Gerry Kelly talks to Owen McQuade about his role as junior Minister and about his journey from republican prisoner to serving in the devolved administration.
We start with a run through his ministerial portfolio. The junior Minister says that the best way to describe his role is supporting the First and deputy First Ministers: “We shadow, cover, help. We have fairly specific jobs in terms of children and young people and elderly people.”
The two junior Ministers also co-ordinate the Executive meeting which is scheduled to take place every two weeks. They also give a report to the Executive on the issues within their portfolio. The Ministers also have an important role in attending the Business Committee for the Executive and co-ordinating any business between the Assembly and Executive. Kelly sums this up as dealing with “anything which is basically crosscutting”. He also stresses the importance of the ministerial sub-committee on children which both junior Ministers chair.
Going through the functions within his portfolio we start with equality. I ask him how his department ensures true equality, and avoids just ‘ticking the boxes’? He responds: “Well I think the first thing to be said is that Section 75 is a very strong piece of legislation – possibly the envy of other legislative bodies. We’re a designated public body, but in answer to your question you don’t need just a duty, you have to have the will to do it.” He points out that within the Programme for Government (PfG) equality was “mainstreamed”. Kelly continues: “In the PfG we have fairness and inclusion as a mainstay of it and in terms of the public service agreements, likewise. These cover, in some specific terms, gender, equality, poverty, equality, people with disabilities. There is an equality directorate within our unit. It is investing something in the region of £150 million – to do with ethnic minorities and victims and also community relations. So it deals with things as wide as regeneration of areas of multiple deprivation and disadvantage.”
We move on to how the Executive is tackling social disadvantage. The Programme for Government aims to eliminate child poverty by 2020, and to achieve 50 per cent of that by 2010. There has been some criticism whether this is a realistic target and he responds to this by saying: “We accept that they are very challenging. We took a position in putting together the PfG that we would not aim low. If you aim low you can make the headlines saying we’ve achieved what we set out to at the start of the year. But what you need to do is aim high, even if you take criticism at the end of that. While it’s challenging I think we have to try and achieve it. That’s what our aim is.”
Another important facet of tackling social disadvantage is the uptake of benefits. Kelly highlights a rolling programme of making sure that people who need benefits know what is available to them: “We go out and encourage that; you need to take a pro-active part in it. We attempt to support parents especially what might be called ‘transition periods’ in children’s lives, to give specific support for that.”
On tackling sectarianism, Kelly says: “The Executive has committed itself publicly to a shared and better future. We are finalising a programme for cohesion, sharing and integration, known as CSI, and that will go out to consultation this autumn.” OFMDFM has funded community relation officers in all of the 26 local council areas. Kelly highlights the work that has been done in his own constituency of North Belfast, where over last summer a number of schemes to prevent conflict were funded by OFMDFM. He goes through in detail the specific actions taken on the ground: “We have the North Belfast Community Action Unit which works with OFMDFM. We have the launch of ‘Say No to Interfaces’, a project dealing with peer pressure in young people and developing leadership which takes workers on interfaces and gives them the skills and capacity building which we hope will go beyond the interfaces into other projects. We had actually set this up before the summer and had a series of meetings with the departments and the PSNI.”
Moving on to more mundane issues, I ask the junior Minister about Europe and how does he think the local administration can engage better with the European institutions? He replies: “I think we got a good kick start just before the institutions went up last May. President Barroso came over and set up the task force and is the only [one] of its kind. What that was about was not so much to throw more money but to give the departments the ability to know where to go, what lines to take and where to look for that type of partnership.”
The two junior Ministers have had a series of meetings with Commissioner Hübner, and are co-ordinating with the task force via the OFMDFM office in Brussels.
We turn to the Investment Strategy and I ask him if he is satisfied with the level of investment delivered to date? He points out that Jeffrey Donaldson and he had attended the Construction Industry Excellence awards the previous day and highlights the Executive’s commitment to investing in infrastructure: “Our commitment as government has been to increase [investment]. There has been decades of underinvestment because we were only a small section of what direct rule Ministers were doing. We’re putting in £20 billion over the next 10 years, £6 billion over the next three years. We were just discussing with the construction industry yesterday because they were talking about liquidity in the market and we were saying we have increased our investment in infrastructure. It’s now up to £1.8 billion, and £2 billion the next year.”
The junior Minister points out that much has been learned in terms of infrastructure procurement: “We have the Strategic Investment Board which is working with departments. We have an investment level twice what it was a few years ago and we have given a commitment that that will increase. All the departments have an investment delivery plan and of course the Central Assets Realisation Team (CART), which is working with the public sector in terms of trying to use assets to the best of our ability.”
I ask if he had to choose one achievement in his term of office, what would it be? He replies: “I suppose the essence of this job, when I think about it, is it is not so individual. Obviously it is a joint office; there are four ministers in it. I think if we – and this is a new and unique government, not just in the history of Ireland but elsewhere – at the end of it to many people’s surprise can say ‘it worked’, that people with very diverse views were able to make a difference, to people in North Belfast or wherever you want to go into, but most importantly to the disadvantaged.
“Then you may not be able to stand up and say ‘my biggest achievement was to climb Everest’, but you might be able to say people in the street believe that we have improved their lives. It might be a quiet achievement but it would be an achievement that I would be satisfied with.”
Although we have focused on his department’s responsibilities, I ask him how has he found the journey to being a Minister? He replies: “The standard answer I have been giving is that it’s an entirely different discipline. It has been a considerable and, at times, a very interesting journey. I like to think that whatever I do, I put a big amount of time into, I certainly hope that time is used properly. It has been an interesting journey. I am privileged to have been chosen to do this job and as long as I am in it I’ll do the best I can.”
We then get into a discussion on his experience as a prisoner in the Maze/Long Kesh (This interview was conducted before the recent BBC documentary). In explaining his journey from prisoner to Minister, he says: “In one of the ironic twists of history I am working in the department which owns both the Crumlin Road jail and the Kesh. So I’ve gone from tenant to landlord.”
We finish on the topical subject of the devolution of policing and justice. Kelly repeats his party’s stance that this should be devolved sooner than later: “It’s crucial. I was Policing and Justice Spokesperson for a very long time. It is crucial to negotiations. Always highly contentious. I think it’s a significant move for SF and DUP to be saying in the initial stages there will be one Minister, one department but in the initial stages we will not ‘compete’.”
He sees appointment of a local Minister for policing and justice as “a very significant move. That presents its own problems, in terms of who would take up as the Justice Minister, but I would hope that we would be able work that out. One of the words that always remember throughout the last 40 years is ‘intractable’. People always said it was an intractable problem.
“There are no intractable problems in politics. This is a problem which was agreed at St Andrews. It needs to be resolved and needs to be resolved as soon as possible. I think all the evidence is out there, right across the community. People want a proper policing service and they want control of it, in their hands. The mood out there is for it, what we need to do is sort it out very quickly.”