Below are some of the comments made by TUV leader Jim Allister during yesterday’s debate on North-South institutions:
“Members will note that the amendment does not take issue with practical, pragmatic, mutually beneficial cross-border co-operation. It takes issue with the squander of the elaborate North/South arrangements and challenges whether those are necessary for that practical co-operation and whether they are value for money. On both counts, they fail the pragmatism test.
“We live in a time when all of us are very familiar with the pressures that our constituents live under and the pressures that our economy operates under. In a time of austerity, we are constantly being told of the requirement for savings, and we had more indications of that earlier today. Yet, within that framework, there seems to be a group of North/South bodies and arrangements that are immune, by and large, from all of that and cost us, according to the current Northern Ireland Estimates, a total of £33 million a year. Where, I ask, is the £33 million of added value from those institutions that would not equally be available at the end of a telephone or in a conference call? The reality is that, for practical and pragmatic co-operation, you need the respective Ministers, where there is a mutual interest, to simply have a working relationship whereby they can, at any time, speak about and resolve an issue. That does not require spending over £1 million a year on a vanity project such as the North/South Ministerial Council. It does not require us spending £32 million a year on all the intergovernmental structures of “North/Southery”. It simply requires a common-sense approach.
“How many times have we been in the House and got reports from some of these institutional meetings in which the typing is double-spaced to make it look as though something actually happened? If you took out the coffee breaks or the lunch, the meeting was probably over in 20 minutes because there was nothing to talk about, yet we pour millions upon millions into those structures. Meanwhile, in my constituency and in others, care homes are to be closed, schools are being closed and hospitals are crying out for expenditure. However, when it comes to the sacred cows of the North/South bodies, we have squander and no limit to the lavishing upon them of funding to the extent that I have spoken of. Then, we are told that they are accountable.
Mr Clarke: I thank the Member for giving way. We have heard today about going backwards and going forwards, and it is nice to see that the Member for North Antrim has changed his stance and supports North/South work. Given his support for the North/South institutions and the mutual benefit from those, if he had a place on them, would he make a case on the basis of mutual benefit about how the Garda Síochána is now advertising for recruits and the default position is that the person applying must have Gaelic as one of their languages, not only English?
Mr Allister: First, this Member has made no change in his position on North/South co-operation. I have always recognised that, where it is practical and sensible, you do it, but you do it at a ministerial level without the need for any of this whatsoever.
“As for the Garda Síochána, I have trouble enough trying to keep up with what the PSNI is trying to do sometimes, but, if the honourable Member is right about that, it is indicative of how one-way a process this is. That has been a trend of much of this “North/Southery”. It serves a political agenda, not a practical agenda. It ticks boxes of sentiment for the SDLP, Sinn Féin and others, but it adds no value and gives no practical return to anyone.
“The degree to which the bodies are sacred cows is illustrated by a number of financial issues, one of which is their pension arrangements. They are in a pension scheme in which the employer can, as in the case of the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB), pay up to 31·2% of salary into a pension fund and the employee pays 1·5%. Compare that with the Civil Service in Northern Ireland, where we have rising employee contributions and falling employer contributions. Yet, because and for no reason other than that they are North/South bodies, they have this special treatment and this special provision. Think of it: paying almost a third of salary into a pension fund under the North/South arrangement. It is that sort of squander that has given them the bad name that they already deserve because of the fact that, practically, they do very little for anyone.
“We are supposed to now then have them in an accountability state. They are supposed to be accountable. Look at today: we had a statement earlier from the Agriculture Minister on a meeting that took place on 3 May. Here we are on 1 July, two months later, before the Minister thinks that the House even needs to hear such little as did go on at that meeting. That shows the contempt for accountability. Likewise, we had inland waterways and the language body institutional meetings on 19 June. When is the House to hear about them? September. It is certainly not on the list for us to hear about them tomorrow. We had the trade and the tourism meetings on 26 June. When will the House hear about them? In September, presumably. So, there is not even the fundamental accountability that there ought to be.
“Take the Food Safety Promotion Board. It does not employ a single person in Northern Ireland. It is based in Cork and Dublin exclusively, and not a single job is provided. Under these accounts, we have contributed almost £25 million to its upkeep. We are supposed to sit back and sanguinely say, “Isn’t it doing a great job?”, when, in fact, it is doing nothing for anyone in employment terms on this side of the border.”
Concluding on his amendment Mr Allister said:
“Someone said that the arrangements are part of a balanced settlement. Let me remind the House that we were told that it was imperative that there were North/South arrangements. We were also told that there would be east-west arrangements of equal validity. How has it turned out? Since the restoration of devolution in 2007, there have been 152 North/South meetings in sectoral, institutional or plenary format under the North/South Ministerial Council. What of the British-Irish Council? There have been but 28 meetings in its various formats in those same six years. Yet, we are told that it is supposed to be a balanced arrangement. For every one of the British-Irish Council meetings, there have been more than five North/South meetings. What about the cost? The most recent figures show that the British-Irish arrangements cost £170,000 a year, to which we contribute £15,000. That is £15,000 as opposed to £33 million.”