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NI Bureaux

Oral Answers to Questions — The Executive Office – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 7th November 2016.

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Photo of Phillip Logan Phillip Logan DUP 2:15 pm, 7th November 2016

4. Mr Logan asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for their assessment of the current operations of the Northern Ireland bureaux. (AQO 570/16-21)

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

The Northern Ireland Executive's three overseas bureaux in Beijing, Brussels and Washington DC play a pivotal part in our strategic international engagement. The primary role of developing Government-to-Government relations is hugely important in underpinning the work of Invest Northern Ireland, Tourism Ireland, Northern Ireland businesses and our universities on the global stage. Our international offices are in regular contact with decision makers in government and influential international organisations in their respective regions. That has assisted the Executive in realising key Programme for Government targets.

Photo of Phillip Logan Phillip Logan DUP

Thanks to the First Minister for her answer. I am sure that she agrees that the Washington DC branch does great work to promote a positive image of Northern Ireland to America. Will she assure us that, regardless of the result of the presidential election, the Washington DC branch will continue to do its work?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I thank the Member for his supplementary. I know that he was recently out in Washington on a US Consulate-led programme and was able to see, first-hand, the work that goes on by our colleagues in Washington. I am always amazed at the amount of ground that they are able to cover with a relatively small team of staff. They hosted five ministerial visits in 2015-16 and a total of 34 visits by over 200 people from Northern Ireland society including two Assembly Committees, the PSNI, the Policing Board, universities and a lot of the councils who send out delegations. They sponsor, or part sponsor, a lot of events and are, essentially, our eyes and ears not only in Washington DC but in New York and Canada. They spread themselves very thinly but very effectively and do a marvellous job.

Photo of Jennifer McCann Jennifer McCann Sinn Féin

Will the Minister give us an update on her proposed visit to China in December?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

The deputy First Minister and I intend to go to China at the beginning of December. We hope to officially open the Beijing office, although it has been open for a while now, which is our Northern Ireland Executive office in China. We also hope to go to Shanghai and Shenyang in the north-eastern province. While we are there, we hope to sign a memorandum of understanding with regard to even deeper ties with Shenyang because Shenyang is a sister city of Belfast and does a lot of good work.

I understand that the Northern Ireland Assembly Business Trust has just returned from China and that that was a very successful visit. We will keep on. China is a huge market. It is a very long way away but we believe that, in conjunction with the very effective consul general in Belfast, there is a lot of very good business to be done.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I thank the First Minister for her answers so far. What assessments have been made of how other non-EU countries engage with Brussels and the EU institutions, and what lessons is she drawing regarding our Brussels bureau post-March 2019?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

The Brussels office, just like our Washington and Beijing offices, is really our eyes and ears in Brussels. It is doing a very good job at the moment bringing back intelligence and information on what is happening. With the vote on the 23 June, there is a lot happening in Brussels — that is the understatement of the year. It is important that we get that information back to us. Obviously, post-Brexit, we will have to look at the relationship and whether we need to have the Brussels office, but that is something that will come after the Brexit negotiations have finished and we have exited Europe.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Deputy Speaker

Will the Minister advise on the guidance that has been provided to officials overseas in those bureaux on the issue of Brexit in order that, if questioned, they have a consistent and clear response?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

Their position is the position of the Northern Ireland Executive: that we will do what is best for the people of Northern Ireland in these negotiations and that we will move forward and try to get the maximum amount of market access. That, of course, is still our position with regard to the negotiations and it is the message that we will be taking to David Davis on Wednesday when we have our Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) meeting.

We are also looking for new opportunities in the post-Brexit world and have asked our officials in the offices to make sure that they are alert to all of them because a lot of our companies are looking for opportunities beyond Europe. I was delighted to see Brendan Mooney of Kainos as part of the Prime Minister's trade delegation to India. He is an award-winning member of the business community here and we wish him well and hope that he is able to access more business opportunities for Kainos which we are very proud of — a Belfast-born company doing global business.