Miss Michelle O'Neill has been given leave to make a statement on the resignation of the First Minister, which fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24. If Members wish to be called, they should indicate this by rising in their places and continuing to do so. All Members who are called will have up to three minutes in which to speak. Interventions are not permitted, and I will take no points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business is finished.
The Executive will not meet as a result of the DUP First Minister resigning from office. However, Ministers will stay in Departments and discharge their duties, and the Assembly, to which Ministers are accountable, will function, dealing with the important issues that matter to the public.
The DUP's actions in unilaterally resigning from the Executive are reckless. They have caused concern and uncertainty for businesses, workers, families and campaigners on many important issues. They have caused real hurt and trauma to the victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse. While the DUP must bear responsibility for that, those of us who are serious about showing responsible leadership and delivering for people can and should seek to salvage what we can from the chaos that the DUP has caused. There is a wide range of important legislation before the Assembly that we should protect and progress to completion: laws on climate change and organ donation, the Integrated Education Bill, the Autism (Amendment) Bill, abortion services, safe access zones, a ban on fracking, the extension of welfare protections, the anti-stalking Bill, the Private Tenancies Bill to protect those in rented accommodation, and many more.
Those are hugely important issues that have real-life impacts and consequences. Sinn Féin wants to work with the other parties to ensure that they are taken forward in the limited time that we have left in this mandate. I stand ready to do that important work. Whilst time is of the essence, progress is still possible across a range of areas. That should be the singular focus of the Assembly in the weeks ahead.
So here we are again: Stormont in crisis. The First Minister has resigned, no Executive meetings can take place, no Budget is in place for the next year, the regional rate has not been struck, and no rates bills can be sent out. Sadly, we have all been here before. For three years, we had no Government. I recall, in the dying days of the last mandate, one MLA stating:
"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." — [Official Report (Hansard), Bound Volume 123, p65, col 1].
Collapsing the Government and starving public services of funding, including vital health and social care provision, is wrong. Just when we had the prospect of a three-year Budget to give certainty to invest in and improve our NHS, it has been dashed right in front of our eyes. On a day when we are hearing that over 250 people died waiting in emergency departments in 2021, the people of Northern Ireland deserve much better.
Concerns about the Brexit that the DUP birthed ought to be resolved through the negotiations under way between the UK Government and the EU, not by collapsing Stormont and subjecting local people to the pain that a lack of Government causes. It says a lot about the DUP's respect for the rule of law that the Agriculture Minister announced, on Wednesday, his desire to breach international law, and, by Friday, the party was once again choosing to cosy up with paramilitaries and meeting the Loyalist Communities Council, which is group that includes the outlawed, proscribed terrorist organisations of the UVF, the UDA and the Red Hand Commando.
Whilst the DUP fights internally like cats in a bag, continuing its own stunt politics as a pathetic attempt to claw back votes lost, it is our duty as MLAs to get as much legislation passed as possible. Now is not the time to knock off early. We need to get the job done and work to the end of the mandate.
There has been a lot of posturing and revisionism in the House today. Some are mystified by unionist outrage at the Northern Ireland protocol. It is important, for the record of the House, to say that the Irish Sea border does not have the support of a single elected representative in this place. There are those in the House who simply expect unionism to stand idly by whilst they call for the rigorous implementation of an Irish Sea border. They would have us do nothing in the face of the continuing economic and constitutional carnage that the protocol is causing, but what if the shoe was on the other foot?
"use whatever powers we have at our disposal to ensure that the protocol remains in place".
The hypocrisy and double standards are staggering. Sinn Féin would collapse this place in a heartbeat over narrow pet projects like the Irish language, for example, but is happy to ignore the Irish Sea border, which is a threat to the prosperity of everyone everywhere.
We have heard much from the other parties in the past few days about democracy being denied, and there has been talk of unionists imposing their will on nationalists. Remember that certain nationalists in the House would not even consent to the planting of a tree or a rose bush to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland, and, indeed, this is also Her Majesty's platinum jubilee year. Well, I have news for them: the protocol and the Irish Sea border are completely undemocratic. Businesses and consumers have to abide by rules made by a foreign power without their input or consent. It has added the insult of disenfranchising an entire community — the unionist community.
Many Members here want to talk about how the Belfast Agreement is a settlement for peace in Northern Ireland. At the core of the Belfast Agreement is the principle of consent; a principle that was tossed in the dustbin by Europe and, indeed, by those involved in the design of the protocol. They have played fast and loose with the Northern Ireland settlement, so we will not accept the artificial outrage of some parties in the House.
Concerns have been expressed about the lack of a functioning Executive —
The people of the North deserved to have politicians working for them for the full five years of this mandate, but what did they get? They were already robbed of three years when Sinn Féin collapsed the place, and now the DUP is intent on robbing people of the little time that is left. At a time when people are struggling to feed their families and to heat their homes and when businesses are struggling to recover from a pandemic, the actions of the DUP leadership represent a gross betrayal of people here. Whatever community you are from and whatever your background or beliefs, no one benefits from this. It is a cynical and totally predictable electioneering stunt.
Resigning from government when people face a cost-of-living crisis tells you all that you need to know about the DUP: for it, the party will always come first, and ordinary people come last. Yet again, it is trying to treat the people of Northern Ireland as if they are fools. The people of Northern Ireland are not fools. They watched Brexit unfold; they know who helped to deliver a hard Brexit; they know who owns the protocol; and they deserve better than yet another manufactured political crisis. The party political interests of the DUP cannot be allowed to eclipse the interests of people waiting for hospital treatment, those in need of welfare mitigations, children in need of special educational needs support and people who expect and should be able to access good public services.
This DUP drama has been concocted by Jeffrey Donaldson as a last, desperate attempt to resuscitate its flagging poll numbers ahead of an Assembly election. The SDLP is ready for an election, but we can also see the trap that the DUP has, in its desperation, set. It wants an early election so that it can manipulate and scare people to the polls. The SDLP urges other parties not to fall into that trap. Do not give the DUP the toxic backdrop that it so desperately needs for the election: put people first. There are key Bills at key stages working their way through the Assembly, and they should not be put at risk for party self-interest. People want us to get on with doing the job that we are elected to do with the time that we have left, and we should use every minute that remains in the mandate to get the remaining legislation through, be it on climate change, organ donation, violence against women, period poverty or the many other issues. Rather than playing into this self-serving stunt, we should put our people first, address the cost-of-living crisis —
Walking away from our responsibilities will not resolve any of the issues that surround the protocol. The only thing that it will do is to hurt our people — the old, the young and the vulnerable — and the future of our children in Northern Ireland. I met the leader of the DUP on multiple occasions to talk this through. I said to him that collapsing the institutions or removing the First Minister would be a bad idea and explained my reasons for saying that. He has, however, now taken that decision; that decision is there. What we have to do is to analyse where we are right now and what we can do to maximise the legislation that is going through the Assembly for the betterment of the people of Northern Ireland. If we can stay focused on that, we can mitigate some of the damage.
There are issues and genuine concerns around the protocol, and we cannot just ignore them. We never supported the protocol. We warned of the protocol on 2 October 2019, when the then leader of the DUP said that it was a pretty good idea, and in March 2020, when the now leader of the DUP told us about the great virtues of the protocol and about how it was an opportunity and would not affect our sovereignty. That was then, and this is now.
The protocol has created a feast and a famine. The feast is that some businesses are doing well out of the protocol. I have met them, and — I cannot lie — the protocol is good for them. However, there is also a famine in that some of our businesses are absolutely on their knees. We have to fix that, but we will fix it only by speaking to the UK Government and the EU and getting them to understand that feast or famine issue and to fix the problems.
There is absolutely no requirement for an Irish Sea border. It should not be there; there is no need for it. The rigorous implementers probably look at it and say, "When I refer to this, I don't think we actually need it". In the House, we could all come together, be it five parties, all parties or all 90 MLAs, and write to the EU and the UK Government to say, "We do not believe that there need to be checks on goods that come from Great Britain to Northern Ireland if those goods are remaining in Northern Ireland". If they are going on to the EU single market, they absolutely should be checked, but they do not need to be checked if they are staying in Northern Ireland. That is only one issue around the protocol, but, as a House, we could do that. If we genuinely believe that there is no reason for checks between GB and Northern Ireland, we can absolutely do that together. We can be united and try to mitigate the problems and fix the issues, or we can stand here and poke each other in the eye. If the aim is to stand here and poke each other in the eye for the sake of it, we will not make this place better for the people here.
I urge Members to come together. I urge that we write that letter. It can be from the Speaker or from party leaders. We can do that, and we can fix this problem.
Paul Givan's resignation as First Minister on Thursday marks another sad day in our country's political history. The actions of the DUP are completely irresponsible and reprehensible. It is a pre-election stunt. The question remains around what happens to all of the important legislation that we are looking at. If there is any form of early election, and decisions cannot be taken by the Executive, the most vulnerable will be the hardest hit. With no Budget agreed, where does that leave us? How are we supposed to support our local communities? How are we supposed to support our community organisations? They do the fantastic work of supporting our most vulnerable, but they will have to wait to hear, yet again, about funding and whether it is coming. There is the absolutely unforgivable situation in which survivors of historical abuse might not get the apology from the First Minister and deputy First Ministers when they were informed that they would.
A raft of important legislation is moving through the Assembly, including a number of Bills that would introduce critical new legal protections for people in Northern Ireland. Should an early election be called, they may fall. What happens about welfare payments? What about the climate Bill, the adoption Bill and the autism Bill? What about the other legislative proposals that were to come from the Executive? What about the commissioning of abortion services and the protection of women and girls accessing those services? What about organ donation, the flexible school starting age, tackling period poverty and a proper ban on fracking?
For 18 months, my staff and I have been working on legislation to protect and support victims and survivors of domestic abuse and to ensure that they have the right to paid leave from work. As a member of the Justice Committee, I have been working on strengthening child protection laws, introducing new sexual offences and human trafficking legislation, all of which are jeopardised by this latest crisis.
It is time to let the rest of us get on with our job, which is to legislate to make life in Northern Ireland better. I want Stormont to work. The election in May will give voters the chance to have their say on how they want politics to change — something that is very long overdue. The time for playground politics is over. It is time for us to do what we are elected to do: to deliver for our people by passing crucial legislation. While other parties manufacture crises, we in the Green Party remain focused on delivering for every person in Northern Ireland.
Though it may be the approach of an election that drove the DUP, my only complaint is that it did not act sooner. The protocol is a full-frontal attack on Northern Ireland's constitutional position within the United Kingdom. To place Northern Ireland in a foreign single market for goods, under a foreign customs code and a foreign VAT regime, all overseen by foreign laws and adjudicated upon by a foreign court, is wholly incompatible with our position as part of the United Kingdom. It is summed up in the fact that, under the protocol, the rest of the kingdom is deemed to be a third country — a foreign country. That cannot be reconciled with our position as an integral part of the United Kingdom.
Therefore, so long as Stormont had to implement that, it was a price that no unionist could ever — should ever — have paid. There was the folly of allowing the protocol to bed in with the Poots posts and checks. That was an unnecessary and foolhardy step, but we are now in a position where the chickens of the protocol have come home to roost. We were told that the protocol was about protecting the Belfast Agreement institutions. Now, they are in tatters, thanks to the protocol. It is the supporters of the protocol who need to examine themselves. The protocol is the destroyer of not just our position in the United Kingdom but these institutions. It is your protocol that has brought us to this point. It is your protocol — you own it.
I am a supporter of devolution. I want to see political stability in Northern Ireland, but that has been threatened and put under severe pressure by the protocol. Let me be clear: the protocol does not have the support or the consent of unionists. The protocol does not protect the Belfast Agreement. It actually requires changes to the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which removed the cross-community consent mechanism. The protocol changes the position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom without the consent of the people. The protocol is not the basis on which we can build secure and stable government.
That is what the protocol does not do, but what does the protocol do? The protocol necessitates border infrastructure. It requires control posts at our ports. It necessitates checks, even checks on personal luggage that is being brought from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, and it necessitates changes that would require charges in order to bring goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland under the official control regulations. That is what the protocol requires. Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Alliance Party and others want it rigorously implemented — rigorously implemented.
Mr Speaker, let me ask a question. If we required checks and charges and control posts on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, would Members on the other side of the House demand that that be rigorously implemented? Would Members on that side of the House say that that was a firm basis on which devolution could be built? Of course they would not. S
We are not in a place now where we will have stable and secure government until the poison of the protocol is dealt with. It is time for the UK and the EU to take action, and, if they fail to do so, the UK must take action unilaterally. Progress can be made only when the process commands the support both of unionists and nationalists, and the protocol has ensured that such support does not exist today.
The resignation of the First Minister will have and is having dreadful consequences, none more so than on the victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse. It is difficult to think of a worse event in the life of a child than to be abused by those who are in charge of protecting them and caring for them. For some of those children it was sexual abuse; for others, it was physical abuse. For many more, it was psychological abuse, and, for some of them, it was all those things. Those children who survived are now adults, many in declining years, with some having tragically died in the years since.
That abuse was made much worse over the years by the knowledge that society looked the other way. Those who should have taken responsibility did not do so. In some instances, those were institutions of the Catholic Church. In others, it was institutions of the Protestant faith, and some children were abused and neglected by homes run by charities. In all those cases, the institutions were operating on behalf of the state, and that it why it is right and proper that an apology be issued in the name of the state by its most senior representatives, the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
After decades of campaigning, victims believed that progress had been made with the inquiry led by Sir Anthony Hart. The inquiry reported in January 2017, which is more than five years ago. Victims expected the recommendations to be adopted and implemented. They expected redress, a memorial and an apology. Five years on, some victims have received financial redress, but there has been no memorial and no apology, which many of the victims see as the most important element of the redress. Those victims have been contacting me all weekend to tell me that they feel insulted, hurt and upset and that they are re-traumatised because the apology that they expected five years ago and that they still have not received was promised to be finally delivered on 11 March of this year, yet it seems that it will not be delivered to them. In fact, how can it be delivered on behalf of the state when the First Minister walked out of his job?
I understand totally why the victims and survivors feel that hurt and fresh trauma. I share their upset. I have spoken with groups and survivors, and I feel the pain that they have expressed so clearly and distinctly to me. We all have our political priorities. We all have concerns that drive us as politicians, but, quite frankly, how can we do this to those people? How can we neglect so badly our people who have been hurt so badly —
As we all know, there are 90 Members of the House. They represent different parties and none, different philosophies, different policies and different constitutional preferences. However, I would be bold enough to suggest that we should all have one common aim: to make Northern Ireland work, measured by the quality of our public services, by the sense of prosperity of our people, by their physical and mental well-being and by the sort of society that we bequeath to future generations. It is the same whatever your constitutional preference, because, after all, we are going to ask people to vote for the status quo or for change. What is the first rule of marketing? It is, "Whatever you are selling, make it easy to buy". That is why I have never understood why some in the House describe this place as a "failed statelet". Who wants to buy that?
Making Northern Ireland work should be our common aim, and the Executive Office has a clear leadership role in delivering on making Northern Ireland work. Members will know — I find it a matter of deep regret — that it is the fifteenth year in a row that the two parties that occupy Stormont Castle are in that leadership role but, to my mind and to that of many others, failing to deliver that leadership. We see in the resignation of the First Minister short-term, self-interested tactics, when people want societal strategies and long-term visions for our health service, for our housing, for the education of our children and for our economy.
Yes, the protocol is an issue for many of us on this side of the House, and Mr Beattie has made clear how we might tackle that. However, what we have done with the protocol is what we often do in the House: we take a challenge, and we turn it into a crisis. If we were mature politicians, we would accept it as a challenge, and we would work together as politicians, as we are committed to do, consociationally, to achieve a resolution.
The impact of the resignation of the First Minister is potentially far-reaching. It is already being felt by the most vulnerable in our community, including the victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse, with whom it has been my privilege to work for over 10 years. To jeopardise in any way the apology due to victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse is a gross, cruel and unacceptable abdication of responsibility.
I have spoken to Margaret McGuckin, chairperson of Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse, and the resignation is causing significant hurt and concern. I asked Margaret what the scheduled apology meant to the victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse. Margaret said:
"It tells people who have carried the shame of institutional child abuse for a lifetime, 'It was not your fault'. It means that a lifetime of blame, shame and stigma is lifted from our shoulders and put on the shoulders where it belongs. The weight of carrying so much pain, shame and blame for a lifetime was slightly lifted by the setting of a date for our apology of 11 March 2022. This announcement, five years after the anniversary of the Hart inquiry findings, vindicated us, telling us we were believed. How can you now ask us to take this weight back on our shoulders? Shame on you. We continue to carry a heavy burden that does not belong to us. Take it from us. Let it be released."
I hope that the DUP is listening to that plea. It is my privilege to deliver it on behalf of the victims and survivors.
I have heard a lot being said about this matter today, but I am surprised that people could not see that it was coming. I am also surprised that people cannot see the role that they have played in bringing it about. We had a debate in the Chamber some time ago in which the SDLP, Sinn Féin, the Alliance Party and the Green Party all called for the rigorous implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. We got a report from the EU Commission some weeks ago, which was placed in the Assembly Library, that indicates what the rigorous implementation of the protocol means.
For some years, people who had travelled back from various parts of the world through Aldergrove airport would have seen a notice about what they were supposed to do with food and other items that they were bringing in from third countries. The EU expects us to do that with food that is coming in from Britain. How many planes, trucks and cars come into Northern Ireland from Great Britain every day? The EU is demanding that we ask people to open their suitcases and bags, and if there are a few mandarin oranges in there that they bought for the children on the ferry on the way home left over, those are deemed to be an at-risk item. That is the perversity of what Members across the Chamber are demanding, yet they then scratch their head when it all goes wrong.
Mr Beattie is right, and, on a number of occasions, I appealed in the Executive for the need to come together to arrive at a position that is good for Northern Ireland, not one that is good for nationalism. It is evident to me today that we have a group of people who are happy with majority rule now but who, 40 years ago, were demanding an end to majority rule. If majority rule was not right for unionism, according to nationalist politicians, why now is it the right thing for nationalist politicians on issues such as this?
The basis for having this place back together is cross-community agreement, but we do not have it. We have appealed again and again to the European Union to come to some logical position on the protocol, but it has dragged its feet. The operational Command Paper in July was good as far as it went. It would have been a basis for moving forward, but we have had foot-dragging ever since. I am sorry: you can drag your feet as long as you like, but there will not be —