Topical Questions to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister 30 September 2013
1. Mr Kinahan asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to outline the crisis within OFMDFM, which the deputy First Minister's party has spoken of in the media. (AQT 121/11-15)
Mr M McGuinness (The deputy First Minister): I have been interviewed several times since coming back from the United States, and I have outlined my view that there are quite severe difficulties in relation to the events of recent times, not least the events over the past year, which has seen violence on the streets perpetrated, in the main, by elements within loyalism. I am on the public record as saying that it is my view that the activities of elements of the Orange Order, the PUP and the UVF in north Belfast are indistinguishable. I certainly think that that represents a real challenge to these institutions.
It is not the first time that these institutions have been challenged. There have been the killings of two soldiers in Antrim, Constables Stephen Carroll and Ronan Kerr, and prison officer David Black. I made some of the most forthright statements ever made by any republican leader in condemnation of those activities, effectively standing up against those who would try to plunge us back to the past.
So, I do think that serious questions have to be asked about the response of unionist leaders to the activities on the streets, particularly the incident in which 56 police officers were injured in a full-scale riot in Belfast city centre. I find that very, very disturbing. I find it particularly disturbing in the context of what appears to be a common view of many within unionism that members of the UVF, particularly in east Belfast, are up to their necks in criminality and violence.
I am particularly disturbed by the shooting of 24-year-old Jemma McGrath just a few days ago. I think that all of you know what I am talking about and that all of you know the allegations that are flying around the place — right, left and centre. I ask the question: if republicans were involved in that sort of activity, would we have the same silence that we have had from some Benches in the Assembly?
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I remind the Minister of the two-minute rule.
Mr M McGuinness: The other aspect is the decision to pull the plug on the peace-building and conflict resolution centre, which I think is directly related to some of the activities that are happening on the street, and that deeply saddens me.
Mr Kinahan: I thank the deputy First Minister for his answer. He seems to cast all the blame on one side, but many would see this as simply competitive posturing between Sinn Féin and the DUP, which really does no favours whatsoever for Northern Ireland or the Assembly.
Mr M McGuinness: I am not one who is inclined to posture. In fact, I think that I have made my particular contribution towards the stability of these institutions through some of the most testing and difficult times that they have seen. In reality, for me, it is about the commitment of all of us to stand by the agreements that we have made and to face down violent extremists, whether they be so-called dissident republicans or extreme loyalists. That is the test for the Assembly and the Executive. I think that, thus far, serious questions have to be asked about the commitment to stand by the PSNI, particularly in the context of the PSNI Chief Constable's comments today about his dismay at the failure of politics to support the police.
Maze/Long Kesh Site
2. Mr Maskey asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to give an update on the developments at the Maze/Long Kesh site, given the recent withdrawal of support for the peace-building and reconciliation centre by the DUP. (AQT 122/11-15)
Mr M McGuinness: As everybody knows, the peace-building and conflict resolution centre is a Programme for Government commitment, and we have received a letter of offer of £18 million from the European Union to complete the project. The withdrawal of support by our partners in government is deeply disappointing. The combined efforts of the Ulster Unionist Party, supported by extreme loyalists, in mounting a campaign against the peace-building and conflict resolution centre were deplorable.
The inability to honour a Programme for Government commitment has created very significant difficulties for me as deputy First Minister. I always wanted the peace-building and conflict resolution centre to be a shrine to peace and a symbol of a new future that opened up space for dialogue and true reconciliation between our people. It was the jewel in the crown of the Maze/Long Kesh (MLK) site and would, undoubtedly, be a tourist Mecca. The EU had earmarked the site as its centre of excellence for conflict resolution and peace-building activities, and it saddens me that agreements have not been honoured and that extremes of unionism have shifted the direction of the DUP. In that context, it is essential that we find remedies to the problem that we face. We have to find a way to honour the agreements made, and I am also conscious that the peace-building and conflict resolution centre is part of a wider agreement.
The Royal Ulster Agricultural Society (RUAS) moved on to that site last year and had a very successful show, and I intend to honour its courageous lead in recognising the incredible potential of the site. In September last year, we set up the MLK development corporation to oversee investment on the site. So the decision to withdraw support for constructing the peace-building and conflict resolution centre as agreed has jeopardised the future of the site as a whole. I am very content that the RUAS continues next year on the same basis as this year. However, the anticipated development of the site can proceed only on the basis of the honouring of the commitments made. The role of the development corporation and the board —
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Minister, you have to adhere to the two-minute rule.
Mr M McGuinness: — has been undermined and called into question, and no further —
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: I call Alex Maskey for a supplementary question.
Mr M McGuinness: No further development will take place until this is satisfactorily resolved.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: If we obey Standing Orders and the Business Committee's guidance, we will give as many people as possible an opportunity to contribute. Ministers have two minutes to respond, and supplementaries have to be questions — the previous one was not.
Mr Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the deputy First Minister for his very frank response. Will he clarify what he means by the issue being "satisfactorily resolved"?
Mr M McGuinness: As I said in my initial answer, there is a very clear commitment in the Programme for Government to build the peace-building and conflict resolution centre. Daniel Libeskind, a world-renowned architect, has been over here on countless occasions working with the people who had the responsibility to put the design in place. Daniel Libeskind has experience of difficulties with some of his buildings, particularly the construction of the new Jewish memorial museum in Berlin. From my perspective, and recognising the importance of the site strategically for employment prospects and the fact that it represents probably the prime area of potential real estate in the whole of western Europe, there is a huge responsibility on all of us to ensure that the initial commitments are honoured and that the peace-building and conflict resolution centre is built on that site for the benefit of all our people.
3. Mr Rogers asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister what representations the deputy First Minister has made to senior American figures on behalf of the undocumented, given that in answer to my question last week, the First Minister said that it was really up to the Irish Government to look after Irish passport holders, even though, as we all know, many people in the North exercise dual citizenship and the undocumented are from both communities. (AQT 123/11-15)
Mr M McGuinness: This is an issue that has exercised SDLP and Sinn Féin Members in particular, given that many of them are being lobbied consistently by families who, on occasions, have very difficult circumstances as a result of the inability of undocumented people to travel back home for things such as funerals, weddings, baptisms and so forth; even for all-Ireland hurling and Gaelic football finals, which are close to the heart of many in Irish America.
Every time that I go to the United States, I contribute to that debate. I speak to people on Capitol Hill, and I am encouraged by the recent decision by the Senate to effectively propel the debate forward to the House of Representatives. I hope that the outcome of that will be to deal satisfactorily with the plight of many of the undocumented. Quite clearly, they come from right across the community, and we have a duty and responsibility to try to alleviate hardship, wherever it exists, particularly in the context of how it affects our own people.
Mr Rogers: Thank you, Minister. I also welcome the bipartisan approach of the Republicans and Democrats in America. Can the Minister assure me that he will make representations at the highest level in the House of Representatives to ensure that this is brought to a vote as soon as possible?
Mr M McGuinness: It has been raised consistently and will continue to be raised. All of us are conscious that, when we talk about the undocumented Irish, the resolution of that issue is not just about how you resolve the difficulties relating to the island of Ireland, North or South. This is about many millions more people from different ethnic groups, particularly from Central America and South America. So, it is a huge issue, and I certainly hope that the deliberations taking place at the minute on Capitol Hill can lead to a resolution of the difficulties presented for people.
On my last visit to the United States, I ran, accidentally, into a man who had been undocumented for the past 12 years. He employs 100 people in the United States of America. That is the scale of what we are dealing with. These people are contributing to society and to providing employment for many others in society. There is a desperate need to resolve their plight as quickly as possible.
4. Mr Allister asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, following the deputy First Minister's recent visit to Warrington, whether, apart from pious platitudes, the deputy First Minister has, at any time, from his inside knowledge gained through his position of leadership in the republican movement, done anything to help the police to catch the child killers of Warrington, the Birmingham bombers or, indeed, the perpetrators of any other crime such as that. (AQT 124/11-15)
Mr M McGuinness: I was pleased and delighted to go to Warrington, at the invitation of Colin and Wendy Parry — two people who I have known for the past 10 or 11 years; people who have made an enormous contribution to the peace process. I think that they have been asked questions similar to those posed to me today. They have answered them in their own way, particularly stressing, on every occasion, that all they want to do is to contribute to the ongoing success of the peace process.
I do not have any personal knowledge whatsoever about the individuals who were involved in either the events in Warrington or Birmingham. That obviously brings us into a big debate about how we deal with the past. Of course, that responsibility has been given now to Richard Haass, who will deliberate on these matters in conjunction with the panel of parties over the course of the next couple of months, and I hope that there will be a resolution to that.
It is quite a regular occurrence for the Member to portray himself as a paragon of virtue and say that he is anti-conflict and anti-violence, so it was interesting to see him standing with leading members of the UVF at a recent demonstration in north Belfast. He was not in the least shamefaced about it.