Raising Concern During Oral Question Time With The DARD Minister - Dec 2012 PDF Print E-mail

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This week at the Assembly David Hilditch Questioned Agricultural Minister on the Ash Tree Disease. 

Minister, the diamond jubilee wood in east Antrim was established last year with the planting out of some 60,000 trees.  It was done in conjunction with a departmental forestry grant, and part of the condition of the grant was that 22,000 to 23,000 ash trees had to be planted.  Knowing that the disease was present in Europe for a number of years, was it or is it good practice to insist on such a high percentage of single species tree in any project as a condition?


Michelle O'Neill (Sinn Féin)

I cannot speak about the individual case, but I can confirm that this strain of the disease is very different from what we have seen in Europe, which is why there are particular problems in identifying effective treatment and actions.  The science is not there because this is a relatively new disease, only found in England since 2011.  We are working our way through that and trying to develop the science and the effective treatments as we move forward.  At this stage, it is about taking out the new plants and making sure that we target the new plants so that it never gets into the older plants.  The condition, as I said, is not because there was inaction: this is a very different strain of ash disease

Wants to Bring Employment Law Reform Up To Date PDF Print E-mail


I rise in support of the motion tabled by my colleagues.  From time to time, we hear much criticism of business being brought to the Floor of the Assembly that has no relevance to our legislative powers or that is outside of our control, but, with employment law, we have something that has historically sat separately, on a regional basis, and that now, under devolution, can be shaped and worked to suit our needs and requirements in Northern Ireland.  In practice, of course, we need to be mindful of what has been established at European Union level and how that can restrict any radical change to the law and the protection afforded to workers that Europe encompasses.  That said, as a regional Government, we now have the opportunity to develop the system and, in particular, ensure that Northern Ireland does not fall behind the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of reform. 

The motion recognises that the national Government have undertaken a review of employment law and that it has been policy that the law here should be broadly in line with that in Great Britain.  On a lighter note, however, I do not think that, despite the usual time delay that happens in the implementation of some legislation, we will ever again have to wait the 21 years that it took to bring in the Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order here in 1997, it having been enacted in Great Britain in 1976.

We are aware, of course, that a process of review has started in Northern Ireland, and I acknowledge the work of the Minister and his Department to date.  When the discussion paper was launched in May, it was to get the views of all the stakeholders, bearing in mind the main issues of early resolution of disputes, efficient and effective tribunals and better regulation in general.  That exercise has proved to be useful, and a large number of responses were subsequently received.

The Minister's recent statement to the House and his appearance at the Committee last week were encouraging for those who wish to see the matter gather momentum and move forward to a designated timetable if possible.  It has been very useful at this stage to determine which policy areas are being taken forward for consideration and which proposals have been identified.

The aim of the motion is to ease and reduce the regulatory burden on business, and, hopefully, the actions that are being taken currently by the Minister and his Department are the beginnings of such easements and a fit-for-purpose legislation that will help to balance the needs of our economy with respect for the rights of every worker.

Although the review will help existing businesses to grow, we must also work to ensure that we are best placed to compete in the global market.  Nowadays, we hear only too often of the displacement of industry to other areas or the loss of contracts that do not come our way.  I am not saying that current employment law is the reason for that, but if those who are charged with bringing in inward investment were armed with good, practical, reformed laws, we just might create an advantage for ourselves over places with poorer or difficult employment legislation.

We need to place ourselves well in the market.  I am encouraged by the Minister's initiative of a benchmarking exercise to identify international best practice in employment relations.

In conclusion, I believe that this debate and support for the motion will assist in moving the matter of employment law forward.  As we enter the consultative stage in spring 2013 and on towards potential legislation, there will be many more debates and discussions on the more sensitive issues, but we should all focus on best practice.  Rather than falling behind on reform, we should make Northern Ireland a model for the workplace.  I support the motion.

Speaking On The Debate To Increase Sporting Opportunities For Those With Disabilities PDF Print E-mail

I support the motion.  As we are seeking the support of local district councils, I will declare an interest as a member of Carrickfergus Borough Council , although that will not deter me from giving it my touch if needed, as it is a stakeholder in this important area of sports development.

I recognise the work of the Minister, the Department, Sport NI and Disability Sports NI to date in trying to develop and increase the opportunities for people with disabilities to participate in competitive sport and, of equal importance, to take part in general physical recreation.

There are many facets to the issue.  Although in the euphoria of the games we hail the successes of the Michael McKillops and the Jason Smyths, there is also the other end of the scale, which is perhaps the weekly participation in a game of bocce.  It is a sport that provides people with special needs the opportunity to have social contact, develop physically and gain self-confidence, which can make all the difference to someone's weekly routine.

However, there is much more to do.  The success of our athletes in the Paralympic Games gives us the springboard to raise the game.  I welcome the monetary awards to Disability Sport NI for increased participation development, and the financial support to Special Olympics Ulster for its ongoing work with people with learning difficulties.  Now is the time when the Department must be prepared to dig deep if we are serious about ensuring a lasting legacy.

At central government level, the benefits are cross-departmental.  Perhaps today we can begin to make a real difference by harnessing all the expertise in sport, education, health, etc, and establishing a legacy working group that is intent on taking sport to a new level by grasping the nettle and really bringing the Sport Matters strategy to life.

Local district councils are crucial partners in the scenario as local delivery units for leisure and sport.  Much work has been done by many councils that can be acknowledged and applauded, but a fresh overview in light of the motion would not go amiss.  Indeed, on the negative side, a council in my constituency has suddenly put pounds before provision.  It does not fully understand that leisure and sports facilities will never be money-making ventures; they will mainly incur costs to the ratepayer.  A balance must be struck, even in these times of austerity, but that council and its new management appears to be solely focused on balance sheets.  For example, the income from sports development programmes, instead of being reinvested in the same area of work, is now being used to offset deficiencies in other areas of its budget, thus giving a false impression.  It is an opportunity missed to invest in exactly the issues that are before us today.

Facility use is another area in which councils could step up to the mark.  I have a perfect example of opportunities being missed; it is one locally, where a high-spec astro turf floodlit facility can lie unused at times, particularly during off-peak periods.  Surely, instead of chasing mainstream sports, which may be more financially lucrative, programmes and initiatives could be developed in what would be a safe and secure surrounding.  Local government needs to think outside the box.  Hopefully, today's motion can change the mindset of those who have not yet got it.

If there is anything to come out of the success of the Paralympics and the successes of our individual athletes and their heroic performances, it is and should be an end to the prejudice suffered by people with disabilities in our society.  All too often, when disabled people are attempting to normalise their lives — and sport is a great vehicle to do that — they are treated appallingly.  It comes from all quarters of our society, and it still exists.  If we can end those prejudices and change the mindset of those who are in positions of influence and who cannot acknowledge and see the benefits of people with disabilities' participation in sport, that will be a real legacy.

Hilditch Supports Sandy Row Boxing Club PDF Print E-mail

I support the motion, which has been tabled by my party colleagues.  It has been good to listen to the arguments on the amendments.

As a member of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee, I acknowledge the work that has been and is being carried out by the stakeholders in the sport, which is referred to in the motion and the amendments.  Indeed, the work of the Committee is very much a work in progress, particularly as we continue to pursue the issues raised in the evidence sessions with the stakeholders, including the worrying allegations in the report from Sandy Row Amateur Boxing Club.  The motion seems to unite contributors, however, in trying to ensure that the funding promised by the Minister for the sport is allocated equitably across the community and fills the glaring void in provision for the game.  Therefore, like others, I welcome the £3 million investment in amateur boxing but wish to see that money distributed evenly and fairly throughout all our communities across Northern Ireland and, in particular, to see it bring in from the cold the Protestant and unionist communities, where boxing is currently very underrepresented and where the lack of sports clubs and investment is also evidenced.

The sporting community, as a whole, has suffered from decades of underfunding.  So, while we look forward to the commencement of the capital needs assessment of all clubs, there is concern at the outworkings of any funding programme, which has been alluded to in the last few minutes.  That could further exacerbate the situation.  Areas of underinvestment may again miss out because it has been difficult historically to establish and sustain a club in those areas, thus reducing eligibility to apply for the capital needs funding.  I ask the Minister to comment on that in her address.

To give an example of the differential in facility provision, I look no further than my constituency of East Antrim.  There is a good example of a well-run, firmly established club at Monkstown, at the greater Belfast end of the constituency .  It plays an integral part in the development of the sport, and I commend it for doing so.  However, the story changes somewhat as we move further through the constituency .  In the main town, Carrickfergus, there is a perfect example of the lack of investment and the gap in provision for the sport.  For many years, the Carrick club boxed out of an old World War II Nissen hut located in the grounds of the local Orange hall.  Mr Deputy Speaker, you can only imagine — I think you may even have seen it — what the conditions were like.  The boxers had to be totally dedicated to the sport even to set foot inside what can only loosely be described as a building.  The current academy uses the very dilapidated basement of a row of hot food bars.  Again, it is in very poor shape, and it is no encouragement to the development of the sport.  A piece of land has been earmarked and at least provisionally secured for a purpose-built building, but capital funding is not within reach at this stage.  That is a typical example of what the motion is attempting to highlight and address.  There are many more Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlons out there, but, under the current provisions of the sport, they may never get the chance if they come from a working-class Protestant area.

I was involved in sports administration for many years, and I have raised concerns around governance and structure in the sport.  I pay tribute to the many volunteers in the sporting community who put so much into sport in Northern Ireland, and boxing is no different.  However, it annoys me at times when some of today's social do-gooders and johnny-come-latelys advocate sport as a way of bringing communities together.  I pay tribute to those who have worked tirelessly over the last 40 years, when sport was the only conduit for bringing communities together, and did so through some of the darkest days in Northern Ireland's history.  They are all unsung heroes.  However, sometimes, if governance is ignored and not given priority or if the structures are not right, the scourge of sectarianism can rear its ugly head, and sport is no different from any other arm of our communities.  Many sports — football is one example — have made great strides in stamping out sectarianism and racism.  However, as the Minister knows only too well from the situation that arose in her constituency on Saturday at the Solitude stadium, when a small section of Cliftonville supporters behaved despicably, we cannot take our eye off the ball at any time.  We must deal with those unsavoury issues where and when they arise.  Boxing is no different.

A greater debate needs to be had on the structure of boxing and the way forward.  A lot more detail needs to be looked at, and the Department should take that seriously.  In supporting the motion, I appeal to the Minister to ensure that the Ulster Boxing Council, the county boards and the Irish Amateur Boxing Association deal with the matters that affect our communities.






Hilditch Looks For Support For FG Wilson Staff PDF Print E-mail

David Hilditch

I thank the Minister for his response.  I welcome the good news element to the response that he has brought to the House.  There was a very high level of skill among agency workers employed at the various sites.  Can the Minister assure the House that there will be equality across the workforce for such opportunities?

Stephen Farry (Alliance)

I thank Mr Hilditch for that supplementary.  He says that this is good news.  It is some good news in that we are beginning to make progress in reassigning workers to other forms of work, but, of course, we must appreciate that we still have a long way to go in that respect.  I am happy to give him the assurance regarding equality in how we treat all those who are affected by the FG Wilson redundancies.  We have a clear self-interest in doing this, beyond our overriding requirements, in that the workers are skilled.  They have a lot to offer to the future of the economy, and it is important that we fully capture the opportunity to redeploy those workers in a productive way, rather than to have them fall into unemployment.  For all those reasons, I give the Member the commitment he is looking for.



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