Cost of Division

Oral Answers to Questions — Finance – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 1:45 pm on 16th January 2017.

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Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance 1:45 pm, 16th January 2017

2. Ms Armstrong asked the Minister of Finance how the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre report on the cost of division has been factored into the 2017-18 Executive Budget. (AQO 876/16-21)

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhalta as a ceist. Since this is the last Question Time that I will be doing for some time, no doubt, it is appropriate that I thank all the Members who have tabled questions over the last seven or eight months. I also thank the wonderful staff we have in the Department of Finance who have been working hard to provide the materials that you need for your questions for written answer and helping me with these questions for oral answer.

The report on the cost of division, which the Member has highlighted before, outlined the significant complexity in the cost of the delivery of services here, which cannot be merely attributed to the context of a divided society. The report found that, whilst the cost of public service provision is generally higher than in comparative regions, the costs typically fall within the range of costs identified in other regions, with the exception of policing. In any Executive, Ministers will be focused on reducing the cost of public services, especially where there are reducing budgets.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

The Minister has, in recent days, rightly raised concerns about the costs of RHI, which could reach £500 million over a 20-year contract period, but he seems less concerned that the cost of division is around £800 million a year. Will he outline how he intends to reduce that cost?

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

Gabhaim buíochas arís leis an Chomhalta as an cheist. I think that we are all agreed, certainly those on this side of the Chamber, that there should be no division in our society. My record will show that I am as concerned about division and the cost of division as the Member. I have been forthright in commending those who have been building bridges rather than building walls. I have gone to many parts of this jurisdiction in the last few months, which represents reaching out to communities other than those from which I come. We do not in any way tolerate the costs of division, but there are costs of division, and, in response to your question, I said that that was particularly evident with the PSNI. Despite that, any costs of division are costs that, in my view, we should try to remove not by efficiency savings but by bringing our people together. Those of us who are concerned about the horrendous waste of public funds in the RHI mess, created by my colleagues on the other side of the Chamber, should not lose sight of all the other areas in which we should try to save money. We should do these things not only because they are right in terms of economics but because they are right in terms of building a shared and prosperous society.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

On the topic of division and looking at it in an economic context, will the Minister give an assessment of what he thinks the economic impact will be on Northern Ireland of the antics and the catastrophic mess provided by the DUP/Sinn Féin Government during the past mandate?

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

There must be an election coming, and I hope and trust that all those who have spoken today do very well in that election. When we go to the doors, the people will, I think, ask one pertinent question. They will ask, "Did you stand for equality? Did you stand against the disrespect shown to our ethnic minorities? Did you stand against the disrespect shown to the LGBT community? Did you stand against the disrespect shown to the Irish language community? Did you stand up for tolerance, mutual respect and parity of esteem?". When those questions are asked, I am absolutely convinced that we will be able to answer —

[Interruption.]

— positively to the public, and the public will respond accordingly. When the public ask, "Did you stand up after many years of outreach, bridge-building and peacemaking? Did you call time on intolerance and bigotry and the lack of parity of esteem?" —

[Interruption.]

It is a very excitable and excited Chamber today, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am confident that the people will give their response. I wish the Member well in the forthcoming election, but I have no doubt that those from my party who answer positively about standing up for equality, respect and the integrity of the institutions, which have absolutely been dragged through the gutter by the DUP, will get their response. I hope that she also does well in the election.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Deputy Speaker

Before I call the next Member, I remind Members not to make remarks from a seated position while the Minister or any other Member has the Floor. Thank you.

Photo of Raymond McCartney Raymond McCartney Sinn Féin 2:15 pm, 16th January 2017

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as na freagraí sin. I thank the Minister for his answers. We talked about the cost of division, but I ask him to talk about the reputational damage to the Assembly that has come about as a result of some disgraceful decisions that were blatantly discriminatory, sectarian in the truest sense of the word and partisan. What reputational damage have those decisions done to the Assembly?

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chomhaltas as Doire as an cheist sin a chur. I know that the Speaker said earlier that this was not the last day of the Assembly, but I think that we know in our hearts that this is the last day. The language that we use today and the approach that we take will be important. It is disappointing that, on a day when the DUP could have repaired some of the damage that it has done to the credibility of the institutions, there was no humility shown. There was the barracking of opponents, and there was the arrogance that, in fact, has been the downfall of the DUP and of the institutions.

In my view, we can either stand here proud of the institutions, proud of the Assembly and proud of how we do our business, or we have to call time and say that it is closing time. We have responded because of the reputational damage and because of the fact that the DUP has been riding roughshod over the rights and expressions of the people and the rights of the Assembly. The DUP has repeatedly disrespected the people's right to enjoy the principles of parity of esteem enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. It was right, at some point, to say that the reputation is shot and it is time now to start anew. In that regard, I know that the Member from Derry will agree that we cannot go back. We would be totally failing the people if we went back to the status quo.

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to ask the Minister a question. The paradoxically entitled Fresh Start Agreement included a commitment of £500 million of funding from the Treasury to be spent on shared housing and shared education projects. Will the Minister explain why,18 months into a 10-year timescale, the Executive have spent only £500,000, which is 0·1% of the total amount?

Photo of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin

I would like to respond for the Executive Office, for the entire Executive and for the Minister for Communities and the Minister of Education, who are responsible for education and housing. Having responded for the Minister of Health earlier, I suppose that I might as well make it a hat-trick and respond for them as well.

Ms Armstrong spoke earlier, and she is very familiar with the work of Belfast Met. My position is that we should try to expeditiously use money for integrated and shared education and for shared housing. There is a need in that to acknowledge that there are those who have been setting down criteria for shared housing in particular that are almost unreachable. It was my intention to put forward plans for government developments that would have included an element of shared housing. I raised the issue with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, David Gauke, before Christmas. I said to him that we needed more flexibility, especially around education because, as the Member will understand, there are only so many integrated schools that we can build. We have a great record of building new integrated schools and will continue to do that, but there are only a certain number of integrated schools that we can build. In that regard, it seems to me that there should be an extension of the flexibility around that funding to embrace further education. I know that there are ambitious plans for a new further education college in Fermanagh. We know that we are close to having other further education colleges finished, and they, for me, seem to be the epitome of shared education, but, at present, the funding does not extend to those. It had been my hope that we could make rapid progress in that regard. An element of the Budget that I was to put forward was that we should try to set a target for shared housing in particular and make sure that it happened. The public are up for that. I can speak only for my constituency, Mrs Overend, but I have no doubt that, were we to create a shared housing model on the Ormeau Road, for example, it would prosper and succeed.