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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 17 May 2006

[Mr. Eric Martlew in the Chair]

Tourism (Northern Ireland)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

9.30 am

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I welcome the opportunity presented by this debate. It gives us the chance not only to examine the potential of Northern Ireland as a tourist destination but to ask why more has not been done to maximise opportunities for tourism. I am sure that the new Minister is quickly coming to terms with her brief, but if she is not already aware of this, she will quickly learn how much Northern Ireland has to offer, both today and thereafter.

We have the natural resources to attract people for city breaks, weekend breaks and for longer stays, and it is essential that they know what is on offer, where it is, and how to benefit from it. We have much in the way of natural resources. Northern Ireland may not be the prime target for those seeking a two-week holiday in the sun— [Laughter]—but it is undoubtedly a fantastic place for short, and even not so short stays. I do not know why my colleagues are laughing; anyone would think that it occasionally rained in Northern Ireland.

Last weekend saw one of the largest and most spectacular outdoor events anywhere in the United Kingdom—the North West 200 motorbike races. The event lasted five days, and more than 100,000 people were attracted to it. Of course, I would be promoting that event, because it takes place in my constituency, on the north coast. None the less, it was a spectacular event and millions more saw it on satellite television. That is but a small indication of what can be achieved throughout the Province.

Because of our history and geography, our culture and our sport, Northern Ireland can offer attractions that cannot be found elsewhere in the United Kingdom. With a more peaceful environment and greater access to the Province through the better transport links that we now enjoy, we should be able to attract even more visitors, not only from Great Britain but from the Irish Republic, Europe and beyond.

Tourism is one sector in which we have lagged behind the others parts of the UK and our neighbours in the Republic, but that is finally beginning to change. Belfast has begun to discover itself as a prime venue for city breaks. Indeed, in the past two weeks both Portrush and the mountains of Mourne have featured in UK-wide competitions as the most desirable places to visit. It could be said that Northern Ireland’s tourist time has arrived.

We are home to some of the most scenic areas in the UK. We have nine areas of outstanding natural beauty, and we hope that more will be added to the list. We have some of the finest fishing waters in the British
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isles, and we have the potential to develop a market catering for those interested in specific activity holidays. The development of such holidays—especially golfing or fishing—will spread the benefits of tourism beyond the cities.

I have not yet mentioned the giant’s causeway, but despite the famously reported comments of Samuel Johnson, it is worth going to see it. All those assets mean that Northern Ireland has a natural resource base upon which tourism can be promoted. Although the problems of the past 36 years have resulted in us lagging behind historically, I believe that we havethe potential to develop tourism immensely in the foreseeable future.

The job of marketing Northern Ireland falls primarily to the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. I believe that that organisation can do much more to improve the marketing of Northern Ireland, both to those who live close to the product and to those overseas. In any attempt to market a product, even one as excellent as ours, it is important to create a distinct brand identity. I believe that NITB needs to work to carve out that distinct identity—one showing that we are not just another part of the island of Ireland, to which people may take a day trip while staying in the Republic, but a destination worth coming to in its own right. That time spent will, of course, mean money spent in hotels, shops and restaurants, and ultimately the improvement of the overall economy for everyone in Northern Ireland.

Part of that distinct identity has to be rooted in the culture and traditions of the Province. It will come as no surprise to anyone that I will mention some cultural events and traditions with which I am familiar, which offer huge potential for tourism. If the Northern Ireland product is marketed solely from an “Irish” perspective, many visitors will, unsurprisingly, see the potential for exploring that Irishness from the Republic of Ireland, and will see little added value to be gained from coming to our country.

In my home city of Londonderry, the Maiden City festival is a very successful sequence of cultural events, held for a week every August to celebrate the relief of the city from the longest siege in British military history. It is a pioneering festival, which has led the way to this kind of tourism. Moreover, it has grown and developed despite a level of funding far below that granted to other events such as the West Belfast festival, although it is the type of event that is cherished and developed by tourism bodies across the globe. That example must be developed and replicated in other parts of Northern Ireland.

Throughout July and August, the Orange Institution and other groups have begun to take steps to help develop and market the commemorations and parades that they organise. They hold activities around them in order better to explain their history and significance,as well as to attract a wider audience. The July commemorations are some of the largest cultural displays seen not just in the British Isles but beyond. They are all organised and held with very little Government support or funding. Indeed, on occasion the NITB treats those events as unavoidable irritants. There is a sense that it includes such cultural events in passing, simply because they are difficult to ignore, but there is no real effort to develop the tourist trade
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surrounding them. I would like that to change, with the tourist board working in a real partnership with the organisers of those large-scale events to market them and exploit their full economic potential.

We have a rich history, which has not always been marketed to the wider international audience—and I now turn to what is known as the Ulster-Scots tradition, sometimes referred to in America as the Scots-Irish tradition. Yet when most Americans think of researching their ancestry and their roots, they more often than not look to the Republic of Ireland, and not to the region that history most definitely pinpoints as the area where they would be better off beginning their search.

I recently posed a parliamentary question asking what links there were between NITB and VisitScotland, to target potential visitors from the United States to both Scotland and Northern Ireland. I was informed that there were no such links, except for the usual meetings that would happen between officials in organisations like that. In recent years we have seen the establishment of Tourism Ireland, which has the remit of promoting the tourist potential in both countries on the island of Ireland. However, as is so often the case with such bodies, there appears to be an automatic assumption that the answer to most issues lies in Northern Ireland looking south. Yet Rabbie Burns country is as close to Larne as it is to Lanarkshire, so the NITB should look east as wellas south.

My party and I have made it clear that we have no objection whatever to north-south co-operation where it is practical and brings a benefit. There will be some issues within tourism where that will obviously be the case. However, for many other aspects, there are east-west links that equal or far outweigh any north-south promotional links. The Government must take that issue seriously and start to put together official structures that recognise those deep cultural and historical links—in this case, to develop tourism and the wider economy.

The Northern Ireland Tourist Board should develop a specific Northern Ireland brand, and there needs to be acceptance in Tourism Ireland that Northern Ireland has a clear and distinct culture. That needs to be exemplified even when it comes to a very basic matter such as the commissioning, supply and promotion of mementos and souvenirs that reflect that ethos. If people look through information on the events and activities that Tourism Ireland promotes, they will find much devoted to Irish literature and culture; it is only very recently—within the last 18 months—that Ulster-Scots music and culture has featured at all.

I have made some criticism of the NITB today, but its recent publication of the proposed cultural and heritage tourism action plan is to be welcomed as a step in the right direction. The plan at least recognises some aspects of Ulster-Scots culture and associated aspects such as the plantation. I urge the Minister and the NITB to develop that process and carry forward those ideas, which could help to turn around some of the problems that I have outlined. Those ideas could also be allied with the focus on what Northern Ireland
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has offered to countries such as the United States, where there is a rich history to be explored and explained to many Americans who are interested in their heritage. That could not only lead to the promotion of tourism links between the United States and Northern Ireland, but could aid the economy and help to build economic links between the United States and Northern Ireland.

With Tourism Ireland, however, we start from a significantly lower base. There must be a cultural change in that organisation so that it recognises the product that it is helping to sell and the uniqueness of that product. Unfortunately, on some occasions, nationalists in Northern Ireland have focused on the political gain that they perceive is made through the establishment of a body such as Tourism Ireland, rather than on the fact that it is failing the area that they should want to be served. I hope that we can all unite in wanting to see a significant improvement today and in the future.

I stress that we have a massive marketing opportunity. It presents itself now, but will not last long. Northern Ireland will be featured next year in the Smithsonian Institution’s annual folklife festival in Washington DC. That will be an opportunity for Northern Ireland to present itself on one of the biggest stages in the world. Millions of people go to that festival every July, and next July Northern Ireland will be centre stage. We have the opportunity to express to those millions of people the desire and the hope that they will come to the festival next July. I hope that the opportunity presented by the festival will be used to develop some of the themes that I have outlined, and that it will show the American public in particular what Northern Ireland has contributed to the development of their own nation, as well as building links for the future. The London Olympics in 2012 will also give Northern Ireland a tremendous opportunity to attract those who are visiting the games, as well as offering training for competitors. That applies to the United States and to other nations.

The Government, of course, cannot be held responsible for the weather—I hesitate to mention the weather again, because it seemed to cause much merriment earlier.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): We could do with a bit of it here!

Mr. Campbell: We will endeavour to see whether we can transport some of the water that we have in Northern Ireland to the south-east of England. That would be an excellent way to promote east-west relations, although it might be somewhat expensive. However, other important issues can be given priority to develop a tourism industry with a lot to offer. It can deliver much, but it needs a promotional push to takeit forward.

9.45 am

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): May I say what a pleasure it is to speak before you, Mr. Martlew? I give you my best regards for your football team’s performance in winning the championship this year.I welcome the debate—[Interruption.] It is halfwayto Belfast.

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I thank the hon. Member for East Londonderry(Mr. Campbell) for securing the debate today. I agree with a lot of what he said, particularly the fact that we cannot look at the situation in Northern Ireland as just an add-on to what is happening in the Irish tourist industry. It is different in many ways, and we should recognise, appreciate, respect and promote that difference.

I bring apologies from the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), Chair of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. The Committee has agreed to look next at what is happening in the tourist industry.

I shall speak about my experiences, which go back almost 20 years. Despite having a grandmother born in County Cork, I never managed to get to Ireland until the summer of 1989. I had just been made redundant from the coal mines, and my 68-year-old father and I decided that it would be good fun to go camping. We camped in south-west Scotland, and while we were there we saw an advert for a day trip to the Bushmills distillery, which is quite a long way from Kirkcudbright. It meant waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning, getting to Stranraer for 6 o’clock, taking a three-hour ferry trip and then hitting the road, going around the coast to Ballycastle.

Ballycastle was the first place in Northern Ireland where I spent any time, and if I do one thing before I die, it will be to go back there and take the boat to Rathlin island, which I understand is a very impressive place. Perhaps we could build that into the Northern Ireland Committee’s itinerary.

We went to the Bushmills distillery, my father being something of an expert on whiskey. He was certainly an expert in how much he could drink. I do not know about quality, but he certainly understood quantity. That made the bus drive back to Belfast very interesting.

That was the start of a lot of happy trips to Northern Ireland. My old man and I used to go together and just bum around. We would take the car with no idea where we were going, stopping by the roadside, in hostels and in bed and breakfasts—whatever suited.

There was one occasion when I was more worried than on any other. My dad was what I would call a quiet-man republican. He believed in the cause, he sang the songs and he had the craic, but he did not have very good political antennae. One night, we were welcomed into a British Legion—I cannot remember whether it was in Portrush or Portstewart—by an old man wearing a white tuxedo with the biggest bow tie I had ever seen in my life. I said to my dad, “If you start singing republican songs in here, you’re dead.” Thankfully, he concentrated more on playing dominoes than on singing that night.

Mr. Campbell: Wiser counsel prevailed.

Mr. Anderson: Absolutely.

Despite the fun that we had, it was a worrying time. Daft things happened. My car had a Great Britain registration; were we in danger? We were stopped at checkpoints and when crossing the border. The sight of watchtowers and of helicopters in the air was not
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something that we were used to, although over the years I have come to know that my Northern Ireland colleagues had to live with it day in and day out for far too long.

In 1993, I became a member of the national executive committee of the trade union Unison. During my time there, I worked with people in Northern Ireland and had many happy times trying to find a way forward in the peace process for working people over there. One of my happiest memories is of 1996, when we had a conference in Newcastle, County Down at the Slieve Donard hotel. I recommend it to everyone. They should go there, too, before they die.

We also stayed in Kilkeel. We decided to make a holiday of it—we had gone across there and the union had paid, so we thought we might as well stay. We visited a place called the silent valley. If there is a more appropriately named place on this earth, I do not know what it is. It is for those who want real solitude. We could see the town below us, but we could not hear a thing. I would recommend it to anyone. It is an absolutely fantastic place.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the lakes in Ireland and the giant’s causeway. That is one of Ireland’s most visited places. So it should be, and so should other places like it—but the greatest reason to go to Northern Ireland is the people. They are genuine people, hospitable and warm. It does not matter what part of the country they come from; all of them make people feel welcome. Like me, and like some other people in the House, they come from a tradition of hard times and hard work. They have the attitude, “We don’t have very much, but we’ll share it with you.” That is one of the greatest reasons to go there.

The place is now completely different from how it was 20 years ago—thanks in no small part to the people sitting in this room. Northern Ireland is vibrant, buzzing and alive. It has a positive future and our Government will play a major role in that future. There are new opportunities. There is now what I would call the “terrorist trail” in Northern Ireland—going round and viewing the murals. For people who have never been, that is probably one of the things that they most want to see, but there is so much more than that, and I hope that people will tap into it.

Last week that well-known entrepreneur, my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn), organised a tour of the historic pubs of Belfast for us the night before the sitting of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. The event was purely investigatory—nothing else—but it was really interesting. That sort of trip has become an opportunity for people working in the tourist industry in Belfast, and shows visitors a whole new side of the place. The other good thing is that, as we were waiting for the plane at Newcastle airport at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, we noticed that the traffic was two-way. Geordies were going to Belfast and Belfast people were coming across to Newcastle. That is good for ourcountry and for working together, and there is now a lot of hope.

The Committee is conducting an investigation into organised crime, and last week we split into two groups. Some of us flew to Crossmaglen, which is the only way for security staff to get in there. It was worrying to arrive by helicopter, walk out of the front door of the police station, look down the street at a beautiful village
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square and know that the people in the station would almost certainly not dare to go out there unattended. The good news, however, is that watchtowers are coming down and last year, for the first time in 26 years, the police started patrols, albeit in armoured vehicles, from the road to Newtownhamilton, so in a sense things are improving.

After the Committee produces its current report we will begin an investigation into tourism. We hope that what we come out with will promote the good news and build on the advice, information and evidence that we have seen. We want to do justice to the situation, and as part of that, we are going to Northern Ireland on 12 July to look at cultural activities that many of us have never been involved in before.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Hear, hear.

Mr. Anderson: I am looking forward to that—and I hope that I can get a hat big enough to wear.

To a certain extent, I have been involved in Irish politics for a long time, and I am not naive enough to believe that what has happened this week is anything more than a tentative start. Colleagues, both those in this Chamber and others in Northern Ireland, have got together to move forward, I hope, but we cannot move forward on terrorism, the peace process or anything else unless we are clear about three things. In our democratic society, there is no room for terrorists, criminals or wreckers. We do not want any of those people. We want to work together and, by using the tourism angle, we have a chance to build a new future not only for the people of Northern Ireland but for the people of the whole United Kingdom. I hope that the Government play their part in a big way, and that we will be led in this work by the people of Northern Ireland.

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