Union Connectivity Review

Oral Answers to Questions — Infrastructure – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 22nd March 2021.

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Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice 2:45 pm, 22nd March 2021

1. Mr Allister asked the Minister for Infrastructure to outline the assessment she had made of the Union connectivity review proposals before engaging in public comment. (AQO 1790/17-22)

Photo of Alex Easton Alex Easton DUP

2. Mr Easton asked the Minister for Infrastructure for her assessment of the proposed bridge or tunnel linking Northern Ireland to the rest of the United Kingdom. (AQO 1791/17-22)

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

10. Mrs D Kelly asked the Minister for Infrastructure for an update on her meetings with the British Government on the Union connectivity review. (AQO 1799/17-22)

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will answer questions 1, 2 and 10 together.

As the Assembly will be aware, the Union connectivity review was launched by the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, last year. The review chair published his interim report on Wednesday 10 March, which touched on a number of issues that will be examined in depth in the final report due to be completed in the summer.

I made my views on the publication of the review’s interim report known earlier this month. At that point, I had read an advance copy of the interim report and met the review chair, Sir Peter Hendy, and the Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps, to discuss why the promised engagement had not materialised. I have also met the Secretary of State for Transport and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on several occasions to discuss the Union connectivity review.

I will always welcome any proposals to provide much-needed investment in transport infrastructure in Northern Ireland. To that end, I have provided a list of my Department’s agreed priorities to the review. They reflect the priority transport infrastructure schemes outlined in the New Decade New Approach agreement for which funding has not yet been delivered. However, the approach to the review from the British Government is unacceptable. Decisions on devolved matters should be made by local representatives accountable to the people of Northern Ireland and not decided unilaterally in Whitehall.

I believe that a fixed link between Scotland and Northern Ireland, whether a bridge or a tunnel, is a vanity project. The enormous costs of construction could be much better spent improving infrastructure across the North. We already suffer a substantial infrastructure deficit, especially in the north-west. The Executive and the British Government have given many promises to deliver schemes to address that deficit, not least in the New Decade New Approach agreement. I do not think that a single Member would agree that it would be in the interests of any citizens here to prioritise what appears to be a multibillion-pound bridge or tunnel when we can see that our transport and water infrastructure networks are crumbling before our eyes and that previous funding commitments made by the Prime Minister have still not been honoured.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I suggest to the Minister that she let herself and the people of Northern Ireland down by her pejorative, contemptuous, ill-considered response before the ink was dry on the interim report. Why would any Infrastructure Minister with the commercial interests of Northern Ireland at heart not want to see radical improvements to the A75, by way of example? I suggest to the Minister that it is time that she took off her nationalist blinkers and was something more than a Little Irelander.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

Let us look at the facts instead of engaging in emotive language. The facts are that I got an advance copy of the report, and I read it. I entered into the process of the UK connectivity review in good faith. My job as the Infrastructure Minister in Northern Ireland is to deliver schemes that will improve the lives of the people of Northern Ireland. It is not a nationalist or unionist issue, and it is lazy to characterise it as that. I am a devolutionist, and I believe in power-sharing. I will work across these islands to ensure that we improve our citizens' lives.

'New Decade, New Approach' has a list of infrastructure projects. The Prime Minister has committed to turbocharging infrastructure in Northern Ireland, and that is a case that I will continue to make. As for the A75, that is a Scotland transport issue, and I will continue to engage with the Scottish Minister, who has responsibility and authority on that matter.

Photo of Alex Easton Alex Easton DUP

Minister, why would any Infrastructure Minister oppose the creation of thousands of jobs and billions of pounds of investment that would improve connectivity between us and our biggest trading partners? Is it not simply the case that you are opposed to anything that physically connects and strengthens the Union?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

As I have demonstrated since taking up my post, I am committed to working in partnership across these islands. That is why I have met, on numerous occasions, Grant Shapps, my Scottish counterpart and my Welsh counterpart and will continue to do so. The difficulty that we have here is that our infrastructure is crumbling before our eyes. Let us look at the Prime Minister's form: he squandered £40 million of taxpayers' money exploring the feasibility of the garden bridge in London. I could do so much with that £40 million for your constituents and the constituents of every Member across the House, and I make no apologies for continuing to do that.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Before I call the next Member, I would appreciate it if Members, when seated, kept their remarks to themselves. There is a process for dealing with questions to the Minister, and I call on Members to respect that, please.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

Minister, you are right to point out the blinkered vision of some in the House who believe Boris Johnson's promises on the delivery of infrastructure, particularly bridges. I am sure, Minister, you agree that, if people were rational and objective and looked at what is really going on, they would see how Northern Ireland is being used and abused by the British Government in their appeal to Scottish Conservatives and Labour people in the context of the Scottish Parliament elections in May.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for her question. It is typical Tory distraction and deflection from their failings in government. They have failed in government to honour the financial commitments that they made to the people of Northern Ireland through 'New Decade, New Approach'. I agree with the Member in her analysis: this is as much about using Northern Ireland in an electoral game with the SNP, which Boris Johnson is obsessed with, as it is about anything else. One thing that we know across the House, regardless of our political position, is that we cannot trust Boris Johnson. Boris Johnson does not care about the people of Northern Ireland. He will not put our interests first.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

Minister, one of the essential projects is the A5, and there is a lot of disappointment with the announcement last week about the delay. Why were the issues such as flood risk and the alternatives not raised during the first inquiry? The project has been on the go for 15 years, so we cannot understand why those issues were not raised earlier.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. Given that his party colleagues held for five years the ministerial post responsible for the A5, he will know that it has been beset by legal challenges and difficulties. The public inquiry inspector produced an interim report that made it highly likely that we would have to return to a public hearing.

I reiterate my commitment to the project. I gave careful consideration to the interim report, and I sought expert and legal advice. I want to see the project delivered as quickly as possible.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I understand the Minister's concern that funding for a Boris bridge of some sort could be better spent on lots of other infrastructure projects, but I fail to understand her approach to the A75 between Gretna, Dumfries and Stranraer.

That is one of the four projects highlighted as having real potential, given the failure of the Scottish Government to invest significantly in that route. The Minister was content for the European Union to fund Trans-European Network links, which included that same road. I am trying to understand why she is now critical of the Scottish Government potentially gaining additional money so that improved transport links can be put in place for the west of Scotland and Northern Ireland. Indeed, that would be to the benefit of hauliers from the Republic of Ireland.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. Although we have been told that additional money will be provided, I reiterate that this Government have not honoured the financial commitments that they have already made to the people of Northern Ireland. I am committed to working in partnership, and I will continue to do so, but I respect the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity and the devolved settlement in Scotland in the same way as I respect and uphold the devolved settlement here. I will work with anyone. However, given what is happening with this Government, be it the Internal Market Act, the Levelling Up Fund or the connectivity review, I have been expressing concerns for some time about their encroachment into the devolved space. I do not apologise for standing up for devolution and power-sharing in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

The Boris bridge or tunnel is a dead cat strategy and needs to be seen as such. Will the Minister provide an update on the exact amount of funding that the UK Government have supplied under their New Decade, New Approach commitments for the next financial year?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

Much money has been promised, but very little has materialised, unfortunately. However, I will continue to make the case to the Secretary of State and to all Ministers with whom I can get in contact to ensure that all of the commitments made under New Decade, New Approach are honoured. If we are serious about building back better from COVID together and about growing our economy and tackling the climate crisis, we must invest in our infrastructure. So, I will continue to make the case for that and look to colleagues from across the House to support me in doing so.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

The Minister said that she wants to act in keeping with commitments in New Decade, New Approach by, for example, turbocharging infrastructure. Last week, Minister Mallon said that the opening of a UK Government office in Northern Ireland was a UK "power grab" and:

"a clear attempt to undermine devolution".

That just happens to be another segment of New Decade, New Approach. Will the Minister outline which parts of the agreement she agrees with and which parts she does not?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. He refers to paragraph 7 in 'New Decade, New Approach', which mentions an office being set up here in Belfast to widen accessibility to London Departments. What has transpired is that the Government wish to set the infrastructure priorities for the people of Northern Ireland. It is not about giving us greater accessibility to London Departments, it is about those Departments being parachuted in with absolutely no accountability to tell the people of Newry, the people of upper Bann and the people of Lisburn what they need.