Sinn Fein minister Caral Ni Chuilin: I'll consider funding regalia for marching bands
A Sinn Fein minister has agreed to talks to consider public funding of uniforms for members of hundreds of marching bands.
Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin said she was willing to meet Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster to discuss the idea, which could boost Northern Ireland's textiles industry.
The DUP said it was "pleasantly surprised" by the response of Ms Ni Chuilin who, along with former Education Minister Caitriona Ruane, often draws the ire of unionists in the Assembly.
"She was not closed to the issue and I take some heart from that," Stephen Moutray MLA added.
But he also made clear he had not yet discussed the issue with his party colleague Ms Foster – although he intends to do so.
Ms Ni Chuilin pointed out that public money is already used to provide instruments and tuition for marching bands, of which there are 660 in Northern Ireland. But Mr Moutray argued: "Perhaps the bands would prefer the money to go towards uniforms rather than tuition, for example."
The Upper Bann MLA pointed to the recent report by consultants RMS McClure Watters which showed that the traditional Protestant parading season generates £55m of economic and social benefits a year for the economy.
Responding in the Assembly, Ms Ni Chuilin said: "My department, through the Arts Council and the Ulster-Scots Agency, offers funding to marching bands from all communities to maintain and develop the level of music-making in the sector.
"My department is primarily concerned with the funding of musical instruments and tuition, to ensure artistic expression can be celebrated. It does not fund the provision of uniforms."
Mr Moutray then asked if she would at least consider working with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) and the Department for Social Development to explore the possibilities
"I am happy to meet any minister at any time about any subject. Uniforms for bands is always seen as a private thing, but I am happy to meet any minister to see what, if anything, can be advanced."
The SDLP's John Dallat asked if the minister, in the aftermath of US President Barack Obama's speech in Belfast earlier this week, had any ideas or incentives to encourage bands from both traditions to march together
"I have to say, in short, no, I do not have any ideas. It would certainly be an interesting collaboration," she replied.
A spokeswoman for DETI said there had not yet been any contact with Ms Ni Chuilin's department on the issue.
* 660: number of marching bands in Northern Ireland.
* £55m: benefits estimated to come from the 'Protestant parading sector'.
* £600,000: grants towards band instruments.
* £650,000: grants towards band musical tuition.