A political programme focusing on the day's events at the Assembly and Northern Ireland Executive. Mark Carruthers is the guide through the corridors of power at Stormont.
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Hello and welcome to Stormont Today. A beautiful view from here on the
Hill this afternoon, but while Christmas may be firmly behind us,
the seasonal spirit of giving was still in the air.
Over �200 million was announced for new school builds.
�17 million was unwrapped for new buses and road improvements.
�10 million extra was given to health.
It wasn't all good cheer as the Agriculture Minister faced pressure
And no stranger to goings-on up here on the Hill, the political
commentator, Alex Kane, is with me in the studio.
More on financial giveaways, questions to the Agriculture
Minister, Michelle O'Neill, and the rest of the day's business in the
Chamber a little later, but let's begin tonight with the other big
debate in the corridors and cafes up here.
Sinn Fein's call for a border poll and the DUP's response to it.
The commentator Alex Kane is with me. What have you made of the DUP's
reaction today to Sinn Fein's demand? Surprised by. It when this
debate has been had before, when it was mentioned by Sinn Fein 18
months ago that they liked the idea of a border poll the DUP was
dismissive, unionism generally was very dismissive. They needed a
response to the official launch to the campaign, contingency was on
Saturday. Most people thought it would be fairly dismissive look,
it's not going to happen anyway, the conditions aren't right, there
are more important things. People were surprised when Arlene Foster
suggested they would be in favour of tsm they seem to have rowed back
slightly. She seemed to be clearer in one of the radio interviews, not
quite so equivocal later in the day, is that fair? She got caught on the
hop. She gave a gut reaction, yeah, if they want a poll bring it on. We
are ready for. It they had a chat with her in the back rooms of the
DUP afterwards and said, we don't want it at this time. I think that
is what happened. Have unionists anything to fear from a border
poll? They don't. If you look at the census and all the other
polling figures it's absolutely clear there would be a comfortable
majority for the union, from Catholics, nationalists whatever
you want to call them as well as unionists. How the unionists
reacted against a poll DUP seemingly for. It UK IP for. It
they start on day one when this debate started Euniceism is already
divided. My fears would be Euniceism would mix its message.
might be something for unionists to unite behind. Something that would
allow them to banish the flag debate which has been divisive?
one day wonder. That would have worked if Euniceism had a united
response to Sinn Fein's campaign and demand for a border poll. They
came out today with Arlene surprising the media, surprising
her own party and the rest of uniononism not where it stands.
It's a bad day for them. Do you think the average unionist voter
would relish calling Republicans bluff on the issue or would rather
their representatives up here at Stormont and Westminster were
dealing with more pressing issues like the state of the economy, and
the unresolved flags issue? there was a real opportunity for
the debate to happen, under the existing legislation it requires
the Secretary of State who dismissed it. She is not keen. Most
unionists and most nationalist woos compare the government to get on
and govern to hands on relevant necessary legislation instead of
flags debate, parades debate, we hate you more than you debates.
They want them to govern and not get bogged down on side issues.
now, thank you very much. Now, good news for some schools as
the Education Minister, John O'Dowd, approved 22 new school building
projects worth a total of �220 million.
Making the announcement in the Assembly, the Minister said
substandard accommodation has to be tackled. Last June I made it clear
the capital budget available meant we had to do more with the existing
estate. In support of this I announced the establishment of a
new schools enhancement programme which would make �4 million
available for refurbishing or sustaining schools. I will have the
first call for projects under that programme. Information on the
scheme and details on the ap pry kaition -- application process has
been issued to the relevant managing authorities and schools.
Details of the programme have been placed on the department's website.
It is anticipated that the first projects selected under the
programme will be announced before the end of the school year. After
�20 million will be made available for this programme at each of the
two financial years coming. The School Enhancement Programme will
prioritise projects aimed at facilitating amalgamations,
improving facilities and structural changes needed across the estate. I
highlighted the funds being ringfenced to tackle the backlog
across the estate, �40 million has been invested in the current
financial year. This focus on maintenance will be continued over
the coming financial year and taking with the investment in minor
works the new programme as well as the investment in new builds should
go a long way to addressing the long outstandinging accommodations
issues across the estate. In relation to work on education
campus, the department has taken recipe of the outlining business
case and is progressing with the examination of this as a priority.
I'm committed to delivering on the programme for the government
flagship project as soon as prabgkabl. -- I'm announcing a
further 22 projects to be advanced in planning. This represents a
potential investment of some �220 million. These projects have been
drawn from priority Jects identified by the various managing
authorities. The process is available on my department's
website. All the projects have been considered within the context of
area planning. Work being undertaken and forming part of a
long-term provision within their Of the 22 projects I'm announcing
today, 14 are required to deal with previous or planned amalgamations
orational ications within the estate. This is consistent with the
drive towards viable and sustainable schools and the
principle of area planning. Mr Speaker, I do not believe that a
modern, forward looking society we should accept a situation where
children receive their entire primary school education in
temporary accommodation majority of which is clearly outdated. We are
not in a position to resolve all situations at this time, six profit
jects taken forward will provide permanent accommodation.
Well, John O'Dowd wasn't the only Minister opening his purse strings
today. Sammy Wilson, the Finance Minister,
had some good news of his own. Executive agreed to �10 million of
resource expenditure to the Department of Justice for the
prison officers exit scheme. This allocation will help to drive
forward ongoing Prison Service reform and members should also note
that this allocation will be more than matched by DOG -- DOJ
surrendering capital, that should help the Executive address the over
commitment in that year. �10 million also allocated to the
Department of Health and social services and public safety. This
allocation allows the department to address additional demand on
emergency departments and other acute hospital services which
result from winter and unscheduled care pressures. It provides some
additional resources for family and childcare services, general dental
services and further work on infection control in our hospitals.
I think that should be welcomed by the Assembly. The Executive agreed
to allocate �17.7 million of capital investment funding to the
department of regional development and that will allow the department
to purchase 42 new buses. I have got good news for the Green Party
who don't turn up at a total cost of �6.7 million. Furthermore, it
provides an additional �10 million towards roads structural
maintenance and �1 million for the replacement of 600 street lighting
columns. That brings expenditure to structural maintenance on this year
Earlier I caught up with Danny Kennedy to find out his reaction.
It is very good news for road that we will be getting the basses.
They will be very pleased. -- We have 130 gritters in operation.
300 staff were actively employed. Resources are given to the
maintenance programme. You did say we are ready for the winter, bring
it on. Some people are not very happy with the way the network was
acquitted. What to do have to say to them? I am aware. I was a
casualty of the road conditions. If Road agencies are working hard to
provide the grit. Up for her to disruption. -- that led. Moths due
She made the decision and she's standing by it, that's the attitude
of the Agriculture Minister, Michelle O'Neill, as she hit back
at criticism over the decision to relocate her department's
headquarters from Belfast to Ballykelly. There is a real sense
you have moved ahead of your department and officials with them
now playing catchup. Can you explain why you took the decision
on effectively a political decision on Ballykelly before asking your
officials to write the business case? Well, I'm the Minister, it's
my job to make decisions. I think that the member will be very well
aware in the programme for government we had a commitment to
relocate our headquarters to a rural area. All parties signed up.
That was the, I suppose, starting point for me to make the decision.
Using the criteria I outlined to the member, the 23 local government
districts under the recent development strategy we used those
criteria alongside the other criteria this area came up as being
We have a programme board in place which is very competent, which is
looking at all the issues, particularly buildings which can be
save money to the public purse. Also the fact there are buildings
on the site which could potentially be used. Any that can be used, we
A direction is necessary in the case where you want to avoid delay.
When you want it reduce uncertainty. Stand standard procedure would be
to apraise all options even those which don't make the exactives
identify policy as set out in the programme in government to move to
a rural location by 2015. In the final analysis wasteful of
resources. The decision was taken on the criteria I outlined. Anyone
can explore it further. In the further objective criteria where
applied. Whether you like it or not the north-west was identified. The
top two areas identified as a result of that objective criteria
applied. As a result of that the Ballykelly site for the obvious
advantages which I outlined being an Executive-owned site was a
natural option to take. Next, at the despatch box was the
Culture Minister, Caral Ni Chuilin, who dealt with questions on sports
as diverse as boxing, tennis and even road bowls.
First though, she was asked if progress is being made towards
solving the accommodation difficulties faced ahead of the
upcoming World Police and Fire Games. Accommodation has and
remains a key area of work for 2013 where police and fire games limited
and in recognition of this the company has developed an
accommodation strategy based on analysis of the acam --
accommodation required for athletes This is a big opportunity for local
businesses and local people generally. Is there any specific
advice that the minister would give to those who wish to provide
additional accommodation to both visitors and athletes? I think the
member is right, it's a brilliant opportunity. It's a once-in-a-
lifetime opportunity where we will have Games of this size in Belfast.
As many as people as possible who feel they can offer something
towards the Games in towards of accommodation, we want to hear from
you. Every opportunity should be made available to them to make that
process as easy as possible.. Games anticipate 23,000 visitors.
Account Minister provide some details of how the plans that she
has in place or is putting in place, how that accommodation is going to
be met? If all 25 visitors come to Belfast this August, there is an
estimate shortfall of between 5,000-70,000. That is where the
idea of campus hotels, campus and student accommodation come. In the
assurance given is that the accommodation must be of a certain
standard. That is why the work is starting now with the tourism board,
with the Belfast Visitors and Convention Borough so all the
requirements are in place as soon as possible. Bowls is important in
my constituency. Would the Minister join me with me in supporting the
association in seeking recognition from Sport NI. I am very aware of
road bowls. I met someone from Cork. It's Cork and Armagh are the two
main counties that are prominent. Other sports who hadn't received
recognition have came to the department and we have made
arrangements with Sport NI getting recognition, as a member for North
Antrim will know will weightlifters, is a long process. We have to make
sure there is transparency is all on board. I' happy to support it.
I'm hoping that other counties take up road bowling. It's one of those
sports that is very much linked to a loft our cultural and heritage.
Could the minister explain how the funding package for boxing can go
forward fairly at this time given the Assembly's commitment to
equality and fair treatment being in -- bearing in mind the abuse of
Sandy Row Amateur Boxing Club? Would she agree that the governing
body needs to look at it is own systems and get it is house
urgently in order? I don't agree that the Irish Amateur Boxing
Association urgently needs to get its house in order. I don't agree
with. That I don't agree of the accusation that the member has made
in terms of well documented systematic abuse. Despite my offers
to meet this member and indeed other members in relation to this
club, neither of which, for some reason, haven't accepted that offer.
I'm assuming you are afraid to step into the ring! Can the Minister
inform the House as she had any discussions with the Education
Minister in respect of trying to introduce tennis in schools or
reintroduce it, I know it used to be when I was at school there were
tennis clubs and a lot of issues around tennis. Has she had
discussions and if not, will she to encourage people to get back to
playing tennis? I haven't had any discussions with the minister of
education about tennis. I am I would ignore your colleague abouts
their jibe abouts how long ago was it you were playing tennis? I have
spoke to the Department of Education and the Minister for
Education around making sure we do what we can to open up sports
facilities and and grounds during school and after school hours. The
Department of Education are involved in the sports monitoring
and implementation group we are looking at sports provision in
school that the whole community can benefit from. No particular
discussion on tennis. The Environment Minister, Alex
Attwood, spent a considerable amount of time on his feet this
afternoon extolling the virtues of his new Planning Bill.
He told the House that a trip to Belfast City centre last weekend
had reminded him why economic benefit should be a factor in
planning policy. It does not say, as PPS24 suggests, that economic
consideration should be given. That is not the intention of the Bill.
What the Bill will do is recognise, I think it is appropriate to
recognise, that the planning system, not least in these difficult times,
I spent two hours on Saturday afternoon, Mr Speaker, in this
Belfast City Centre, I hadn't spent that length of time in Belfast City
centre... Sorry. Protest? I was doing what a lot of other people
did over Friday, Saturday and Sunday and reclaiming the streets
for true purpose in terms of the city centre, to shop, drink, have a
coffee to eat and to do some business. And there were many other
people who did so. I was struck, I have to say, when you walk the
streets of Belfast down town and spend a couple of hours walking the
streets in lawful activity about the scale of vacancies. It's only
when you spend time on the streets that you see the scale of the issue.
In my view, it is timely and it's appropriate and it is reasonable
and it is legal to send a message without compromising the wider
purposes and principles of the planning system. It's entirely
appropriatable, necessary and timely to spend -- send a message
through this Assembly, through the Planning Bill that a material
consideration, when it comes to a planning application, our planning
policy is economic considerations. After 40 years in existence, the
Housing Executive was given its notice by the Social Development
Minister last week. Nelson McCausland said the move is
part of a restructuring move by his department.
He was asked though if the changes would result in a reduction in
staff, as we can hear now in our weekly look at committee business.
Change is about to have an effect, but the reassurance I'm giving, I
will give it to the trade unions directly, autumn the function that
is are now happening will still have to happen, it will require the
same amount of time for somebody to do a function probably in the
future as it does now. It will require ruffle the same number of
people, but it would be premature at this point to speculate exactly.
This is not about cutting jobs. I want to emphasise that as much as
possible and will do that to the unions. Core function also have to
be done and it will require ruffle the same number of people. Are you
able at this early stage again to indicate you, you know, say in the
two or three year period post the shake down, is it likely that there
will be rental freezes or just in line with inflation? People are
looking for reassurance there won't be inflation-busting rental
increases post the change? Well, as the member will be aware, annual
rent increases have been a feature of social housing over many years
and that needs to happen to maintain standards. I think in
future - future rent levels will need to be better aligned to
provide funding requirements. I consider should - we need to have
some convergence over a period of time, this is over a period of time.
It's not suddenly. The housing executive have spent a lifetime
building up a connection with people that they rent houses to.
Housing Associations are estranged from most of their clients. Unless
we get this right, we have the task now of setting housing on a
platform for the next 40 years. If we get it wrong, we have done a bad
job. I think if we remove the community cohesion that exists and
social housing, then we have lost a lot? Yeah. There is an opportunity
here to get this right for a long period of time. Yes. There are
things, people have identified them here, that are not as it should be
with the presence system. Problems that arise otherwise I wouldn't
have people coming to my door raising problems and issues. There
are things that need to be worked on. There is a huge opportunity,
with a huge responsibility. Alex Kane is with me. We talked quite a
bit on prot gram last night about Basil McCrea's position in the
Ulster union party. He is facing a disciplinary hearing on Friday. How
do you read what is going on there? I think Basil is clear he is on
solid ground. He thinks he has not been in breach of party policy. He
would accept he should have contacted the press office before
going on Nolan or any other programme, he is fighting it on the
basis he was defending party policy. That the three councillors involved
didn't discuss anything with the leadership. They are not being
disciplined. There may be a surprise there. What are the
options open to the party in terms of sanctions? Does it come down to
whether the party allows him to stay or kicks him out? Is it as
simple as that? It will be that simple. Other thing is, because
Mike Nesbitt has withdrawn the whip already, anything that stops short
of expulsion will look like a kick in the teeth to Mike Nesbitt.
People will say, you withdrew the whip and your own discipline
committee say that is is too much. If he decides to leave, other also
follow across the party officers in constituency and members. It's a
win, win for Basil and a lose, lose for Mike. It's not good for him
personally. The party won't make to Kay Kay a martyr on Friday,
presumably? They will choose not to be. Basil is prepared to be a
martyr. The difference between Basil McCrea and Dave individual
McNarry and Ken McGuinness, if he is thrown out he will demand why he
has been thrown out much he wants the party and media to understand.
In that understanding I think he hopes martyrdom lies. He is saying
to people, if this party is no longer a comfortable place for
people like me, it's no longer a comfortable place for people like
you. Is it a unionist realignment here? We are witnessing the very
beginning of the final end of the Ulster unionist party. Realignment
A political programme focusing on the day's events at the Assembly and Northern Ireland Executive. Mark Carruthers is the guide through the corridors of power at Stormont, and is joined by key people from decision makers to opinion formers to make the experience enlightening and entertaining.