I beg to move,
That this House welcomes the NI 2012 campaign to change perceptions of Northern Ireland and to encourage many more visitors to come to Northern Ireland; notes that, despite current economic difficulties, this campaign takes place in the context of a momentous year for the UK when the nation will celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty The Queen, and will host the Olympic Games; further notes that, in Northern Ireland, 2012 is the centenary of the Titanic tragedy, an event that remains seared into the world’s consciousness and culture, and the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant and Declaration, often described as the foundation document of Northern Ireland; welcomes the enormous progress that has occurred in recent years in moving Northern Ireland forward; and looks forward to the programme of events and activities which will help make Northern Ireland the place to visit in 2012.
I count it as an honour to open this debate this afternoon, but it is correct and right, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, to acknowledge the great shadow that has been cast not only over this debate, but across the United Kingdom, with the tragic news that the Prime Minister announced earlier today of six soldiers missing presumed dead in Afghanistan. We remember their families in our prayers, and we trust that they might find comfort in knowing that people are remembering them at this very difficult time.
There is an old cliché in marketing and public relations which states that perception is everything. Regardless of the whys and the wherefores, and even independent of the reality of events as they happen on the ground, a bad perception can be extremely difficult to overcome. Once tarred with such an impression, the tar can be exceptionally difficult to remove and sticks for a long time. For many people beyond the shores of Northern Ireland, their impressions of our corner of the United Kingdom were shaped by the nearly constant stream of negative headlines that were regularly beamed all across the world. With depressing regularity, our television screens were filled with images of carnage, human suffering and murder.
We must never forget the fortitude of our people in these years, for they did not bow to the scourge of IRA terrorism. We regret the tragic loss of life of every innocent victim of terror, and again we express our sympathy to their loved ones. Indeed, this is the anniversary of the murder of three men in a local village beside my home in Coagh, and also the two young soldiers who were murdered in Antrim. We think of their families also this day.
For many people, including investors and business leaders, the perception of Northern Ireland was of a region stuck down in the morass of intractable divisions and beset by problems that could never be resolved. It is therefore worth placing it on record that even in the midst of the darkest days there were glimmers of hope, and a few bright stars shone on the otherwise dark horizon. One area in which Ulster has always punched, sometimes literally, above its weight is in the realm of sport. Ulster people enjoy little more than applauding the success of one of their own. So the triumph of Mary Peters at the 1972 Munich Olympics raised people’s spirits in one of the worst years of the troubles of Northern Ireland. The sporting skills of George Best on the football pitch, Wayne McCulloch and Barry McGuigan in the boxing ring, or Alex Higgins in the snooker were sources of local pride. These people were sporting legends who, in their own ways, challenged people’s perception of what it meant to be from Northern Ireland.
Moving forward to more recent days, it is right that we acknowledge the incredible fact, seeing that we are a people of some 1.6 million, that we have stormed to the very top of the world of golf. Everyone in Northern Ireland is so proud of the success of Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy, who has recently reached the pinnacle of golf success, being named No. 1 in the world. These three giants of world golf are tremendous ambassadors for Northern Ireland, as indeed is my local snooker champion, Mark Allen from Antrim. Northern Ireland people are thrilled by their incredible success. In this Olympic year, I hope that Northern Ireland will reap the benefits of the Olympic games and will host a number of competitors and visitors from across the world.
There is no doubt that, in common with all other United Kingdom regions, we are experiencing the effects of the global economic recession. This has been the longest and the toughest recession in living memory. However, the great majority of people to whom I have spoken in my constituency and beyond are convinced that we must do all in our power to ensure that 2012 becomes a lift-off point for the community. There is absolutely no doubt that this year’s expansive programme of events will provide a useful means of dismantling the old perceptions about Northern Ireland.
Ulster people are sometimes known throughout the rest of world as being a little on the serious side and prone to a dose of pessimism. I suppose that, to a certain extent, that criticism is valid. We are, after all, the only people I know of in the United Kingdom who express happiness in a negative way. If one asks someone from London, “How are you?” I suggest that they would probably answer, “I am well, thank you.” Ask an Ulsterman, and one will usually be told two words: “Not bad.” Despite our perceived negativity, I am pleased to report that there is much good news from our small yet vital corner of the United Kingdom, including that we are the happiest people in the United Kingdom. I noticed what the Prime Minister said in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). I wish that the Prime Minister could see what we sometimes see on his Benches when we look at some of the faces there. I must confess that I understand what he says, but I am doing my best and playing my part in encouraging Social Democratic and Labour party Members to be more bright and cheerful in this House.
To reassure my hon. Friend, this morning I passed on to the Prime Minister the compliments of the Northern Ireland section of this House to ensure that he would get the message about the Ulster sense of humour—that it pervades Northern Ireland and knows no distinctions or boundaries whatsoever. I look forward to the Prime Minister taking on board that lesson, and perhaps next week at Prime Minister’s questions we will see an end to the angry man and perhaps one of an even more pleasant disposition.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.
The Ulster humour has helped Northern Ireland through its most difficult days. Many others would have gone into the depths of despair; Northern Ireland was able to plough through over 30 years of continual terrorism and to come out at the other end having beaten the terrorists and ready to put Northern Ireland on a better footing. That says much for the character of the people of the Province.
Last week the Prime Minister commented on the happiness levels of the Democratic Unionist party, and this week the DUP has commented on the happiness levels of the Tories. What assessment has the hon. Gentleman made of the happiness levels of the Liberal Democrats?
I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that words would often fail me in describing the misery that I see on the faces of Lib Dem Members, but we will leave them for another occasion. I see from their vacant Benches that their level of interest in Northern Ireland affairs is really wonderful today.
Let me return to the good news from our small yet vital part of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland’s unemployment rate is the lowest of any country in the UK. After London, Belfast is the most attractive city in the UK for foreign direct investment. Belfast is among the top 10 cities in the world for financial technology investments, ahead of Glasgow, Dublin and Toronto. Ulster pupils constantly turn in the best GCSE and A-level results of any UK region. These are things that we should rightly be proud of.
I suspect that very few people inside, let alone outside Northern Ireland are aware of those startling facts. That highlights the crucial importance of campaigns such as Northern Ireland 2012. Years of negativity have taken their toll, but I genuinely believe that people are starting to feel good about being from our wee country once more. The slogan for the NI 2012 campaign is “Your time, our place”, and that perfectly encapsulates the rising tide of optimism that exists in the Province. This year will be a tremendous boost for Northern Ireland, with so much going on that it is hard to keep track. Key events in the Province will include the opening of Titanic Belfast, the Olympic and Paralympic torch relay, the Irish Open at Royal Portrush, and the arrival of the Clipper round the world yacht race. The stated aims of the NI 2012 campaign are to change the perception of Northern Ireland, to raise our profile, to drive visitor numbers, to generate economic impact, and to underpin civic pride and self-respect.
I am proud to be from Northern Ireland, and I believe that more and more people from Northern Ireland are starting to feel likewise. We shall reap a remarkable reward. Just as Mary Peters and George Best played such an important role in showing the people of Northern Ireland, and the rest of the world, that hope was not lost during the dark days, imagine the positive impact that hundreds and thousands of ambassadors made up of local people can have in this wonderful year. As the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office observed recently,
“if you are not in Northern Ireland this year, frankly, you are no one.”—[Official Report, 25 January 2012; Vol. 539, c. 287.]
I heartily concur with that sentiment.
History is probably more important in Northern Ireland than in any other part of the world. It is certainly a deeply contested subject, which leads many observers to believe that the people of Northern Ireland are utterly consumed by history. That is a mistaken assumption. There is a new spirit throughout the Province, whereby people are prepared to look at history not in a dispassionate way, but in a way that threatens nobody and that allows people from different backgrounds to learn about our glorious history. It is our aim that everyone will more fully develop their understanding of the forces that have played such a role in shaping our society in Northern Ireland.
As a Unionist, I welcome the development of greater understanding and learning, because all too often, history books are written about the Province by people who have never been there and who know little of the circumstances about which they are writing. The biased and one-sided evaluation of history has caused great annoyance among the people whom I represent.
I am pleased that this year, we shall see a wide range of events to mark the centenary of the signing of the Ulster covenant and declaration. The men and women of Ulster who answered the call of Sir Edward Carson to oppose Home Rule from Dublin laid the foundation stone of the Northern Ireland state. Although officially, Northern Ireland’s year one is 1921, in a real sense 1912 was actually the starting point, because after the signing of the covenant and the declaration there could be no doubt in the mind of Lloyd George’s Administration that the Unionists of Ulster were not prepared to accept Home Rule from Dublin. From 1912, the irreversible slide towards the establishment of the state of Northern Ireland commenced.
It is important to note the significant role that women played in the organisation of the campaign against Home Rule, which culminated in the massive Ulster day demonstration on 28 September 1912. Women were the backbone of the campaign against Home Rule. Indeed, more women than men signed the declaration in Ulster. In many towns and villages, it was the local women’s organisations and individual women who delivered the logistical support required for the mammoth undertaking of gathering more than half a million signatures. That important aspect of the history of those significant events has not, in my view, received the coverage that it deserves. I hope that it will be more evident in the forthcoming centenary celebrations.
When I think of the ordinary Ulster women who gave so much for the cause that they believed in, motivated by a sense of patriotism and principle, my mind inevitably turns to the most remarkable woman of the last three generations: Her Majesty the Queen. I remember her coronation. I remember a fancy dress competition in my local town of Stewartstown. I was dressed as a little sailor. My sister won the competition and we were very proud of her.
The Queen is a constant background presence in the lives of many of our citizens, and comes to the fore on great national occasions such as Remembrance Sunday, the trooping of the colour and Christmas. The Queen has been the one fixed point in an ever-changing world. It is remarkable to think that this Prime Minister receives advice and counsel from a monarch whose first Prime Minister was Sir Winston Churchill. There is no doubt that Her Majesty has made good her vow that her whole life would be devoted to the service of her people. This year we mark 60 remarkable years of service, and we give thanks to Almighty God for all that Her Majesty has accomplished on behalf of our United Kingdom. We are proud to say, “Long may she reign.”
Many people in Northern Ireland, even people from a nationalist background, hold Her Majesty in high regard. I wish that their elected representatives would represent that position. I hope that the Government, within the obvious constraints of security, will afford as many Ulster people as possible the opportunity to say a big thank you to Her Majesty in her special year.
Finally, this year also marks the centenary of the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic. It is impossible to understate the strength of the iconic Titanic brand. From San Diego to Singapore, everyone has heard of the famous vessel, but how many people know that she was built in Belfast? As the locals have been known to remark, “The boat was fine when it left Belfast.” I know that the Executive at Stormont are working hard to ensure that people feel the full benefit of this significant anniversary. I urge the Government to work closely with the devolved Administration in that regard.
Edmund Burke said:
“People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.”
This year, we pause to look back in thankful remembrance at all that our ancestors and earlier generations achieved, but we do so with a resolute determination to build on the inheritance bequeathed to us. I hope that posterity will record 2012 as a year of even greater progress in Northern Ireland. I commend the motion to the House.
I congratulate the Democratic Unionist party on its choice of the motion for today’s debate. As ever, it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), who spoke with his customary eloquence and passion for Northern Ireland. I entirely endorse his comments about the six soldiers who have been killed in Afghanistan today.
Before I continue, I apologise to the House that I shall have to miss some of the debate. Shortly after my speech, I have to attend a meeting of the ministerial working group on rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary. I know that the House debated that issue last week, when I was unavoidably absent due to a long-planned public meeting in my constituency. I have been going to Northern Ireland and visiting businesses nearly every week for almost five years, and have campaigned to put rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy right at the top of the political agenda. That became a firm commitment in the Conservative party manifesto and was included in the coalition’s programme for government, which resulted in a public consultation last year on a Treasury paper and the establishment of the ministerial working group. That all demonstrates that rebalancing the economy remains one of the highest priorities for me and my Department. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State will of course be here throughout the debate to respond to the points made by right hon. and hon. Members.
I welcome the choice of subject for this debate. Let me say at the outset that the Government support the broad thrust of the motion. The Government will support the Northern Ireland Executive in their efforts to make Northern Ireland a better and more economically successful place. The Northern Ireland 2012 campaign is an excellent example of that endeavour.
The debate is also extremely timely. There has long been a complaint that the world does not get to hear about the many great things about Northern Ireland, not least the tremendous quality of life there. Only last week, a survey found that people in Northern Ireland are the happiest people in the United Kingdom. I am pleased that DUP Members are taking their lead from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and smiling today, reflecting the sunny disposition for which they are well known. While I am on the subject of humour, I should pay tribute to that other Carson, Frank, who sadly died last month. He put Northern Ireland on the map for all the right reasons during some difficult times.
In the major events that are to take place in Northern Ireland during 2012-13, we have an opportunity to reflect on how far we have come in recent years, how we can capitalise on that and how we can build on the remarkable international good will that Northern Ireland enjoys. In that context, I pay tribute to the contribution made by successive US and Irish Administrations and a number of key individuals, without whom much of the progress made might not have been possible.
Let us not forget just how dramatic that progress has been. When I first entered the House, debates about Northern Ireland were still dominated by security-related issues or the latest crisis in the peace process. Decommissioning, alleged breaches of the ceasefires, suspensions of the Assembly, the postponement of elections and emergency legislation were the main Northern Ireland issues that came before the House. Now, we have stable, functioning and inclusive political institutions. Responsibility for delivering the key public services rests in local hands and Northern Ireland is viewed across the world as an example of hope rather than despair. I pay tribute to politicians from all parties, both here and in Northern Ireland, for their efforts to ensure that that process of building stability and reconciliation continues.
With that hard-won political stability, we now have to focus even more resolutely on the challenges ahead, in particular rebalancing the economy and overcoming community division to build a genuinely shared future. I shall briefly say a word about each of those.
We all know that the Northern Ireland economy is too dependent on public spending—even the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) might agree. We understand the historical reasons why that is the case, but it is not sustainable. We have to revive the private sector to secure sustainable jobs and prosperity for the future. We shall discuss how to do that in the meeting that I am about to attend at the Treasury. One matter under consideration is the possibility of giving the Executive the power to vary the rate of corporation tax in Northern Ireland.
As I have said time and again, Northern Ireland has some truly world-class companies, including Wrightbus, which is delivering the new Routemaster bus for London, F. G. Wilson, Norbrook and Randox, to name but a few; and let us not forget world-renowned Northern Ireland brands such as Bushmills. Northern Ireland also has a growing reputation for the quality of our creative industries. The hugely successful “Game of Thrones” is filmed in Belfast, and Northern Ireland’s latest Oscar winner is Terry George, for his short film “The Shore”. There are bands such as Snow Patrol, which provided the soundtrack for the brilliant video that helped Londonderry to win the right to be UK city of culture next year, and who can forget the buzz around the MTV awards at the Odyssey in Belfast last November?
We have some great companies, some great brands and some dynamic sectors, but we need more of them, so the Government will do everything we can to create the conditions for the private sector in Northern Ireland to grow, and we will support the Executive in the areas that are devolved to it. One example of where we can work very closely together is in our efforts to secure foreign direct investment. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State recently joined forces with the Northern Ireland Enterprise Minister on a trip to the Gulf. I trust that that will be one of many joint initiatives in pursuit of our shared objective of building a new, dynamic, 21st-century, private enterprise-led economy, rather than one based on unsustainable public spending and debt.
One of the sectors where huge potential remains is tourism. Northern Ireland is a place of outstanding natural beauty, from the Giant’s Causeway right across to the Fermanagh lakes. We have some world-class attractions, from Derry’s walls to the new Titanic project in Belfast. As the motion reminds us, next month will be the centenary of the tragic sinking of the Titanic, and the eyes of the world will be upon Northern Ireland.
The eyes of the world were also on Northern Ireland this week, when Rory McIlroy became officially the world’s No. 1 golfer—a magnificent achievement. Northern Ireland is the golfing capital of not just the UK but the world, as the Irish Open at Portrush will reinforce. Let us hope that we can use it as a launch pad to get the British Open to Northern Ireland soon—we should all campaign together for that. In the week before Cheltenham, let us not forget Tony McCoy, champion jockey for 16 incredible years. Northern Ireland is now being energetically promoted in overseas markets through the agency of Tourism Ireland, a happy example of co-operation with the Administration in the south for mutual benefit.
The second area where we really need to see solid progress in Northern Ireland is the building of a shared future. According to one report, the costs of division, be it segregation or the duplication of services, amount to a massive £1.5 billion, and there are 85,000 empty school places. It is encouraging that the First Minister and the Education Minister agree that that cannot go on. In the new Northern Ireland, those issues have to be tackled—we cannot have a society in which everything is carved up on sectarian grounds—and most of the powers to tackle the problem rest with the Executive. We acknowledge the steps that they have taken so far, and we will support them when they have to take difficult decisions in the future.
I acknowledge that in a society that has been beset by deep-seated division, none of that work is easy and it will take time. However, if we are to change the long-term perceptions of Northern Ireland we must, in the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, work to build a
“shared future; not a shared out future.”
For many people, the events that we have lined up over the coming years will cast Northern Ireland in a completely different light. I shall briefly mention two of them.
First, the House has just presented an Humble Address to Her Majesty the Queen marking her diamond jubilee, which will be celebrated across the United Kingdom, including in Northern Ireland. As the hugely successful visit to the Republic of Ireland last May demonstrated, Her Majesty is hugely admired and held in great affection throughout these islands. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister rightly referred to her at the weekend as “our magnificent Queen”, and I want everybody in Northern Ireland who wants to participate to have the opportunity to do so, be it through a street party, lighting beacons or planting trees.
Last November, I joined Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal at the Northern Ireland launch of the Woodland Trust’s jubilee woods project in Carrickfergus. I also recently met the Lord Mayor of Belfast and discussed a number of matters, including arrangements for the jubilee. I acknowledge the constructive and positive way in which politicians and parties from across the community, such as those on Belfast city council, have approached the issue. I hope it is a sign of how far we have moved on in Northern Ireland that one can be generous and respectful towards other traditions without in any way undermining one’s own beliefs. That has been seen recently in attendance at sporting events, for example. Last month, the First Minister attended a Gaelic Athletic Association match, and this week the Deputy First Minister was at the home of Northern Ireland football, Windsor Park. Those events are not in themselves particularly significant on this side of the Irish sea, but in Northern Ireland they are of enormous symbolism and evidence of progress.
The motion also mentions the centenary of the Ulster covenant, which falls in September. The catalyst for the covenant was the introduction in this House 100 years ago next month of the Government of Ireland Bill or, as it is more commonly known, the third Home Rule Bill. The passions that it generated are well known, and my own party played no small part in the parliamentary and constitutional battles from 1912 to 1914. The task for this generation is to mark centenaries such as that of the covenant in a way that is respectful and promotes a broader understanding of events, such as the fact that of the 470,000 signatures on the covenant, some 30,000 were from what is now the Republic of Ireland. To that end, the Government have been working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government on adopting a co-ordinated approach to the covenant and other centenaries to follow in the next decade. On Monday, we shall launch an exhibition in Westminster Hall to mark the centenary of the third Home Rule Bill, and we very much hope the exhibition will be able to travel to Dublin and Stormont.
The issues that we are discussing are hugely important to the future of every single person in Northern Ireland. As the motion makes clear, Northern Ireland has changed for the better. The events to which it refers, which I have touched upon this afternoon, will go a long way towards changing perceptions. However, as I have made clear, there are still significant challenges ahead if we are to build a truly peaceful, stable and prosperous Northern Ireland in which everyone has a shared future. The Government, working with the Executive, will do everything in their power to meet those challenges. In that spirit, I once again commend the hon. Member for South Antrim and his party for the motion, which we strongly welcome.
I concur with the motion and the comments made so far: 2012 will be a significant year for the communities in Northern Ireland. I note with interest the Secretary of State’s comments about several productive and beneficial events, and his recommendation of wider participation in them, but I raise a point of concern about that. It is unfortunate that Conservative and Labour participation in this debate is not as wide as the participation in this year’s events that he recommends to the people of Northern Ireland. Hopefully, lack of Conservative and Labour participation will be remedied in the coming weeks and months.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) outlined a series of events that are to be celebrated this year. The covenant is of considerable historical and cultural interest across the community. People want to be able to look back at, recommend and acknowledge the origins of the state of Northern Ireland, which many trace back to 1912 and the signing of the covenant.
The Titanic and other matters that are signally important to Northern Ireland’s tourism infrastructure have already been mentioned, as has the golfing greatness of Rory McIlroy, and of Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke from my constituency. It would appear that Portrush is now the golfing capital of the world. I hope that that will be case not just in the Irish Open this year, but in the preparations for the Open in a few years.
I emphasise that 2012 is a year of preparation as well as commemoration. We are beginning a decade of commemorating centenaries. Up to 2021, we have a series of commemorations in which to participate and to acknowledge. I concur with all those who have said that the commemorations should be inclusive so that everyone can enjoy and celebrate. Many preparations have been made to ensure that that happens.
We are also preparing for next year, when Londonderry will be the first UK city of culture. In the next few months, there will be considerable interest and work to ensure that it becomes the template for all the others that follow. We have a small window of opportunity in which to prepare and organise to ensure that world sees what we all know is the case. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) alluded to the survey that shows that Northern Ireland is the happiest region of the United Kingdom. We all knew that. I was somewhat surprised in last week’s Prime Minister’s questions that the Prime Minister thought otherwise. I recommend that he attends some of the DUP’s parliamentary parties. He will find out that there is humour every day of every week of every month of every year. I understand that some correspondence is winging its way to him as we speak to ensure that he knows and acknowledges the type of humour that we have all expressed in the past 20 or 30 years, even in the darkest days.
Does my hon. Friend agree that perhaps the Prime Minister was not aware of the happiness in the DUP because he and some of his colleagues have spent the past number of years flirting and conniving with the Ulster Unionist party? Perhaps some of that has rubbed off and caused a perception that all Ulster politicians and all Unionists are somehow dour and miserable, whereas that applies to only one section of the Ulster Unionist party.
“More tea, vicar?” as they say in the best circles, as we move swiftly on. However, I concur with my right hon. Friend.
As we look forward, particularly over the next two to three years, we see important landmark decisions and historical events that need to be commemorated. In recent years, monumental and historically significant events came and went without advantage being taken of them to ensure that Northern Ireland plc benefited from them. We must not make that mistake this year or next. I therefore commend my friend in the Northern Ireland Assembly, Arlene Foster, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, for marketing this year and emphasising that Northern Ireland is the place to be. We need to ensure that the rest of the world sees—hopefully they will see it during the Irish Open—the marvellous, fantastic scenery on the north coast, the golfing that is beyond compare, which is why we get so many champions, and the culture of Northern Ireland.
The world needs to come to Northern Ireland, and I am glad that the Minister of State has said that on previous occasions in the House. We need to drive the message home to ensure that the whole United Kingdom will benefit. We are approaching the Olympics, in which the entire nation will participate. I hope that there will be medal winners from Northern Ireland. Many people have suggested that that will be the case particularly in boxing. I do not know why fighting seems to bring out the best in Northern Ireland, but it does. The boxing regime seems to deliver medal winners.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the warmth of the welcome that visitors will receive in Northern Ireland is beyond compare? Will he also acknowledge that when people come to the Olympics and to London, which will be the focal point, it is vital that they are encouraged to cross to Northern Ireland to see the beauty of our Province?
I thank my hon. Friend for that. As he represents the constituency where Belfast international airport is, I expect him to ensure that the red carpet is rolled out as people arrive.
Many Departments in Northern Ireland are preparing for the various commemorations. Of course, like every other part of the United Kingdom, we are hamstrung to some extent because of the austere times. None the less, they must not prevent us from marking and marketing the events so that the people of Northern Ireland benefit.
I not only pay tribute to those who are preparing for the events, but point out to the rest of the United Kingdom and Members who represent constituencies in England, Scotland and Wales that a good, peaceful, progressive and prosperous Northern Ireland is in the interests of the United Kingdom. Just as we have exported many of our sports people and produced many engineers and inventors who have taken their expertise to an international level, we want to participate in the life of the nation, so that Northern Ireland’s place is secure not only in the United Kingdom but in UK history and for future generations.
First, I echo the comments of the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) about the tragic events in Afghanistan in the past 24 hours and the six servicemen killed in action. Their service and their sacrifice is an inspiration to us all.
I congratulate the Democratic Unionist party on securing this most welcome debate. It is timely to have such a debate. As the motion suggests, it is indeed a momentous year for Northern Ireland, with the diamond jubilee, the Olympics, the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster and, of course, the same anniversary for the signing of the Ulster covenant and declaration.
It is my pleasure to serve on the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. The Committee has visited Northern Ireland on many occasions in the past 18 months, which I have found fascinating. For somebody who first became active in politics in the time of the troubles, it is remarkable to see what has been achieved and what progress has been made since the Good Friday agreement in 1998.
Although fantastic progress has been made and although I am in complete support of the Democratic Unionist party motion, it would be naive at best to ignore the ongoing challenges of the security situation in Northern Ireland. Let us be clear that although we all want to promote Northern Ireland’s economy, tourism and future, the threat level remains at severe. The fact remains that there have been 13 separate attacks against national security targets, and the intent and capability of organisations such as the Real IRA, Continuity IRA and others remains malevolent.
Furthermore, it is impossible to engage in dialogue with dissident organisations that show no signs of renouncing their violent or criminal ways. The Secretary of State has made it clear on many occasions in this House that the British Government will never compromise on the security of our citizens in Northern Ireland, and I pay tribute to the work that he and the Minister are doing to ensure that our citizens are protected, and to the security services, the police force and everybody involved on the ground.
Improvements are being made. There were fewer attacks in 2011 than in 2010 and I hope that trend will continue. Another positive is that both the leaderships of the Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Volunteer Force remain committed to their ceasefires, albeit that members of both groups are still involved in unsanctioned violent activity. On a larger political scale, normality is slowly but surely emerging. Last year, the Northern Ireland Executive published its programme for government. As the First Minister, Peter Robinson, has said, it is a statement that Northern Ireland is prepared for the future, prepared to modernise and reform, and ready to move forward as one community.
Looking to the future, the security situation is a challenge facing Northern Ireland, but the economy is a challenge facing Northern Ireland and Britain as a whole. The UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive are taking steps to improve the situation. As hon. Members will know, the coalition Government have delivered on a commitment they made to consult on rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy. As the Secretary of State has just said, the ministerial working group on rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy met at the end of last year and will do so again today. That cross-departmental approach is most welcome and has been praised by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.
Tourism will play a crucial part in rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy. Northern Irish business is set to benefit this year in particular because of the Olympic games, including to the tune of £18 million from games-related contracts alone. That is why I also welcome the announcement in January this year that Arlene Foster, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, who has responsibility for tourism, had reallocated £3.5 million from her Department’s budget to prioritise the promotion of tourism this year. Along with other hon. Members, I hope for a successful year for Northern Ireland tourism this year while the eyes of the world are focused on Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
This year begins a decade of commemorations for Northern Ireland and we should of course look forward to them, but, as the Secretary of State has said, we must not be complacent and must remain vigilant. Let us remember that the dissidents have virtually no local support and that all the political parties are united against them. Long may that continue.
I am in full support of the DUP motion. From my own experience, I know the Province to be a wonderful place to visit. It is steeped in history and its friendly people have aspirations and hope for the future. One of my closest and oldest friends in my constituency is a former councillor called David Bell, who is from Bangor. He was very helpful when I joined the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in explaining some of the complexity and history of Northern Ireland politics, which I have found very useful.
We must accept that there are challenges with the ongoing security situation, political progress and rebalancing the economy, but, as the motion states, this year of commemoration and celebration should be the catalyst to realising the aspirations held by so many.
I am happy to join my regional colleagues in extolling the virtues and wonderful attractions of the region that we represent and that we are all very happy to call home. When I listen to them, I am conscious of the need for us all to have a constantly happy deportment—there is an onus on us to go about this place with the demeanour of Aer Lingus cabin crew, smiling at everything we meet. That was hard to sustain during my many long hours on the Financial Services Public Bill Committee yesterday.
The Social Democratic and Labour party tabled an amendment to the motion not because we disagree with the thrust of it—it recognises the significance of the opportunity that 2012 represents for Northern Ireland—but because we believe other points could have been made. I do not wish to dwell on this, but parts of the motion are perhaps gratuitously partial for some of us and could have been left out. SDLP Members wanted to make the motion a little less exclusive to Northern Ireland by dealing with the tourism and hospitality sectors more generally, and to make it a little less exclusive within Northern Ireland by ensuring some of its narrower and more partial references were not included.
Nevertheless, I have no umbrage to take with points that have been made by honourable colleagues from the Democratic Unionist party on the events that we will mark this year and in coming years. We must also deal with the inter-meshing and layering of those events, hopefully in a spirit of purposeful inquiry, which is one of the terms used in the context of Derry’s bid for UK city of culture in respect of dealing with the past, including the recent past. We should acknowledge those issues up front, deal with them in a spirit of purposeful inquiry, and engage visitors in that regard.
As we commemorate, we need to remember that, in the next decade, we will have not only a series of centenary anniversaries, but significant half-centenary anniversaries, which might be a lot more sensitive. We must manage all of them positively. We should handle the past sensitively—our commemorations should not make potential visitors sensitive, wary or inhibited about coming to any part of Northern Ireland. One great benefit of the 2012 promotion is that it has been fully embraced and well marketed by Tourism Ireland as well as by the tourism industry in Northern Ireland, which is very much behind that effort. We saw that in recent events in London—a very good event took place in St James’s palace. A team of devolved Ministers was there, including the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. That wide representation was important and positive.
Rather than just ensuring that we have positive events that people who already know Northern Ireland and are from Northern Ireland can celebrate positively, it is important that we get much more market reach. That is why this year is so important. It is not that it is the only year that people should come to Northern Ireland, but it is the year when people most wake up to the fact that they should come. I have no doubt that anybody who comes this year will come back and make many repeat visits.
It is important to ensure that people coming to the island of Ireland from any part of the world ensure that they experience the benefits of the whole island. In the past, many tourists to the south did not trickle over the border to the north, as they should. We want to ensure that in the now more benign context people are given every encouragement to do that.
My party’s amendment on the VAT issue was not selected, but we previously tabled an early-day motion that has the support of all parties. In the build-up to the Budget, we encourage the Minister to suggest to the Chancellor that it would be timely to consider giving the tourism sector, not just in Northern Ireland but everywhere in the UK, a boost through targeted relief on VAT rates. That was used very successfully in the south of Ireland last year and this year, and has been used in other parts of Europe as well. It is entirely consistent with EU rules and would be a good way of encouraging people to holiday at home. Unlike wider VAT reductions, it would trap the multiplier in our own economy by benefiting a home sector instead of paying for imports. We want to do that because it would support tourism more widely.
The hon. Gentleman alluded to the fact that Members from the Democratic Unionist party fully support his suggestion about what the Government should consider in the run-up to the Budget. There is no doubt that in terms of wins in the Northern Ireland economy and boosting employment, tourism is one sector where relatively rapid progress can be made, and targeted interventions, as he suggests, would be extremely helpful.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Of course, many in the media say that more people are likely to holiday in the eurozone this year because of the weakness of the euro, which is an added reason there should be a timely intervention from the Chancellor—to encourage people to holiday here within the sterling zone.
The changed perceptions of Northern Ireland are welcome but have been hard-earned and hard-won. They are a result of the changed context created by many political efforts over the past few years. I am certainly proud of the role that my party has played in consistently opposing violence from any quarter and standing up for shared institutions and political arrangements within Northern Ireland, within Ireland and between these islands. That, of course, has been vindicated in what we now see working so well. Many of the naysayers and detractors—those who were totally opposed and said that it would or could never happen—are now among those happily showing how well it works and doing so well. It is great to see that proof and vindication, although some of us, of course, have learned that vindication in politics does not always translate into reward, but so be it—we have learned to empathise with the prodigal son’s brother and get over it.
This is an important time for Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for East Derry—I mean East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) before he corrects me—made this point not just about 2012 but about 2013 and beyond. In 2013, my city will be the designated city of culture in the UK. Furthermore, some of the efforts building up to that, including marking its successor role in the cultural Olympiad, will take place this year. It is important, therefore, that we see 2012 not just as a stand-alone occasion but as part of a platform or springboard into the future.
It is important, if we are to attract tourists, that we offer them not just value for money but value for time, which the tourism and hospitality sector in Northern Ireland has increasingly been developing—and has had to develop. In the past, there have been questions about whether visitors have had value for time. The Sunday problem has raised questions about what experiences and opportunities visitors have had, and in some cases, there has even been the Monday problem, because some visitor amenities are not open on Mondays.
We have to do more. We have to invest in our attractions and distractions for visitors, if we are to maximise the extraction of money, which is what we need out of tourism. There is more for different Departments to do—it is not just the job of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland, and there is not just the Chancellor’s role in respect of VAT; there is also a role for other Departments and local councils.
Members are used to hearing Northern Ireland Members plead that we are a special case because we are at the bottom of so many of the wrong league tables and so need special derogations and exemptions. In many instances, that will be true and valid for particular sectors, sections and interests in our community, but it is also important to recognise that increasingly sectors, industries and locations in Northern Ireland are getting to the top of the right tables, and not just in sports or whatever. When I listened to the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) refer to the range of sporting achievements in Northern Ireland, I was reminded of a time when, as Deputy First Minister, I was going into the Assembly for questions. A civil servant came up to me hastily and said, “Great news! You get to announce this!” I was then given a note that told me that I could announce to the Chamber that Northern Ireland had just won a gold medal in the Commonwealth games—for shooting. I was somewhat reluctant to go in with that news, and when hon. Members are talking about boxing and other things, one can understand my trepidation.
I do not want to appear to avoid what the motion says about the Queen’s diamond jubilee, because the wrong thing might be read into it if I did. I have mentioned that I served as Deputy First Minister, some 10 years ago. When the Queen visited the south last year, I was reminded that during that time I became the first nationalist Minister on the island of Ireland officially to receive the Queen on the island, when, I officially received her during the Stormont part of her jubilee tour. I am not British; I am not a Unionist, a monarchist or a royalist. However, I respect any Head of State, and I particularly respect someone who is valued and esteemed by so many people, including my fellow countrymen. In that context, I have no issue with respecting others. We have to learn the ethic of respect and being respected, and that acknowledging other people’s loyalties and affinities does not compromise the integrity of one’s own. Not only is the way in which we can share, appreciate and celebrate each other’s beliefs and values together better for us; it also makes us a more attractive and comfortable place for visitors to come and engage in.
I just hope that, in recognising that, people recognise that there are other views, sensitivities, outlooks and affinities in Northern Ireland, and that people should not always make sweeping presumptions. I hope that everyone currently involved in the institutions in Northern Ireland can find comfortable ways of accommodating each other and showing mutual respect in an appropriate way. That was helped greatly by the manner of the Queen’s visit last year. All credit should go not just to Her Majesty and everyone associated with her remarks and gestures at that time, but to the previous President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, and her husband, Martin, for all the great work they did to improve not just relations between these islands, but relations within the island. That work was all solid investment in ensuring that perceptions of Northern Ireland would change and that our perceptions in Northern Ireland of each other and of our place would also change.
In that context, I have no hesitation in accepting the overall, underlying point of the motion, which is about the tourism drive and the welcome to visitors. I appreciate that there might not be a big attendance in the Chamber; indeed, I should put on record the fact that other Northern Ireland Members are conflicted, because we have an “Upstairs, Downstairs” situation in this place today. The Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs is currently meeting upstairs, so before someone starts twittering to the “Nolan” show or somewhere else asking, “Where were these people?”, I should point out that Members are conflicted and compromised, with some caught there and unable to be here.
Those who tire of us in Northern Ireland getting together to lobby for our special case may have an opportunity today to recognise that we have been able to get together to sell our special place through tourism. However, tourism and our visitor attractions are not the only things we have to offer. In terms of industry, sport, and academic and research achievement, Northern Ireland is moving ahead. It is surfing all the opportunities available to it, in the context of Europe and the wider island of Ireland, and maximising those opportunities that arise from its being well placed within these islands to gain things in the United Kingdom context and maximise things in an Irish context. It is in that spirit that, although I have cautioned the House about certain parts of the motion, I do not want that to eclipse the underlying endorsement of the worth of Northern Ireland as a place to go in 2012, and not just this year, but many more years thereafter.
I rise to speak in support of the motion tabled in my name and those of my colleagues in the Democratic Unionist party. The motion unashamedly blows the trumpet and beats the drum for Northern Ireland, and we are well known for beating the drum there. I was raised in a house in which, unless we could beat or put up a Lambeg drum, we knew nothing. That was when I was a small boy. I have grown slightly since then—[Hon. Members: “Upwardly or outwardly?”] In more ways than one. It was a great childhood and a great part of my life and my culture.
Of course we on these Benches would say that Northern Ireland was the best place on earth, and that the greatest people in the world were those from Northern Ireland. Our motion announces to the world that Northern Ireland is open for business, and invites the world in its entirety to come along and join us. Whether they want history, culture, performing arts, spectacular scenery, activity holidays, sporting holidays or just lazy day holidays—which would suit me very well—there is something for everyone, and it is all served up by the people with the warmest hearts and the warmest welcome to be found anywhere.
It is a tradition in homes in Northern Ireland—as it might be in the rest of the United Kingdom—that the kettle is put on as soon as someone enters the house, and they are given a cup of tea. I am well used to that in my constituency. When I visit all the old ladies that I have to talk too, the buns are put on the table—
Absolutely. I was brought up in the country, and my background is in the meat industry, so I believe that I should be a good advertisement for that industry. Also, I have to say that it took a lot of money to put this physique in place, and it would be a shame to lose it.
We also have the best golfers in the world, and a good few of the best golf courses as well. We produced the greatest footballer that ever lived, and the greatest ship that ever sailed. We helped to build America and gave it many of its Presidents, including Andrew Jackson, whose family originates from my constituency, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt and Bill Clinton. We also gave it Richard Nixon, but we will move on pretty quickly. John Dunlap, who printed the American declaration of independence, was also from our shores.
My hon. Friend will be aware that we also gave America hillbilly music, which came from the hills of County Antrim. That country-style music swept across all the southern states of America. I think that Elvis Presley’s ancestors also came from Northern Ireland.
I was trying to avoid mentioning the fact that hillbilly music originated in Northern Ireland, but it is certainly part of the legacy of the Ulster Scots, and I will allow my hon. Friend to deal with that side of things, although I trust that he will not try to sing.
Joseph Scriven, from Banbridge in my constituency, gave the world one of the sweetest hymns in the English language when he wrote “What a friend we have in Jesus”. We have produced great inventors, too—Harry Ferguson, who produced the Ferguson tractors that can be seen all over the world; and Frank Pantridge, who invented the portable heart defibrillator, which saves thousands of lives across the world each year.
We heard about other contributions at a recent Prime Minister’s Question Time. The Prime Minister was asked about Northern Ireland’s ranking and whether Northern Ireland had the happiest people in the United Kingdom. He did not seem to think it applied to us; I do not know why. One of my honourable colleagues—he is no longer in the Chamber—mentioned the Social Democratic and Labour party. I do not know why he did, but I see that SDLP Members are smiling today, so things are looking up.
Let me assure right hon. and hon. Members that, although it sometimes seems that we in Northern Ireland have the worries of the world on our shoulders, there is a joy deep down in the hearts of the people of Northern Ireland—and we are very glad to represent them in this mother of all Parliaments.
Northern Ireland is not yet at the end of the journey. There is no doubt that we have come a long way in recent years. Just 10 years ago, the Province was a very different place and was in a different situation as the Assembly lurched from one suspension to another. Public confidence in the political structures was low, while public uncertainty about the future of Northern Ireland was high. The last 10 years have seen very significant change and positive progress—so much so that a recent Northern Ireland Life and Times survey showed 73% of the community favouring Northern Ireland’s remaining in the United Kingdom. That figure included a slim majority of the Roman Catholic community, which is encouraging.
It is not over-egging the pudding too much to suggest that such has been the progress made in recent years that Northern Ireland is more settled in this United Kingdom at present than Scotland is. Perhaps what is needed in Scotland is a second flank of Democratic Unionist party MPs, so that we could help the Scots to maintain their stand. That might not be a bad idea, and it is worth looking at. After all—here I go into a history lesson—King Fergus had the old kingdom of Dalriada, which eventually united the Scots under Kenneth McAlpin, and gave the land its name, while St Columba and his successors in the old Celtic Church gave it its heart, its vision and its passion.
As part of the generation that grew up amid all the troubles that we have come through, I can look back to very dark days. Like many people in Northern Ireland, I can look back to days when members of my own family circle were killed during those years. I can also look back over more recent years and trace the progress that has been made; and I can lift my eyes and look around me at the situation in the Province today and look forward to days yet to come. I can see the path and the upward curve that we are on.
Turning to wider issues, I am pleased to say that Northern Ireland has had many sporting heroes down through the years, and we have already heard about many of them today. For example, Kennedy Kane McArthur won the Olympic marathon 100 years ago in 1912. I have two gold medal winners from the Commonwealth games in my constituency—as one hon. Member mentioned, they won their gold medals for shooting. We also have Dame Mary Peters, who went to school in my constituency, and still comes to the constituency to get her hair done.
Not at the same place as me.
When Dame Mary Peters won the gold medal I was still at school, and I remember walking down the street in one of the towns in my constituency, Portadown, alongside the car. Like my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), I also remember the celebrations for the Queen’s silver jubilee which took place throughout Northern Ireland. I have to say that my hon. Friend goes back a bit further than I do, and that I certainly did not take up the challenge to dress in a sailor suit. I do not think that my hon. Friend will live that one down for a day or two.
Other people have already been mentioned, but I think it is worth mentioning them again. We have had great legends like Joey Dunlop, who won five consecutive motorcycle TT Formula 1 world titles in the 1980s. We have also had many boxing champions down the years, and I know that many in the next generation will be as good as the greats that we have had in the past. More recently, our very own transatlantic rower, Kate Richardson, who comes from my constituency, set the world record as part of the Row For Freedom challenge. What a great event that was.
This year, Northern Ireland is the capital of the world when it comes to golf. Who would have thought five or 10 years ago that we would have the world’s number one golfer in the Province? All three who have recently won championships are great ambassadors for the whole Province, and for all the people of Northern Ireland as well.
That brings me to the wider elements of the motion, which refers to the anniversaries and events that are sprinkled throughout 2012. The Olympics will be a showcase for London, but—as other Members have requested—they should be for the whole United Kingdom as well. The world will descend on London for this, the greatest sporting show on earth, and it is vital for there to be a legacy: for London, of course, because that is where it is being held, but also for the whole United Kingdom. I urge the Government to ensure that that happens.
This year is also the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic and the signing of the Ulster covenant. The maiden voyage and sinking of the Titanic gave birth to a legend that has held a fascination for the world ever since, and the new signature Titanic project in Belfast promises to be a world-class project that will not only fascinate but attract visitors to Northern Ireland from all over the world.
The sinking of the Titanic gave birth to an enduring legend, but the signing of the covenant in many ways helped to give birth to Northern Ireland itself; but not before the flower of Ulster was cut down amid the mud and the death of the Somme and elsewhere. They died in their tens of thousands. Many who had signed the covenant volunteered and died in those fields of France. To many today, sadly, they are but names on some historic document, but they are sons and husbands who were never to return home again, and those who were lost were mourned: they were mourned in every parish, every village and every hamlet throughout Northern Ireland.
Also, of course, this year we will celebrate the diamond jubilee of the reign of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. What a monarch she has been! I had the privilege of meeting Her Majesty when she paid a visit to my constituency. It was a remarkable time for me and my wife. I remember that we attended an exhibition in the town of Banbridge in County Down. Her Majesty and Prince Philip were walking around the exhibition, and when they came to a display that was termed “abstract art”, Her Majesty looked at me and asked, “What is that?” I replied, “Your Majesty, you’re probably wiser than me.” We did not have a clue what it was—but it attracted a lot of people to the art gallery.
When Her Majesty addressed Parliament on 4 May 1977 at the time of her silver jubilee, she said:
“I cannot forget that I was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Perhaps this jubilee is a time to remind ourselves of the benefits which Union has conferred, at home and in our international dealings, on the inhabitants of all parts of this United Kingdom. A jubilee is also a time to look forward. We should certainly do this with determination, and I believe we can also do so with hope.”
As representatives from Northern Ireland, we, too, cannot forget that she was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We want to take this opportunity to wish Her Majesty a joyous year of jubilee, and many more years yet to come, and to assure her of a warm welcome in our part of the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend refers to Her Majesty’s forthcoming visit to Northern Ireland, and various Members have mentioned visits that the Queen will pay to their constituencies. Those visits are generally known about; they have been publicised and preparations have been made. However, although we must be conscious of the security issues, does my hon. Friend agree that as much notice as possible of Her Majesty’s visits should be given, so that everyone knows about her itinerary and can celebrate?
I entirely agree. We understand that there are security issues, but, in this year, it is important that as much notice as possible is given to the communities that Her Majesty will visit. People want to come out and see her when she visits Northern Ireland, so that they can express their loyalty and the love that they have for her. She has been a unique monarch in many ways. The royal family is sometimes given a hard time by the press, but the Queen has been a wonderful exemplar of the office she holds on behalf of all the people of this United Kingdom.
We are looking forward to welcoming Her Majesty to Northern Ireland. In my constituency, many street parties are planned. We have to put up with so much nonsense, however. I have read in the press that we will have to get approval from the health and safety people before we can put up bannerettes and so forth. Things have gone beyond what is common sense, but the celebrations will happen. I know that celebrations are planned right across the three towns of Lurgan, Portadown and Banbridge that I represent and in other parts of the 200 square miles of my constituency. We are looking forward to having a wonderful time, and we wish Her Majesty well. I note that, as someone mentioned earlier, Queen Victoria is the only monarch who has reigned for longer, but I think Her Majesty will overtake Queen Victoria’s reign. We hope, trust and pray that she does.
I know that my constituents were proud to be part of this United Kingdom when they returned me at the last election. My constituency is the second largest manufacturing base in Northern Ireland outside Belfast. In Northern Ireland questions today, I spoke about the investments that have been made in my constituency, one of which is a £13 million investment at one site in Portadown by Asda. Many other investments are pending and we look forward to good days in Northern Ireland.
I believe there are good days ahead. Yes, we have dissidents who do not seem able to live without the troubles and who just want to drag us back to the bad old days, but the Unionist people and others stood fast against the Provisional IRA and won the day, and we will continue to do that. Yes, we have lost a lot of good friends and a lot of people who were tragically taken by the bomb and the bullet, but we want to leave a legacy in Northern Ireland for those people who put on the uniform of the Crown forces. I can say in this House without any contradiction that when it has come to donning the uniform of the Crown forces, our young men and women have never been found wanting. We supported the Crown forces in whatever situation they found themselves in. Tragedy has hit Northern Ireland for many years but we thank God that we are starting to move in the proper direction. Northern Ireland is moving on. It will take a little more time but we have come a long way over a number of years.
Let me end on a more political note. We Unionists would repeat the words that Her Majesty spoke in 1977 and say that this jubilee is perhaps a time to remind ourselves of the benefits of the Union. We hear so much today about Scotland and the referendum, but I believe that the United Kingdom is better as one, with no division. We have heard for many years about legacy—together we stand, divided we fall. I believe that the UK will be better staying as it is today without the nonsense of this referendum and of Scotland being removed from the Union. I do not think the Scottish people want that, but time will tell; we will know when the so-called referendum takes place. I wish Her Majesty well and I congratulate all my colleagues who have spoken. We will continue, to the best of our ability, to keep Northern Ireland moving forward.
I am grateful to have a few moments of the House’s time to make a contribution to the debate, after the interesting and insightful comments we have heard from a number of Members.
It is a privilege to hold my position. With the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), I have already visited the Titanic quarter, and with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I saw the wonderful beauty of Strangford lough. I am looking forward to visiting South Down on Friday.
The hon. Gentleman is ahead of me. I was about to say that I was looking forward to visiting all the other constituencies, but I think I shall have to start with the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) who has been persistent in his desire for me to visit his constituency. Now that I have heard about the tea that is available at every stop, I shall make sure to go there. However, there is a serious point. From the visits I have made, it is abundantly clear that Northern Ireland is a place of stunning beauty and offers much to the visitor.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his apology that he would not be in the Chamber to hear my remarks. His point that the life of Frank Carson and his funeral represented all that is good about Northern Ireland was well made.
Notwithstanding the story about the little sailor, which will stay with many of us for a long time, the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) was right to remind us today of all days, when we heard the news about the six soldiers, that we should remember all the victims in Northern Ireland over the last few years.
The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) is not in the Chamber. He said that we should all—not just the Northern Ireland parties—encourage the broadest participation in these debates. That is important and it is incumbent on me and others to do so. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). We should realise that many Members, from Northern Ireland and elsewhere, who wanted to contribute to the debate are actually at a meeting of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.
I do not want to say too much about the economy, although I have made considerable play of it over the past few months because it is extremely important. Indeed, the Secretary of State talked about it in much of his speech. I do not agree with the specifics of the cut in VAT mentioned by the hon. Member for Foyle, but as the Minister of State will know, the Opposition have called for a temporary general cut in VAT to help boost domestic demand, which would help job creation in Northern Ireland.
I congratulate the Democratic Unionist party on securing the debate. It is always good when Northern Ireland matters are discussed on the Floor of the House. I shall concentrate largely on the well chosen title of the debate, which welcomes the NI 2012 campaign to change perceptions of Northern Ireland. The work of Tourism Ireland has helped enormously in that respect.
Many Members recently attended the fantastic event at St James’s palace to launch NI 2012 in Great Britain. It was significant that both the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and their colleagues from all parties in the Executive were there to show their support. There was a real mood of optimism at that event, and a spirit not just of hope but of expectation. The progress made in Northern Ireland was noted by every speaker, every performer and every guest. It was no longer a guarded, anxious, whispered aspiration that things would get better, but a confident, proud message shouted aloud that things are better and getting even better, and that Northern Ireland is a great place to live, to work, and in this instance to visit.
That is not to take anything for granted, and no Member who has spoken in the debate has done so or would do so. There is a huge belief in Northern Ireland that things which only a few years ago would have seemed impossible have been and are being done, as we continue to build a peaceful Northern Ireland. The overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland and across Ireland and the UK have supported the political process and those who have driven it forward, including many in the House today. I say without fear or favour to hon. Members that it is a privilege to recognise the contribution that they and others in all parts of the House have made to enable us to get to where we are today.
It is the people of Northern Ireland who make it such a great place to visit. Their legendary welcome, their friendliness, their creativity, hard work, pride in their community and willingness to share their beautiful region with visitors are what I have most enjoyed about being the shadow Secretary of State. One of the privileges of holding this position is that it enables me, as I said, to visit Northern Ireland regularly and see at first hand the vibrant dynamism of the arts and culture, the spectacular scenery, the historical sites and the wonderful food and drink that make Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone the six must-visit destinations for 2012. As I have promised hon. Members from Northern Ireland, I intend to visit them all myself over the coming months.
But of course we still have to work to challenge the lingering stereotypes and perceptions that many outside Northern Ireland still harbour about the place. The remaining challenges include how we deal with the past and legacy issues, how to maintain security, and of course how to overcome the continuing economic and social problems. I do not see Northern Ireland as a special case; that would be demeaning to Northern Ireland, but there are certainly special circumstances that need to be recognised.
As other hon. Members have said, we are at the beginning of a decade of commemorations that will mark important events in Irish and British history. The motion mentions, of course, the Ulster covenant, which was a response to the third Home Rule Bill which came before the House 100 years ago next month. One cannot help but feel aware of a great sense of history when discussing these matters in the place in which they were debated a century ago, and when thinking of the great figures who took part in those debates and are remembered as giants of Parliament, politics and state.
I know that there are many differing perspectives on the history of that period, but ultimately that history is a shared one, so we can choose to use the different perspectives of it to entrench division, or we can use them to learn about history, ourselves and each other, bring communities together in a new understanding of what happened in that decade, and perhaps create some fresh perspectives which will help to bring about a better future in the decade ahead. I know that is the wish of the vast majority of people in these islands, and of all Members in this place.
We also mark this year the diamond jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen. As the House heard earlier, during the 60 years of her reign she has displayed tremendous service, great dignity, selflessness and a dedication to all of the people of the United Kingdom, including those in Northern Ireland. Her visit to Ireland last year was truly remarkable. It opened up not just a new chapter, but a new volume in British-Irish relations. I join others who have done so today in paying tribute to her today, and I know that we all look forward to her visits to Northern Ireland throughout this year.
In 2012, this year of centenaries and jubilees, we celebrate all that is good about Northern Ireland. NI 2012 gives us the chance to showcase all that is good about Northern Ireland and indeed the island of Ireland. Northern Ireland is open for business, investment and tourism, not just this year but next year, with the city of culture in Derry-Londonderry and the world police and fire games, and beyond.
As an English MP, one of the questions I am most often asked by colleagues, friends and constituents is what Northern Ireland is like. I can confidently say to them now, as other hon. Members have done, to go and see for themselves. It is often said that perception is reality. The reality is that Northern Ireland is a great place, a changed place, and a place that wants people to come and visit it. I know I speak for all my colleagues when I say that we will do our very best to ensure that that becomes the perception as well. I say to everyone that it is time to put Northern Ireland firmly on the global map.
Order. I now have to announce the result of a Division deferred from a previous day. On the motion relating to the safety of offshore oil and gas activities, the Ayes were 308 and the Noes were 183, so the Question was agreed to.
[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]
On what is a sad day, 2012 promises to be an action-filled year. The SDLP welcomes the progress that has been made in the north of Ireland over the past 10 to 15 years, of which we were very much part. We shaped the character of that progress and its development. In fact, we were particularly innovative in the political developments.
There has been much to celebrate in Northern Ireland, particularly with regard to our sporting heroes right across the sporting arena, whether in rugby, athletics, golf or the Gaelic Athletic Association. There is much there, and we must not forget that we are talking about a shared and inclusive society. There is much to celebrate in the film industry. Only two weeks ago a person from Northern Ireland won an Oscar for “The Shore.” Only last year the same director produced a film in Downpatrick, in my constituency, called “Whole Lotta Sole”, which will have its debut later this year. That film was centred on a fish and chip shop, but it was not necessarily about fish. In fact, it might have had more to do with the political turmoil out of which we have emerged.
There has been considerable movement away from violence and conflict and towards a more peaceful and harmonious society. We are all very glad about that and want to see the institutions that emerged out of the Good Friday agreement and the principles that were laid down in the agreement fully realised. Therefore, we believe that the institutions should be fully functional, that the Northern Ireland Executive should have a detailed programme for government and a full programme of legislation and that the North/South Ministerial Council must become fully operational. We also believe that it should be cross-sectoral in its approach, by which we mean that it should have a north-west focus, which my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) would welcome, and a south-east focus, which would accommodate the interests of my constituency of South Down and those of north County Louth. We want more north-south bodies to be created, for the review of the north-south dimension to be published and for the Irish identity to be not only recognised and acknowledged, but given political weight.
That brings me to the motion. We welcome the fact that the Northern Ireland 2012 campaign is intended to change perceptions of Northern Ireland and encourage many more visitors. We want people to see the beauty of Northern Ireland, the scenery and the attributes of the people, which are already demonstrated through their inventions and sporting prowess and in many other fields. However, I am a bit afraid and will be looking to the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) to clarify some points for me, because it could be construed that the motion—how shall I say this?—focuses on a single identity and is one-track or single-dimensional, because it contains no reference to an Irish identity or Irish nationalism, which is also very much part of the north of Ireland and is represented in this House by the three SDLP Members.
The events of 2012 are the events of 2012: there is the centenary of the Titanic, the centenary of the Ulster covenant and the Queen’s diamond jubilee. So the motion, and its writer, did not dictate those dates, but does the hon. Lady agree that all those events, given that they will improve and provide opportunities to add to economic activity in Northern Ireland and can be enjoyed by all, should be seen not as single-identity events but as something that can unite all the people in Northern Ireland, who will be able to enjoy them and, indeed, benefit from them economically?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I say to all Members present that it is important that we look to all events and at all the attributes of the people of Northern Ireland. It is not enough simply to look through the narrow prism of one identity, but this motion could be construed as such, and I say that more in sorrow than in anger, and more with regret than anything else.
So I look to the right hon. Member for Belfast North—
But I will be quite happy to give way a little later, when I have progressed with my contribution.
The motion underpins a Unionist agenda, it honours the foundation of a Northern Ireland state, and there is no recognition of my identity and where I come from. A growing proportion of those who reside in Northern Ireland are Irish, hold Irish passports, support the south of Ireland’s soccer team, support and participate in football and hurling, as part of the Gaelic Athletic Association, and speak the Irish language. That is part of our ethnicity and background.
I am not denigrating the views or the identity of others; I am saying that there must be parity of esteem, respect for both traditions on the island, and that when we are talking about the north of Ireland, or Northern Ireland, we should take into account everybody’s attributes. That is what moving forward means and what the new political institutions are all about: they are about moving forward together. I am quite happy to give way now to the right hon. Gentleman, who I hope will be able to elucidate that issue.
In an intervention, I shall not be able to do what the hon. Lady invites me to do, as I am conscious of Mr Deputy Speaker, but if she feels so strongly about the issue, why in the amendment to which her name is attached is there no mention of any issues to which she has referred or of any aspects that she has just discussed? Why, if she feels so strongly, did she not table such an amendment?
No, I would know the answer anyway; I do not need anybody to tell me.
The right hon. Gentleman can, however, see what we have clearly done. We have concentrated on the practical politics that needs to be concentrated on, namely a reduction in VAT on tourism, because our tourism industry is being undermined. The amendment would also delete the partisan elements of the motion.
No, I will not.
The political institutions that emerged from the Good Friday agreement were based on respect for political difference and identity, and around the three sets of relationships. There is no reference in the motion to that, to inclusion, to respect for political difference, or to the development of the shared society, to which the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has already referred.
For me, as the Member for South Down, this is also a Belfast-centred motion. I represent a constituency that holds two of Northern Ireland’s signature tourism projects—the Mourne mountains and St Patrick’s country. We in the SDLP want to ensure—hence our amendment—that where tourism is central to our economy, it is allowed to grow and prosper, because it is one of the major drivers of the economy. The tourism and hospitality sectors will be better placed to contribute to growth and employment if supported by targeted reductions in VAT, as permitted under EU rules. We call on the Chancellor to consider such timely concessions in the forthcoming Budget on 21 March.
There is little doubt that the outstanding character and assets of my constituency’s tourism offering are unsurpassed. In this month of St Patrick, I ask all hon. Members, as I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), to come and walk in the footsteps of Patrick. Contrary to the real spirit of this motion, Patrick was, and remains for us, the epitome of unity and diversity. [Interruption.] Patrick belonged to everybody. Patrick was head and shoulders above everybody else. We celebrate unity and diversity on 17 March. We celebrate the person who is the epitome of unity and diversity, and a symbol of partnership and inclusion, and we reject and resist calls for the domination of one form of nationalism over another.
I make those comments in order to highlight the fact that Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland have much to offer, but we have come from one place to another, and we must move ahead in terms of parity of esteem by respecting political traditions and respecting each other. This is not about a narrow form of nationalism; it is about a broader form of nationalism that embraces everybody on the island, both Unionist and nationalist. Only last year, I was very happy to be in Dublin to meet the Queen, and I met her on two separate occasions. [Interruption.] Despite the comments that have been made from a sedentary position by those on the DUP Bench behind me, I want, like my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle, to place that on the record. We should always be very conscious of where we come from and do everything in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland and the best interests of all the people of Ireland.
I should like to associate myself with the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) and others in the Chamber about the six soldiers who lost their lives in Afghanistan. Last year I went to Afghanistan twice, and on one of those occasions, I was in Lashkar Gah, where it seems that the six soldiers lost their lives. One could not fail to be impressed by the courage, dedication and sacrifice of our soldiers. I suspect that many, if not all, of those in this Chamber pray for our soldiers every day, as I do before I start my work.
It is with great pleasure that I support the motion. I talked to my right hon. Friend about it beforehand, and one cannot fail to get excited about it. Unlike the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), I feel that it says all the good things about Northern Ireland and epitomises all the issues. It is exciting to have a proposal that promotes the whole of Northern Ireland, brings together all elements of political opinion, and ensures that we have something that we can all support. That is surely why people will, I hope, be flocking to our shores very shortly.
I am unashamed to promote my beautiful constituency. Other Members say that their constituency is the best, and that may be their opinion, but that is said of my constituency by people who do not represent Strangford. When the shadow Secretary of State was in my constituency, he said, “Jim, this is the most beautiful constituency that I have ever seen.”
That puts me in second place, but first place in Northern Ireland.
Recently, my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North, my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) and I attended a Tourism Ireland event at St James’s palace. Everybody was happy to go, including the Deputy First Minister. He had no issues with the event; he was pleased to support it, as were other Members. I sometimes wonder why people make some of the points that are made when progress is going forward steadily, as it should be. My right hon. Friend and I were privileged to have our photograph taken with Christine Bleakley—I happen to be her MP. It was a smashing occasion. Barry McGuigan and Paddy Kielty were there, and there was a smashing end to the evening with Van Morrison. All the good things about both Northern Ireland and southern Ireland were made clear by Tourism Ireland.
This is an exciting time for us all. It is time to put Northern Ireland on the tourism map as the home of a rich cultural history, mingled with modern facilities and a shopping haven. We should be secure in the knowledge that once people get a taste of Ulster—in every sense of the word—and our unique hospitality and warmth, they will always come back for more. The “Lonely Planet” tour guide states that Northern Ireland is
“abuzz with life: the cities are pulsating, the economy is thriving and the people, the lifeblood that courses through the country, are in good spirits”.
That is how it is in Northern Ireland. I am sure that when the Minister replies, he will agree. Another part of the guide says that Belfast is one of the top 10 cities on the rise. Plenty of people are playing us up, encouraging us and telling the truth about Northern Ireland.
We now have the impetus of a new dawn, with little threat of violence and few fears over safety. In fact, Northern Ireland is now one of the safest places in the United Kingdom. That is how much progress we have made—that is the progress that the party that I am privileged to represent and the other parties in Northern Ireland have worked to achieve. There is a shared future for us all and we accept that idea. Some people may not be able to accept that, but we do and we are moving forward. This opportunity has to be exploited.
Our beautiful, natural and historic landscape, coupled with the vivacity that is integral to everything that originates in Northern Ireland, cannot help but draw people to our shores. Whether people come for rest and recuperation in our superior salons and five-star hotels; to tour the country on nature holidays; to reside in the quaint bed and breakfasts across Strangford and in many other parts of Northern Ireland; to tour in caravans, using the many caravan parks in Strangford and across Northern Ireland; or to go shopping in the city, followed by dinner and a show, Northern Ireland has it all. There must be a sincere and earnest push to show that to the rest of the world.
I could go on and on, but it seems that the only people who are fully aware of all that Ards, Strangford and Northern Ireland have to offer are those who are blessed to have been born there and those who have passed through. That is a loss to the people not only of my constituency, but of the Province. If Strangford was marketed to its full potential, people would know about its provision for nature lovers, with its cycling and walking routes aplenty and beautiful shores rife with birds and wildlife; for the weekend visitor who wants to shop and be pampered and to have a nice meal and a night out; for the caravanner who wants to take in the beauty of the countryside; and for those who want a base from which to tour Northern Ireland, but want to get away from the city. Belfast is a mere 20 minutes away and the seaside town of Bangor, with its carnival atmosphere around the pier, is only 10 minutes away.
I mentioned birds and wildlife, and shooting tourism—in the legal, correct sense—has great potential in Northern Ireland. The Minister of State is well aware of that, having shot game and pheasants at Rosemount and Greyabbey. It was the biggest shooting day there for many years, and I was told afterwards that much of it was down to his own gun and shooting prowess.
As I said, the shadow Secretary of State visited my constituency just a few weeks ago. Afterwards, he stated that he would be back. We encourage him to return, this time with his cheque book, so that he can buy for his family many of the nice things that are available. We look forward to that.
It would be remiss of me not to use this opportunity to talk about Strangford’s place in Northern Ireland. The breathtaking view from Scrabo tower in Newtownards to the moors on one side, Scotland and the sea on another and Belfast city behind cannot be surpassed and is rarely matched, as those who have been there, such as the Minister of State and the shadow Secretary of State, will acknowledge. In the town of Newtownards itself, there are superior hotels and a superior night life, a weekly market, cinemas, a great shopping centre complex and beauty salons aplenty, including an all-Ireland beauty salon finalist.
History and culture are rich around the Ards, with the well known Scrabo tower and Mount Stewart house and gardens. The area also has the only fully working fishing village in Strangford—I know that there are fishing villages in other areas, including Portavogie. Strangford has some of the best game fishing, with Strangford lough and the Irish sea. That potential is being realised, but we can do more. Tourism Ireland should push game angling.
In Portaferry, we have the Exploris aquarium, which attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year. It is an excellent venue and has the capacity to do much more. If someone takes the ferry from Portaferry across to Strangford village, in the neighbouring constituency—it takes eight minutes, cutting off more than an hour and a half of driving—they will be taking the route that Princess Alexandra took in 2003 as part of a themed day to recognise excellence in tourism across the UK.
For the more modern culturalist, we also provide the Battletown gallery in Newtownards, which is gaining an international reputation and shows that craft, painting and other fields are progressing well. The Eden pottery in Millisle in my constituency provides the opportunity not only to purchase superior pottery but to make it, as part of a tourism experience. We should do more of that sort of thing.
We also have antiques shops, coffee and tea shops and superior places to eat. The humble Comber potato has been recognised by Europe, and in Strangford we can give people a meal that no one else can—starting with Portavogie prawns, the Comber potato, the Ards steak and Willowbrook Foods vegetables, all to tickle the palate and give people the opportunity to have food that they cannot get anywhere else in the whole UK.
If someone takes a drive down the other side of Ards, they will come across Castle Espie wildfowl and wetlands centre near Comber. My right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North and myself both spoke on behalf of Exploris and the Castle Espie wildfowl and wetlands centre in a debate in Westminster Hall, and we expounded the pluses of those venues and the excellent tourism potential of the area.
We can also mention the historic and archaeological sites. There are links to monastic life in the area, and St Patrick was there. Before anybody else says it, I point out that he is the patron saint of the whole of Northern Ireland and everyone of all persuasions. Last Friday night I attended an event in Ballynahinch at which the Minister for Social Development, Nelson McCausland, spoke. It was organised by the Orange district lodge, and it was about St Patrick and his history. It was smashing to have it. That is the St Patrick I look to, and everyone should look to.
I was careful to emphasise that Patrick is the epitome of unity and diversity. Patrick belongs to everybody on the island of Ireland. It is well known that, after landing in the River Slaney at the mouth of Strangford lough, he sailed up to Nendrum, which is in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and established a monastic settlement with his disciples. Patrick is the origin of everything and the symbol of partnership.
He certainly travelled around Northern Ireland and he tended sheep in Slemish. That was clear from the historical talk that I heard last Friday. There is 7,000 years of history in County Down. Any history buff could not help but be enthralled by the preservation of days gone by in relation to St Patrick that is so evident in the area that I, my hon. Friend and other hon. Members represent.
The film industry in Northern Ireland is moving forward by leaps and bounds. More companies than ever are coming to Northern Ireland to take advantage of the opportunities for the film industry. Northern Ireland is quickly becoming a centre for the film industry in the UK and Europe.
We are looking forward to the celebrations of signing the Ulster covenant 100 years ago. Every council in Northern Ireland is arranging a special event to commemorate signing the covenant, which was the first step on the road to the creation of Northern Ireland. There are not many people in Northern Ireland who do not have a relative who signed the covenant—indeed, one of my constituents, an elderly lady called Mrs Simpson, whom I had helped with a few constituency issues, came in one day and said, “Jim, there’s my grandfather’s covenant.” It had pride of place, but she said, “You take that, because I know that you will appreciate it.” That now has pride of place in my home.
The Somme centre is on the edge of my constituency, which borders North Down. It preserves the memory and recalls the efforts of the Ulster Division in the first world war. It is an excellent venue that now attracts more people than ever. We have a wealth of history and a wealth of attractions. Clearly, tourism must be the way to take that forward. Celebrations this year will attract many visitors on 28 September. I hope that the re-enactments that are planned will draw those who have come to the UK for the Olympics.
Our little country with the big heart has a definite place in the 2012 Olympics and I want to ensure that we step up to the mark and claim our rightful place as an integral part of the UK, and a jewel in the crown of great British attractions. I believe that we can and must do that. We have world-class athletes who are already drawing attention to Northern Ireland in Olympic circles. It is no secret—other hon. Members have mentioned it—that we excel in boxing and shooting in Northern Ireland. That does not mean that we are violent people. It just means that we are good at certain sports, and those happen to be two of them. We bring medals home from Commonwealth games and Olympic games. Two members of the Comber rifle club in my constituency have consistently won gold and silver medals at the Olympic games and the Commonwealth games. We have an opportunity this time to hold some of the training camps for those who are going to the Olympics in the Province. No. 1 world golfer Rory McIlroy is proud to wave his Ulster flag at his victories, and that has already created great media attention. We also have great facilities to offer people who travel to the UK.
The first main event on our calendar this year is the Queen’s jubilee. It is set to become some event, with the councils in my area preparing themselves for a record number of street parties and events as we celebrate 60 years of our sovereign’s reign over us. It is good to have SDLP Members making a contribution to the debate; it is a pity that they could not do so when we discussed the humble address, as they were standing guard outside the door.
Our Queen has provided stability and continuity through changing Governments, changing ideals and a changing world. She has selflessly given of herself, with a diligence that is difficult to match, and she has maintained a quiet dignity through the journey of life in the public eye. She has given 60 years of dedicated service to our nation and is the epitome of a great lady—she exemplifies the best of British: kind, industrious, wise and respectful. Other members of the royal family are taking that tradition over. We notice from the news today that Prince Harry has become the fastest man in the world. According to the news, it is official that Usain Bolt was in second place in that sprint.
People will fly their flags with pride while bonding as communities to celebrate the reign of our Queen. That will happen in many places across the Province. If the high level of interest in and excitement at Prince William and Kate’s wedding last year are anything to go by—I am talking about the whole community across the whole of Northern Ireland—no one will want to miss the Queen’s jubilee.
Northern Ireland is moving forward in a way that no one could have foreseen 10 years ago. Even I could not have foreseen the progress that we have made, but I and the Democratic Unionist party are pleased with that progress. We are moving forward in leaps and bounds to deliver something for everyone, including the young boys and girls who have yet to grow up and get jobs.
It is time for us to take our place on the world tourism stage and to allow others to see, enjoy and be involved in everything that we have to offer—great lodgings, fantastic scenery, wonderful shopping, world-class golf and, indeed, world-class golfers, salons, and most importantly, that unique Northern Ireland hospitality that beckons people in and makes them feel part of the family. A holiday in Northern Ireland will refresh and renew. This year, it will give people a rich insight into our vast culture and heritage, of which we are so proud. One visit, and their opinion will be set for ever. Northern Ireland is the place to come this year and every year.
May I first apologise for not being present for most of the debate? Unfortunately, I had a meeting to discuss the devolution of corporation tax to Northern Ireland, which is a very important issue.
I gather that the debate has been fairly lively. The only two speeches I heard were from the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I did not know we had to parade the benefits of our constituencies in the debate. The shadow Secretary of State said that Strangford is the most beautiful constituency he has been to, but he said that before he had even been to my constituency, adding that he wanted to visit.
I think I can trump everything my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford said about his constituency. He has the Scrabo tower, which was built a mere 150 years ago; I have Carrickfergus castle, the oldest Norman fort, I believe, in the whole United Kingdom. He talks about St Patrick wandering around his constituency; King Billy landed in mine. He talks about the Ards shopping centre; I have a cathedral of consumerism at the Abbey centre. For goodness sake! For his mere Comber spud, I can offer Glenarm salmon, which is famous the world over. I could go on, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I know you want me to move on.
The debate is important, but I was a bit saddened by what I heard from the hon. Member for South Down. I like her, but her speech was not worthy of her. This debate was not meant to be about boasting about the Unionist tradition in Northern Ireland; it was about promoting Northern Ireland, whose people have different backgrounds, national aspirations, outlooks and huge historical differences. Nevertheless, I believe that 2012 offers an opportunity to all people in Northern Ireland to gain from the economic benefits that will arise from the unique events and anniversaries this year. Those events and anniversaries will also help us to understand some of our own traditions, background and history.
I was saddened, therefore, by the contribution from the hon. Member for South Down because this should have been a positive debate, and I hope that it will be seen as such. We are proud to live in Northern Ireland and proud that it has come through the dark days that have probably dominated most of our lives—certainly most of our political lives—and is moving on. The motion states that we are moving forward not because of what Unionists alone have done but because of what we have all done and the compromises we have all had to make. I believe that those decisions will ensure that the next 30 years are not blighted like the past 30 years. I was a bit saddened, then, by her negative approach.
The hon. Gentleman said that he had not heard the whole debate. On the positive changes made, the motion and 2012, does he acknowledge the particularly strong and positive role being played by Tourism Ireland—a body whose creation his party persistently opposed for many years and whose budget it tried to have aborted? Will he accept that he got that wrong and was negative, but that now it is doing good things?
I would prefer to consider what all of us now have to do to promote Northern Ireland not only next year but in all the years ahead. And one area we have to offer and which has been identified as a growth industry is the tourism industry: it is labour intensive; we have a good natural resource that we can exploit to the benefit of tourism; and there is huge interest in past events in Northern Ireland. So we have the industry, the history and the architectural heritage, and we should exploit that.
All of it, yes. That includes the features in the hon. Lady’s constituency that people visit and into which money has been poured to develop some of that tourism infrastructure, and the celebrations of St Patrick and that whole tradition—some claim St Patrick for the Roman Catholic community, some claim it for the Protestant community. It really does not matter! If St Patrick is a marketable commodity, let us make him a marketable commodity and benefit from it. [Interruption.] Yes, and a neutral flag as well.
It is disappointing that this is seen as divisive rather than unifying. There are huge opportunities for us in the celebration of the Titanic, of the Ulster covenant and of Her Majesty’s 60th anniversary. We have not been selective about these events. They are outside our control. This year is the 100th anniversary of some of these events, and we cannot dictate which ones we include and which we do not. They just happen to be there. We need to ensure, however, that we get the maximum benefit from them and that they are used in a way that is not divisive but unifying so that the whole community can benefit from the economic opportunity.
The motion recognises, at the very end, that we want to see Northern Ireland moving forward, and moving forward together. We recognise the progress made and we do not see these events as exclusive. They are to be enjoyed by people in Northern Ireland. Most importantly, we want them enjoyed by people outside Northern Ireland. I will not go through, as I am sure other hon. Members have, all the benefits of my own constituency, although I mentioned some of them in the introduction.
I very much welcome the tone and content of my hon. Friend’s remarks about the nature of the events that we are highlighting. However, while we are on the subject of events happening in his constituency—I think he referred to the “cathedral of consumerism”—I should just make it clear that the Abbey centre is actually in Belfast North.
It is near the border, and I could not think of a cathedral in my constituency. Just as my right hon. Friend—the Member for Belfast North—purloined part of my constituency at the last review by the Boundary Commission, I have taken in some of the shopping in his. Indeed, those facilities are used mostly by people from East Antrim anyway, and would probably not be able to survive were they unable to go and shop there, so I suppose we share it to that extent—I knew it was probably a mistake to let him intervene.
I know that others want to speak, so let me say in conclusion that I hope that 2012 will be a year in which we see a further turning of the corner in Northern Ireland. Those of us who live in Northern Ireland know that there have been changes; after 2012, because of the international interest, people further afield will know that there have been changes in that part of the United Kingdom too.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), I have not been here for all the debate, because of my attendance at a Select Committee sitting. However, I welcome the opportunity today to celebrate and debate some of the wonderful things that are happening in our country and across our kingdom this year.
I notice that my colleagues have been boasting about their constituencies. How dare they, when they know that North Antrim exists! Someone once said that in North Antrim we have the manufacture of tobacco at one end, the manufacture of Bushmills whiskey at the other, and all the vices in between. I want to make it absolutely clear for the record that I represent everyone in North Antrim, and I am delighted to do so, including all those factories.
When people travel to the Olympics and celebrate the games this year, they will be travelling on a wonderful new bus. It has been dubbed the “Boris bus”, but it is actually the Ballymena bus, because it is made in my constituency. Indeed, this wonderful, iconic piece of engineering should be celebrated—indeed, I hope it will be—as people enjoy what is an environmentally friendly bus, a little bit of Ballymena travelling through London every day. That gives me a huge amount of pride about what we can achieve in our constituencies and what we deliver to the kingdom. We also have some wonderful areas for tourism, which I hope people will come and enjoy as well, not least the majestic Giant’s Causeway. Indeed, we look forward to seeing a new visitors’ centre opening there and to more tourists coming to see the constituency.
However, I want to focus my brief comments this afternoon on the latter part of the motion before the House, which draws attention to the centenary of the signing of the Ulster covenant and declaration—or, the Ulster solemn league and covenant. It was a seminal moment, not only in the history of Ulster and the history of Ireland, but in the history of these islands. It is an inspirational moment, and it should continue to inspire the people of these islands today. We should acknowledge the significant role that the signing of the league and covenant played, not only for the kingdom, but in helping during the great war in 1914. To put it into historical context, in 1916, seven men signed the proclamation for the republic in Dublin. In 1776, the American declaration of independence had 56 signatories. The Ulster covenant of 1912 had 218,216 men signing it in one day, with 228,991 women signing a parallel, uncompromising declaration of association with the Ulster solemn league and covenant. A further 19,162 men and 5,055 women of Ulster birth signed in Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow, York, Liverpool, London, Manchester and Bristol.
The Ulster covenant was truly an impressive demonstration of the resolve of early 20th century Ulstermen and women to remain citizens of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, as it was then. It also demonstrated a spontaneous solidarity in defence of the Union. Furthermore, it showed that Unionism was a popular, broadly based, democratic movement. Today, that resonates with me, as an Ulsterman and a Unionist and as one who is passionate about recognising that the Union is richly made up of all its component parts. The Union is only as strong as each and every one of those component parts. It is strong because of its association with Ulster, with Scotland, with Wales and, of course, with England.
Does my hon. Friend acknowledge the findings of the highly respected Queen’s university survey of public opinion that has just been published, which shows overwhelming support for the Union? It found that 82.6% of people in Northern Ireland want to live in the United Kingdom and are proud to be British.
My hon. Friend makes that point well. What a year for that survey to come out!
The word “covenant” has important meanings. In modern parlance, it refers to a barter or bargain, but it also has the Hebrew meaning of a divine promise linked with a human obligation. Its literal meaning is a bond or fettering—something that should not be broken. So convinced were people of the need for the Ulster covenant that some of them even signed it in their own blood, to demonstrate that their passion for the Union was not something that could easily be torn up, and that it was part and parcel of their very soul and their very being. We should take inspiration from that passion and inspiration.
I have a wonderful book written by a guy called Colonel Crawford, which has a foreword written by Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Wilfrid Spender that outlines the importance of the covenant in the history of the Union and of the first world war. He wrote:
“Looking back, the British have reason to be grateful to the Ulster people for their stand for the Empire, and more particularly to Colonel Crawford, who brought from Germany, before the first Great War, more than sufficient arms to equip a division in Northern Ireland, and this was a large factor in releasing all six regular divisions for the Expeditionary Force. Germany lost those weapons at a vital time, and they proved invaluable in training the 36th Ulster Division, of which I was the acting general staff officer before its departure to France in 1915.”
The lieutenant-colonel goes on:
“The Ulster Division won undying fame at Thiepval in 1916, because it was largely composed of men who, like Colonel Crawford, had the true Crusading spirit. I hope that the younger generation in Ulster may be inspired by his…example”.
That was an example of boys’ own heroism, and boys’ own determination to do whatever had to be done to save something that people believed in.
I am glad that this Parliament is going to celebrate, support and endorse the covenant and the declaration. Even if a Parliament were to try to turn the will of a people on its head, the people would ultimately be right, and their determination should be recognised at all times. I want to put on record the words of Ulster’s solemn league and covenant. It states:
“Being convinced in our consciences that Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as the rest of Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship and perilous to the unity of the Empire, we whose names are underwritten, men of Ulster, loyal subjects of His Gracious Majesty King George V, humbly relying on the God whom our fathers in days of stress and trial confidently trusted, do hereby pledge ourselves in solemn Covenant throughout this time of threatened calamity to stand by one another in defending for ourselves and our children our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland. And in the event of such a Parliament being forced upon us we further solemnly and mutually pledge ourselves to refuse to recognise its authority. In sure confidence that God will defend the right we hereto subscribe our names. And further, we individually declare that we have not already signed this Covenant.”
This was a seminal moment in British history that was determined not by the will of a Parliament or by the outcome of an election, but by the will and the mass movement of people power in that part of Ireland—in Ulster, the part that we cherish most—that said, once and for all, that it is the people that really matter. I hope that when we celebrate these wonderful events this year, we will recognise that these events are wonderful because of one thing—the unique peoples that make up these countries in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. We should recognise that we are a unique and wonderful people with unique and wonderful ideas, and that we have a right as a people to come together and to celebrate our diversity, to celebrate who and what we are, to celebrate the differences also, but to hold steadfastly to the fact that we have a proud and recognisable tradition—and that nothing should make us ashamed of it.
I am happy to conclude the debate, and I am grateful to everyone who has participated in it. As has been said, we have had a good, lively and generally good-humoured debate—with one or two exceptions. I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) and for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), my hon. Friends the Members for Upper Bann (David Simpson), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) and the hon. Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for South Down (Ms Ritchie) for their contributions, as well as to the shadow Secretary of State and the Secretary of State for theirs. I know that the Secretary of State has had to leave the Chamber to engage in an important piece of work on behalf of Northern Ireland.
References were made in the early part of the debate to the natural humour of people in Northern Ireland. Some of that might have been lost in recent exchanges in this debate, but by and large I think it is right to say that the good humour and character of people in Northern Ireland—on both sides of the community—were a factor in bringing Northern Ireland through the darkest and deepest days of challenge and trouble to where we are now.
The very fact that we are having this kind of debate on the Floor of the House—and, indeed, those we regularly see taking place in the Northern Ireland Assembly—dealing with matters to do with the economy and social affairs, and how to attract more people by celebrating the opportunities for increased tourism, stands in marked contrast, as the Secretary of State said, to the sort of debates we were having 10 years ago, when we lurched under previous dispensations of political leadership in Northern Ireland from political crisis to political crisis, when we were debating suspensions of devolution, round table talks and all the rest of it. Under the current leadership in Northern Ireland, we now see steadfast and sure progress being made in a stable political environment.
As we know, the Northern Ireland Assembly has entered its second full term of devolution. That is no mean feat, but we sometimes take it for granted. Sometimes the House needs to be reminded of just how far we have come. Things that were unthinkable even a short time ago are now accepted as commonplace. We do well now and again to take stock and pause, and to reflect on and celebrate how far we have come, not to forget the challenges and difficulties, but to say that things have improved considerably.
Many people will take credit for that. Mention has been made of the work of political leaders. I join the tributes to them, but the true tribute, of course, goes to the people of Northern Ireland—the ordinary, decent people of Northern Ireland on all sides, the vast majority of whom, despite the violence and pressures on them during those times of trouble, voted consistently for parties that were opposed to violence and stood against violence, saying clearly that they wanted a democratic and peaceful way forward. Some people who were engaged in violence had to realise that and reach a point at which instead of trying to tear down the state of Northern Ireland, they gave their support to the police, the rule of law and the courts. That is a measure of just how far we have come.
As we heard earlier, on Monday a report from Queen’s university, which is highly respected, showed that some 82% of people want Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom on the basis of the political agreements that have been made. That is an amazing turnaround, and contrasts with the debate that is currently taking place in Scotland.
Central to the tributes that should be paid are tributes to our security forces. We should pay tribute to members of the police, including the part-time police. The other day I took a delegation to meet the Minister of Justice. Those men and women served in the RUC part-time reserve during the darkest days of the troubles, under serious threat of death and for very little monetary reward. They contributed to the bringing about of the circumstances that we all enjoy today. We should pay tribute to members of the Army—members of the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish Regiment—and to members of the emergency services. All those people made an immense contribution, and should never be forgotten—and, of course, we should never forget the victims who live daily with the pain and suffering of all those years of violence, as do their families.
We can view 2012 as a fantastic year of opportunity and we can reflect on the progress that has been made, but it is always important to bear in mind the sacrifice that is being and has been made by so many. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim, we should be conscious that we are speaking today in the shadow of the loss of six brave servicemen in Afghanistan, and obviously our thoughts and prayers are with their families at this time.
The motion is broadly drafted: we tabled it in good faith to celebrate the events that are taking place in 2012. It refers to the diamond jubilee, on which we had a good and positive debate earlier today, when the House was virtually united. It also refers to the Olympic games, the amazing Titanic centenary, and the centenary of the Ulster covenant. All those events are mentioned in tourism literature that has been published in Northern Ireland and is widely available.
We do not seek to be divisive in any way, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim pointed out, the motion refers only to events that are happening this year. Next year, 2013, Londonderry will be the city of culture, and the world police and fire games will come to Northern Ireland. Those will of course be celebrated, and there will be other events in 2014 and 2016. No doubt the whole issue of the Somme, and events that took place in Dublin, will also be discussed and commemorated.
We should commemorate events as they happen, in a positive way. My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford and the hon. Member for Foyle referred to a tremendous event that took place not long ago in, of all places, St James’s palace—a royal palace that could be described as the heart of the British monarchy. It was an amazing situation. Ambassadors to this country are appointed to the Court of St James’s, the seat of the monarchy, but on that occasion the palace was taken over and branded with the images of Northern Ireland. The First Minister was there, as was the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness. He entered a royal palace and talked about the positive aspects of Northern Ireland. He did not make any of the points that the hon. Member for South Down has made in this debate, because he recognises that it is positive for Northern Ireland to commemorate events as they happen.
We should pay tribute to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and, indeed, Tourism Ireland for the work that they are doing. We must also acknowledge the budget that has been given for tourism in Northern Ireland. Tourism Ireland has responsibility for marketing Northern Ireland to the rest of the United Kingdom and to the wider world. The NITB has responsibility for marketing within Northern Ireland and in the Irish Republic. Some of us could certainly happily have a discussion about how best to market Northern Ireland, but that is a debate for another day. All I want to say now about the budget for tourism in general is that we need to get the biggest bang for our buck, whether through the NITB or Tourism Ireland, in promoting Northern Ireland. I am sure we all agree on that.
I have enormous respect for the hon. Member for South Down, but—in contrast to the remarks of her party colleague, the hon. Member for Foyle—her contribution was a little jarring. As she talks so much about inclusion, I hope she will use her influence and best endeavours in respect of a decision made today by Down district council, on which she and her party have enormous influence. There is consternation about the council’s decision to move away from a good and agreed model for the St Patrick’s day celebrations. Belfast and other councils have been looking to Down district as a model to follow, but that has been ended by its decision to adopt a flag for the St Patrick’s day parade that is exclusive, instead of inclusive. That has undone all the good work of the past 25 years, and I hope something will be done about it.
I grew up in a community that had similar divisions to those in Northern Ireland, although they did not result in the same regrettable outcomes. On the changing perceptions of Northern Ireland, although division once characterised the region, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the respect he has shown to the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) reflects the respect that the different communities now have for each other?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He served as a Northern Ireland Minister for several years during difficult times, and I pay tribute to him for the work he did then.
I like to think that politicians in Northern Ireland did respect each others’ positions, although that might not always have come across. Indeed, there is growing respect, even in the debates we are now having about commemorations and celebrations and the decade of centenaries. I believe that greater maturity is now being shown on all sides than was the case 10 or 20 years ago. People are now looking at issues in ways that are intended to create the maximum consensus, rather than maximum division. We will not always agree on everything. There will still be disagreements; we do not hide that fact. Members hold different views about the best long-term future for Northern Ireland and where we want it to be—we, as Unionists, firmly say we want to be within the United Kingdom, for instance. That should not stop us working together in the best interests of Northern Ireland, however, to promote the economic and social betterment of all our people.
I want to reiterate the point I made about the diamond jubilee. We have debated that, and I do not want to rehearse the sentiments that were expressed, but I ask the Minister to ensure that as much notice is given to the people of Northern Ireland of Her Majesty’s visit.
We face many challenges. The dissidents and the troubles have been mentioned. There are terrorists out there who still want to derail our process and we face grave economic challenges. I am well aware that there are still high levels of deprivation and poverty in my constituency and high levels of youth unemployment in particular. However, if all of us work together we can try to make things better. We must take advantage of the opportunities that exist in 2012 to build a fantastic future for our province. I am delighted to commend the motion to the House.
This has been a lively—at times very lively—debate, but it has been an informative one and, on the whole, a good one. The hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) was early out of the traps and talked about the perception of Northern Ireland and how there was a job to be done dismantling people’s false perceptions. That is a good description of what we are seeking to do in this watershed year. He also alluded to the sporting heroes Mary Peters, whom we all see as the lord lieutenant of Belfast—no doubt she will play her part during this diamond jubilee year—George Best, who one might argue is somewhat different to Mary Peters, and Barry McGuigan. Those are all great heroes—to say nothing of Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy. The opportunities with the Olympics have also been mentioned. I have said before in this place that I am slightly disappointed that we are not having more teams in Northern Ireland for the Olympics. We have got the Chinese gymnasts and so forth, so we have got some teams, but we want to make sure that Northern Ireland shares in the Olympics before, during and, critically, in the aftermath.
We all know of the economic challenges facing Northern Ireland—we are not inured from those—but I shall not rehearse them today. Some Members referred to the happiness league, which I might come back to. However, I must say, given the general demeanour of right hon. and hon. Members this afternoon, I think their happiness is a given fact. It is quite proper, as the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) said in his concluding remarks, to have this sort of debate on the Floor of the House. Is it not wonderful, as he said, that this debate is about the agenda we have been discussing rather than about the troubles and the whole issue of devolution and suspension that so bedevilled discussions in this place for too long? Perhaps one day all democratically elected Members of Parliament will take their rightful place here and speak up for their constituents and their part of the world, as hon. Members have done so well this afternoon.
Inevitably, we have heard much discussion about the signing of the covenant. We should remember that that came after the third Home Rule Bill, in reaction to it, and I am pleased to say that we are in co-operation and co-ordination with Dublin. I pay tribute to the Minister Jimmy Deenihan with whom I have been working on creating the architecture within which we can set this decade of commemorations. That starts next week in Westminster Hall with an exhibition on the third Home Rule Bill. We hope it will then travel on to Dublin and to Northern Ireland.
We have rightly heard a lot about Her Majesty the Queen all afternoon and we want to play our part in Northern Ireland in the diamond jubilee. I shall come back to her visit in a minute. On a lighter note, we heard the amazing revelation—if I had not been here to hear it, I might not have believed it if I had read it in Hansard—about the hon. Member for South Antrim being dressed in his little sailor suit. There is now a £100 bounty for photographic evidence of that. I have to confess that there is—not in circulation I am pleased to say, but in existence—a photograph of me in a sailor suit, but hon. Members would probably expect that.
The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), who is not in his place—I know that various people have had to go to different Committees—talked about the Irish Open and how he wants to open things up, as do we, and about the decade of commemorations. He talked about Londonderry—about Derry being the first UK city of culture—and he knows, as does the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), that I have been working quietly behind the scenes and with them to see if I can add any value to the city of culture efforts because we want to make that a huge success not only for the city but for the surrounding area.
Hon. Members also dwelled on a little bit of political history and the alliance between my party and the Ulster Unionist party before the election. I do not read blogs or tweets but I am aware of noises on the street and believe that even the Democratic Unionist party has been in discussions of one sort or another—deniable or otherwise—with the Ulster Unionist party. All I can do is refer to that old British Telecom campaign, “It’s good to talk.”
There was some discussion of rebalancing the economy, growing exports and inward investment, all of which we want to do.
My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) is the only member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee who was able to attend this debate. That is in no way to impugn the keenness of others to be here, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He talked about the security situation, which has not been much mentioned this afternoon. Of course, we need to be ever vigilant, particularly in a Chamber that displays the shields of Airey Neave, Ian Gow and Sir Anthony Berry, all of whom gave their lives to Northern Ireland. We will never forget the role played by parliamentarians of all persuasions in Northern Ireland’s troubled past.
We bitterly condemn, as a united House, all the attacks, not least in Derry-Londonderry, made by those who are trying to upset the city of culture, NI 2012 and the real progress that we have made. I give them a message from the House, loud and clear: they will not be successful.
My hon. Friend said that 2012 is a catalyst to realise the aspirations of many people. We can all concur.
The hon. Member for Foyle talked about a purposeful inquiry. There have been some good comments this afternoon about how we should address the decade of commemorations, and I rather like “purposeful inquiry.” Next week, I hope we can set the tone with the third Home Rule Bill exhibition. We heard about the launch of NI 2012 at St James’s palace, which I was able to attend. That, too, set the tone. Talking of tone, no one struck a better one than Van the Man—Van Morrison, who does not necessarily convey the Ulster sense of happiness and well-being that we now all recognise as the defining characteristic of Ulster men and women. None the less, he is one of my great heroes.
We heard a request for the targeted reduction, or even the abolition—temporary or otherwise—of VAT on tourism. I have looked into the subject, not least because my constituency is East Devon and tourism is extremely important in the south-west, and I have had a discussion with the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose). However, at the moment we need more revenue, to fill the black hole unfortunately left to us by Labour. I do not think the Chancellor is short of ideas for cuts—from fuel duty to income and corporation taxes—but I fear we shall have to wait until we have managed to restore some sanity to the UK economy.
We heard about the Commonwealth medal for shooting, and about Northern Ireland’s boxing prowess, both of which we celebrate, but we want to diversify slightly into other sports better to reflect Northern Ireland in the 21st century.
The Secretary of State had to absent himself to attend the joint ministerial working group on rebalancing the economy. I imagine that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister were there, as was Northern Ireland’s Finance Minister, the Member for North Antrim, who is now in the Chamber—[Hon. Members: “East Antrim.”] There has been so much gerrymandering this afternoon that every Northern Ireland Member has laid claim to part of another Member’s constituency, so I hope the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) will forgive me for that slip.
To make a serious point, the fact that people have come and gone during the debate does not show lack of interest. It shows that occasionally we are conflicted, particularly Ministers, which is why the Secretary of State and I were not at the Treasury debate held in Westminster Hall last week, a point that I hope is not lost on those who sought to suggest otherwise.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) gave us a rich diet of tea, buns and meat; he is no longer in the Chamber—he has probably gone to lie down. I can testify to Ulster’s legendary hospitality; the Ulster fry is the antithesis to the Jane Fonda workout. The hon. Gentleman was a veritable Wikipedia on Northern Ireland, listing many things that we never knew, but we certainly know now.
The hon. Gentleman said that Northern Ireland’s place in the UK is settled, as we also heard in Northern Ireland questions this morning, so I think we can take it as a given. We no longer hear so much from the First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, about his arc of prosperity reaching from Iceland to the Republic of Ireland. Perhaps our sisters and brothers in Scotland would do well to look at Northern Ireland’s settled place in the Union and how it prospers as an equal, contributing and vital part of our great United Kingdom.
There were some questions about the visit of Her Majesty to Northern Ireland in her diamond jubilee year. Of course the Queen’s subjects wish to see her, but that must be balanced against other considerations. We hear what has been said and the Palace is aware that her subjects in Northern Ireland wish to express their loyalty.
The hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), the shadow Secretary of State, referred quite properly to the six soldiers killed in Afghanistan, as did other speakers this afternoon. It is horrific. For those of us who are from a military background, as I am, and those of us who have been to Afghanistan, as have so many of us in the Chamber, every time we hear of losses our heart goes out to the families, but six in one go is something that we have not got used to. Our hearts and our thoughts are with the families this afternoon.
The hon. Gentleman repeated the call for a targeted cut to VAT. I point out—it may be an issue to which the Opposition Front-Bench team wish to return in the Budget—that such a cut is costed at £8 billion UK-wide, so if he is genuinely calling for that, it will have to be factored into any assessment that we make of Labour’s plans for the economy.
The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) spoke about sporting prowess, including the Gaelic Athletic Association. I am very pleased, as are we all, that the GAA says it will play a role in all the commemorations over the next decade, as it should. The hon. Lady also spoke about film in Northern Ireland, to which the Secretary of State referred earlier. I am disappointed that the new “Titanic” series was not filmed in Northern Ireland. I raised the matter with various people, but the series was made in Hungary. That is a cause for sadness and I hope we can avoid such a mistake in future, but endless good productions are being made in Northern Ireland as we speak.
Then things all started to go so horribly wrong, when the issue of who owns St Patrick came to the fore once more. It was amazing. Just as the hon. Lady was claiming St Patrick for the mountains of Mourne and her own constituency, as if from nowhere the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) appeared, Mephistopheles-like, from some Committee to claim yet again that Slemish was St Patrick’s natural home and that he came from Wales. [Interruption.] The shadow Leader of the House—
The Deputy Leader of the House—I will make him into a shadow quite soon—is now claiming St Patrick not for Wales, but for Somerset, when my notes tell me quite clearly that St Patrick actually came from north Devon. I hope the good people of Northern Ireland and particularly their political representatives care so much about the right hon. Member for East Devon that they fight about him as much as they are fighting about St Patrick. We claim him for Devon, the Deputy Leader of the House claims him for Somerset, the Welsh no doubt claim him for Wales, but we know that he was at some stage in Northern Ireland. We will leave it to others to decide where.
I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for revealing my relationship with some of the wildfowl on the peninsula. I am most grateful to him for revealing what I do in my private time. I can tell him that when I am in Northern Ireland and armed, it is with the proper authorisation of the Chief Constable. I wish that was always the case.
I know the hon. Gentleman’s part of the world extremely well. It is a beautiful constituency. I would not make the rash statements that the shadow Secretary of State made to every Member of Parliament from Northern Ireland that theirs is the most beautiful constituency, because there are 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland, and when he gets to about 17, he will be rumbled. It is safe to say that they are all utterly beautiful. Some are more beautiful than others, but if I were he, I would not say which.
The hon. Member for East Antrim is a larger-than-life figure in politics in Northern Ireland, where he has to wrestle with economic troubles daily. He came from a meeting of the joint ministerial working group today and gave an upbeat and typically positive speech. He gave a virtual tour of his beautiful constituency, and so successful was he in doing so—I rather hoped you would stop him, Madam Deputy Speaker—that I do not think there is now any need for anyone to visit Northern Ireland; they could simply download the Sammy Wilson app and stay at home, which is not what we want at all. He also talked about Glenarm salmon, which is delicious and I can recommend to everyone.
I was particularly pleased to hear about the hon. Gentleman’s support for tourism, both Tourism Ireland and tourism as an enterprise, on which he has been working closely with the Northern Ireland Enterprise Minister, Arlene Foster, because 2012 presents us with a huge opportunity. Of course we start the decade-plus of commemorations, a time when we will look back, but it is also a time when we will look forward and present Northern Ireland as it is in the 21st century to a world that is largely ignorant of Northern Ireland. I have said it before and will say it again: if you are not in Northern Ireland in 2012, you are no one.
The hon. Member for North Antrim, who has had to leave to attend a Committee meeting—he sent me his apologies—having made his intervention about St Patrick, rightly made a public relations puff for Wrightbus, and we can see the evidence of its workmanship on our streets. Ken Livingstone probably calls it the Ballymena bus, but we will call it the Boris bus as we want to see Boris properly returned as Mayor of London. The hon. Gentleman talked about the excellent visitors’ centre at the Giant’s Causeway, which is a must on anyone’s to-do list. Of course, he did not talk about the new golf resort at Runkerry, which we all look forward to. It was 10 years in the planning, which we cannot allow to happen again, but at least it is happening. It will be another attraction that puts Northern Ireland on the map. We have had various discussions about starting soon to market the island of Ireland as the golf states, rather than the Gulf states, because we will be rich in sport, if not in oil. He also spoke passionately about the signing of the Ulster covenant, and no doubt he will play an active part in the commemorations as and when they occur.
We heard from every corner of Northern Ireland this afternoon. There have been some disagreements, but if we compare those to the kinds of disagreements there might have been in a similar debate seven, eight or 10 years ago, we can see that it is remarkable how far we have come. From my perspective, we have a lot further to go. We are going there pretty quickly, and 2012 is the year we will start.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House welcomes the NI 2012 campaign to change perceptions of Northern Ireland and to encourage many more visitors to come to Northern Ireland; notes that, despite current economic difficulties, this campaign takes place in the context of a momentous year for the UK when the nation will celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty The Queen, and will host the Olympic Games; further notes that, in Northern Ireland, 2012 is the centenary of the Titanic tragedy, an event that remains seared into the world’s consciousness and culture, and the centenary of the signing of the Ulster covenant and Declaration, often described as the foundation document of Northern Ireland; welcomes the enormous progress that has occurred in recent years in moving Northern Ireland forward; and looks forward to the programme of events and activities which will help make Northern Ireland the place to visit in 2012.