The next item of business is the appointment of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. I will conduct the process of filling the offices in accordance with the procedures set out in section 16 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and Standing Order 44(1).
I will begin by asking the nominating officer of the largest political party to nominate a Member of the Assembly to be the First Minister. I will then ask the nominating officer of the largest political party of the second largest political designation to nominate a Member of the Assembly to be deputy First Minister.
As the persons nominated to fill the vacancies shall not take up office until each of them has affirmed the terms of the Pledge of Office contained in schedule 4 to the Northern Ireland Act 1998, when I have received both nominations, I will ask each of the persons nominated to accept the nomination and affirm the terms of the Pledge of Office.
Before we proceed, Members may find it helpful if the Pledge of Office is read into the record:
To pledge: (a) to discharge in good faith all the duties of office; (b) commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means; (c) to serve all the people of Northern Ireland equally, and to act in accordance with the general obligations on government to promote equality and prevent discrimination; (ca) to promote the interests of the whole community represented in the Northern Ireland Assembly towards the goal of a shared future; (cb) to participate fully in the Executive Committee, the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council; (cc) to observe the joint nature of the offices of First Minister and deputy First Minister; (cd) to uphold the rule of law based as it is on the fundamental principles of fairness, impartiality and democratic accountability, including support for policing and the courts as set out in paragraph 6 of the St Andrews Agreement; (ce) to support the rule of law unequivocally in word and deed and to support all efforts to uphold it; (cf) to work collectively with the other members of the Executive Committee to achieve a society free of paramilitarism; (cg) to challenge all paramilitary activity and associated criminality; (ch) to call for, and to work together with the other members of the Executive Committee to achieve, the disbandment of all paramilitary organisations and their structures; (ci) to challenge paramilitary attempts to control communities; (cj) to support those who are determined to make the transition away from paramilitarism; (ck) to accept no authority, direction or control on my political activities other than my democratic mandate alongside my own personal and party judgment; (d) to participate with colleagues in the preparation of a programme for government; (e) to operate within the framework of that programme when agreed within the Executive Committee and endorsed by the Assembly; (f) to support, and act in accordance with, all decisions of the Executive Committee and Assembly; (g) to comply with the Ministerial Code of Conduct. Paragraph 6 of the St Andrews Agreement states: "We believe that the essential elements of support for law and order include endorsing fully the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the criminal justice system, actively encouraging everyone in the community to co-operate fully with the PSNI in tackling crime in all areas and actively supporting all the policing and criminal justice institutions, including the Policing Board."
Members, the Pledge of Office has now been read into the record of proceedings, and I will proceed with the nomination process.
I have received notification from the nominating officer of the DUP advising me that Mr Gordon Lyons will serve as nominating officer for the party for this item of business. I call Gordon Lyons to nominate a Member of the Assembly to be the First Minister and allow him up to three minutes to say a few words in support of the nomination.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. It is a delight for me to be able to stand here today and, on behalf of the Democratic Unionist Party, nominate Mrs Arlene Foster MLA for the position of First Minister of Northern Ireland.
We have come a long way in the last number of years, and I know, having spoken to many people right across Northern Ireland, that people want us to get on with the job here. They want us to work and to deliver on the issues that matter to them. We all know what they are. We all know the very difficult job we have in front of us, but that job starts today. It starts with the nomination of First Minister and deputy First Minister and other Ministers so that we can form that Executive so that this Assembly can sit and do the job we were elected to do.
I absolutely agree with those outside who say we should have been here before now. We all would like to have been here doing our jobs sooner than we were able to today. Nevertheless, we are here. It is the time now to get on with this work. Again, I say on behalf of my party that we are delighted to be able to nominate Arlene Foster to the position of First Minister of Northern Ireland.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle, agus comhghairdeas. It gives me great pleasure to nominate Michelle O'Neill for the position of deputy First Minister. She follows on in that post from our late, great friend Martin McGuinness, who served with such distinction as deputy First Minister in the Assembly for many years. I know that Michelle will bring the same commitment to genuine power-sharing, to equality for all our citizens, to reaching out across the divide and to ensuring that we try to make this institution and the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement function according to their purpose as set out in that agreement, which was on the basis of equality, respect and parity of esteem for all who serve here and all those we represent right across the community.
I am very confident that Michelle, alongside the First Minister, will fulfil that role, and we look forward to the Assembly beginning a new journey, one that is about genuine power-sharing and the delivery of services for the people we represent. I am pleased to nominate Michelle O'Neill.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. May I first of all congratulate you as you are elected to serve as Speaker of the House? It is a role with much responsibility to ensure that Members on all Benches are heard. I look forward to working with you and, indeed, the broader Speaker team that has just been elected.
To serve as the First Minister of Northern Ireland is deeply humbling and brings with it enormous responsibility to the people whom we represent. This is the fourth anniversary of when I first took up this role. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, but today the real work starts.
The past three years have focused too much on division and recrimination. There is plenty of blame to go around, but the time has come to move forward with resolution. The lessons have been learnt, and it is time to get Northern Ireland moving forward again. However, the restoration of the Assembly and the Executive alone will not solve our waiting lists or reduce the staff pressures in our hospitals. Simply filling posts will not resolve the mental health challenges that our society is facing. There needs to be action, and decisions need to be made. The Bengoa report needs to be implemented. It already has cross-party agreement. It has a 10-year plan, but that was in 2016, and we have lost three years. To deliver this transformation will not be easy. It will require courageous decisions by Members on all sides of the House. I pledge to work in a collegiate manner with all the parties across the Chamber to ensure that our public services are improved, that every citizen feels valued and that we lay a solid foundation for the next generation.
In 2021, Northern Ireland will celebrate its centenary, and we want to do so with safer streets, better schools and a first-class health service, free at the point of need. The National Health Service is unique to the United Kingdom, and we must work together to protect and strengthen it.
In the Chamber, there are people who are British, Irish, Northern Irish and European. There are many identities. Those of us here today should have each of our identities respected. That is why we reached the fair and balanced deal, which caters for British and Irish, as well as for new and emerging identities. We want everyone to feel at home in Northern Ireland. In particular, I draw attention to the commitments to implement fully the armed forces covenant and establish a veterans' commissioner. Those are very significant for young men and women from these shores who have defended, or continue to defend, democracy all over the world.
Mr Speaker, you and other Members in the Chamber are Irish republicans. I am a unionist with a strong British identity. Regardless of our differences, we must seek out common ground. When I visited Our Lady's Grammar School in Newry, the pupils gave me a lovely picture as a gift. It has hung in my office upstairs ever since, just above my shoulder, and, in Irish, it states, "Together we are strong". We have many differences. Michelle's narrative of the past 40 years could not be any more different from mine, and I am not sure that we will ever agree on much about the past, but we can agree that there was too much suffering and that we cannot allow society to drift back and allow division to grow.
Northern Ireland is succeeding in many ways. It is time for Stormont to move forward and show that together we are stronger, for the benefit of everyone. Fixing problems in schools and reforming our health service so that people receive timely treatment should be a priority for all parties. Therefore, let us get down to work and, most importantly, let us get Northern Ireland moving again.
I also say comhghairdeas on your new position, a Cheann Comhairle. I look forward to your leadership in the Assembly.
This is a defining moment for our politics here. From today, the parties represented in the Chamber undertake to cooperate in every way that we can in order to rebuild public trust and confidence in, and engagement with, the Assembly and its Executive. Our mission must be to deliver good politics. Our mission must be to deliver on health, education and jobs for everyone, right across our communities.
I see no contradiction whatsoever in declaring our firm commitment to power-sharing with unionism in the Stormont Assembly whilst also initiating a mature and inclusive debate about new political arrangements that examine Ireland's future beyond Brexit. Similarly, I see no contradiction in unionism working the existing constitutional arrangements whilst rightly taking its place in the conversation about what a new Ireland would look like.
We can do this while maintaining our independent, distinct political identities and working in the best interests of all the people. That is my firm commitment. After three years without functioning institutions, the five parties are here to form a new Executive. It is my hope that we do so united in our determination to deliver a stable power-sharing coalition that works on the basis of openness and transparency, accountability and good faith and with no surprises.
I am really honoured to follow in the footsteps of my dear friend and comrade Martin McGuinness. Taking up the position of deputy First Minister as joint head of Government, I, too, pledge to follow the example that he set by actively promoting reconciliation and building bridges that we all can cross to end sectarianism and bigotry. Resistance to equality caused the Executive to fall. A refusal to embrace citizens' identities and rights left people frustrated, angry and divided. That cannot be repeated. Today, each of us is called to lead; to build common cause for a society that makes room for and gives respect to every citizen; to deliver a power-sharing Government that is truly grounded in fairness and inclusion and has the courage to lead from the front in these times of change. Our politics must embrace civic society. Trade unions, the voluntary and community sector, businesses, academia, farmers, church leaders and students all must have a permanent place and a space to advise, input and hold the Assembly and Executive to account. We must work together to solve the problems that face this society. We will apply the full powers and resources available to us to address the major issues of the day faced by all those whom we represent.
I welcome the historic official recognition of the Irish language in this state. The guarantees for the language in law represent meaningful parity of esteem for the community from which I proudly come. It also means that the equality, mutual respect and all-Ireland approaches enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement are being embraced and that we deliver on the promises of 1998 to a new generation of young people. Today, we have a basis on which to move forward in building a fairer society and to build good government. We will institute necessary reforms across the board in order not only to get things done but to get things right. In this new Administration, we must have shared values and policy objectives set out in a new Programme for Government. Yesterday, our nurses and healthcare workers had to take industrial action. Let us make that the last day they have to do that. This Executive will move immediately to settle the ongoing healthcare workers' pay parity dispute. Our health service is in crisis and demands our urgent attention. Waiting lists are unacceptable, and the health service needs reformed: we have a big, big job of work to do. As we face into the great uncertainties of Brexit, it is imperative that we redouble our efforts to develop and rebuild a modern, competitive and sustainable economy in which we open doors to trade, investment, jobs and tourism. We need decent jobs that value workers and protect their rights. We need to improve our competitiveness through investing in our public structures, our public services and our infrastructure.
To conclude, as we approach the centenary of partition, let us not refight the battles of the past. It is time to bring people together. We can open doors, let the future in, give people hope and give our young people opportunity. It is my sincere hope that 2020 is a time of real change that reinvents the optimism and the hope that we have experienced before but our young people have not. It is time now for parties to have courage as we all choose hope over fear and enter a new era of politics in this society. I wish all Members the very best, particularly all the new MLAs, and I welcome and congratulate all the Ministers who will be appointed into government today. We have two years left of the mandate: let us go out and make a difference.
There will now be an opportunity for a representative from each party to speak. Members should limit their remarks to not more than three minutes. I have the names of some Members who have already indicated that they wish to speak, but I ask all Members who want to contribute on behalf of their party to approach the Table and add their name to the speaking list. It is not compulsory to do so.
Today is a good day for Northern Ireland. It is a good day for Northern Ireland because, after three years of political vacuum, there will be a First Minister and a deputy First Minister heading up a cross-party Executive, taking decisions and working for the benefit of every one of the people whom we all represent. I am delighted to have the opportunity to pay tribute to and to congratulate my party leader, Arlene Foster, who returns as our First Minister today. She, like all of us, wants to get Northern Ireland moving forward again. That, as we all know, will be a task that requires hard work and dedication. Those are qualities that, I know, Arlene does not lack.
Much has changed since the Assembly last met. The challenges facing our health service are most evident, and, more than ever, stable government is needed. As we look ahead, there is a need for leadership, and, within the Democratic Unionist Party, Arlene is someone who leads from the front and is not afraid to do so. Again, I know that she is ready, willing and able to take her place in the Executive and Assembly alongside the deputy First Minister.
I congratulate the deputy First Minister, and I know that she too recognises the challenges we face in Northern Ireland. I worked with her previously when I chaired the Committee, and we had a good working relationship. I wish her well. I also take the opportunity to congratulate you, Mr Speaker, and all those from all the parties around the Chamber who will take their seat at the Executive table today.
As I said, this is a good day for Northern Ireland, but it is a day that represents the beginning of much hard work. Success will be measured by delivery for all the people of Northern Ireland, and, as First Minister and as my party leader, Arlene will have the full support of everyone on these Benches as we seek to get Northern Ireland moving forward again.
In addition to paying tribute to the outgoing Speaker, we wish you the best in your new post. As I have said previously, we have waited three years, and people will rightly wonder why it has taken so long. Our view is that the deal could have been much better and contains missed opportunities, but, for us, there are two key tests. The first is how our Executive and Assembly operate, and the second is what it actually does to transform our citizens' lives. We have all committed to a greater openness and transparency in the Executive; we have all committed to seeing the end of the abuse of power and the reign of SpAds; and we have all committed to opening up this place and our Government to better involve our citizens. That is why we pushed hard for the citizens' assembly.
There are also commitments on policies that we have all committed to. We are all committed to tackling the crises in our heath and education systems and delivering pay justice. We pushed hard with other parties to secure welfare mitigations so that we can protect our low-income families and our disabled citizens. We pushed as well for an anti-poverty strategy — a meaningful anti-poverty strategy — and a commitment to build new and more social and affordable homes. We have also committed to tackling regional imbalance in terms of investment in our economy, and we have committed to the expansion of Magee. We have committed to climate action, among many, many things. They are big commitments, and we have been pushing both Governments because we need to see clear financial support, but all of us must honour those commitments.
We will go into the Executive and will be in the Chamber because we genuinely want to see power-sharing. We genuinely and sincerely want to work with all parties so that we can improve the lives of everybody living in Northern Ireland. We have entered in good faith, and we take it at face value that everyone else is acting in the same spirit. We will play our part, and I look forward, as a party, to working with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, with Ministers in the Executive and with all our MLAs across all political parties.
We will always be reviewing and monitoring our position and how we operate — the people of Northern Ireland deserve that — and we will always be honest throughout this mandate with the people of Northern Ireland.
It would be churlish of me not to welcome the appointment of the new First Minister and deputy First Minister.
For us, the key to this is being able to transform Northern Ireland and to make it work again. I say to all the new MLAs who are in the Chamber: we have a real task ahead of us, because if we have seen anything over the past couple of years, it is that Northern Ireland desperately needs open, transparent, accountable and responsible government that is open to everybody in Northern Ireland, to see how we will make changes.
I look at the Gallery and I see members of the Civil Service and others. A considerable amount of work needs to be done on reform. The Northern Ireland political and government machine is broken. It needs to be fixed. The fact that we will be in receipt of considerable — albeit, we do not yet know how much — largesse from our Government to sort out some of our problems gives a burden to us to make sure we appropriately manage those resources and deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. Be in no doubt whatsoever: over the next two years, or however long the Assembly is going to run, we must be able to make our government work. So, the Ulster Unionist Party pledges to work closely with our other partners in government, but we want to see a genuine transformation. We must change the culture of government in Northern Ireland. If we do not, Mr Speaker, First Minister and deputy First Minister, we are doomed to fail. We cannot allow that to happen.
Mr Speaker, first of all, I congratulate you and your team of Deputy Speakers on your appointments.
There is significant pressure facing the Assembly, and all of us, given the backlog of Assembly business that needs to be undertaken in swift time, and we will work with you, constructively, in order to ensure that that can be done in as expeditious a manner as possible.
A lot of water, much of it turbulent, has passed under the bridge in the past three years. However, I do not believe that today is a day for recriminations. It is a day for focusing forward and for looking forward to the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead. Our commitment throughout the past three years has been to deliver the restoration and reform of the institutions to deliver fit-for-purpose, accountable and sustainable government that can deliver for all the people of Northern Ireland.
The deal that the Governments have put forward is imperfect. I think all of us recognise that it is a compromise on the positions that each of the parties took in the negotiations, but we cannot ask others to do what we are not willing to do ourselves, and, on balance, I believe that it is an honourable compromise and that, if implemented with goodwill and in a spirit of cooperation and inclusion, it can form the basis on which we can deliver improved government for the people here in Northern Ireland.
I congratulate the First Minister and deputy First Minister on their appointment to their roles. Much of the heavy lifting will have to be done by the two main parties, as is always the case, but I reassure both of you — through the Speaker — that we will not be found wanting in playing our role in supporting you in the job that you have to do, in encouraging you and in being an effective support where you are acting in the best interests of all the people of Northern Ireland, and, on occasion, being a robust challenge where we fear that that is not the case, but we hope that we will do that too in a spirit of constructive engagement and one where we work together to deliver.
There is optimism outside this place. It would be, perhaps, overstating our position as one that is optimistic. We are realistic about the prospects of this agreement — there is a lot of work to be done — but we are also determined that it will succeed, and we will play whatever role we can in ensuring that it does.
You have my best wishes for the remainder of this term and for the future of the Assembly.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I also congratulate you and your team on your new role and our First Minister and deputy First Minister on their reappointment. This is a positive development for Northern Ireland today and one in which we can hopefully begin to move forward. After three years of stagnation, I think we can all agree that people have suffered enough. While there is much in the draft agreement, there is so much there that has been promised before but failed to be delivered. If we are seriously intent in the Chamber on doing things differently, it is delivery we need to do. Let delivery be the new approach for this new decade.
Climate breakdown is the biggest threat we face, yet we have done so little to address it. People are so far ahead of our politics and policy, and they are demanding that we step up. The Green Party is very encouraged to note the very high level of environmental commitments given in the draft deal. Promises, such as a strategy to reduce our carbon emissions in the light of the Paris accord, an energy strategy to transition to a carbon-neutral society, an independent environmental protection agency, long overdue and long campaigned for, the elimination of plastic pollution, an economic strategy that will include a green new deal, and the close-down of the RHI, are all very welcome, but we are the only place across these islands yet to see and endorse a climate Act.
Let this new decade and this new approach be one where Northern Ireland is no longer left behind as a place apart, because, regardless of anyone's identity, a new Ireland is coming. It is here, it is called the climate emergency, and it knows no borders, so we will all be affected. We truly believe that today a platform exists to create a sustainable, accountable devolved Executive, Assembly and society. The Green Party really hopes the will is there for that as well.
I get it that people are desperate to have their health service fixed, but I will not join in the pretence that an Executive here that can exist only by the grace and favour of a party that does not want Northern Ireland to exist will bring them the stability they crave.
I also remind the public that the present health crisis was made in Stormont. It was the Executive that broke with pay parity for nurses. It was the Executive that, through successive Ministers, radically reduced the number of beds in our hospitals. Of course, we are here today only because of a double blackmail: blackmail of a Secretary of State who says, "I have the money to fix the health service, but I will not give it unless there is an Executive", a Secretary of State who shamelessly put the life of an Executive above the life of the sick; and, of course, the blackmail of Sinn Féin that you can have a Government only if you pay the ransom that they demand.
Indeed, it is a commentary in itself on the perversity of these governmental arrangements that, although it was Sinn Féin that tore down the institutions, for what they were worth, it was the DUP that had to pay the price to get them back, and what a price it was: to eat a mountain of their own words, laced with yoghurt and curry, a special brand of Campbell's soup.
What a digestive system the DUP has.
I remember in 2017 the call of the First Minister on Irish language legislation was, "Not on my watch", yet, here today, she is the handmaiden of that very legislation. Here today, she is the sponsor of an Irish language enforcer who will put Irish upon every public authority, including this House, where we will have the ludicrous spectacle of needless interpretation. In every council chamber, we will put our ratepayers to the needless cost of translation.
There may well be a honeymoon period for the Executive, at least until the Irish language legislation is safely on the statute book and at least until the innocent victims have been betrayed —
— reptilian turn of phrase, when she knew what she would be doing if she gave in to the Irish language demand, but power — any power — is the supreme draw. Even now, we are not even going —
It is plainly obvious that the Assembly will have some major issues to deal with urgently in the days and weeks ahead. We live in a society where increasing numbers of people are utilising food banks largely because of the welfare reform policies that were implemented by previous Administrations in this Chamber. We have a crisis in the health system as waiting lists grow. We have a deep and profound crisis in the education system as school budgets are stretched to the limit. It is by those measures that we will judge the conduct of the new Executive and, indeed, anyone who holds office in it.
People Before Profit was not part of constructing the recent deal that was agreed by the five main parties. It is not our deal; it is your deal. We were not part of the talks. We were excluded from them despite our call for them to be open, all-party talks. We were not permitted to contribute to the content of the deal. We think that that the wrong decision and one that disenfranchised the voice of smaller parties and those who voted for us. For that reason, the job of People Before Profit, as we see it, is to collaborate and work with people where we can and see that issues of a positive nature in the deal are carried through. It is also our role to highlight where we see flaws in the deal, not only because they may have bad consequences but because they may act not as a solution to the underlying tensions in the Assembly but as a bridge to the next crisis, whenever that may be.
I pay tribute to the nurses, health workers and trade unions, who so evidently transformed the political debate here. They put on the agenda in the most direct way the question of pay parity and safe staffing levels, and confronted everyone in the Chamber with the real crisis in the health service and refused to back down. Those workers are the primary drivers of any progress that we might see. It is worth remembering that any change that we might see on pay parity or investment in the health service was not something that was gifted to us by the British or Irish Governments or even the five parties here. It is something that came from the action and struggle of those workers and unions, so I congratulate them on what they have been able to achieve thus far.
Finally, I welcome the fact that there is an aspiration in the deal to resolve pay parity. Thus far, however, unions have still not been made an offer, and there is no cast-iron commitment as to how precisely the pay dispute will be resolved and whether pay parity will indeed be restored. That must be a top priority for the Executive formed here today.
I congratulate you and your deputies on your appointments. I am, however, somewhat disappointed that there are no women in the Speaker's Office, but we make up for that in the Executive Office, and I offer my sincere congratulations to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. I worked with both women in government — gosh, over three years ago now — and I can put on record that they are incredibly capable and can do wonderful things for Northern Ireland if there is will. I hope today is a demonstration of that will, because we need to take Northern Ireland forward. It has got to the point now at which we cannot continue in this vein.
I also congratulate the Ministers who will be appointed this afternoon. I believe that it is a wasted opportunity that none has decided to go into opposition. Do not fear opposition: opposition improves legislation. If policy cannot uphold the challenge that other Members provide, it is not good policy, and no one benefits from that. I do, however, appreciate that the stability of Northern Ireland requires that we have a five-party Executive, and I, as an independent Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, will support that Executive in the work that we do because, critically, moving forward, that work needs to happen.
We have had nearly 20 years of what I would describe as political party nonsense. Now, moving forward, the focus of the Assembly needs to be on good governance that looks at the needs of the people outside the Chamber. Maybe, for once, we will put those people first instead of the political parties that sit in this Chamber.
Today is a fantastic day for Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland are ecstatic that we are here on their behalf. It is important to note that each one of us, in the mandates that we all have, represent the people of Northern Ireland, whom we disrespect when we disrespect one another in the Chamber. I cannot imagine that the problems that have existed over the past three years will be fixed overnight, and it is important that, in the Chamber, we set an expectation that we will not fix them overnight. If anything, we need a root-and-branch review of every Department in Northern Ireland, but it is good that the wheels are now moving, and I look forward to working with each and every one of you.
No more Members are indicating that they wish to speak. In order to enable me to chair the remaining business, I propose, with your leave, Members, a short suspension to allow me to be properly briefed. The Assembly is, by leave, suspended until 3.00 pm.
The sitting was suspended at 2.33 pm.
On resuming —