Debate resumed on amendment to motion:
That this Assembly recognises the grave consequences for the people of Northern Ireland of the failure of the Executive to agree a Budget and Estimates for the financial year 2017-18, the failure of the Executive to endorse a Programme for Government and the continuing failure of the Executive to safeguard the interests of the people of Northern Ireland following the result of the EU referendum. — [Mr Nesbitt.]
Which amendment was:
Insert after "2017-18," "the failure of the Executive to set a regional rate for 2017-18,". — [Dr Farry.]
Northern Ireland, I believe, is a better place than it was 10 years ago. I think that we can be proud of the fact that our country is more at peace with itself than it was 10 years ago. I think that we can be proud of the investment that has been made in jobs, in local services and in improving public services.
I listened to the self-serving contribution from Mr Nesbitt earlier in the debate. Who could believe from his contribution that his party presided over a situation in which some of the worst terrorist murderers in the history of this country — I see he sighs. I think it is unfortunate that you do not like to be reminded of the record of your party. Some of the worst terrorist murderers in the history of this country, including people like Sean Kelly who bombed the Shankill Road, were released from prison without the decommissioning of IRA weaponry or even a commitment to support policing and the rule of law. When you mount your high horse and point your finger at others, sir, you should recall that there are three pointing back at you. Any unionist who knows the record of the way in which the Ulster Unionist Party behaved will not be lectured on our approach to dealing with republicans.
I believe that Northern Ireland is a better place. I believe that it is in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland that we have devolved institutions that work for the people. I heard the criticism that was levelled by Mr Nesbitt: "10 long years". He seems to forget that, for nine and a half of those long years, his party was in government. Therefore, when you mount your high horse and lecture about "10 long years" of failed devolution, remember that, if it was a failure, sir, your party was party to it for nine and a half of those 10 years — 95% of the time.
I believe that all parties, whether the SDLP, the Ulster Unionists, the DUP, the Alliance Party or Sinn Féin, can look back over the past 10 years and point to achievements, on an individual level and a collective level, that were made during the period. They can point to positive steps that were taken by all the parties to improve the life of the people of Northern Ireland. That is where I believe in devolution. That is the value of devolution. The value of devolution lies in using those tools to improve the lot of our constituents. That is why I was in the Chamber for the question for urgent oral answer by Michelle O'Neill. I have to say that, as I listened to the Minister describing her plans for health and social care in Northern Ireland and for how we are going to move forward, I found myself wondering, "What planet is she on?", because we all know that we are now headed to elections and probably to talks, with no devolution. Mr Eastwood said yesterday in the House that elections to talks, with probably no devolution, means direct rule Ministers making the decisions concerning Northern Ireland. I do not want that any more than any other person does, even people whom I disagreed with on the European referendum question. I do not want a Tory Government making decisions for my constituents any more than Members from the SDLP or other parties do, because I do not trust them to act in the best interests of my constituents any more than you do. It is profoundly sad that it has come to this, but I think that we need to be honest. The reason that we are at this point is that one party — Sinn Féin — did not like the outcome of the election, and it saw in RHI an opportunity to have a rerun. It has not been talking about —
We are here to talk about the failure of the Executive, and all that you have to do is look around. I do not even need to make a speech to illustrate the failure of this Executive, but I will give it a go. It is utterly surreal what is going on in this Building today. The oxygen has been dragged out of this place, and the public are just bemused. People keep talking about the anger on the streets. People are not angry — they are utterly furious that we have got to this point.
Some of us went into an election last year and said that we would go to a Programme for Government negotiation after the election, as was outlined in the so-called Fresh Start Agreement. I went into those negotiations. We did our homework. We had papers written. We put the papers in on all manner of subjects, topics and areas, but nobody wanted to negotiate back. Nobody wanted to talk to us about how we can invest in the Irish language, protect equality for LGBT people and tackle poverty and discrimination right across our society. Nobody wanted to talk to us about how we can expand opportunities for students, develop our economy and build our infrastructure. Nobody wanted to talk back. It reminds me a bit of today, given that there is nobody here. People who are well paid to be here are not here to have "meaningless" discussions. Well, they are not meaningless to the people on the street.
They can go and put their posters up today if they want; some of us are here to do business, and we will be here until the very end.
It is, of course, true that because of the DUP's despicable and disgraceful behaviour, not just around RHI, we have got to this point. It is also true that they were let do all those things. They were allowed to do all those things. It is not three or four weeks since a draft Programme for Government was announced and hailed by Sinn Féin and the DUP. There was no Irish language Act, no anti-poverty strategy, no LGBT rights legislation — none of that. None of it. We were all called whingers and opposition for opposition's sake for pointing it out. Now, all of a sudden, it is stuff that they just could not stand for. They said they were calling time on the DUP status quo. When did it become the DUP status quo? Only a few weeks before that, we were told that this is what delivery looks like. Well, it looks pretty bare today.
We are faced today with the biggest economic, social and political crisis to face these islands since partition. We have a Tory Government who are determined to bring about a hard Brexit, which would destroy everything that we have built — everything that is left of it. It would destroy our economy, destroy our Good Friday Agreement and destroy everything that we have. Theresa May said a lot of things today, but what did she say? She has got a paper from the Scottish Government and a paper coming from the Welsh Government. She did not mention anything coming from this Executive — nothing at all. Seven months and nothing at all from our Executive. People can go to the microphone on the Falls Road and complain about Theresa May's speech today, but they did not even put anything on paper to the British Prime Minister or the British Government to tell them that we need to protect our citizens here — our citizens here who voted 56% to remain as part of the European Union.
Tomorrow marks an important day for a man called John Hume. It is his 80th birthday. He is someone who built these institutions and who democratically struggled to ensure that we could have these institutions and that we could be part of an open Europe. In his Nobel Peace Prize speech, he said:
"I want to see Ireland — North and South — the wounds of violence healed, play its rightful role in a Europe that will, for all Irish people, be a shared bond of patriotism and new endeavour. I want to see Ireland as an example to men and women everywhere of what can be achieved by living for ideals, rather than fighting for them, and by viewing each and every person as worthy of respect and honour. I want to see an Ireland of partnership where we wage war on want and poverty, where we reach out to the marginalised and dispossessed, where we build together a future that can be as great as our dreams allow."
If people still believe in that, they have an opportunity on 2 March to give voice to that and put an end to this nonsense that we have had for the last 10 years.
Given the events of yesterday, should anyone be listening to this debate today, they could be forgiven for thinking that we are merely fiddling while Rome burns. There are, however, some important points to be made, and I will take a few moments to highlight some of them.
First and foremost, I want to say sorry to my constituents for the failure of this Assembly to function properly and that they are being asked to go to the polls again. I deeply regret that and can only apologise to them. It is not what I want, nor is it, I suspect, what most Members in this House want. Nevertheless, we are where we are.
The parties that tabled this motion will, no doubt, see today as an opportunity for self-congratulation at the collapse of the institutions under the weight of their strategic and well-thought-out opposition, but I would caution against that. They have, individually and collectively, failed to lay a glove on my party or on Sinn Féin. Rather, they have relied on the media to perform the function of opposition where they play catch-up. They pause only to check the latest revelation on Twitter before heading off to their respective news outlets. Perhaps they should go into the election asking their voters to vote for some of the journalists who can at least perform the function of scrutiny that they have singularly failed to do — oh no, wait; they have already tried running journalists but with little or no electoral success.
They are pale imitations of their former selves, hollowed out and rattling around the corridors like political Miss Havishams, desperately seeking to be relevant but finding themselves rejected time after time by the electorate because people know that they are no more able to deliver change now than they ever were when they were in government themselves.
This is not the first time that the Assembly has collapsed in crisis. Over the years, it has collapsed, been suspended and been reviewed, and it remains to be seen whether it can be returned. One thing is common to all these failures: the role of Sinn Féin. Ask the SDLP what it felt like to be eaten alive by a party that it brought in from the cold. Ask the Ulster Unionists what it felt like to be on the wrong end of a spy ring run by their then partners in government.
It seems to be the case that it does not matter who is in government: if Sinn Féin is not getting what it wants, we have to have a crisis. It does not matter whether the coalition is mandatory or voluntary: if Sinn Féin is involved, we are all subject to Gerry's latest plan, and there is nowhere to go if you will not play ball.
At the Felons Club a few weeks ago — we are fortunate that the cameras were there to record it as, by now, Gerry has probably forgotten that he was ever in the Felons Club — Gerry Adams demanded that Arlene Foster do what society demanded of her. Let us let that just sink in for a moment. Gerry Adams seeing himself as the reasoned voice of society is a bit like getting childcare advice from Jimmy Savile. I did not hear Gerry asking for society's approval when he was shielding paedophiles, rapists and murderers, and that was long after the Good Friday Agreement was signed. I did not hear him — or Conor Murphy, for that matter — ask the republican killers of Paul Quinn and Robert McCartney to hand themselves in to the police because society demanded that they did the right thing.
There was no equality, rights or justice for Paul, Robert or any other post-agreement victim. That is the problem: one rule for Sinn Féin; a different rule for everyone else. There is no equality or justice if you are raped by an IRA man and no need to worry about rights or justice if you are the victim of someone acting under instruction from the army council. If you stand up for what you believe in politically and challenge that status quo, that is not at all acceptable to Gerry. He does not like that very much at all. Sorry, Gerry, but we are not all fatherless children, and we do not need you to break us any more. We have had quite enough of your egomania for one lifetime.
In the last few days, it has been pointed out to us repeatedly how much we must change in order to be acceptable to Sinn Féin. As we head to the polls, I will be listening to my electorate, not Sinn Féin. I bitterly regret the mess of RHI and the effect that it has had on the public purse and on public confidence in this place, but perhaps it is a wake-up call that we all need to put public services first and repay the faith of those who sent us here.
One thing I am confident of is that when it comes to defining what is right, truthful and just, I am much more content with Arlene Foster's definition than I will ever be with that of Gerry Adams.
It gives me no pleasure to outline the failures of the Executive. Clearly, the Executive parties are in election mode now. Only a few weeks ago, the DUP and Sinn Féin were representing each other in TV studios. Now, one from each party speaks on the radio, and they are poles apart.
It is easy to sit back and complain about the situation and the fact that we are returning to the polls, but this motion was tabled before the election was called. It is easy to refer to the failures of an Executive in place since May last year.
As education spokesperson for the Ulster Unionist Party, it would be remiss of me not to begin with the complete failure of the Executive and the Education Minister to deliver for our young people and deal with the long-standing issues faced by the Department of Education, the Education Authority and, most importantly, the front-line services that we all rely on: our schools, our youth services and childcare. There is the failure to find a resolution to the long-standing dispute over teachers' pay; the failure to confirm three-year budgets; the failure to deliver a childcare strategy; the failure to deliver an integrated campus at Strule within budget; the failure to deal conclusively with the issue of post-primary transfer; the failure to spend the £50 million allocated for capital projects this year under the Fresh Start Agreement; and the ongoing inability to deal with, and complete failure to agree on, a sustainable way forward for education in Northern Ireland. With the looming threat of the area planning process, the Minister and his Executive colleagues are looking to front-line services like schools to find the savings.
The impact of these failures has been shown most recently in proposals from the Education Authority to close a number of outdoor education centres across Northern Ireland. Recently, there was a leak from the Education Authority of further proposals to make cuts to school transport. What other leaks will there be over coming months? Will music lessons in schools or some other well-used service be next for the chop?
Furthermore, it is no secret that the Education Authority is being used as a vehicle to avoid the responsibility for decisions to initiate cuts. It is the front man for controversial proposals. On numerous occasions, we have heard the Minister utter the phrase, "These are not my proposals", but the Minister must take responsibility for proposals along with any final decisions made on these matters. The DUP Education Minister's complete inaction has left schools and other services provided and funded by his Department in an extremely precarious and tentative state. By this stage, much more should have been achieved by the Minister. None of this is rocket science. These are basic functions of government.
In my view, the overarching failure of successive Education Ministers has been the inability to agree on a joint strategy for education in Northern Ireland. All we have seen is a continuation of pet projects and schemes. No amount of these schemes and projects will ever solve the crisis in our education system. Instead, they will ensure its perpetuation. We need an Executive that will tackle these issues head on for the benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland.
Of course, an even more immediate failure of the Executive has to be the frightening situation in our health service. The scale of the current crisis engulfing our health service is completely unprecedented. The fact that, as we —
Thank you for giving way. Do you agree that the real outworking of this failed Executive can be seen in the faces of the 3,400 people in Lurgan and Portadown who have had to avail themselves of food banks in the last 12 months and the 5,200 people in Portadown who do not have a GP?
The fact that, as we stand here today, there are 250,000 outpatients waiting on an appointment is shocking. Worse still is the fact that the number of those waiting longer than 52 weeks has jumped from 20,000 to 40,000 over the last year. There are many tens of thousands more inpatients waiting for day treatment as well as key diagnostic tests.
These are real people that we are talking about here. These are people with real lives, real jobs and real families, who are being forced to wait a disgraceful length of time to be seen or to receive treatment. Whilst some may not like my choice of words, we must remember that it is a criminal offence to let animals suffer, yet this Executive has wilfully sat back and allowed people to dwell in pain on waiting lists. I have had countless constituents tell me that, in their desperation, they have gone back to their GPs and simply been prescribed further pain medication. It is a sad and damning indictment of this ongoing Executive that, in 2017, the NHS, the most cherished of public services, is tolerating pain rather than treating it. Whilst it would be easy to look at waiting lists —
Like my colleague Pam Cameron, I find this to be a situation of deep regret, and it is with deep regret that I need to address the motion. Just eight months ago, shortly after being elected, I gave my maiden speech in the Chamber. I talked about the Programme for Government. In that speech, I focused on delivery: my commitment to delivery, my party's commitment to delivery, my focus on my constituents and my passion for delivering for them, and my party's commitment to Northern Ireland. My commitment to my people in North Antrim remains, and I am as passionate about that today as I was then.
I am absolutely committed to and sure that we need an Executive. As Christopher Stalford rightly set out, we need devolution in Northern Ireland.
Be in no doubt that this situation has impact. It has impact for the communities that we represent, including the people, the businesses and the organisations. Those are the very same people who we are here to support and protect. This is a very regrettable situation, but, of course, this is not a situation of our making. Be very clear on that. Let me remind you —
No, let me remind you and let me remind all in the House why Sinn Féin has pulled the plug.
No, if you listen, it will help you to understand.
In May 2016, the nationalist vote fell to the lowest level in 20 years. What we have here is Sinn Féin attempting a rerun of May. That reduced vote backs up what we have been saying: unionism is strong. This party has been saying that for a long time. With the DUP at the helm, unionism is strong and our relationship within the United Kingdom is strong and secure.
I think that the Member does not understand the difference between arrogance and strength. This party is strong. We have shown that for years, and, as a result, we are stronger within the union today than we have been for a long time. We will not apologise for that.
Yes, this situation is regrettable and it is not of our making. Sinn Féin pulled the plug because it was unhappy in May and unhappy because of the European referendum result. This is just an attempt to backtrack on those things.
The republican agenda has failed. As we heard earlier, they failed when they ran a terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland in search of a united Ireland. They then entered politics after realising that had failed, giving up the battle with guns and bombs to enter a political battle. Again, a united Ireland is further away than ever. Sinn Féin has tried to mask the issue behind RHI, and they are no strangers to masks. The mask has slipped many times since last Monday. On Monday last week, Barry McElduff the Member for West Tyrone summed up Sinn Féin's actions. This paints a picture of the situation that we are in. The tweet said:
The mask slipped. There is the evidence. Read Martin McGuinness's resignation letter. The evidence is there. This is masked behind RHI.
We on these Benches do not dance to the tune of Sinn Féin. It is regrettable that some unionists did fall for the trap and demanded that Arlene Foster step aside without a shred of evidence against her. They jumped on the "Get Foster" campaign very quickly. Of course, these are the same unionists who apologised to Sinn Féin for the national anthem, so we on these Benches are certainly not surprised. Sinn Féin talks about equality, and we know what equality means. Gerry Adams gave us his definition of equality when he said that equality is:
"the trojan horse of the entire republican strategy".
He said that this is how we will break the — and we all know what Gerry Adams said.
The real devastating consequences of Sinn Féin's self-interested moves are the many services that will be affected, either due to a lack of a Budget or a lack of a Government to help set direction. This situation has destroyed any hope of agreeing a Budget for the next financial year. Without a Budget or Ministers, civil servants will take control of the purse strings, and that would limit what they can spend. David Sterling the permanent secretary said:
"A long period without a government would be difficult for us to manage."
I have already given way, and I really need to get through this.
Mr Sterling continued:
"Our objective as civil servants would be to ensure minimal disruption ... but I wouldn't want to downplay the difficulties."
He goes on, but I do not have the time.
Just last week, I met school principals in the Ballymena area. These leaders of education brought me real issues that we need to address. I congratulate the Minister, Peter Weir, on the progress that he has made — so did those principals — but there is still much, much more to do. Further to this, I am disappointed that we have a generation of young people watching this and watching Sinn Féin's actions. They will look at this situation and learn a lesson that, when you do not get things your own way and when you get things tough, you throw in the towel and abandon ship. That is an absolutely shocking example. It is not something that this party will do. I am gravely concerned and absolutely exasperated. I want to help people: that is why I got into politics.
I support the motion on the failures of the Executive. To begin, it is important to mention that the greatest failure of the Executive has been the monumental and overwhelming way in which it has attempted and succeeded in places to polarise our politics and sectarianise our institutions, and the gross way in which it has let down the aspirations and wishes of the people of Northern Ireland. There have been year-on-year reductions in the number of people turning out to vote and even bigger numbers switching off from politics. We in the House must ask ourselves why this is happening. What is turning people off politics? The answer is: RHI, NAMA, Red Sky, Research Services Ireland, SIF funding and Charter NI. The list goes on and on. There has been scandal after scandal.
This Executive, working as they have done for so many years with a silo mentality, have let loose Ministers who often had the mist of party politics blinkering their views rather than the good of the community that they serve. We have seen most acutely in the present Executive how divisive, ineffective, solo run Ministers running party agendas have brought this place to its knees as a result of their crass, selfish mentality.
Whilst this behaviour affects politics generally across our country and belittles and demeans our institutions in Stormont, the impact of the problem can end up lying much more locally. I think of how my constituency has been badly let down. A prime example is the failure of the Executive to deliver appropriate, sustainable health services at the Downe Hospital, which is almost a scandal in its own right. The £64 million newly built hospital had wards closed before its official opening day. Despite all the pressures that we face in accident and emergency units, a newly built unit in the Downe Hospital has been downgraded year after year to part-time status and — just about — a minor injuries unit at the weekend.
Whilst we hear of recruitment problems, financial pressures and service delivery burdens, the failure of the Executive is that they have not worked collectively to fix the problems. Did DETI or the new Department for the Economy attempt to assist with new university places? Did our employment services look to overseas recruitment? Did our Infrastructure Department even try to provide a direct bus service between two hospitals when the consultants refused to leave their ivory tower hospitals and go out into the sticks? So much is left to small units in big silo Departments to sort out, and, when they fail, they cry that it was too tough a job to do on their own.
Main Street in Downpatrick is a further example. For years, it has been neglected by this Executive. We, like many others, have had the heart ripped out of our town centre, and this Executive should have responded with joined-up working. The Department for the Economy should have delivered initiatives as economic drivers to help new starts and to specialise the focus on products. Our Finance Department should have looked at new tax regimes and developed business improvement initiatives. Our Communities Department should have directed and steered local councils to work on the ground to upgrade our town centres. Our Infrastructure Department should have monitored access to town centres to breathe new life into the way people get into them.
When I think of Market Street in Downpatrick, I realise that virtually every Department has its say and its work to do, but have we had the joined-up forward thinking from an innovative Executive required to do the work? Not on your nelly. We have had bluster, argument, bickering, petty, cheap point-scoring, a sectarian-based silo mentality and party political inactivity that has left the people of Northern Ireland in want, communities with their hearts ripped out and a public service delivered to an all-time low standard, matched only by the low level of faith that our electorate have in the institutions.
To have less than 50% of the electorate in places turning out for an election is an indictment of the inactivity.
I support the motion and the amendment.
The fundamental role of any Government, and in Northern Ireland the Executive, is to take decisions that will improve the lives of the people. How have the DUP/Sinn Féin Executive fared with regards to the key aspects of any new Government, namely the Programme for Government, a legislative programme, and a Budget? There has been no output on each of those critical issues. The consultation on a Programme for Government outcomes framework was about motherhood and apple pie. It included statements about wanting to enjoy healthy, active lives; wanting more people working in better jobs; and wanting to have a safe community where we respect the law and one another. However, we have heard nothing about the actions to deliver that; just nice words. It has not been finalised. Eight months after being elected, there is no agreed Programme for Government. What an indictment of those who lead the Executive. Similarly, if any Government are to bring about change, they need to improve the law of the land. Where is the legislative programme? The dysfunctional DUP/Sinn Féin Executive Office-led Government, which have been in power for eight months, have failed to produce a legislative programme.
One of the critical aspects of any Government is how they prioritise issues in their financial decisions. Where is the Budget for 2017-18? First, we were told that the draft Budget could not be produced because the Chancellor's spending review was being published in November. The Welsh Government decided to publish their draft Budget in advance in October, and the Scottish Government published theirs just before Christmas. In Northern Ireland, the draft Budget was expected to be published before Christmas, which would have left just a few weeks for public consultation and scrutiny. However, even a draft Budget has not been agreed by Sinn Féin/DUP leadership under the Executive Office. They cannot work together.
Committees have been unable to scrutinise. Many employees may well have received protective redundancy notices because their employers have no guarantees of funding come 1 April. Worse than that, the Sinn Féin deputy First Minister irresponsibly decided to resign without putting the 2017-18 Budget in place. The announcement of elections was made yesterday, so emergency measures that reflect previous funding will kick in. There must be huge uncertainty for vulnerable members of the public, for civil servants delivering public services, and for others funded by public funds.
Take health. We have suffered a year of growing waiting lists, and we were promised a new health reform and new money. What happened to the 2016 synchronised DUP/Sinn Féin election promise of an additional £1 billion a year? Where is that additional fund? Where is the Budget? It does not exist. Where is the great report; the great way forward? It has not even been published. If it were published now, what weight would it have? It would have none, because we are going into an election and there is no commitment thereafter. The regional rate cannot be set because of the absence of the Budget. Without an agreed regional rate, rates bills cannot be sent out, but they will still have to be paid; we will all still have to pay. Monthly direct debits cannot be collected. Local government will suffer cash-flow problems.
Finally, there is the failure of the Executive to adopt agreed actions to protect the interests of Northern Ireland following the EU referendum decision for the UK to leave the European Union. There is great uncertainty, particularly in the business community about how it will be able to trade with European Union partners. I commend Northern Ireland Food and Drink for its Brexit report, which concisely highlights some of the great challenges facing Northern Ireland. It indicates that the average profit in its companies is 2·94% and that a hard Brexit would result in food tariffs of between 7% and 65%.
I take no pleasure in speaking on the motion today, but I do so as the Ulster Unionist Party health spokesperson. I wish to focus my comments on, as the motion says, the "grave consequences" for the health of our people of Northern Ireland.
It is, frankly, outrageous that one in five of our population is trapped on a hospital waiting list. It is even more outrageous that we were told last year we would have to wait until January to hear the Minister's comprehensive plan. It is shocking that there was not a plan already in place. However, it is most shocking that, if the Minister releases it, it will happen through a Sinn Féin press release that is paper thin, with no money or resources behind it and no prospect of making any real and meaningful difference to our constituents because of the lack of an agreed Budget. Shameful.
I want to turn my comments to the present GP crisis and pay tribute to the work of GP representatives. A rescue plan is needed, but, sadly, one is unlikely to come forward any time soon. Shameful. What is also shameful is the action of the Department of Health and the Health and Social Care Board on the GP cover for the patients of Bannview practice in Portadown. That is an issue on which my colleague Doug Beattie and I have been working tirelessly. The latest twist is that a new contractor withdrew yesterday, days after they were appointed. Indeed, the board and the Minister told us they had been secured. That is why I tabled a question for urgent oral answer this afternoon to the Minister of Health. It is abundantly clear that those actions have failed the people of Portadown, and it is a clear and painful example, as the motion states, of how this Executive, in this instance through the Health Minister, are failing to:
"safeguard the interests of the people of Northern Ireland".
The GP crisis, as we know, threatens cover across Northern Ireland. That became abundantly clear given the number of Members who wanted to take part this afternoon. With hundreds of GPs considering resigning, that rescue package can no longer become a reality.
This is what happens when politics gets in the way of progress and when the political soap opera overtakes the practical job of actually working hard for our constituents. It is abundantly clear that the health service and, more importantly, the health of the people of Northern Ireland have become the main casualties of this political crisis.
I said I would take no pleasure in speaking on the motion. I urge an urgent resolution to the crisis at the Bannview practice and open and frank negotiations with GPs and their representatives before it is too late. I fear, however, that that time has already passed.
Over the Christmas recess I was contacted by the chief executive of a Belfast-based charity which has a project working with vulnerable families; it could be called an early intervention project. It is waiting to hear whether it will get the extended year funding that it was anticipating. Because there has been no Budget and no likelihood of a Budget, it is unlikely that it will hear. As a result, 45 staff have had to be put on notice and 700 service users will be let down. That is just one example of the many services that are under threat due to the failure of this Executive.
The traditional parties have wasted their opportunity to provide stable government in Northern Ireland, and I think the failure to produce a Budget is the most damning thing, given its consequences.
Even if Mr Allister is wrong and the Civil Service can implement 75% of the Budget, there will still be huge cuts to our public services. Those in the community and voluntary sector are often the first to lose out.
Sinn Féin has quite rightly pointed to the DUP, and Arlene Foster in particular, and said, "You need to hold your hands up. You need to be accountable for the RHI fiasco". That is right, but much was made of the so-called brave decision of Sinn Féin to take the finance portfolio, and it has a duty to produce a Budget. The Finance Minister, who should be here to hear this debate, has a responsibility to explain to the people of Northern Ireland why we are heading into an election with the possibility of there being no agreed Budget at the other side in advance of the deadline on 31 March.
Providing services is the fundamental element of government. We would have had a debate in here about the Budget — no doubt, I would have been unhappy with it, as is my wont — but producing a Budget is the minimum that we should expect. Anyone who is derelict in that duty is unfit for government, quite frankly.
I do not like the situation that we are in. I do not like that we are heading for an election. I do not believe that it should have come to this, but I am pleased that the electorate will have the opportunity to give their verdict on these failures. For all the debates and disagreements that we have had in this Chamber, this has been the most startling failure that we have seen.
I will be pleased to offer a positive alternative. The Green Party will be out, as a progressive party, offering our alternative to what we have seen. I will take the opportunity to highlight the waste of the Executive, whether that be the wasted money of the RHI or the wasted opportunity to reform Northern Ireland for the better.
I hate where we have got to. I hate that our people have been failed in such a way. Job losses are inevitable over a political fallout that could and should have been resolved. Arlene Foster should have done the honourable thing and stepped aside, but Máirtín Ó Muilleoir should have presented a Budget to us on 19 December, as had been anticipated. As we know, we are heading into an election, and the electorate will make their judgement on that.
Since I came in this morning, I have found that there has been a very strange atmosphere around this place. You would not know what to make of it. Sinn Féin's name has been mentioned all the time, but its Benches are empty, and there is hardly anybody on the DUP Benches. We are talking in a vacuum. This is the way that the Assembly ends: not with a bang but with a whimpering diminuendo of interest as we slink away having achieved absolutely nothing on the big issues that I confront in the interests of the majority of the people.
I came in about an hour ago and discovered —
Mr Logan. I am terribly sorry, but I forgot his name for a minute. As I came in, there was a ferocious attack coming from Mr Logan on Sinn Féin that took me way back to the 1950s. I can go back that far. There was talk of, "The poisonous nature of these people", and "By God, did you see this tweet that demonstrates that they are out for a united Ireland and nothing less". Now, there is a revelation at the start of 2017.
It was old-fashioned stuff. Mr Logan appears to be a lively young man, but he has a doddery old man's head on his shoulders. That, sir, is a biological impossibility and a social and political undesirability, but it is what we have been reduced to by the politics of this place, and that is what I would like to deal with in the couple of minutes left to me.
We can talk about who is right and who is wrong — I do it as well — on RHI and all the rest of the things, but many of the problems that we are talking about are generated from within the system of governance here in Northern Ireland. They are not entirely to do with the character or the perspectives of particular parties. These contradictions have been built from the beginning. The Executive have collapsed under the weight of their own contradictions. You can analyse it any way you like, but the contradictions were there, and the flaws in the system were not in the edifice of the Executive. The flaws are fundamental; the flaws are in the foundations of the system.
You are invited to believe about our system that you are going to be judged at the polls. We are told this all the time. I am told all the time by some quite sharp and acerbic commentators that the only thing that matters in this country is whether you are green or orange. I heard somebody shouting from the DUP Benches yesterday — I think that it was Peter Weir — you are green; not a red at all. I do not go back quite this far, but it reminded me of a by-election at the tail end of the 19th century in North Belfast. A fellow stood as a Labour candidate, and the 'Northern Whig' newspaper carried an editorial that said "McGrath is a nationalist no matter what he says or thinks". There is no answer to that.
If you believe that the only measure that you are going to be judged against is how you have served the discrete and specific interest of your particular community, of course there is no dividend in taking up questions to do with a childcare strategy, for example, which we do not have, or a sexual orientation strategy, which we do not have. Those things do not differentially affect one community from the other, and there is no dividend for your tribal chieftains in that sort of thing. Therein lies the connection between the neglect of these issues and all of the suffering that follows from the neglect of these issues, on the one hand, and, on the other, the very structures that have been erected by the Good Friday Agreement.
We in People Before Profit believe that it is possible to talk in class terms in this society and to talk in class terms about things that are normally considered divisive. What is our approach to the murder by British soldiers of Robert Johnston and Robert McKinney? Can we talk about them in the same breath as Bloody Sunday? Mr Johnston and Mr McKinney from the Shankill Road were murdered — murdered — by the Parachute Regiment. Two entirely innocent, decent men, shot down and killed in September 1972, not just by the same regiment but by the same men. I can name them to you. If I have to, I will in this House. I will name the same people who went into Glenfada Park in the Bogside and murdered people. I have approached unionist representatives on the Shankill Road and have said, "Let's get together and work on this. Let's get the truth for those families". I was told to my face, "It would be better if you did not intervene. You will only undermine us. You will associate us with people who are against the army and all the rest of it". There you can see the way in which sectarian mindsets prevent justice from being delivered —
— even from the people of the community that purportedly are being served by these people.
We will put a class perspective in front of the people. We will advocate a trade union freedom Bill, which we have already drafted. That is the type of thing that should be put before the people if we are going to give young people some hope for the future. As things are going, it is impossible to say that we will weep any bitter tears at the end of this Assembly. My God, we deserve something better, and we will be in the field offering the people something better.
Mr Deputy Speaker, thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate. I certainly had not planned to, and I do not have anything prepared, but I felt that it was necessary to get up as an elected representative for the Upper Bann constituency. It is a great pleasure to stand here today and to continue to represent the people who put me here.
It is a very sad day for Northern Ireland and a very grave day for Northern Ireland. I sat and listened to the Members in this Chamber echoing and howling and growling about the failures of the Assembly, and I have to say that I believe that that is a reflection on them. Since I was elected, I have, in over 250 days, sought to fight and to deliver for the people of Upper Bann, and that is what I am here to do. If those Members were to take a step back, they would realise that they are there to do that and fight for their constituency.
You tell me and my constituents about failure and the likes of Brownlow, which has been able to achieve over £40,000 or £50,000 in grant funding towards promoting shared education in Lurgan, which has been one of the most polarised towns in this country.
You tell Brownlow that the Executive have failed them and that I have failed them. I do not believe that that is right. Tell the people in Upper Bann who have waited for years to have a Minister of Education who had a heart for the Dickson plan that the Executive have failed them. We had a Minister who listened to the people of Upper Bann and was willing to go out and say, "Do you know what? There is a system that works. Why break it? Why tear it down?". You tell those people that the Executive did not work and that I have failed them. I do not believe that we have.
I can go through a litany of things that I have delivered, such as Millennium Way, new road infrastructure in Lurgan. We waited 40 years for that — 40 years — and this Executive delivered it. I welcome that. You can laugh and scorn, but, to be honest, I do not mind: laugh away. I am here to represent my people. I have a heart for Upper Bann, and I do not want the institutions to fall, because I believe that they deliver for people on the ground. That is what I am prepared to do; that is what I am elected to do. I can assure you that, going forward, that is what I will stand on. I believe that, as an elected representative, I am their voice and their listening ear. It is vital that I get up every day of the week and represent the people whom I have been elected to represent.
Like the Member, I got involved in politics to represent and fight for the people of East Belfast and, indeed, all the people of Northern Ireland. Perhaps the Member can tell us this: what do you tell the nearly 40,000 people on the housing waiting list for whom successive DUP Ministers have not delivered? What do you tell people who cannot get a house and have to wait and languish in hostels?
I thank the Member for his intervention. I am not saying that we have a perfect world out there. I am not saying that we have adequate resources to service the needs of everyone. I am saying that this was a workable solution, and we thought that it would, over five years, certainly make a change. Unfortunately, there are those who have walked away, and it is they who should answer your question. I am prepared to stand in the House and fight for more social housing. I am prepared to stand and ensure that the number of people on the housing list goes down. That is what I am here to do. That is what I am elected to do, as are you, Mr Allen, and I do not take that away from anyone.
It is a stark day when a party walks away from the electorate. Believe it or not, the needs of their electorate are exactly the same as those of my electorate. That is the harsh reality. As we sit here today, the electorate needs good healthcare, good education and a functioning Executive who deliver for them. Unfortunately, some took the decision to walk away. I trust that people will scratch the surface, look beneath the surface and realise that those who have walked away are to blame for this mess.
I thank the Member for giving way. I have no doubt at all about your passion for the people whom you represent; that has been evident on multiple occasions in the Chamber. Do you recognise, however, that we are in a very difficult position because of political failures? Yes, Sinn Féin, who are absent today and have been absent on so many issues, are to blame, but do you accept that the DUP plays some part in being responsible for where we are today at this very stark and dark moment?
Certainly. All I can say is that we, as a party, have sought to deliver for the people whom we represent, and, when we go out to our constituents, we will sell that delivery, because that is what has happened.
It is no surprise to me that mandatory coalition has imploded. It was bound to happen because it is a system incapable of long-term survival. It has imploded because, at its heart, was a party that never really cared whether good government was brought to Northern Ireland or not. Indeed, one of the searching questions that all democrats, and particularly unionists, have to ask themselves now is whether Sinn Féin ever did intend or ever does intend to help make Northern Ireland work or whether Stormont was only ever a phase in its struggle to, in fact, destroy Northern Ireland, to extract what it could and when it could extract no more, to move on in its militaristic terms to the next phase of the struggle. That certainly is my belief. I believe that it is that point that we have reached.
After 10 years of bleeding what it could out of mandatory coalition and having decided that there is nothing more for it unless someone wants to come and load it up with more concessions, it has decided, strategically, that Stormont is over. The only thing that will bring it back here is if the continuance of Stormont so serves its ends because the DUP decides after the election, for the sake of office, to fill Sinn Féin's boots with more concessions. You can have a Stormont under mandatory coalition if you are willing to pay that impossible price. Sinn Féin is testing you to see just how desperate you are to hang on to power, and if you pay the price again, you will pay it again and again and again.
The DUP made the most colossal concession that we would abandon the fundamental principle of democracy that who is in government lies in the discretion of the people, and that we would bestow that discretion on the parties. That is the essence of mandatory coalition. In any other democracy, the people have the discretion to decide who is in and who is out. They can decide to vote a party out of government; that is in their discretion. However, because of the iniquity of mandatory coalition, that discretion is removed from the voters and is bestowed upon the parties.
Once you create a system that says that you are entitled, as of right, provided that you have a handful of MLAs, to be in government, you transfer the discretion, which is the heart of democracy, as to who should be in government, from people to parties. That is the fundamental flaw of mandatory coalition. When, in the doing of that, you bestow that discretion on a party that does not even want the country of which they are governing to exist or to succeed, it is quite clear, I would have thought, that it is a system bound to implode when it has served its purpose for those prepared to use it and exhaust its credit. That is the point that we have reached, and unless we get to a system of voluntary coalition — government by the willing — we will never have durable, lasting devolution. That reality needs to be faced. If the parties in the House are not mature enough to come to the point of voluntary coalition, we are headed for direct rule.
In a moment. What needs to happen then is that British Ministers need to take over the Executive, but, this time, direct rule can be made accountable by keeping this House as the lawmaking body so that Westminster's Ministers have to put their laws through this House on devolved issues and are held to account through scrutiny by this House.
The Assembly has three functions. Two of them have worked reasonably well. One is lawmaking and one is scrutiny. They have worked reasonably well. The one that has been catastrophic is the Executive powers. If the Executive powers are the failure and you cannot agree on voluntary coalition, take them out. Put in British Ministers —
— and make direct rule accountable to the people by retaining the Assembly for the legislative and scrutiny functions. That is the only way that, I believe, we can make progress. It is quite clear that if we give a veto to Sinn Féin, a party that wants to destroy Northern Ireland, through mandatory coalition, it will do exactly that.
I rise to support the motion and make the winding-up speech on the amendment. Unfortunately, very few people actually referenced the amendment, which relates to the regional rate. It is totally understandable on a day like today. Yesterday evening, I was in a near-empty Chamber like this when we were discussing collaboration between the Health and Justice Departments on alcohol-related crime. Like today, it was very lamentable that Sinn Féin MLAs absented themselves from that debate. Do Sinn Féin MLAs not think that these issues, like this one today, matter to their constituents? It is shameful that they have decided to walk away.
The motion is very important. I applaud the Opposition parties for bringing it. I think that it would have been far better served if we had debated it four or five months ago, because it was very clear to many of us sitting here on the Back Benches that the wheels were starting to come off the Executive months ago. We can really trace it back to the day after the referendum on Brexit. What we were promised last May when Arlene Foster came into post again as First Minister was that we would have a stable, united Executive. MLAs who are present here, possibly with some exceptions, and the wider public will feel very let down now over the news in the last 24 hours that we are heading for an election.
I will concentrate on the implications for the health sphere of the failure of the Executive to bring forward a Budget. We mentioned it earlier when the Health Minister came to the House to answer the question for urgent oral answer from my colleague Mrs Dobson on the crisis in the GP sector. We, as the Committee for Health, were very supportive of the Health Minister when she brought forward her "road map", as she calls it, for delivering on health transformation. Within that, very sensible proposals had been brought forward by the Bengoa report. To deliver on them, she required, and said that she had Executive approval for, additional investment. The investment would be to allow for what she called "double-running", which meant that existing services would go on while bringing in new services, innovative practices and the rolling out of best-practice pilots that have been introduced in one trust area into another. Without the Budget and that extra investment, it will be a long time until we see these necessary changes. Again, the Bannview practice is a clear example of why the Minister and the Executive should be up and running to deliver on that as opposed to having this needless election.
In relation to the health and social care sector, we were promised the new Programme for Government and approach around outcomes-based accountability. Coming from the community sector, I was very aware that this stuff was rolling on behind the scenes. Over the last few months, community groups, health charities and voluntary organisations brought together groups of their users, members, boards and board directors to discuss in as much detail as possible their response to the consultation process for the Programme for Government. They, too, should feel very let down today. Where is that Programme for Government now? It is in the gutter. At the far side of the election, it will be very difficult for those groups, such as health charities, to get any enthusiasm up to come forward and bring people together.
Parkinson's UK brought people out of their homes to consult on this. Shame on the Executive for not being able to deliver on the Programme for Government.
My colleague Stephen Farry mentioned the regional rate, so I will not go into that. I will make a final point, however, about a catastrophic failure of the Executive: there is no plan for Brexit. Shame again on the DUP for promoting exit to its electorate. We have no idea of the extent to which we will be disadvantaged by coming out of Europe. We already know that hundreds of millions of pounds of research grants will not come forward. We are already being excluded from health research trials.
I thank all Members who contributed to the debate, which has been a retelling of the very sad life story of this failed Government.
Mike Nesbitt opened the debate with a lengthy blooper reel of some of the failings of the DUP and Sinn Féin over the last decade. He spoke about the survivors of institutional abuse — they are here today — and that issue has a lot of resonance with me. It was nine and a half years ago that my mum, who served in the Assembly, brought that motion after campaigning for a number of years. Nine and a half long years elapsed before those victims had the support and redress that they needed. The absent Finance Minister spoke eloquently yesterday about the experiences of some of those people, but he failed to mention that, as well as no Budget being brought forward to give them redress, their case, their cause and their sorrows were not mentioned in the Programme for Government that was being lauded just three weeks ago.
The same goes for equal marriage, an Irish language Act and other issues that are being made election issues but were totally overlooked in the strategic plan that was to set the stage for this mandate. It is disingenuous in the extreme and is part of the packages of spin that are coming out in the dog days of the Executive, such as enhanced rail services for Newry and breastfeeding legislation on which nobody will be here to pass. I am not one for quoting Donald Trump, but I will say that they are "fake news" because they are putting out things that do not exist.
Mr Nesbitt covered many other issues, including the failure to deliver a victims' pension to 400 people who had had their life opportunities taken away from them in the Troubles. We all attend a lot of meetings, and I met that group two or three times. I am mortified to be part of an Assembly that made promises to those people, many of whom are in the latter years of their life, and has failed to deliver and give them the comfort of a small pension. He also highlighted the irony of one of the DUP's last acts in the Chamber being its petition of concern applied yesterday to the motion on the Speaker, which is characteristic of its approach to accountability.
Stephen Farry highlighted the missed opportunity that we had in the governance of the Assembly. Our view that the trust that was supposed to build up through power-sharing and parties working together in common endeavour — the very ethos of the Good Friday Agreement — has been brushed aside by parties that share power because the law tells them they have to and not because they want to or believe that it is for the advancement of people here. Dr Farry also highlighted the cronyism, deadlock and lack of transparency that have characterised this Government.
Christopher Stalford, with a remarkable grasp of the obvious, pointed out that Northern Ireland is safer now than it used to be. In doing so, he inadvertently highlighted how Ulster Unionists did much of the heavy lifting to create the framework that has brought us to this place. We agree entirely that Sinn Féin shares a lot of blame for the car crash that we are now in, but DUP Member after DUP Member failed to grasp the joint nature of the institutions and the mess they are experiencing now.
Colum Eastwood pointed out one of the most visible signs of failure: the empty Benches to our right. He recounted the hollowness of the Programme for Government and the unwillingness of the DUP and Sinn Féin to engage in its development during the negotiations last May.
He highlighted the hypocrisy of Sinn Féin's simultaneous attack on the Opposition parties for leaving government while they are in the middle of leaving government. He highlights the paucity of the Executive's response to Brexit, because the Fresh Start was the end of history and anything that happened afterwards, including the biggest political and economic crisis that we are going to experience, has to play second fiddle to their selfish squabbles and interests.
I did not have great expectations about any DUP speeches, but to be compared to Miss Havishams by Pam Cameron really took the biscuit. Such hubris was on display from DUP Members. By the way, I do not doubt the commitment of the individuals who talked about fighting for their constituents, but they need to understand that the behaviour of their party has taken that opportunity to fight for constituents away from all of us. Talking about protecting, and continuously protecting, the interests of DUP voters entirely misses the point, as the DUP did with Brexit. There are more people out there than just DUP voters. You said that nobody had laid a glove on you politically. We will see whether the electorate wants to lay a glove on you, because the electorate would rather see half a billion pounds in public services than see it go up in smoke.
Sandra Overend raised the failure to resolve the post-primary mess, and that is one of the starkest failures. Ten years of 10- and 11-year-olds have to pay the price for political inertia and for failure to get round to resolve a problem.
Colin McGrath and Jo-Anne Dobson gave magnificent defences of the health service, which has experienced 10 years of strategies that are never followed through and which now faces the winter crisis and the year ahead without a Budget in place.
Steven Agnew reminded us that, no matter how poor the Budget was likely to be — he pointed out that the last few have lacked imagination and fairness — the inability of the Executive even to put before us a Budget, last month and this, demonstrates their complete unfitness for office. The wrong of the Finance Minister's dereliction and the wrong of Arlene Foster's arrogance certainly do not make a right.
Eamonn McCann laid bare the binary world view of the DUP and Sinn Féin and how common goods, like a childcare strategy and a sexual orientation strategy, will always play second fiddle to the efforts that we have seen over the last few years to get one over on each other and one up for their voter base.
Jim Allister questioned whether Sinn Féin was committed to making Northern Ireland work at all.
Paula Bradshaw made an excellent point about the hopes and efforts of voluntary sector groups. Many of them took the time, in the days before Christmas, to respond in good faith to a Programme for Government that will sit on a shelf forever. That will diminish the interest and the possibility of civil society groups, in particular, engaging with future Programmes for Government. I feel that it is part of a war of attrition by those parties, who know that they can wear down and wreck the heads of moderate centre-ground people and then use dog whistles to get their own voters out at the end. She also raised Alliance's amendment on rates, which we are content to add to the very long list of governance failings.
I will add to that list. To recap, it includes leaving us exposed to the worst aspects of a hard Brexit, led by a Government that have no interest and no understanding of the needs of people in Northern Ireland. It includes failures to bring forward strategies or legislation to advance the rights of ethnic minorities and the LGBT community; it also includes less childcare support than the Conservatives can provide for working families across the water. However, it includes very large bonuses in the NAMA portfolio and fur-lined jobs for paramilitary bosses.
It is sad that half the Executive has not bothered to turn up, but it is clear that this has been 10 years wasted, in which Northern Ireland could have progressed and used to prepare itself to weather the current difficulties in global politics. That opportunity has been wasted by this Executive. Although none of us doubts that we are in a better place than we were during the Troubles — I agree with Mr Stalford on that — it is sad to see that time wasted.
We must all send out the message to a browbeaten public that there are alternatives. If you want the same level of dysfunction, stay at home or vote as you have always voted; but there are opportunities for change.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair)
The Assembly divided:
Mr Agnew, Mr Aiken, Mr Allen, Mr Allister, Ms Armstrong, Mrs Barton, Mr Beattie, Mr Beggs, Ms S Bradley, Ms Bradshaw, Mr Butler, Mr Carroll, Mr Chambers, Mr Dickson, Mrs Dobson, Mr Durkan, Mr Eastwood, Dr Farry, Ms Hanna, Mr Kennedy, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr Lyttle, Mr E McCann, Mr McGrath, Mr McKee, Mr McNulty, Mr McPhillips, Ms Mallon, Mr Nesbitt, Mrs Overend, Mrs Palmer, Mr Smith, Mr Swann
Tellers for the Ayes: Ms Bradshaw, Mr Dickson
Mr Anderson, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Ms Bunting, Mrs Cameron, Mr Clarke, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mr Frew, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mrs Little Pengelly, Ms Lockhart, Mr Logan, Mr Lyons, Mr McCausland, Miss McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Stalford, Mr Storey, Mr Wells
Tellers for the Noes: Ms Lockhart, Mr Robinson
Question accordingly agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to. Resolved:
That this Assembly recognises the grave consequences for the people of Northern Ireland of the failure of the Executive to agree a Budget and Estimates for the financial year 2017-18, the failure of the Executive to set a regional rate for 2017-18, the failure of the Executive to endorse a Programme for Government and the continuing failure of the Executive to safeguard the interests of the people of Northern Ireland following the result of the EU referendum.