HC Deb 14 February 1991 vol 185 cc990-1
8. Mr. Moss

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland how many district councils have agreed to use Government funds to appoint community relations officers; and if he will make a statement.

Dr. Mawhinney

All 26 district councils have been invited to submit proposals to improve community relations in their areas. The proposals should include the appointment of a community relations officer and programmes to develop cross-community contact and increase mutual understanding and appreciation of cultural diversity.

To date, 10 district councils have appointed community relations officers and eight others are expected to appoint officers in the near future. Discussions about policy and programmes are continuing with a further five councils.

Mr. Moss

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that the development of community relations is a major help in defeating terrorism through the promotion of better understanding between communities? How does his Department propose to help in the funding of district council community relations officers?

Dr. Mawhinney

I agree with my hon. Friend and thank him for his comments. To the extent that people understand each other better and misunderstanding and mythology are removed, so communities have greater cohesion and greater common ground. On funding, the budget for the programme for next year is about £1 million and the Government will pay 75 per cent. of agreed costs.

Mr. A. Cecil Walker

In congratulating Belfast city council on maintaining its proposed rates in line with inflation, does the Minister agree that it would be better to employ community relations officers directly and second them to the city council and to the district councils? Would not that be a better solution to rate increases?

Dr. Mawhinney

I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that 10 councils have already accepted funding on the basis that I outlined and eight others are about to do so. I can see no reason why Belfast should be treated differently. Given the behaviour and some of the debates that have taken place in Belfast recently, community relations still have some way to go within the council chamber, never mind outside it.

Rev. William McCrea

Does the Minister find it strange that his proposal for the appointment of community relations officers has found great acceptance among Provisional Sinn Fein in local government? Does he also find it strange that in Magherafelt district council recently, Provisional Sinn Fein voted for the appointment of community relations officers under the Minister's scheme, yet at the next meeting, after a bomb which was designed to destroy and mutilate the residents of Magherafelt, Provisional Sinn Fein would not condemn the IRA for its action? Is that the sort of community relations office that we shall have in the future?

Dr. Mawhinney

I repeat what I said when I paid a visit to see that bomb damage in Magherafelt—that I was pleased that Magherafelt council had unanimously voted to accept the proposal. That is the best of all cross-community support. I think that there is some merit in the hon. Gentleman's comments about Sinn Fein.