Section 39(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 provides:
"Each Assembly shall as its first business elect from among its members a Presiding Officer and deputies."
The Assembly therefore cannot conduct any further business until a Speaker and at least two Deputy Speakers have been elected. Members should be clear: without the election of a Speaker and two Deputy Speakers, no further business can proceed. I advise Members that the election of a Speaker will be conducted under the procedures set out in Standing Order 4. Further to Standing Order 4(8), I am the Acting Speaker today for the purpose of electing a Speaker.
I will begin by asking for nominations. Any Member may rise to propose that another Member be elected as Speaker. I will then ask for the proposal to be seconded by another Member, as required by Standing Order 14. I will then verify that the Member seconded is willing to accept the nomination. I will then ask for further proposals and follow the same procedure for each. When it appears that there are no further proposals, I will make it clear that the time for proposals has passed. If Members indicate that they wish to speak, a debate relevant to the election may then take place, during which Members will have up to five minutes to speak.
At the conclusion of the debate or, if there are no requests to speak, the conclusion of the nominations, I shall put the Question that the Member first proposed shall be Speaker of the Assembly. The vote will be on a cross-community basis. If the proposal is not carried, I shall put the Question on the next nominee and so on, until all nominations are exhausted. Once a Speaker is elected, all other nominations will fall automatically.
Members, do I have a proposal for the office of Speaker of the Assembly?
Thank you. The time for proposals has now expired. A number of Members have indicated that they wish to speak. I remind Members that they may speak only once during the course of the debate. Members will have up to five minutes in which to speak.
Today, the Assembly is meeting in a last-ditch attempt to form a Government and get things up and moving. People will be watching, bewildered, as they go to their work, and they want to see their politicians doing the same. Most of us are here because we want to do the job that we were elected to do. Today, our caretaker Ministers rally to take decisions within tight limits before their civil servants are left in an impossible position come midnight, where they are expected to run our essential public services yet have no Budget and no powers to do so.
Jeffrey Donaldson and the DUP are in a perpetual stand-off with the public, the majority of whom they do not speak for or, indeed, represent. He stood for election, yet failed to show up. This is his mess and a failure of leadership by him and his party. Jeffrey Donaldson and the DUP have left us all at the mercy of the heartless and dysfunctional Tory Government, whose own survival is all that ever counts. The Tories care less for the consequences that their dire policy decisions and political choices have on the lives of workers and families here. Jeffrey Donaldson points the finger at everyone else for the DUP's indefensible and enduring failures.
The fact is that, back in May, people voted for change. They voted because they want politics to work. The electorate want grown-up politicians to take everyday challenges seriously — the things that impact on the lives of workers and families. Jeffrey Donaldson and the DUP do not take those matters seriously. At a time when so many workers, families and businesses are suffering from the incredible pressures of the cost-of-living crisis, at a time when our health service is broken and needs to be fixed and at a time when waiting lists need to be tackled, people need to know that we have their backs.
The Secretary of State met with the parties yesterday and restated his position that, at one minute past midnight tonight, should no First Minister and deputy First Minister be appointed, he will call another election. Here we are in the Chamber today, and, in this hour, we could appoint a Speaker, a First Minister, a deputy First Minister and a new Executive who could meet immediately to take decisions to put money into people's pockets today. The DUP, however, continues to deny and disrespect the outcome of the May election. The DUP wants yesterday: it is no longer available to you. What the people here want is the change that they voted for back in the May election.
Yesterday evening, the new British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, met the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen. They stressed the importance that they both place on relationships between London and Brussels, and on working together as friends and allies as they confront the global challenges, the uncertainties of war in Europe and the energy crisis. They also stated their shared preference for joint solutions and a negotiated solution to the current protocol issues, which will provide the stability and predictability that society and businesses here need after the disruption and upheaval of Brexit.
Most parties in the Chamber, whilst opposed to Brexit, support the protocol and want it to work better. So, the negotiating parties have our fulsome support to land a deal. For the avoidance of doubt, however, let us also be clear: this Assembly and Executive have no mandate nor any role in those negotiations. So, to hold back power-sharing and to hold down the public in the meantime is futile, reckless, short-sighted and senseless.
The public will give their verdict on all of that in the next number of weeks. If the DUP continues to block power-sharing, let us also be clear that direct rule as we have known it in the past is not an option. The alternative to power-sharing is joint authority from London and Dublin.
The recall of the Assembly is another flawed and failed attempt to form a new Executive, and, each time, unionist Members and our mandate are disrespected. Power-sharing, if it is to mean anything, has to be about consensus and consent, not contempt, which is what we on these Benches have been subjected to on every occasion on which the Assembly has been recalled over the past six months. It has no credibility coming from the parties that demanded a border within the United Kingdom, down the Irish Sea. It has no credibility coming from Sinn Féin, which refuses to take its seats at Westminster and boycotted the Assembly for three years. The self-proclaimed "First Minister for all" walked out of the health service and kept the institutions down for three years. The Alliance Party demands majority rule to exclude the DUP. Not once did it join unionists and seek a recall of the Assembly in the three years in which Sinn Féin blocked it. Not once did the Alliance Party seek to exclude Sinn Féin in order to reform the institutions, but now it wants to exclude unionism. The SDLP, along with Sinn Féin and the Alliance Party, now calls for joint authority and seeks to threaten unionism.
Progress will not be made by trying to isolate, denigrate and intimidate the Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP supports devolution. We are ready to appoint Ministers today, and we respect the mandates of all parties and the positions that they are entitled to on the basis of the last election. However, the barrier to devolution is not the DUP; it is the Northern Ireland protocol. When that is addressed, we will be ready to form a new Executive. That is our position now, and it will be after the election, irrespective of the outcome.
The Secretary of State needs to get on with his job so that we can do ours. Two years ago, the United Kingdom Government made a commitment in 'New Decade, New Approach' that Northern Ireland's place in the UK internal market would be fully restored and respected. They have failed to do that, compounding the failure of that Government and this Secretary of State, who voted for the legislation that created the mess of the protocol. I remind Members that, at a time of cost-of-living crisis, the protocol costs hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money through the trader support scheme: £6 million per month. That is £32 million for checks at the ports already. It has increased costs for businesses and consumers. It threatens our medicine supply chain for humans and animals. It is driving up the cost of infrastructure with a tariff on steel. It excludes Northern Ireland from benefiting from any VAT reduction that may come into place in Great Britain. The protocol is the biggest driver of the cost-of-living crisis in a Northern Ireland context.
As people face a cost-of-living crisis, the Secretary of State is set to call an election so that he can save face. If the Secretary of State does so, it will be an admission of failure on his part and on the part of the UK Government. Although they have promised the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and are negotiating with the European Union, there has to this day been abject failure on the part of the UK Government. The Secretary of State will own the decision to call the election. However, unlike the Conservative Party, we are not afraid of an election, if one is called. We are ready to seek a renewed mandate to get a fair deal for the restoration of devolution on the basis of unionist and nationalist support. That is the solid foundation on which the Assembly needs to be created.
I thank the Member for giving way. He is absolutely right to highlight, in a cost-of-living crisis, the huge costs that have been associated with the Northern Ireland protocol to date. Does he agree that that is a semi-skimmed version of the protocol, which, to date, has been operating at only 10%? If we get the full-fat version supported by Alliance, Sinn Féin and, indeed, the SDLP, what will the costs be? Our logistics sector would come to a halt within 48 hours. It is ludicrous.
I am glad that the Member for Strangford recognises that there are unionists in the Chamber.
Mr Buckley is absolutely right. What you have now is a very limited form of the protocol being implemented, although the parties opposite all want its rigorous implementation to completely hamstring the people of Northern Ireland. The unionist population will have an opportunity in this election to send a clear message to the European Union: Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and we will have our place in that Union fully respected. To unionist voters I say this: divided unionism cannot win elections. Now is the time to come together. The Democratic Unionist Party is being tested. We will remain strong and resolute: so too will the unionist people of Northern Ireland.
I intend to keep my remarks short. Given what we have heard already, I think that there is little to be said in the debate. We will, no doubt, throughout the debate rehearse the impact of the failure to elect a Speaker today on our public services, our public finances, individual's lives, with the cost-of-living crisis, and these institutions and public confidence in them.
To be clear, Mr Acting Speaker, the vote that will take place at the end of the debate is not a vote on who will sit in the Chair that you currently occupy. No one outside the Chamber and few of us in the Chamber actually care one way or the other who that will be. We care only that someone will occupy that Chair in order that we can do business and the jobs that we were elected to do and that we can serve the public to the fullest of our ability. The Question that we will vote on at the end of the debate, therefore, is not whether we know that the people of Northern Ireland are suffering. We all know that they are as a result of there being no institutions here. It is not whether we know that our public finances are in a parlous state. We all know that already, and it has been rehearsed many times. It is not about whether we know that our public services are on their knees. We all know that they are on their knees, and those that are not already on their knees are teetering on the brink. It is not whether we know, to quote Paul Givan in previous conversation:
"All paths lead back to the Assembly".
It is whether we care about those issues and whether we care enough to prioritise them over party political interest. I think that the previous Member to speak gave us an insight into what that party's answer is going to be.
As in every other sitting, I am clear what our answer is. The people of Northern Ireland and their needs and interests come first, and what is in their interests is a functioning Assembly, a functioning Executive, sustainable institutions and power-sharing. Let us talk about power-sharing. Let us talk about respect for mandate. It is ironic that a Member would get up and hold forth on those issues whilst entirely disregarding those of us who sit in the Chamber with a mandate to be something other than unionist or nationalist.
They entirely disregard our right to define ourselves and, instead, through heckles from the Back Benches and the one-seat wonder behind me, we are told what we are through the lens of nothing more than prejudice rather than from the people who recognise what we stand for and our values and put their confidence in us in May.
I will take no lectures from the DUP on issues of respect. I will take no lectures from the DUP on issues of reform and the unpicking of these institutions. The DUP is being hoist by a petard of its making in St Andrews. Had it not changed the rules then as a demand to come back into government — there is always a demand before coming into government — it would hold the office of First Minister now. Think on that. Think on that.
Neither will I take advice from the DUP on whether or not we should have reform. I simply caution its members, before they hold forth on the issues of majoritarianism, to look at the history of their party, their 2011 manifesto where they would quite happily have had a voluntary coalition and their 2016 manifesto where they would have had a voluntary coalition and where nobody else's mandate would have been respected. Our modest reforms respect not only the DUP's mandate —
I absolutely agree. To be clear: the DUP has argued for reform. We are arguing for reform that respects its mandate to be in government and gives it the right that we, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP have — we confer those rights on the main parties in the Chamber — to walk away if it wishes to but confers the right on the public to have an Executive of their choosing.
I will also not take lectures on the cost-of-living crisis. Let me just remind the DUP that Sammy Wilson is probably the only human being alive who is still championing the Liz Truss mini fiscal event. Reflect on that when you try to pay your mortgages. That is what I would advise people.
There is an awful lot of anger in the Chamber today, and I understand that, but the anger being shown on the Floor today is nothing compared with the anger on the streets and in the towns and villages of Northern Ireland. We are all going to feel a little bit of that anger in the next six or seven weeks. It will be fun.
I will start with a little bit of good news. I give a big shout-out to the campaign to save the Craigavon lakes and parks. They have worked for six years and finally got the decision overturned so that the park in central Craigavon will no longer be destroyed. I shout out to them, "Well done". The next one to deal with is Knock Iveagh, and we all know that I have championed that.
I also want to take a moment, please, to thank Robin Swann, our Health Minister, for all that he has done in the last two years. It has been exceptional in exceptionally difficult times and in the middle of COVID. He has been fantastic. It is only right and fair —
Absolutely, Mr Acting Speaker. I have said it now, so it hardly matters.
Interestingly, when the new Prime Minister became the Prime Minister, the first thing that he did was to call the leaders of the Welsh and Scottish Governments to pass on his vision for the United Kingdom. He has not phoned the Northern Ireland First Minister or deputy First Minister because we have neither. He spoke about the intergovernmental relations forum, which is the four nations coming together to talk about the issues that affect all corners of this United Kingdom that we are part of.
We will not be part of that, because we do not have a Government running at this moment. We are being put on the windowsill of the United Kingdom, and that concerns me as a whole-UK unionist and as an Ulster Unionist. Of course, that is because of the protocol, and the protocol is absolutely an issue. People have changed on that issue from demanding "rigorous implementation" to saying, "Actually, there are fundamental problems here" —
I will not, Jonny — "There are fundamental problems here, and we have to deal with those fundamental problems". There are, and we do. We cannot ignore it. We have been arguing the case since 2019 that we need to fix those problems, but fixing those problems should not be done to the detriment of stable government. They can be done at the same time. They are being done at the same time. They are being done as we speak. Things have moved, and conversations have changed, but it is our people who are suffering.
As we get into this place where we have nothing — we do not have even the basis or foundations of any form of government in Northern Ireland because the last vestiges of it go at midnight tonight — I am really concerned that people are going out of their way to unpick the Belfast Agreement. The language that is being used is not helping. "Joint authority": nobody is defining what that is. It is just not helpful. It is not going to happen. We know that it does not happen. The Belfast Agreement does not allow for it. We are just using that language because we have to poke each other in the eye. It is what we do all the time.
I will always stand up and promote the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. I will always stand up to say that we need government up and running. I will always say that it is better to have the arguments in this place and provide for the people out there. I am happy with that, and I think that most of the people here, regardless of where they sit in this place, want to do exactly that: provide for the people out there. We have to fix the issues around the protocol, and we can do that if we come together, and we can come together if we have an Executive.
We need to get back to work. We need to get back to work to support our economy. We need to get back to work to support people's jobs. We need to get back to work to deal with the nurses' pay claims because it will focus minds in the middle of December if our nurses are on a picket line and we are going out asking for votes. It will focus all our minds. We need to get together to find a solution and get the Government to start moving on the replacement for the European social fund. People will lose out because it is not there, and we will lose jobs. We need to get back to work to promote for all our people, who are suffering as we speak. I said before that all that they are getting out of here from leadership is silence, except for the arguments and rants that they will get today. Of course, I am part of that because I am just as angry.
We need to get back to work now. We need to find a mechanism to get back to work. The Secretary of State needs to listen. An election will not be good. What I want is the parties coming together for talks: something to try to come up with some sort of a deal or compromise needs to be put in place. I want to get back to work. I would be back in here today. I would be back in here tomorrow. The Ulster Unionist Party wants to serve.
First of all, in nominating Patsy McGlone, I welcome the passage of the culture and language Bill at Westminster. Patsy would be a fine Speaker, and, as the most fluent Gaeilgeoir in the Chamber, he would be the perfect person in this era.
In July, we met to pay tribute to David Trimble, one of the key builders of the institutions. At the time, I said that many of us had lost the ability or the willingness to build things and that some of us simply wanted to tear things down. Three months on, and, sadly, that has not changed. While the Assembly has sat mothballed and silent, people's homes have got colder, their trust in politics has fallen even further, and their lives have got harder. My party is not responsible for that mess, but I am ashamed by it. I am ashamed of this place because, unlike others in the Chamber, I am capable of shame.
In May, we asked people to vote for us and our parties on the basis that we would come here to represent their interests and to try to make their lives better. Since then, the cost-of-living crisis has deepened and been intensified by the actions of the Conservative Government in pursuing kamikaze economic policies that are designed to make rich people richer but, in fact, make everyone poorer. Headline inflation is at a 40-year high. The cost of budget food items has risen by 17%. Energy costs have multiplied, as we all know. Gas and electricity bill payers here await reductions to their bills. People on pre-payment meters do not know when they will get support. For home heating oil users, which is most people in Northern Ireland, all that they have is the vague promise of a paltry £100. All that is compounded by the fact that we have the lowest disposable income in these islands and our healthcare crisis and the crises in various public services deepen by the day.
To say, as the party opposite has done, that devolved government can do little in these circumstances is as nihilistic as it is untrue. There may not be limitless resources to make everything better, but, without Ministers, things will unquestionably get worse. Budgets will not rise. Nurses and doctors will not be recruited. Plans will not be made. Investment will be stalled. The previous collapse in 2017 is sometimes cited as justification for this collapse. Let me be clear: that was wrong, too. It damaged our economy and harmed public services. Two wrongs do not make a right.
It is true to say that the Chamber does not have much influence on EU-UK relations and the protocol. If we were sitting in an Assembly and there was a functioning Executive, we might, at least, be able to try to find a common voice on what we want from our post-Brexit arrangements. People here are not just losing faith in politics and democracy; they are losing interest. What we are doing today is a farce, but it is also a tragedy. It is completely removed from the needs of real people who are suffering. To the Members opposite, I say this: your constituents are suffering, too. Another election would be a farce. It should not happen. An election to what? It would serve simply to polarise people and waste millions of pounds at a time when people are in need and public services are collapsing. It would stretch the elastic of public confidence and public patience beyond breaking point.
Unionism used to say that it wanted nationalists to make Northern Ireland work. If only we were allowed. If only they would do the same. The DUP seems set on turning this place into an ungoverned and ungovernable mess. That is a tragedy for everyone who lives here, but it is a huge strategic error for unionism because the result would not be safe direct rule from London, which would be untenable and unacceptable, not least from this wholly discredited Tory Government; the result would be an inevitable increase in the number of people, including fairly moderates ones, who would ask whether the real way to make Northern Ireland work is to seek a new North in a new Ireland inside Europe.
I want the Assembly to sit. I want to serve the people of South Belfast and all of Northern Ireland. The SDLP wants to be a constructive Opposition to those who have been given the right to serve in government and ministerial office. However, if we are all forced simply to live amid the ruins of one party's destructive and self-destructive urges, our attention and that of others will turn inevitably to building something new and better for all the people of this place.
How dare unionists stand up for themselves? How dare unionists say that they cannot operate a system that requires them to operate a protocol that decrees that GB is a foreign country? How dare unionists not accept the partitioning of the United Kingdom? How dare unionists say that they will not accept, colony-like, foreign laws over which they have no control or input? How dare unionists think of using the only leverage that they have to force change on those issues? That is the arrogant, belligerent message that is coming across in the House: who do you unionists think you are that you should dare to stand up for what you believe in? Of course, it is coming loudest and clearest from those who — for not one, not two, but three years — brought government in the Province to a halt until, through using their leverage, they got what they needed, but how dare unionists think that they should dare to defend the Union? The protocol is dismantling the Union. That is why, of course, its greatest cheerleaders are Sinn Féin and its little helpers in the House.
I thank the Member for giving way. There are many Members in the House who are not interested in the genuine economic concerns imposed by the protocol, but what about the independent experts who, at a House of Lords Committee just last week, said that, with full implementation of the protocol, supply chains would grind to a halt within 48 hours? What about the pharmaceutical companies that said that they would have a huge problem with the supply of medicines to Northern Ireland? Are those not issues that affect all of our people?
They are, but, sadly, most in the House do not care. They do not care that our farming industry faces a crisis because, come 31 December, 51% of our veterinary medicines will not be available. They do not care about the rise in steel prices. They do not care about the 30% increase in travel costs. They care only about the precious protocol because they see it as delivering their all-island economy, which they see as a stepping stone.
I am sure that we will have an opportunity to hear from you later.
I say this gently to Mr Doug Beattie, who seems to put faith in certain talks: those talks cannot deliver a solution, because they are circumscribed by the mandate that the EU has given them. That mandate is only to tinker; it is only to make the protocol work better — whatever that means. There is no mandate that allows the sovereignty issue to be addressed in those talks. Sovereignty is the fundamental issue with the protocol: the fact that we are subject to foreign laws and that the other part of our nation is decreed to be a foreign country and, therefore, we must check its goods. Those issues are incapable of being addressed in those talks because the parameters of the talks do not extend to them. It is a delusion to think, "If only we could have those talks".
Of course, it is equally a delusion to think, "If only we could have Stormont, there would be no cost-of-living crisis, no fuel hikes, no problems in our health service": utter delusion. The utter delusion is rooted in the fact that the Assembly and the Executive, if there were one, have no money of themselves. All of those issues depend entirely on the generosity of the Treasury. Without the Assembly, money is coming for the energy crisis just as money came for COVID. Where from? The Treasury. It is another delusion that feeds the ego of some in the House who think, "If only we could get Stormont back". Those talks will not deliver.
Let me say this to the Secretary of State: you can call an election. Bring it on, Secretary of State. I will be there to try to stiffen the resolve to make sure that unionism does not roll over and votes for strength not weakness. However, let us be very clear, Secretary of State: your first priority should not be trying to bludgeon unionists into submission on the protocol. Your first priority, Secretary of State, should be to defend the sovereignty and recover the sovereignty that was ill gotten by the EU over the very place for which you are the Secretary of State. If you are the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, you, as a Conservative and unionist, should be making sure that the Union rules in Northern Ireland, not the EU.
It was once famously written that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.
To that I would add, "and then the DUP", because recent history has shown that, no matter how much misery it inflicts on our communities and no matter the very real damage caused by its actions, it continues its song and dance about the protocol. The reason that the DUP has continued that cycle is very simple: its focus on the protocol is designed to divide people; to ramp up tensions; and, ultimately, to shore up its own vote. It believes that its grandstanding and political brinkmanship will distract from the fact that it has failed people on all sides during the cost-of-living crisis, but people are not easily fooled.
The party that initially backed the protocol is now telling people that the North should not be treated differently from the rest of the UK. Those same fundamentalists had no problem with the North being a special case when it came to the denial of abortion rights, equal marriage and minority language rights. Their hypocrisy is absolutely glaring. It is the same hypocrisy that saw a sitting DUP Minister have the gall to accuse the Tories of creating instability in the North, despite his party's refusal to govern. Let us remember that it was the DUP that for years propped up the Tories, who waged economic war on working-class people across these islands, giving handouts to the wealthy and austerity to the rest. It was the DUP and other parties here that voted through the cruel welfare reforms that are now wreaking havoc in hard-hit households. It was the DUP that, even last week, voted with Liz Truss's Government when her party colleagues were fleeing the sinking ship. Indeed, the DUP and the Tories are two sides of the same grubby coin.
When the Assembly last sat, the DUP assured us that it could still govern and that it could help tackle the cost-of-living crisis because Ministers were in place, but the actions of those Ministers have given little comfort to countless working-class people who are struggling to make ends meet. Having a sitting DUP Education Minister did not protect substitute teachers who found that they had not been paid their wages this month and who could still be waiting for money as we approach Christmas. There will be no solace for teachers who face having their already meagre wages cut for taking industrial action in the face of skyrocketing inflation. Similarly, as people struggle to heat their home or keep the lights on this winter, they will not look to the record of the DUP Economy Minister for any comfort, because they will find no attempt made to tackle the obscene profits of energy companies operating here. They are raking it in while people suffer.
Despite all that calamity, people still have some hope. Just this morning, I spoke with Housing Executive maintenance workers who have been on the picket line for 12 weeks and who have just announced a further four weeks of strike action. The Economy Minister here voted against the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Amendment) Bill that would have afforded those workers greater legal protection in the dispute. Many are worried about the effects of being left in the lurch.
They put themselves at risk during the pandemic to maintain people's homes, yet they are being offered an insulting 1·75% pay offer. It is being described as a rise when, in fact, it is an actual cut. One in three of those workers rely, disgracefully, on food banks, and many are paid just 6p above the minimum wage, despite the vital work that they do. I met maintenance workers this morning ahead of this sitting. They requested that I personally ask the Sinn Féin Communities Minister to intervene in the dispute to ensure that those workers get a proper pay rise. The money is there, and they should be paid what they are worth, which is a lot more than what is currently being offered.
I make a similar appeal to the outgoing, and any incoming, Health Minister, and it is this: we cannot endorse health workers getting a real-terms pay cut. Health workers are preparing for strike action in the near future, possibly in the weeks ahead. There are more disputes to come: Royal Mail workers are out on strike, as are BT and Openreach workers and council workers, not just for themselves but for everybody who relies on their services and deserves much better than what is being currently offered.
We must be clear that today's sitting is ultimately about the intransigence of the DUP. I urge it to stop playing with people's lives and get back into government. Make no mistake about it, however: we know that a restored Executive will not be the silver bullet that some may suggest. We know that previous Executives refused to act in the face of the cost-of-living crisis and that their previous economic agenda did nothing to uplift our communities. I have, frankly, no faith in politicians to deliver without a fight, but I have every faith in workers in our communities, and in ordinary people's ability, to keep up the pressure and deliver real change. Election or not, I will return to the picket lines in coming days, because, ultimately, that is where real change in our society happens: on the streets, in communities and outside workplaces, with people taking action.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.
Tá mé sásta seans a bheith agam labhairt anseo inniu. Ar dtús, ba mhaith liom cúpla focal a rá ar na himeachtaí a tharla in Westminster inné.
Lá cinniúnach stairiúil a bhí ann inné nuair a ritheadh reachtaíocht le haitheantas oifigiúil a thabhairt don Ghaeilge sa stát seo. I ndiaidh blianta fada i mbun feachtas le cearta agus cosaintí faoin dlí a chinntiú don Ghaeilge, is leis na gníomhairí pobail an lá seo toisc gurb iad a bhain Acht na Gaeilge amach. Theip ar an fhrithbheartaíocht i gcoinne an chomhionannais agus na gceart. Cuireann an reachtaíocht seo leis an dá fhéiniúlacht agus leis an dá chultúr, agus is geal linn í.
Tá súil agam go dtig linn tús a chur le ré nua ina mbeimid in ann ár gcultúir éagsúla, cultúir atá ar comhchéim lena chéile, a cheiliúradh agus ré ina mbeidh meas againn ar na difríochtaí atá eadrainn in áit an beag is fiú a dhéanamh díobh.
Ag bogadh ar aghaidh, ba mhaith liom a rá go bhfuil súil agam gur féidir linn Ceann Comhairle nua a thoghadh inniu, agus ina dhiaidh sin Céad Aire agus leas-Chéad Aire agus na hAirí ar fad eile.
Táimid i lár géarchéim eacnamaíochta inniu nár chuir mórán a leithéid díobh roimhe. Tá costas an bhia ag ardú go gasta in aghaidh an lae. Tháinig ardú fosta ar rátaí úis, agus tá a fhios againn go bhfuil tionchar díreach ag rátaí úis ar mhorgáistí. Gan chuidiú, caillfidh cuid mhór daoine a dteach cónaithe san am atá le teacht. Tá costas fuinnimh agus breosla ag ardú chomh maith. Is cinnte go bhfaghaidh daoine bás i rith an gheimhridh mar gheall ar ghanntanas bia nó teasa, nó b’fhéidir mar gheall ar an dá rud.
Leis an scéal a dhéanamh níos measa, tá an córas sláinte agus cúraim shóisialta faoi bhrú an-mhór; tá sé ag titim as a chéile. Is fíor go bhfuil daoine ag titim in éadóchas ag fanacht le cóir leighis sa tseirbhís sláinte; ní féidir leo coinne a fháil lena ndochtúirí fiú. Níl sé sin maith go leor. Toghadh muid uile go léir chun cuidiú le daoine, go háirithe nuair a bhéas an cineál géarchéime againn agus atá againn anois. Is léir go bhfuil ár gcuidiú de dhíth ar an phobal; tá siad tinn tuirseach de bheith ag éisteacht le tuilleadh leithscéalta ón DUP faoin phrótacal. Tá siad ag iarraidh go gcuirfí Rialtas ar bun láithreach. Tá sin tuillte acu.
Tá dualgas ar gach aon Chomhalta agus ar gach aon pháirtí anseo a ndícheall a dhéanamh le Ceann Comhairle agus Airí a thoghadh inniu.
Bíodh sin mar atá, creidimid go bhfuil sé de rún an ag DUP an pobal a fhágáil gan chosaint ar na Tóraithe i Londain. Níl aon amhras ná go bhfuil siad ag gearradh pionóis ar an phobal. Níl an Rialtas i Sasana ag gabháil a chuidiú linn. Is Airí tofa áitiúla amháin a bhéas toilteanach tuilleadh airgid a chur i bpócaí oibrithe agus i bpócaí teaghlach agus tacú le gnólachtaí beaga; is ionadaithe áitiúla amháin a bhéas réidh le gabháil i ngleic leis na fadhbanna sa chóras sláinte.
Tá Sinn Féin réidh le gabháil isteach sa Choiste Feidhmiúcháin inniu, agus tá Michelle O’Neill réidh a post mar Chéad Aire a ghlacadh.
Is léir go bhfuil dúshláin mhóra romhainn uile go léir. Mar sin de, ba mhaith liom a rá leis an DUP: bígí ag obair linn; taraigí isteach sa Choiste Feidhmiúcháin linn chun saol ár muintire a fheabhsú agus an éifeacht is measa den ghéarchéim sa chóras maireachtála a laghdú.
Déanaigí an rud ceart, agus déanaigí anois é.
Go raibh maith agat.
[Translation: Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Speaker, I am happy to have this opportunity to speak today. First, I would like to make a few remarks about the events in Westminster yesterday.
Yesterday was a defining and historic day as legislation passed to give official recognition to the Irish language in this State. After many years of campaigning to guarantee Irish language rights and protections in law, today belongs to the grassroots activists who have delivered Acht na Gaeilge. Resistance to equality and rights has failed. This legislation facilitates both identities and cultures and is welcome.
I hope that we can open a new chapter that allows us all to celebrate and express our equally legitimate cultures and which recognises our differences as something to be valued not diminished.
Moving on, I would like to say that I hope that we can elect a Speaker and, after that, a First Minister and a deputy First Minister and then all other Ministers.
Today, we are in the midst of an economic crisis, the like of which few people have experienced before. The cost of food is rising day after day. Interest rates have risen as well, and we know that interest rates have a direct influence on mortgages. Without help, many people will lose their homes in the time to come. The cost of energy and fuel is also rising, and it is certain that people will die during the winter for lack of food or heat. Or perhaps because of both.
To make matters worse, health and social care services are under enormous pressure; they are falling apart at the seams. People are becoming desperate waiting for treatment in the health service; they cannot even get an appointment to see their doctor. That is simply not good enough. We were all elected to help people, especially during the kind of crisis that we are experiencing now. It is clear that people need our help; they are sick and tired of listening to more DUP excuses on the protocol. They want a Government to be established immediately. They deserve that.
Every Member and every party has a duty to step up to the plate and elect a Speaker and Ministers today.
Be that as it may, we believe that the DUP intends to leave people with no defence against the Tories in London. There is no doubt that they are punishing the people. The Government in England are not going to help us here. Only locally elected Ministers can put more money in the pockets of workers and families and support small businesses; only local representatives can tackle the problems in the health system.
Sinn Féin is ready to go into the Executive today, and Michelle O’Neill is ready to accept the post of First Minister.
It is clear that there are big challenges before us all. Therefore, I want to say to the DUP: work with us; come into the Executive to improve people’s lives and mitigate the worst effects of the cost-of-living crisis.
Do the right thing for the people, and do it now.
Let us be clear: this is not a serious attempt to elect a Speaker. It is not even an attempt to have a debate about how we can best help those who are in need. It is not even a debate about how we can sort out the problems that are preventing political stability and the ability to form an Executive. Rather, it is the campaign launch from the parties opposite ahead of the election. This is nothing more than a stunt. Everyone here today knows that there will be no Speaker elected and that there will be no First Minister and deputy First Minister, or other Ministers, appointed, and we know why: because devolution in the Assembly and in the Executive can take place only when it is on a firm foundation, and that foundation has been shot to pieces by the Northern Ireland protocol. It has disrupted Northern Ireland's place within the United Kingdom, it has created an economic barrier and it has led to constitutional change without cross-community consent. We do not have political stability in Northern Ireland, and that is as a result of the protocol. To those who disagree, imagine for a second if there were checks, control posts, charges and bureaucracy between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Imagine if those were in place and nationalist Ministers were forced to implement those changes. That would not be acceptable to anyone, and it would not be a firm foundation on which we could build political stability.
We have heard much over the past number of months about the need to protect the Belfast Agreement: that the protocol is in some way a solution to that, and that it protects it. Of course it does not: it blows it to pieces. It has become apparent over the past number of days and weeks, in particular, that many of the parties opposite only care about the Belfast Agreement when it suits them, because we have the SDLP and Sinn Féin calling for joint authority, which is clearly a breach of the Belfast Agreement, and the Alliance Party wanting to exclude unionists from government here in Northern Ireland.
With due respect, I will take your advice, Mr Acting Speaker, not that of the Member sitting opposite, on points of order. I have two points of order, if I may. On the first point of order, is it in order for a Member to directly address another Member in the Chamber, as opposed to making their remarks through the Chair? On a second point of order, is it in order for a Member to stand in the Chamber and completely, deliberately and maliciously misrepresent, in an attempt to undermine their integrity, the position that has just been set out clearly by another Member?
Members, as I have indicated, my responsibility is limited to overseeing the election of the Speaker. Points of order in relation to any other matters need to be referred to the Speaker. However, the previous Speaker has always indicated to Members that they should use respect in the Chamber and that remarks should be referred through the Speaker and not directly to Members in the Chamber.
— because we have legitimate concerns, and those concerns are going to be listened to. It has always been the case that devolution has worked best when we have that buy-in and consent from unionists, nationalists — and, yes, from others; I acknowledge that. That is when it has worked best.
I thank the Member for giving way. I note that, when you were speaking, Members from the Alliance Party were rolling their eyes. Will you remind the House, Mr Lyons, how many times the Alliance Party recalled the House when Sinn Féin brought it down for three years? Will you remind the House how many times the Alliance Party tried to exclude Sinn Féin from government? Unionists will not sit down and be quiet. We are going to have our say.
I can confirm to the Member that not only did they not recall the Assembly, not only did they not call for the exclusion of Sinn Féin, but, when there was a recall debate, they did not even turn up. I think that that shows you where their priorities lie.
We do best here when we are working together — when we have a firm foundation on which to build stable devolution. We do not have that solid foundation right now, but I hope that we will. That is where the barrier is coming from.
Let me make one more point before I finish. There is a lot of cynicism in politics these days. That is understandable, but my party went into the last election on a very clear manifesto and with very clear pledges. We said that we would not return to government here unless those issues with the protocol were dealt with and dealt with once and for all. I simply say this: we made a promise, and we are going to keep it.
I rise to confirm my support for the nomination of a Speaker today. In the context that we find ourselves in, I would support either, or indeed any, nomination for a Speaker that would bring us closer to seeing an Executive formed and enable us to get on with the jobs that we were elected to do.
As a newly elected MLA, this is very far from the position that I wanted to be in — making my first contribution in this place in what is nothing more than a last chance saloon, staring at the potential collapse of the institutions. They have been held to ransom by one party since May's election, but here we are.
We all sat in the Chamber back in May, most of us ready to get to work on behalf of our constituents, but we then observed the spectacle of DUP Members refusing to elect a Speaker and preventing any business taking place in the Assembly. That refusal has left Northern Ireland utterly rudderless, without a Budget, without the scrutiny of Ministers or their Departments, with unspent funds held in limbo and without any democratic accountability in Northern Ireland. Now, even the caretaker Ministers will be vacating their posts and leaving Northern Ireland under the direction of a Tory Government who are in utter chaos, and we will be under the direction —.
I will not give way, as no other Members seem to have shown that courtesy to my party in our contributions.
We are going to be looking at unelected civil servants providing the only leadership in Northern Ireland in the coming weeks, and all that while we face a cost-of-living emergency and huge pressures on our public finances. Those challenges and pressures have been set out again and again since May. We have all received the emails from the doctors and nurses and from our business community. We have all met our constituents, sadly, in our food banks and community centres, hearing about just how much pressure our communities are under at the moment. However, it seems that, for one party in this place, those messages are simply not getting through.
Our health service is in crisis, our waiting lists are spiralling and strategies to help to deliver change on issues such as cancer services and mental health are unfunded and gathering dust without an Executive. We have hospital emergency departments unable to meet demand in the summer let alone with the winter approaching. There is no Executive pay policy set, leaving key workers in limbo over wage increases as inflation rises.
Yes, I absolutely agree. Anybody who heard the contributions from the parent this morning could not fail to be aware of the crisis that is affecting paediatric waiting lists. That is another issue to be added to the list of pressures facing this place.
Essentially, we have Departments with no budget spending with risk in order to keep public services functioning and a cost-of-living crisis receiving essentially no local response from this place. We are left entirely at the mercy of a dysfunctional Tory Government, who seem to think that offering our people here a paltry £100 towards their oil bills is a sufficient intervention to help them, while the DUP says, "We just need Westminster. That is all that is required to deal with the crisis".
All this deadlock, this abject failure to provide stable government at a time of crisis is precipitated by one party's protest over the protocol, about which this place can do nothing. We could keep the Assembly in suspension indefinitely and not one line of the protocol would be altered. We all know, if we are being honest, that the only outcome that will resolve any of the issues with the protocol will arise from negotiations between the UK Government and the EU. We need to get on with our jobs. We are not here to renegotiate international treaties. We are here to govern the people of Northern Ireland and to provide leadership, and we need to get on with that job.
There is anger and frustration in the Chamber today, and quite rightly. We heard the DUP Members refer to their party being treated with contempt. In my view, it is the people of Northern Ireland who are being treated with contempt. We know that an Executive being reformed is not a magic wand — it will not make our problems go away — but I, for one, got elected to try to do something, not to stand on the sidelines wringing my hands and protesting over an issue about which we can do nothing in this place.
I sincerely hope that we can do the right thing today. I do not believe that we will. I think that one party will continue to stand in the way of progress. We urgently need to restore faith in the institutions and in the democratic process in this place.
Thank you very much, Mr Acting Speaker, for controlling this rather unruly event.
The people of Northern Ireland will be watching this today, and many will be saying, "What are they doing? What is happening?", because here we are, squabbling back and forth, when we have crises. We have a crisis in our healthcare system and in our welfare system, and we have an energy crisis. All those things are impacting on us, yet we are squabbling and taking lumps out of each other. We have to ask ourselves this: what are we really doing? We are supposed to be representing the people of Northern Ireland. We are supposed to be representing our constituents.
In 2016, when Mike Nesbitt asked me to stand to be an MLA, I did so because I wanted to make Northern Ireland a much better place. I wanted Northern Ireland to be a place where everybody could work together for the benefit of all our people. Since that time, I think, of the six years that we have been in and out of here, four of those years have been completely nugatory and pointless, because absolutely nothing happened. We had three years when the party opposite, Sinn Féin, held the place down. I do not know how long the Assembly will be down now. Let us be honest: this might be the last time that any of us will speak in the Assembly. It will be a long time indeed before the Assembly comes back, I believe.
There is a real issue with the protocol, and pretending time and time again that you can ignore unionist concerns about the protocol does not work. It has to be dealt with, and, if we are not complaining about it, who is standing up to make that happen? I do not say that because I believe that what the DUP is doing is right, but I can speak for all unionists who have real concerns about the protocol. That must be sorted, and it will be sorted only when people start listening to the real concerns of the people of Northern Ireland — not just unionists but all people. We have to do that.
I find it absolutely incredible that the Secretary of State will spend about £6·5 million more of public money on an election that, frankly, people in Northern Ireland do not want. I am even more incredulous about another issue, but I should not be surprised, bearing in mind that the Secretary of State's Government have wasted £35 billion in the last three or four weeks through complete ineptness. There is a lack of vision and a lack of understanding, but I find it absolutely incredible to hear some people say that one of the solutions is likely to be some form of joint authority. Trying to score points and raise tensions at present does not work. The people of Northern Ireland are angry. You will detect from my tone that I am not exactly happy with what is happening here either, because we have a job to do, and we should be doing that job.
No, not at the moment.
The real issue that we have is to make sure that we restore trust in the institutions and in democracy. We have to restore trust. We have to be back. Regardless of what happens and of whether we have an election — even if we have an election and come back — can we commit ourselves to not having more and more polarisation and more and more whataboutery? Why can we not do something to make Northern Ireland work effectively? That is what we need to do. That is why I think that Mike Nesbitt is the person to be Speaker of the Assembly. I want to see him take his vision and move that for all of us to where we need to go.
I am probably the only person who has not used his entire allocation. Maybe somebody else can make more sense of this place — I cannot any more.
I got involved in politics for simple reasons: to stand up for the city that I love and its people; to help to bring jobs and investment to a place starved of both; and to break down barriers for everybody on our island, especially for women, who were denied a voice for so long. I am sure that every Member of the Assembly had their own reasons. It might have been to improve our schools, to get more people seen in our hospitals, to tackle sectarianism or to end divisions between our people. I believe, however, that none of us got involved in politics to hold our society to ransom or to force the vulnerable to pay the price of our political dysfunction in refusing to elect a Speaker today. Yet that is the shameful situation in which we find ourselves today because of this obscene boycott of power-sharing.
Jeffrey Donaldson, a man who will not even come here to sit in the seat to which he was elected, is too busy listening more to wee Jamie Bryson than to the majority of people in Northern Ireland. The truth is that one party refuses to accept the verdict of the electorate just six months ago. That is why the rest of us cannot elect a Speaker today to allow us to do our full jobs.
Right now, we can give out vouchers for food banks, but we cannot tackle the reasons why people need to go to them. We can raise cases with the health trusts, but we cannot bring down our waiting lists. We can ask questions of Ministers, but we cannot hold them accountable for their answers. An Executive will not solve all our problems, but they have the power to set our priorities, and that is the very least that people should expect of us. I cannot meet my responsibilities to my constituency without an Executive, and neither can any of you.
It is hard to adequately convey the frustration of people in Derry when you ask them about the current paralysis. They are angry that our politics is not working. It is forcing more of our young people to leave, and they are sick to the back teeth of the division that holds us back. However, they do not want pity; they just want representatives who will be on their side and speak up for their needs and who will work with and for each other to get something done to bring the jobs and opportunities that are owed to our city. They want us to introduce childcare that does not cost the earth but gives their children the best start in life. They want us to fund services, like Northlands, that can deal with the addiction crisis that plagues our people. They want us to finally deliver a university of the size that was promised. That is the least that the people of Derry deserve, and it makes me furious that it has been denied.
Next week, we may well ask for votes again — asking people to put us in a job when those who should be helping to make this place work are not doing theirs. I ask the DUP to reflect carefully on its election pitch at the doors in the weeks ahead before it votes on whether to elect a Speaker today. Will you tell people — freezing pensioners — that you will continue to do nothing to heat their homes? Will you tell people who cannot make ends meet through their jobs that you will continue to boycott yours? Will you tell people languishing on waiting lists that you will continue to let their waits get longer?
Next year, we will celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. It was not then and is not now a document that guaranteed peace on this island, but it was a commitment to future generations that a different way forward was possible and achievable and that we could leave the painful memories of the past behind and look forward to a future.
However, that will be possible only if we put the hard yards in to make peace work. This place works only when you work for it. At this moment of crisis, we should fulfil that commitment by coming together to show the people of the North that there is a reason across our history and traditions —
— to work together: it can make their lives better. That is why I am in politics, and that is what the SDLP will continue to work and fight for. This place is worth fighting for.
I support the election of a Speaker. I have no difficulty in supporting Patsy McGlone or Mike Nesbitt; both would do a great job. If anything, I would probably lean more towards Patsy McGlone: his service and sense of community is exactly what the Assembly needs.
I understand the issue, but I really do not understand the approach. From the outset of the protocol, I was prepared to see the opportunities that came with it, but, as it stands, I cannot support it because, within days and weeks of it coming into effect, I was contacted by farms, businesses and people who were affected by it. The protocol benefits some businesses, but they tend to be large businesses. We have to remember that, in Northern Ireland, we have a small- and medium-enterprise economy. The businesses most affected by the protocol are those businesses. If we pull the rug from beneath them, we pull the rug from beneath our entire economy. I spoke to the Ulster Farmers' Union last week, and it outlined the issues that the protocol continues to cause.
It disappoints me that this has become a unionist-and-nationalist issue. I assure you that my issues with the protocol are not constitutional; they are trade issues and issues that affect my constituents. It saddens me that people no longer come forward because they see it as a green-and-orange issue. We cannot truly have a debate unless we outline the issues. I appeal to all in the House to stop talking and listen.
The protocol needs to be fixed. It can be fixed, and I truly believe that it will be fixed. Indeed, in recent weeks, the Northern Ireland Office, the Secretary of State and the Minister of State have talked about the momentum that is building around talks. I look forward to that, which is why it is disappointing that the Secretary of State saw fit to implement the law. He will have to change the law next week, because we are coming to a cliff edge at one minute past midnight tomorrow, when Ministers will vacate their offices. Normally, during a period of purdah, we have caretaker Ministers in place to enact the decisions that enable Departments to work on a day-to-day basis. We will not have that from tomorrow, so the Secretary of State will have to legislate. There is hypocrisy in that regard: a precedent was set previously.
Fixing the protocol, however, does not need to happen in the absence of an Assembly. I genuinely appeal to the Democratic Unionist Party to demonstrate that you care about the issues. I know that you do, because your constituents submit questions as much as mine do. Do what you did in January 2022, when you withdrew your First Minister but allowed the Assembly to function. Demonstrate that you are willing to work towards fixing the issues that we are capable of and responsible for fixing. Maybe that could be an olive branch to the Secretary of State so that he could take some action and recognise that you will work if you are given the chance.
There are those who say that the Assembly and Executive are not capable of anything: we are. This day a week ago, I spoke at a cost-of-living crisis event. Every week in my office, a constituent cries to me because they cannot get a house, they cannot put food on their table or they cannot heat their home. That will only get worse. What can we do? It is more than money. We could insulate homes. We could give free school meals to every family in Northern Ireland to take the pressure off. We could defer rates. There is so much that the Assembly could do, so, please, in the next number of weeks, do not tell people on the doorsteps that we can do nothing. If you are going to say that, what is this place about? It is certainly not about the issues that you say.
This morning, I attended a community transport meeting. Community transport takes elderly people out of their homes when our public services fail. I appeal to the Minister for Infrastructure, in the next few hours, to look at trying to fund that. Community transport picks up the pieces of the Ambulance Service. The Ambulance Service cannot even take people to hospital; patients wait for hours outside. Those are the issues that matter to people, and those are the issues that, I hope, the electorate will ask you about on the doorsteps.
Please, do what you can. There is not much time left, but I appeal to everyone to take responsibility for the power that they hold. If those are my last words as an MLA, they will echo the words that I spoke in my maiden speech.
It is abundantly clear that today's debate will do nothing to fix the political situation that we find ourselves in. There is scant acknowledgement of the concerns of unionism about the protocol and little regard for the facts on the increasing costs of living and the Assembly's ability to deal with them. At the outset of my remarks, let me be clear that I want to see devolution restored. I believe that a stable, prosperous Northern Ireland with a properly functioning Executive and Assembly is good for all of us.
Everyone feels the cost-of-living pressures. I dare say that everyone in the Chamber cares deeply about our health service, our schools and our economy, but we must be real about the Assembly's ability to deal with those issues. Just recently, the Finance Minister told us that the potential overspend in the Northern Ireland Budget was £660 million. In response to a question, I received an answer from the Education Minister this morning in which she indicates that there is a resource pressure in Education of £530 million. That includes funding for children with special educational needs, school holiday food payments, increased energy costs and the Engage programme. It is time to be honest and straight-talking about what this place can or cannot do about some of the issues.
On a point of order, Mr Acting Speaker. Can you advise whether it is in order for Members who do not want the Assembly to sit and do not want Ministers to take office to list pressures on public services from a ministerial answer, when there is no way of those being dealt with because they refuse to allow this place to sit? Is that in order?
It is always amazing that, when Members do not want to acknowledge or hear the truth, they make bogus points of order. It is absolutely shameful.
It is clear that the finances required to deal with the cost-of-living crisis will come from our national Government in Westminster. It is there where we are working and taking our seats to make sure that there is funding for energy payments for families in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, the protocol costs consumers and businesses every day. In the first six months of this year, the Trader Support Service, designed to support businesses with the bureaucracy and paperwork of the protocol, has cost the taxpayer £63 million; that is £2·6 million every week. The protocol means that Northern Ireland citizens cannot benefit from UK-wide tax changes, since we are tied to EU VAT rules. We have to face the fact that it is difficult to fix our health service when, as the Health Minister says, the protocol puts our supply of medicine at risk and adds cost to those medicines. It is difficult to build new schools and hospitals when the protocol adds 25% to the cost of steel coming from our own UK internal market. It is difficult to help with the cost of living when the protocol adds 30% to the transport costs for household goods.
Most profoundly of all, the protocol has caused a crisis for our political institutions. The Northern Ireland protocol has subjugated article 6 of the Act of Union and trashed democratic norms in this part of the United Kingdom.
The principle of consent, as conceived by the Belfast Agreement, has been ignored. For some in the Chamber, it is like pick-and-mix: take it when you want it, but ignore it when you do not. Unionism does not consent to the protocol. We will not be bullied, and our mandate will not be ignored. In any election, we will take our case to the people and renew our mandate of opposition to the protocol.
I thank the Member for giving way. I hear some laughter across the Chamber, but does the Member agree that the DUP went back into government in 2020 on the condition, as outlined in 'New Decade, New Approach', that Northern Ireland's place as an integral part of the United Kingdom would be fully restored? In government, we sought to renegotiate the worst parts of the protocol, but, instead of receiving support around the House, we were undermined by every other party's signing up not to help get those changes made but to the protocol's rigorous implementation, thus undermining the negotiations at a critical time, not just for a week or a month but for two full years.
I will finish them shortly. They have had 18 months to resolve the issue. It is time to deal with the protocol, which disrupts the United Kingdom's internal market, leaves this part of the United Kingdom subject to the laws of a foreign political entity and subjugates the Act of Union.
Until this year, my main job was as a nurse working in the Ulster Hospital. Like many first-time MLAs, I left my career to come and work here, but, since the election six months ago, I have been prevented from doing what I was sent here to do. I have not been able to take part in debates on important issues in the Chamber or attend Committee meetings to scrutinise the work of Ministers and Departments. No one has. Over the past six months, however, I have met many people and groups who have strongly expressed their wish that the Assembly be up and running and delivering for everyone in Northern Ireland as soon as possible.
Members from most parties attended the Crushed by the Cost of Living event a few weeks ago in this Building. It was organised by Dr Ciara Fitzpatrick and highlighted the huge strain that the increases in the cost of living are putting on many households and families across Northern Ireland. Those who spoke made a desperate plea for urgent action to be taken to help support people struggling to heat their home and feed their family at this time. Consultant paediatrician Dr Julie-Ann Maney said that she is very concerned about what this winter will bring for those being hardest hit. One of the risk factors for sudden unexpected death in infancy is hypothermia. Paediatricians are very concerned about fuel poverty and that infants will be cold, as many people will struggle to heat their home. They are very concerned that infants may die this winter of sudden unexpected death owing to hyperthermia. That should be reason enough to reform the Executive.
A local food bank in Larne has seen requests for assistance increase by 111% since this time last year. It is seeing more requests from families with children. Some people have even been requesting emergency food handouts that can be eaten cold because they cannot afford the energy to cook.
We had a presentation here a couple of weeks ago from community groups that provide support to people with learning disabilities and mental health conditions to get them into, and to continue in, employment. The groups rely on the European social fund, which is due to end early next year, with no other funding identified to replace it. Without urgent intervention, many vital services will cease to exist for 17,000 people who rely on them and 1,700 jobs among the workers who support them will potentially be lost.
Does the Member agree that it is all the more serious given the pressures on public finances and the fact that many of those community and voluntary organisations are doing jobs that would otherwise have to be done by Departments that cannot afford to do them?
Absolutely; I completely agree with that. Those organisations add huge value to the amount of work that is done here in Northern Ireland. As highlighted a couple of weeks ago at the event for those organisations, time is running out, and even more so now.
I have also heard from many groups that represent people who are suffering from medical conditions and need action plans to be progressed to improve treatments in Northern Ireland. There is a group of cancer patients who cannot get scans that are available to patients in GB, because of the lack of a multi-year Budget to fund the implementation of the cancer strategy. It appears that there is now a healthcare border in the Irish Sea.
Last week, along with other local MLAs and charities, I met representatives of over 100 businesses in Larne that were struggling with increased energy bills and other pressures, some so much that they feared they may not be able to keep going for much longer. They were very clear that we should do all that we can to re-form the Assembly to support them through this crisis.
People are spending years suffering on waiting lists while their eyesight or mobility deteriorates, waiting on routine operations, sometimes in constant pain. Ambulances are stacked up outside our hospitals, unable to offload sick patients because there are no spaces in A&E departments and no beds available in the wider hospitals. Our health service is operating under extreme pressure, and we are not even in the winter months yet.
We are in a crisis. People are unable to meet their needs and provide for their families. Otherwise solid businesses are going to the wall. Our health service is facing many serious challenges. Things are getting harder and harder for many of the people whom we represent, and we are failing them. Whatever issues parties have, they should be able to come here and work with the other elected Members to do what we can to support people who are experiencing hardship.
Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the DUP, said in 2019:
"It is wrong to blackmail an entire community and say, 'You cannot have a Government until we get our way'".
Yet, here we are. It is wrong that we have a system that allows people in Northern Ireland to be used as leverage in a political dispute. I got involved in politics to try to make this place better for everyone, but it is going the other way.
As I said earlier, my background is in nursing, and I would like to share this observation: if one nurse refused to be involved in the care of a sick patient, that nurse's professionalism and ability to do the job would very quickly be called into question. They would face stiff restrictions on their practise and could ultimately be sacked and struck off for not doing their job. If that nurse were to prevent other nurses from attending to the patient, the consequences could be even more severe. Thankfully, most nurses would consider it unimaginable for a nurse to refuse to help a sick patient.
We need to help people in need. We need to end ransom politics. We need a reform system that can be relied on to deliver for people, whatever the political situation, and we need to be able to work together for the common good. I support the motion.
I understand that this is not considered to be a maiden speech, in accordance with convention, but it is, nevertheless, an honour to stand for the first time in the Chamber and speak as one of the DUP Members for East Belfast. When I stood on the doorsteps in April and May, I spent a considerable amount of time talking to constituents about the matters that mattered most to them and their families. No one in this place is naive or ambivalent about the pressures that are being faced by families. In our offices, all of us work day and daily with constituents who need help and assistance and do what we can to help them.
For the past six months, the DUP ensured that Ministers remained in place, money continued to be drawn down by Departments and vital support was provided through the UK Government's cost-of-living package. There needs to be some honesty in this place and some realism. While not without its merits, this place is no substitute for the kind of support that can be provided through the financial firepower of our national Government at Westminster.
In the months since the election, there has been a dishonesty in the public discourse, which has emanated from some parties. They have actively cultivated and promoted, for cynical political purposes, a myth that there are hundreds of millions of pounds just sitting on the hill waiting to be handed out by a new Executive.
We all know now that, despite the Sinn Féin Finance Minister's giving the impression that his coffers are bountiful with cash that he cannot wait to give away, if only the DUP would let him, the Executive are hugely over budget. Sinn Féin and a number of other parties in the Chamber have, regrettably, played cheap politics with the cost-of-living crisis, raising false hopes and expectations.
No, thank you.
Our party wants to see the institutions restored in full. We have operated them for 15 years, and our commitment to devolution is not in question. It is viable, however, only with the confidence of both communities, not just one. It remains the situation that not one unionist in this place supports the protocol, just as it was before the last election: not one. Those I talked to on the doorsteps were clear about my party's stance on the protocol when they went to the polls. They knew that Jeffrey Donaldson had been as reasonable as possible and had given all the time and space that he could to allow the Government to negotiate a solution or bring forward their own action to restore fully Northern Ireland's place in the UK internal market. Since that time, on the ground, I have heard no message more loudly from the unionist community in East Belfast than simply this: stand your ground. They understand not only that the protocol costs Northern Ireland hundreds of millions of pounds each year, or that grace periods mask the full scale of the harm that the protocol brings with it.
In my experience, people across the unionist spectrum have had enough of the foundational tenets of the Good Friday Agreement, which many here are happy to extol when it is convenient for them, being considered sacred when they provide political advantage or protection to nationalism, but then being discarded when they become inconvenient or provide similar safeguards to unionism. Unionists want the pitch to be levelled. They want fairness to be restored. The double standards and the attitude of "safeguards for me, but not for thee" corrode trust in our institutions. Earlier this week, we watched as the SDLP emphasised the need for Assembly consent in order to block the provisions of the protocol Bill, while also wanting to override and bin the need for Irish language standards to be approved jointly by the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The hypocrisy of those contrasting positions is obvious and, shamefully, all too regular.
Nobody in the Chamber believes that this charade debate will change anything. Sinn Féin and the Alliance Party are staging this stunt as a kick-start to their campaigns in a snap election. Their grandstanding here will change nothing. To those who continue to dismiss unionists' grave concerns on the protocol and demand business as usual, I simply and genuinely say this: you gravely underestimate the resilience and determination of unionists of many hues on this issue, and your unwillingness to hear them corrodes confidence in our political system and institutions. Power-sharing requires the confidence of both communities. I was elected on a mandate to seek tangible action on the protocol and restore our place in the UK internal market. I have sought to honour that mandate and the commitments that I have made to my electors. Just as the Secretary of State says that he is bound by legislation and will do what is required of him, I am bound by commitments that I gave to those who gave me my mandate, and I will continue to do what is required of me.
I welcome the opportunity to speak and not only represent the SDLP's views, but, more importantly, relay the pleas of, and recount the desperation that faces, so many of my constituents in Derry and households right across the North. It is shameful that, at a time of such acute need, we have been prevented from doing our jobs, effecting positive change for people and sheltering people from the worst that this winter will bring. It is an indelible stain on even the DUP's dubious record that, when people need an Executive more than ever, that party's siege of Stormont continues and is starving people.
It is frustrating that, as Members, we stand here regurgitating — yes — similar pleas demanding an end to yet another painful purgatory that achieves nothing but, if ended, could change a lot. People are anxious and angry, and justifiably so. That anxiety and anger are palpable in every parent who is struggling to feed their children, in every patient who is waiting for care and in every family member who is worrying about how they will keep a roof over their family's head. The impact on the well-being of our people is starkly evident. We have a much-needed mental health strategy that is largely unfunded. Our communities are still reeling from the pandemic and have been hit by a cost-of-living crisis while caretaker Ministers have, largely, sat on their hands and done barely the minimum — that I am convinced of.
When the unprecedented challenges of the last few years unfolded on our shores —.
Do you not think that the Member is being rather disingenuous in saying that, when the reality was that, without an Executive and without a Budget, the powers of caretaker Ministers were just that — caretaker powers — and that what we need is an Executive?
I thank the Member for the intervention. There are many Ministers who have refused, in my opinion, to take the action that they were able to take, even in the absence of an Executive, that would ameliorate the suffering that people here are going through.
When the unprecedented challenges of the last few years unfolded on our shores, there was a collective will across society to step up to the plate. How would our shared home place have coped if the likes of our heroic health force, our teachers, our postal workers, the housing sector and so many more public servants refused to do their job and brought our society to a standstill? The difference is that, if and when those beleaguered, shamefully undervalued workers are not paid, they will have no alternative but to strike. The DUP does have an alternative.
That said, I in no way want to undermine the work that is ongoing in constituency offices, which are busier now than ever. The demands on office staff and across the advice sector at this time are evidence of the huge need that is out there, and they highlight just how desperate people are. Every day, we hear that things have never been so bad. That sentiment is echoed across every sector, from healthcare to housing and from education to the economy.
Services and their workforces are stretched beyond their limits, with an elasticity that is waning and a spirit that is set to snap. Ultimately, my job, and the job of all of us, is to change policy and legislate in order to reduce the numbers of constituents who are seeking our help to create a fair and effective society that works for everyone. That is why I do this job. I know that many Members across the Chamber are hearing similar or the same problems, and, presumably, they once shared our desire to make things better. Is that not why we all got into politics in the first place?
I ask the DUP this: how does it feel to wilfully make things worse and to make life harder not only for the poor, for children, for the vulnerable, for nationalists, for others and for those who do not share its vision of a Brexit that it vociferously campaigned for and a protocol that it now rails and rallies against, but for everyone, whose life it is making more difficult? I do not know how those in that party sleep at night.
The hypocrisy of the DUP is a bitter pill to swallow. When Sinn Féin brought the institutions down for three years in 2017, the DUP representatives told us then, and they have repeated it during the last session and again today, how futile, costly and irresponsible that was.
"The blockade of our institutions by one party is not democratic".
Those are not my words; they are Sir Jeffrey Donaldson's. That begs this question: what is different now? The one and only thing that is different now is that things are even worse. The last thing that people need is another election that will cost millions and change nothing. I implore those across the Chamber: for the future of public services —
I rise with a mixture of pride and anger to speak in support of nominating a Speaker today. Unfortunately, over the last six months, I have spent more time in the Chamber with primary- and secondary-school children than I have with MLAs. I have not been able to discuss legislation; I have not been able to scrutinise Ministers; and I certainly have not been able to raise issues on behalf of my constituents on the Floor.
Like many here, I was a councillor for five years before becoming an MLA, and I was proud to stand for election for the Alliance Party in East Belfast just six months ago. I built up a solid reputation as someone who just got on with things and delivered for his constituents, doing the job that I was elected to do: no drama, no rhetoric, no time-wasting. So, it is unthinkable and unconscionable that we are here today during a cost-of-living crisis and a climate emergency, after a two-year global pandemic and as we face a winter that many will struggle to get through, looking at an indulgent election to the tune of £6·5 million at a time when many people and families across Northern Ireland are suffering, because they face the choice of heating their home or skipping a meal.
A food bank worker in my constituency told me recently about someone arriving at their door desperate for food. They were brought to tears when offered chilled foods in the package that they were provided with, because they were ashamed to admit that they could not afford the electricity to turn on their fridge at home. Children in the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland are six times more likely to be placed on a child protection register and four times more likely to be taken into care.
One food bank user recently wrote on their social media:
"We are a family that is just surviving, not living".
What kind of society are we allowing to exist outside these walls in 2022? Food banks should not have to exist — we know that — but it is especially hard for me to stomach when some politicians sit on their hands while volunteers put their shoulder to the wheel to help the most vulnerable in our society.
At the same time as all of that, I see and hear how the people of Northern Ireland are being used as so-called leverage, and I have heard that screamed across the Chamber today. They have been misinformed by a party in the Chamber that professes to care about Northern Ireland, them and their lives. No one can tell me whom the collapse of the Assembly benefits, that it is a constructive negotiating tactic in talks between the UK and the EU or that it benefits the communities across Northern Ireland that put us here. They did not elect us to go to lunches and launches in this place. We were elected to legislate and improve the lives of everyone in Northern Ireland — not just those who voted for us or agree with us but everyone — through the formation of the Assembly and an Executive; to turn up for them every day; to listen to the key workers whom we all used to clap for during the pandemic; and to make the realities that they see every day easier.
There are stories such as those that we heard from Dr Julie Anne Maney, who spoke of having to treat children, patch them up and send them back to the environment that made them ill in the first place, and from Andy McClenaghan, who broke down as he spoke about what he sees and hears from social workers in his organisation. Those conversations took place in the Long Gallery upstairs; the Chamber was silent and empty.
Stormont cannot fix everything that is wrong in the world today. It cannot address all the issues that we have been hearing about, but it can at least show that we care about the people who elect us and will make the necessary changes to improve their lives. That starts today with getting the Assembly and Executive functioning as they should. I support the election of a Speaker today; I support devolution; and I support MLAs carrying out the roles to which they were elected. I plead with the DUP and former DUP councillors from Belfast City Council: for the sake of the people of Northern Ireland, nominate a Speaker, get this place up and running again, and get back to work.
In contemplating my contribution as an SDLP MLA, I reflected on a Native American proverb that proclaims:
“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.”
I am lucky to have three bright and brilliant young men from my old school, Abbey Christian Brothers' Grammar School in Newry, shadowing me on work experience this week: Oisin Harte, Andrew McGuinness and Josh Turley. Sophie Keane from Sacred Heart Grammar School was with me last week. Those are four people who give me tremendous hope for the future. Oisin, Andrew and Josh are sitting in the Gallery today. I promised them that I would use my time in the Chamber to voice their views, advance their hopes and share their fears. I asked them what needed to be said, and this is what they told me:
"Members of this Assembly have a responsibility to represent and deliver. The people you serve are not leverage and should not be used as political pawns in a chess game where everyone loses. Regardless of whether you back Brexit or not, it is now time to back your people, not weaken the democracy we depend on. Holding this Chamber and our Executive to ransom is holding the people to ransom: holding families and businesses to ransom, struggling with a cost of living and a cost of doing business that is out of control; holding your young people to ransom; holding people languishing on health waiting lists to ransom; holding those who are waiting for a home to ransom; holding children with special educational needs to ransom; holding workers waiting for fair pay to ransom; holding us all to ransom. The DUP attack Sinn Féin for abstentionist MPs even though the DUP has abstentionist Ministers. Sinn Féin attack the DUP for collapsing the Executive in 2021 even though Sinn Féin did the same for three years in 2017. It is so disheartening for everyone to be sidelined by their deadlock. The question is: what are you going to do now? If MLAs are serious about making this place work, then they should get back to work. Finding a solution to the protocol would be made so much easier if parties in this Chamber sat down together, reached an agreement and fought for a solution together from a position of power in an Executive. You cannot fix your past by sacrificing our future. We want job prospects, and we want climate action. We want shelter for the homeless and food for the hungry. We want justice and fairness for the downtrodden and the marginalised. We want our parents and grandparents looked after when they are sick. We want to view our futures with confidence, with ambition and with excitement."
From their lips to God's ears.
Through a combination of frustration and despair, so many of our young people opt to build their lives somewhere other than here. That is a poor reflection on the ambition and the competence of these institutions. This latest needless crisis must be resolved before the damage becomes irreversible.
I have spoken here about the old Irish tradition of meitheal, in which men and women of all creeds worked in unity to win the harvest. Through hard toil, mutual respect and honest endeavour, communities across this land safeguarded one another by spilling their sweat with and for each other. My God, even a fraction of that ethos would make a world of difference in this place. Is it too much to ask for us to come together to spill our sweat for the people whom we serve?
The three young men watching you in the Chamber today have spoken clearly. They want our shared home place to work, thrive and prosper. They want to look to the future with hope, confidence and excitement. They want you to do your duty and get back to work. Just do it.
I started with a proverb, and I will finish with one:
"Is ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine."
We live in one another’s shadow. We rely on each other for shelter from the storm.
"I don't think an election will hasten the day when the protocol is sorted out. But it is a matter for the Government". "The local political parties are not at the table to negotiate".
Those are some of Jeffrey Donaldson's words from yesterday. We all agree with you, Jeffrey. We also all agree that your continued strike will not hasten the day that the protocol is sorted out either. That is a matter for the UK Government and the EU to resolve, and both have agreed to resolve it. Since the DUP walked out last February, we have seen the steady and mounting decline in circumstances through which ordinary people are living.
A grown-up party of government does not behave like that.
It has been said that we must get real, so let us get real. I want to tell you about a family in Lagan Valley whom I dealt with recently. It is a typical hard-working family, like many in all our constituencies. This is Paul and Esther's story; they are from Lisburn. Paul works full-time — he earns 24 grand a year — and Esther works part-time because of the costs of childcare. She works her hours around her two children. They both work hard, and their world is their two kids and their home, which they purchased several years ago. They are a young family with young children. They have their whole future ahead of them, yet Paul and Esther are struggling — really struggling. During COVID, they had no choice but to take a mortgage holiday, due to furlough, and they are now paying that back. Paul drives in his job and has seen his fuel costs increase massively, and, like many families, they now have a huge increase in their monthly mortgage payment. They are struggling to pay their bills, heat their home and feed their kids. Here they were, calling for help: in tears, embarrassed and broken. They were at their wits' end. They are not entitled to a payment of universal credit, and, OK, they will get the £400, sometime, for their electricity, and they will get the pitiful £100 oil payment, but that is such little support at a time when they need it most. The House should be providing tailored help for our people: that is why we were elected. Paul does not even know how he will get to work in the next few weeks. Does he pay his mortgage? Does he put petrol in his car? Does he heat his home? Does he feed his family? Those are the real choices that people are having to make, here in Northern Ireland, and this is 2022.
I often visit the local food bank in Lisburn. Food banks have been mentioned by other Members. I was informed recently that, in Lisburn, there was a more than 100% increase in the use of the food bank in this month of October alone, and to date. The highest increase was from low-income working families. Those are hard-working people. They got through COVID, and now they are being broken by this crisis. It is working people, such as Paul and Esther, whom you are hurting through the non functioning of the Assembly and its inability to offer help or give direction or stability. They are the people who are caught up in your political games.
In Lagan Valley, I met the local PSNI. We were chatting about crime rates in the area. I was shocked at the PSNI's stats, and there is one that I still cannot get over. I repeat: this is 2022. In Lisburn, stealing food from supermarkets and shops to survive is up 53%. That has become the highest crime in the area.
It is time to end ransom politics, where the rest of us sit here, powerless to get financial support to the very people who need it most. No one should be left behind. These people are our neighbours; they are our friends and our families. Shamelessly, DUP Members have sat, today, nodding along, laughing at times, but there is an elephant in the room: I suspect that the majority of you do not even agree with the decision that your leadership has inflicted on our people. How could you agree with that? It is disgusting, at a time like this. It is shameful, at a time like this. It is embarrassing. Please, think of your constituents, our constituents and everyone's constituents. Call your strike off. Get on with your job. Do the job that you are paid for and let us get this place working.
Thank you, Members. There are no further names on the speaking list.
Dr Archibald, Mr Baker, Mr Boylan, Ms Brogan, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Mr Durkan, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Ms Hunter, Mr Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mr McAleer, Mr McGlone, Mr McHugh, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty, Mrs Mason, Ms Á Murphy, Mr C Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr O'Toole, Miss Reilly, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin
Ms Armstrong, Mr Blair, Ms Bradshaw, Mr Brown, Mr Carroll, Mr Donnelly, Ms Eastwood, Ms Egan, Mr Honeyford, Mrs Long, Ms McAllister, Mr McReynolds, Mr Mathison, Mr Muir, Ms Nicholl, Dr O'Lynn, Mr Tennyson
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Durkan, Ms McLaughlin
Mr Allister, Mr Bradley, Mr Brett, Mr Brooks, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Mrs Cameron, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Erskine, Ms Forsythe, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Irwin, Mr Kingston, Mrs Little-Pengelly, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Mr Robinson
Tellers for the Noes: Mrs Erskine, Ms Forsythe
|Nationalist Votes||27||Nationalist Ayes||27||[100.0%]|
|Unionist Votes||25||Unionist Ayes||1||[4.0%]|
|Other Votes||17||Other Ayes||17||[100.0%]|
Question accordingly negatived (cross-community vote).
Question put, That Mr Mike Nesbitt be Speaker of this Assembly.
I have been advised by the party Whips that, in accordance with Standing Order 27(1A)(b), there is agreement that we can dispense with the three minutes and move straight to the Division.
Dr Aiken, Mr Beattie, Mr Butler, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Stewart, Ms Sugden, Mr Swann
Ms Armstrong, Mr Blair, Ms Bradshaw, Mr Brown, Mr Carroll, Mr Donnelly, Ms Eastwood, Ms Egan, Mr Honeyford, Mrs Long, Ms McAllister, Mr McReynolds, Mr Mathison, Mr Muir, Ms Nicholl, Dr O'Lynn, Mr Tennyson
Tellers for the Ayes: Dr Aiken, Mr Butler
Mr Allister, Mr Bradley, Mr Brett, Mr Brooks, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Mrs Cameron, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Erskine, Ms Forsythe, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Irwin, Mr Kingston, Mrs Little-Pengelly, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Mr Robinson
Tellers for the Noes: Mrs Erskine, Ms Forsythe
|Nationalist Votes||0||Nationalist Ayes||0||[NaN%]|
|Unionist Votes||31||Unionist Ayes||7||[22.6%]|
|Other Votes||17||Other Ayes||17||[100.0%]|
Question accordingly negatived (cross-community vote).
The Assembly has today been unable to elect a Speaker and has been unable to conduct its first item of business. Therefore, we can proceed no further. Any further sittings of the Assembly can be held only to elect a Speaker and Deputy Speakers. Under section 39(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the current Speaker remains in office until a successor is elected. I therefore propose, by leave of the Assembly, to adjourn the sitting until a future date, the details of which will be communicated to Members in due course.
Adjourned at 2.19 pm.