Before we begin today’s business, I would like to take this opportunity to make some brief remarks to mark the end of this four-year term of the Assembly. I will also give party leaders or their nominated representatives an opportunity to speak for up to five minutes, and I will be reasonably flexible about that five minutes.
There may be some disagreements in the Chamber about the achievements of the past four years, but I hope that this morning we can set aside those disagreements and reflect on the past four years. This is the first devolved Assembly in a generation to complete a full term. That is an achievement of which Members should be very proud. It is a very historic achievement for politics in Northern Ireland. In that time, we have held 277 plenary sittings and approved some 69 Bills. Ministers have taken over 11,624 questions for oral answer and 32,411 questions for written answer. That, in itself, is historic.
I want to mention the Members who are retiring from this place before the election, including a number who have given long and distinguished service to their constituencies in this place and in politics generally. We in this House all know that politics is not an easy business. There are many seasoned politicians in the Assembly this morning from all sides who have been in politics for a lifetime, and they could certainly testify that politics in Northern Ireland has not been easy. Members often find that they are subject to criticism rather than praise. Recognition of the time and effort required to be a Member and to undertake constituency work is sometimes very rare. Therefore, I thank all the Members who are retiring for their service to the House and to their constituencies. Some Members, especially some of those who are retiring today, have given a lifetime of service to the people of Northern Ireland, sometimes at great cost not only to themselves but to their families.
Those watching our proceedings may not appreciate all that is involved in making this Building function. However, the business of the House could not proceed without the efforts of so many others. Some Members have not been keen on our recent late sittings, but we should appreciate the patience of staff who have to work on in this Building to see business finished. Therefore, on behalf of Members, let me express heartfelt thanks to the staff who work in all parts of this Building and beyond for allowing us to undertake our duties inside and outside the Chamber. The staff are probably keener to see the election than we are.
When I first got the job of Speaker, some Members told me not to worry, as I would only have to chair a few plenary sessions, but I always knew that there would be a wee bit more to do than that. I am humbled to have been Speaker, especially since the Assembly has completed its first full term in a generation. However, I could not have done it without the co-operation of all Members, and I thank all Members for their co-operation through some very difficult times in the Assembly. However, at the end of the day, we all rose to the occasion.
I commend all Members for their work and wish them well for the future. I believe that Northern Ireland’s best years are ahead of us.
When this term began, most people doubted that the institution would survive, but nobody, not even the wreckers who want to bring devolution to an end, can question its stability or sustainability. However, it can be improved, and the St Andrews Agreement made that a legal requirement of the next mandate.
Everyone knows that the people to deliver change are not those who have opposed our very existence or those who have spent their every waking moment trying to undermine the progress that we have made. However, in spite of them, we have achieved much. Let me give you a flavour of that. Mr Speaker, you have already drawn attention to the fact that we have completed the first full Assembly term in 40 years; the collapses that characterised the failures of past Administrations are consigned to history. We have assumed responsibility for policing and justice, which is a task that challenged and eluded politicians for generations. We have created more and better jobs than at any time since records began, and, amazingly, we did it against the backdrop of a global recession. We secured a record £2·6 billion of inward commitments for investment and £500 million in annual salaries. We resisted pressures to increase rates and introduce water charging, thereby maintaining the lowest local taxes in the whole of the United Kingdom. Those decisions mean that, on average, every household in Northern Ireland is £1,500 better off because of our Administration.
We extended free travel to everyone over 60 years of age, and there are now 61,000 SmartPasses in circulation. Some five and a half million journeys have been made. That is the most generous scheme in the whole of the United Kingdom. The Executive have invested more in infrastructure, schools, hospitals, roads and houses than any previous Administration since records began. We have purchased more than 200 new buses and 20 new trains. That is another record. By the end of the term, we will have passed almost 70 Bills in the Assembly. The Executive have reached more than 1,600 proposals by agreement, which is more than any previous Administration in the Province.
That is only a snapshot of the work that the Executive have delivered. Although there is much more to improve, the one unalterable fact is that the Executive have achieved more than those who went before. In short, it has been a good start and a significant improvement on the previous Executive, but we have so much more to do.
In closing, Mr Speaker, I thank you for the manner, the authority and the impartiality with which you have carried out your role. You have served us well and, in doing so, you have served democracy and Northern Ireland well, and we thank you. I extend my appreciation to the team around you and to all our staff in the Building and at other locations, wherever they may be. Like you, I wish a happy retirement to all our colleagues who are standing down and to those of us who may find ourselves retired without having planned it. To those in other parties, in case I do not see them again, I say that, if, in the heat of battle, I have said something that has hurt or offended them, I apologise and hope that the wounds will heal. It is a tough trade that we are in, and I really do wish them well for the future.
I particularly wish my colleagues Lord Bannside and Lord Browne well. Ian has contributed so much to our community over a very long and distinguished career. He was instrumental in laying the foundations for the return of devolution to Northern Ireland. Quite simply, we would not be here today without his valued contribution. Wallace has been with me through thick and thin in east Belfast. He has been an excellent servant of the people, and you will not find a more genuine and sincere representative. Both Members will now be giving the House of Lords and the nation the benefit of their wisdom, and we hope that they will come back from time to time to see us all.
No matter what party or interest people may represent in this place, if you can walk away from the house on the hill content that you have, to the best of your ability, served your community effectively, diligently and well, you will find that, in politics, there is no greater achievement or cause for satisfaction. We serve the people. It is the greatest responsibility and the highest honour that democracy can bestow.
Dia daoibh go léir. Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I echo the words of the First Minister and thank all the staff in the Building for the tremendous support that we have received over the past four years, particularly your staff, the people around you, the Deputy Speakers and all those involved in catering over the four years. Most importantly, I thank the women from all parts of Belfast who clean the Building when we are not here. I always make a point of speaking to them, and I have great friendships with many of them. On my way in this morning, I met a woman who is 77 years of age. She has been here for 11 years; she has been with us during all that time.
It is tremendous that we have come through four years. It is the first time in almost 100 years that a locally elected Administration, elected by and truly representative of our community, has survived a full four-year term, taken vital decisions and passed legislation of benefit to that community. That has been a wonderful achievement.
A Cheann Comhairle, I pay tribute to you for the way in which you have conducted yourself. I regard my contribution to the decision to appoint you as Speaker as one of the wisest decisions that we took in the past four years. You have been fair not just inside the House but outside it and considerate in all your dealings. I thank you for your contribution.
I remember sitting in a small sitting room in Downing Street in 2003 with Tony Blair and Jonathan Powell. Tony Blair was almost at the point of despair about whether there would ever be a restoration of the institutions, institutions that had collapsed three times in the years before. However, I knew my fellow Ulster men and women better than that. I was always confident that we could restore the institutions. Although it took five years, it was a momentous day when, on 8 May 2007, the First Minister at the time, Ian Paisley, and I came together to effectively launch this adventure, which has lasted for the past four years and, I think, has brought huge benefits to our entire community. One of his first comments to me was that we could rule ourselves and that we did not need direct rule Ministers coming over here telling us what to do. We then, of course, wrote to those Ministers, who were holed up in Stormont Castle, and asked them to leave, which they did. However, when the First Minister and I arrived in the building, we found that they had not just left but had taken all the light bulbs with them.
The Member for Newry and Armagh christened us the “Chuckle Brothers”. However, I would like to think that we showed leadership. I also think that my relationship with him will undoubtedly go down in the history books, and I want to pay tribute to the leadership that he showed. Many people out there have their own views about the past, as well as about my past and his past. However, I think that we showed that we are politicians who live for the here and now, for the future and for building a better future for all the people we represent. I thank him and his good wife, Eileen, both of whom I regard as huge friends of the peace process and friends of mine.
When Peter came into the job of First Minister, some of the media tried to describe us as the “Brothers Grimm”. However, I think that we have proven that we are anything but that. I think that he, too, is a huge friend of the peace process and that he has made a massive contribution. I have been honoured to work not just with Dr Paisley but with Peter Robinson through these momentous four years.
I also thank all my colleagues on this side of the House and our ministerial colleagues for the contribution that they made. As regards the way in which we have moved forward, I will not regurgitate the achievements that the First Minister outlined, but there have been many. If people reflect honestly, they will see that, in the face of a world recession and as a result of our efforts in foreign direct investment, we have brought about thousands of new jobs, even though people told us that we would not get one. We provided £700 million for the building of the schools estate, and we did vital work to support rural communities, the elderly and children. The last thing that we expected was a world recession and a newly elected British Government reneging on commitments that the previous Administration had made.
We are looking to the future, and we are looking very determinedly to the achievements that we have made. The transfer of policing and justice powers was huge. I think that we have shown that we can work together. At the beginning of this Assembly term, I said that, given that we had never had conversations with many Members in the House, the next four years would be rocky. However, in the meantime, we built up important relationships, and I think that the House can go from strength to strength in the new Administration. I look forward to the work ahead and to taking real decisions that will have huge benefits for those who are unemployed and who are dependent on our taking wise decisions for the betterment of themselves and their families. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Mr Speaker, I also want to put on record my thanks to you, your Deputy Speakers and, indeed, as the First Minister and deputy First Minister said, the staff at the Assembly. It is a pleasure to come here and work with those staff; I will not say the same about some of the political representatives here. I noted that the deputy First Minister thanked the cleaning ladies, but I want to include the gentlemen cleaners because there a number of them here as well. I am afraid that he was being sexist in that respect, but we will call it quits at that.
I also noticed a hint of an apology from the First Minister. That is very rare in the Chamber, but I will take it in the spirit that it was meant. I suppose that we can all live in a political bubble, and, when we hear him say such things, we actually think that maybe there is change here. However, I then reflect on some of the past and more recent campaigns, as well as on some of the issues that arose from those campaigns and on what is probably to come in the next few weeks. So, I will take it in the spirit that it was meant today.
I want to put on record my thanks to colleagues who are retiring, either voluntarily or through forced retirement, and may not be back here. In particular, I thank my party colleagues the Reverend Robert Coulter, Lord Empey, Ken Robinson, George Savage and Billy Armstrong. They have been excellent servants, not only of the Ulster Unionist Party and the Assembly but of the people. That is what we all should be: servants of the people. I thank them for their support.
Over the past four years, we in the Ulster Unionist Party put health as a significant priority. We have delivered on putting patients first. We introduced free prescriptions, put record investment into the Fire and Rescue Service and Ambulance Service and completed the review of public administration within the Health Service, the only Department to complete the review of public administration. We put in place the new south-west hospital in Enniskillen, which I am extremely proud of, as are, I am sure, other colleagues from Fermanagh and South Tyrone. We also made new investment in Downe.
Employment and learning is another area for which the Ulster Unionist Party takes great credit. Of our full-time undergraduates, 41·7% come from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, compared with 28% in Scotland. That is a huge achievement for this Assembly and for the Department for Employment and Learning.
That comes with a downside. Some of the frustrations that have come out over the past four years have been pretty obvious not only to me but to the wider public. One of the biggest disappointments to me personally and to the party has been the failure around education. The failure to resolve the education fiasco within the Administration is one thing about which I continually hear that my constituents are disappointed.
There is also frustration in the business community. People want to know why we cannot just get things moving much more quickly and fluently up at the Assembly and Executive to allow those in business to invest and to put people in this community first, as they want to do. They are the people at the heart of the community in Northern Ireland. The total number of people claiming unemployment benefit in Northern Ireland is 59,100. Those figures are up 3,500 or 6·3% on last year, compared with a decrease of 8·1% in the United Kingdom. The most recent Labour Force Survey (LFS) suggests that the current rate of economic inactivity — jobless people not looking for work — is 28·4%. That is considerably higher than the UK average. I appeal for much more productivity from the Assembly and the Executive to deliver for the business community, which could redress the balance in the job market.
Although we can look at our successes in the Assembly, we cannot forget the failure of the Executive to meet for over five months.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Mar leascheannaire an SDLP, tá mé an-bhrodúil seasamh anseo inniu agus labhairt ar son an pháirtí, go háirid mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Tionól seo agus le comh-bhaill de chuid an pháirtí s’againne.
I am particularly heartened and proud to be here today to thank you, the Assembly, its Members and its staff, and to thank my party colleagues for their work, support and co-operation through the past four years in this mandate.
I thank those who have resigned from the Assembly from our party ranks — Carmel Hanna from South Belfast and Mark Durkan from Foyle — for their term in this Assembly. They played a role as Ministers at various times through the lifetime of the Assembly, and I am sure that their role has been respected by many others across the community. I welcome their replacements, Conall McDevitt and Pól Callaghan, to our ranks. Tá fáilte romhaibh beirt.
I thank PJ Bradley and Mary Bradley, two of my party colleagues who have served their constituents in this Assembly and at constituency level exceptionally well, as well-known, well-established grass-roots community workers. I thank them for their sterling service to their constituents, their party and their country. Go raibh maith agaibh beirt.
I also wish well those from other parties who will not seek re-election, many of whom I have become acquainted with and count as friends, as they move back to what many of us now regard as normal life. As public representatives, we perhaps do not get that chance. I wish them all very well in their new life or, as they may see it, their return to normal life.
In the Assembly, we have had differences and various points of view. However, I hope that, as the institution builds, we gradually come to respect one another, our diverse views and our differing political opinions, as we work together for the common good. The peace process has completed its task, and stability is now taken as read. The political process must now deliver much more. People look to the Assembly for hope. All our people want prosperity, jobs and a decent Health Service and education system. That is especially the case among our young people, far too many of whom now leave this country on boats planes. It is up to us to give them hope and stability for their future.
I wish to thank party colleagues who have served the party extremely well and with dignity and honour at ministerial level. My colleague and party leader, Margaret Ritchie, and Alex Attwood succeeded in delivering the highest level of newbuild social housing for many years for the many people who await what many of us take as the most basic right — a roof over their head. I pay special tribute to them.
At a personal level, Mr Speaker, I have already commended you for the time that you have put in and for your patience. I also commend the Deputy Speakers, who have put so much into the Assembly, and all the Assembly staff, who provide support to make the place work and to facilitate our job as elected Members. I pay tribute especially to the staff of the Committees on which I served during this mandate: the Environment Committee, the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development and the Public Accounts Committee. This year, the Public Accounts Committee shone a bright light into the mediocrity of some elements of the public sector and the bad practice of some people within it. However, as an elected representative, I have worked extremely well with many others in that public sector. Unfortunately, I cannot pay personal tribute to those people because we would be here all day, but they know who they are.
Finally, despite the combative nature of this Assembly at times, Members have got to know one another and maybe established friendships. I hope that we will ultimately lay the building blocks for the trust that is so necessary to bring about reconciliation in this part of our country, the reconciliation for which the people of Ireland have yearned for so many years. I look to the future and to our receiving a mandate in which that trust will be solid and reconciliation will see a new society and a new Ireland. Ar aghaidh linn le chéile chuig an ré úr sin. I look forward to that new society.
I welcome the fact that the Assembly has completed its four-year mandate for the first time since its establishment in 1998. My main priority, as former leader of the Alliance Party and an Assembly Member, was to protect the Good Friday Agreement and latterly the St Andrews Agreement. It has also been a priority for the Alliance Party that devolution in Northern Ireland must be based on power sharing across the political parties. Although we would prefer a voluntary coalition, we are prepared to accept and work with a mandatory coalition. Events over the past four years have shown that devolution, although not perfect, is much better than unaccountable direct rule. However, there is still much progress to be made on creating a truly shared future for all our citizens in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland has become a much more multicultural society, particularly over the past decade or so. The Alliance Party has frequently raised the issue of a shared future in the Assembly during this mandate. I firmly believe that progress is being made on that issue, which is vital to the people of Northern Ireland. Last year saw the devolution of policing and justice powers, which, in many ways, was the final piece in the devolution jigsaw. I am very proud of and impressed by the work carried out by David Ford in his role as Minister of Justice.
From my perspective, I am very proud of the achievements of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Business Trust (NIABT). Formed in 2002, we faced difficult years when the Assembly was in limbo. However, in the past four years, progress has been made, and more than 80 companies are members of the trust. I am very grateful to the members of the trust’s board and our officials for their major contributions. I also want to pay tribute to you, Mr Speaker, because you have been a great supporter of the Assembly and Business Trust as its president. That is only one aspect of the outreach programme that the Assembly Commission spearheads. It is important that we give ownership of the Assembly to the people of Northern Ireland. I am particularly pleased that all the Assembly Committees, along with the Assembly and Business Trust, held meetings outside Parliament Buildings in various venues throughout Northern Ireland.
Yesterday, the Assembly Commission had a presentation from the Northern Ireland Assembly Youth Panel, with a view to establishing a Northern Ireland youth assembly. That shows that great progress has been made in political life here in Northern Ireland.
Of course, one of the Assembly’s main roles is to pass legislation. Although we got off to a slow start, at least in recent times there has been a plethora of Bills, which meant, at times, late hours for elected Members and officials. I hope that that is a sign of things to come. However, if I could make one change to legislation, I would change the rules relating to designation. What we have at the moment perpetuates sectarian and sectoral politics. Hopefully, as we move forward, we will become more mature when voting in the Assembly.
As you know, Mr Speaker, all politics is local. I am disappointed that the Minister for Regional Development has left the Chamber, because, once again, I wanted to raise the issue of the A2 between Carrickfergus and Belfast. [Laughter.] We have been waiting for improvements to it for over 30 years. At least the point has been made.
As Members know, I will not be standing for re-election to the Assembly. I want to pay tribute to my Alliance Party colleagues and staff, particularly my constituency staff, for their help and support over the years. I also want to thank all Assembly staff, who have ensured that we have an Assembly that works. Finally, I want to say that, over the years, I have made many good friends in all political parties in the Assembly. I wish all the best to those who are standing for re-election.
I have had a request from Dr Paisley, now Lord Bannside, who is very much the Father of the House, to say a few words this morning. This is a historic day for the Assembly: Dr Paisley’s political life spans well over two decades, and it is only right and proper that the Father of the House say a few words here this morning.
It seems that some of us are finishing our course. It is 41 years since I walked in here as an elected Member for my constituency in Antrim.
Now, I feel as if I look only 41, but that is not so, for the facts are against us. We are all moving away from youth to middle age. When we look at one another, we see that we have spread a bit in our middle age and are weakening in our old age. However, facts are facts. As an elected representative, very early in my political life, I had a maxim printed on all my papers that went out to the people: all men equal under the law, and all men equally subject to the law.
In my time, I have faced Prime Ministers. Thank God, only one of them was a female: the rest of them were males. [Interruption.] Well, she was a very clever woman. She was mightier at her task than any man whom I saw hold that office in my day. In my time, I faced Prime Ministers, Secretaries of State, a number of Taoiseachs and even a few American Presidents. My message to them all was the same: Ulster would have stable government only if all parties, irrespective of our differences, signed up to supporting the rule of law, the institutions of the state and the police.
I was, of course, told that that was impossible. I was told that republicans would never agree to that. I was told that it could not be, but I proceeded to advocate it, and, eventually, it has come to pass. It has come to pass because all of us were prepared to put our country before our political past, and that has been good for us all.
Of course, there are many Job’s comforters around. There are moaners and complainers, pessimists and prophets of doom, with faces longer than any Lurgan spade. [Laughter.] I apologise to the Lurgan people, but, for the first time since the collapse of the Northern Ireland Parliament, we can all say that the Assembly was democratically elected and has completed a full term. We are not being thrown out by English politicians; we are going to our people to get a renewed mandate. This is an Assembly that has been tested, particularly when terrorists murdered two soldiers and a police officer. Even in such times, the foundations did not give way. Today, as we mark this milestone, our thoughts and prayers are with those broken-hearted families.
There is a job to be done, and that job needs to be done. We face hard financial times ahead, and difficult decisions will have to be taken. As the Assembly sits in this place, all eyes will be upon it. We share this Province, and we have to make a shared future in it. We have a rich history, and, despite our size and problems, we have, in the past, made a contribution to the world as well. It may not be too large a contribution, but it is still there, and it is larger than most have made.
As we sit in the House today, we look back with great sorrow, and our thoughts and prayers are with the bereaved.
However, we also have hope that, at long last, we will get away from the things in the past that we now deplore; that we will go forward with the help of Almighty God to a place where all of us will be proud that we are Ulstermen and Ulsterwomen; and that we have done our best in the most difficult of circumstances to do what we can for a coming generation.
What you do in the next meeting of this House will affect a lot of young people. We want our young people to have a chance in life. All that I can say to you all is God bless you, God bless Ulster, God save us from the things that disgrace the name of Christianity and bring us in to an experience where young people will be proud, no matter their religion or politics, to say “I come from Ulster.”
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At our last sitting, I brought to the attention of the House a very serious matter, which I left with the Speaker. It was in relation to the refusal of the Minister for Social Development to give me an answer to an oral question but yet we discovered that that answer was given to someone else and the details were released to the press. In light of the very bad manners and disgraceful action by the Minister for Social Development, is it in order for this matter to be brought to the attention of the new House with a view to looking at procedures and how best to protect the House and this Member from being treated with that sort of contempt in future?
I thank Lord Morrow for raising that point of order. As you know, Lord Morrow, I have spoken to the Minister, and I know that you have done likewise. I have written to the Minister and I await his reply. I agree with you: the Committee on Procedures, in the new mandate, will be extremely busy. There are a number of issues that that Committee needs to look at, particularly this one. I certainly agree with Lord Morrow on the issue.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The Minister did not seek me out; I happened to bump into him in the corridors, and he stopped me. However, it was most disappointing. It does not reflect on me as a Member; it reflects the contemptible way in which all Members are treated when they submit a question for oral answer.