’Connor, Sue Ramsey, Brid Rodgers.

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put.

The Assembly divided:

Ayes

Alex Attwood, Joe Byrne, Seamus Close, Annie Courtney, John Dallat, Duncan Shipley Dalton, Bairbre de Brún, Sean Farren, David Ford, Tommy Gallagher, Carmel Hanna, Denis Haughey, Joe Hendron, John Kelly, Kieran McCarthy, Donovan McClelland, Alasdair McDonnell, Gerry McHugh, Eugene McMenamin, Pat McNamee, Francie Molloy, Jane Morrice, Conor Murphy, Mick Murphy, Sean Neeson, Danny O’Connor, Sue Ramsey, Brid Rodgers.

Noes

Fraser Agnew, Paul Berry, Gregory Campbell, Wilson Clyde, Nigel Dodds, Boyd Douglas, William Hay, David Hilditch, Derek Hussey, Billy Hutchinson, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, Maurice Morrow, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, Iris Robinson, Mark Robinson, Jim Shannon, Denis Watson, Peter Weir, Sammy Wilson.

Main Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly appoints Seán Neeson MLA as its nominee to the Regional Chamber of the Congress of Regional and Local Authorities of Europe.

The sitting was suspended at 12.30 pm.

On resuming (Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair) —