Northern Ireland Assembly
Thursday 5 June 2008
The Assembly met at 3.30 pm (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Resignation of the First Minister: Rev Dr Ian Paisley
Mr Speaker: I have received a letter from the First Minister, the Rt Hon Dr Ian Paisley, notifying me of his resignation under section 16B(1)(a) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, with effect from 3.30 pm today, Thursday, 5 June 2008. Dr Paisley has sought leave to make a statement, and I will call him shortly. However, before doing so, I am sure that Members want me to convey the Assembly’s best wishes to him and his family as he leaves the office of First Minister.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley: I thank you, Mr Speaker, for your liberality in giving me five minutes: I am very grateful to you for that. Sixty years ago, I first came to this House to watch a debate. Little did I think that I would sit one day in the seat of the Prime Minister. That is, his constituency returned me with a great vote in the Bannside, and I am ever grateful to them for that. Nor did I ever think that I would ever sit in the Prime Minister’s chair in the Prime Minister’s office. I am grateful for the privilege.
Words do not mean very much on an occasion like this. It is the emotion of the heart, the emotion of the mind and the emotion of the soul.
However, I would like to put on record my deepest possible thanks to the literally thousands of people from across the world who, by all sorts of methods, have passed on their best wishes to me. Many of them said that they never believed that they would sit down and pen such a letter. They said they had been forced to pen it because of how things had gone with us in these past 12 months. I am deeply indebted for all who have taken time to indicate their thankfulness.
I return thanks to Almighty God that I have been spared this time to see the progress of this House, to see the progress in Northern Ireland, and to see the future that we can have if we all dedicate ourselves to working for the better good of everyone in this land. I believe that that is going to happen.
I trust that you, sir, will lead a long life, and that you will spend most of it in that Chair, conducting very reasonable persons as they do their business. I am sure that you will not have much trouble in throwing people out. This is one of the Houses that I have not been thrown out of, and I am grateful for that. Thank you.
Mr Speaker: Convention allows party leaders — or their representatives — to comment when a Minister is making a statement on his or her resignation. Therefore, I intend to provide an opportunity for a representative from each party to speak.
Lord Morrow: I have no doubt that whatever words I use today, they will fall far short of what should be said on an occasion such as this.
Dr Paisley has provided a lifetime of service, not only in politics, but in the Church. Despite that immense workload, he has also found time to write books, edit publications, and ensure that he always made time for his family, who, as those who are close to him know, are so important to him.
Back in the early days of his career, he ploughed a very lonely furrow. However, that did not deter Dr Paisley from his principles and political objectives. There are few individuals who have established, from nothing, a Church and a political party.
From humble beginnings less than 40 years ago, the DUP has become the largest party in Northern Ireland and the fourth largest in the United Kingdom. The party now has half the Province’s MPs, Privy Counsellors and members of the House of Lords, in addition to our seats in this Assembly.
Dr Paisley has risen from an unknown and an outsider to become a respected figure in the House of Commons. He is its longest serving Member and someone who causes a hush in the Chamber whenever he rises to his feet. He has been an MP since 1970, and he was Northern Ireland’s first MEP. He was not content to top that poll once — he topped it five times in total. Today, he is an international figure, sought after in the United States, Brussels and elsewhere around the world.
Prior to the arrival of Dr Paisley, unionism was led by “big house” unionists and landowners. Dr Paisley changed all that and provided a voice for the working class. Over his lifetime, he has had an impact on so many people. When he announced his retirement back in March, the term “colossus of unionism” was used to describe him. No politician has taken more insults than Ian Paisley, but he never allowed the bitterness that he encountered to deflect him from serving the interests of the unionist people.
Over the decades, he has provided principled leadership. He rightly opposed deals that were not good for Northern Ireland, but he recognised a good and fair deal when he saw it. As our First Minister, he has worked courageously for the benefit of all the people in Northern Ireland. Dr Paisley has shown unionists that with the constitutional position of Northern Ireland settled, their leaders can engage with confidence with those from all backgrounds, including the Government of the Irish Republic.
Those who are entrusted with the baton of leading this party know the size of the shoes that have to be filled. Dr Paisley is a unionist colossus, and he can be justly proud today. The DUP and Northern Ireland will be forever indebted to Dr Paisley for his immense contribution.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Adams: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ian Paisley has been part of the political landscape here for as long as I can remember. He may be pleased to know: i bhfad i bhfad ó shin that it was his desire to visit the Falls Road — Divis Street — in 1964 that first whetted my interest in Irish politics. His journey from those days to where he sits now have been well chronicled, and my views on his role — for most of his career — are also well known. Therefore, I will not dwell on that today, a Cheann Comhairle, except, perhaps, to note that he is living proof of why a politician should never say never — or even “Never. Never. Never.” I resisted trying to imitate his dulcet tones.
Today, I want to commend Ian Paisley: today is the day to praise Caesar, not to bury him. I thank him for the manner in which he fulfilled his role as First Minister alongside Martin McGuinness. He certainly had a lot to put up with. I also want to commend Martin McGuinness, who also had a lot to put up with. Both leaders proved, together, that politics can work; and far from being the problem parties that were berated by begrudgers and naysayers, Sinn Féin and the DUP proved that progress can be planned and achieved and that difficulties can be overcome. A chairde, there is a high public expectation that that will continue to be the case in the time ahead. That is a huge challenge for all the parties represented here, especially for Ian Paisley’s successor and the rest of us.
Ian Paisley did not meet with me until recent times, and he did not talk to me directly until 26 March last year, when we agreed the arrangements that led to the re-establishment of the political institutions. Throughout all of our engagements, I have found him cordial and respectful, and I am convinced that the good humour, grace and enthusiasm that he displayed in public were good for public confidence and for all the people of this island.
I wish Dr Paisley well. I also want to extend my best wishes to his wife, Eileen, and to all their family, and may I commend her on the best speech of the past year, which she made, of course, at the Boyne site last month.
There is seanfhocal — a proverb — in the Irish language: Is fear feasach é cinnte an duine a athraíonn treo ar leas an phobail, agus is fear ádhúil é an duine a mhaireann fada go leor le tairbhe a bhaint as. It is a wise man who can change direction for the common good; it is a lucky man who lives long enough to enjoy it.
Enjoy it; good luck. Go n-éirí an bóthar leat agus le do chlann.
Mr Kennedy: I express my personal sympathy, and that of my party, to Minister Nigel Dodds, and to the wider family circle, on the death of his father.
On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I acknowledge the contribution of the outgoing First Minister — over the past year, in particular. In my role as Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, important work was carried forward on a range of issues in a positive and constructive manner. Both I and my Committee were treated with utmost respect.
It is worth saying that the relationship between Dr Paisley and the Ulster Unionist Party has been uneasy, to say the least. Nevertheless, on this day — and laying aside political differences — we acknowledge his contribution to politics in Northern Ireland and take this opportunity to wish him well, on a personal basis, as he reaches his retirement from political office in the Assembly. It is surely the case that we shall not see his like again.
I have no doubt that Dr Paisley will continue to contribute to the affairs of the House, but we extend to him, and to Baroness Paisley, a genuine wish of a long and happy retirement, with time to enjoy other aspects of life with his family away from the cut and thrust of politics.
Mr O’Loan: Future historians will wrestle with the enigma with which they have been presented by the actions of Ian Paisley over the past 14 months of his political career when contrasted with those of the previous 40 years.
In these past 14 months, he has done the right things — indeed the only things that could create a society at peace. Those things involved the elements of partnership government and North/South co-operation for which this party has always stood.
We cannot ignore the fact that Ian Paisley stood resolutely against those things for all those long years. Today, however, I recognise him for what he did in the end. My party and I wish him, his wife, Baroness Paisley, and their family well for the future.
Mr Ford: I also express the sympathy of my colleagues to Nigel Dodds and his family circle on their bereavement.
As I said a few weeks ago, history will judge whether Ian Paisley is remembered for 40 years of saying no or for one year of saying maybe. It is clear where my party stands on that question. However, as he steps down from the office of First Minister, it is right to recognise that Ian Paisley finally agreed to take part in the arrangements for an Executive.
I suspect that his act of taking office will be seen as more significant than anything that was actually achieved by the Executive over the past year. On behalf of my colleagues, I wish the former First Minister and his wife a happy retirement from politics with their family.
Ms Purvis: I also extend my sympathy and condolences to the Dodds family circle.
I may not have agreed with all of Ian Paisley’s politics; in fact, I did not agree with his route in getting to this Assembly. There is no doubt that there is a lot of hurt out there in the community that needs to be healed. However, in the past year, Mr Paisley has certainly embraced his role as First Minister in the Assembly and, for that, I pay him credit.
He has also offered new hope and a role model in joining Sinn Féin in Government and in showing our community that there is a new way forward. I wish him and his family well for the future.
Mr Speaker: Order. I advise the House that there will be a further opportunity for representatives of parties to speak when the next item of business has been concluded.
Mr Speaker: The next item of business is the filling of vacancies in the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister in accordance with section 16B of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
I will begin by asking the nominating officer of the largest political party of the largest political designation to nominate a Member of the Assembly to be First Minister. I will then ask the nominating officer of the largest political party of the second largest political designation to nominate a Member of the Assembly to be deputy First Minister.
As the Members nominated to fill the vacancies shall not take up office until each of them has affirmed the terms of the Pledge of Office contained in schedule 4 to the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I will ask each of the persons nominated to affirm the terms of the Pledge of Office.
The Pledge of Office is as follows:
(a) to discharge in good faith all the duties of office;
(b) commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means;
(c) to serve all the people of Northern Ireland equally, and to act in accordance with the general obligations on government to promote equality and prevent discrimination;
(ca) to promote the interests of the whole community represented in the Northern Ireland Assembly towards the goal of a shared future;
(cb) to participate fully in the Executive Committee, the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council;
(cc) to observe the joint nature of the offices of First Minister and deputy First Minister;
(cd) to uphold the rule of law based as it is on the fundamental principles of fairness, impartiality and democratic accountability, including support for policing and the courts as set out in paragraph 6 of the St Andrews Agreement;
(d) to participate with colleagues in the preparation of a programme for government;
(e) to operate within the framework of that programme when agreed within the Executive Committee and endorsed by the Assembly;
(f) to support, and act in accordance with, all decisions of the Executive Committee and Assembly;
(g) to comply with the Ministerial Code of Conduct.”
Paragraph 6 of the St Andrews Agreement states:
“We believe that the essential elements of support for law and order include endorsing fully the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the criminal justice system, actively encouraging everyone in the community to co-operate fully with the PSNI in tackling crime in all areas and actively supporting all the policing and criminal justice institutions, including the Policing Board.”
Members, the Pledge of Office has now been read into the record of proceedings. I will proceed with the nomination process. I call the Rt Hon Dr Ian Paisley to nominate a Member of the Assembly to be the First Minister.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley: As nominating officer of the largest political party, it is a great pleasure and privilege for me to nominate our party leader, the Rt Hon Peter Robinson MP, to be First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly. As well as playing a pivotal role in the development of our party, Peter has been an excellent deputy leader for a considerable time. I have no doubt that he will continue to apply his leadership credentials as First Minister, and I wish him every success and God’s blessing in his new role.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Speaker: I call Mr Gerry Adams to nominate a Member of the Assembly to be the deputy First Minister.
Mr Adams: Go raibh maith agat arís, a Cheann Comhairle. First, I also extend condolences to the family of Nigel Dodds — I was not aware of his bereavement.
Tá mé an-sásta an tUasal Máirtín Mac Aonghusa a ainmniú mar Leas-Chéad Aire.
It is a great pleasure and an honour for me to nominate Martin McGuinness as deputy First Minister.
Mr Speaker: The Rt Hon Peter Robinson has been nominated to be the First Minister, and Mr Martin McGuinness has been nominated to be the deputy First Minister. I ask both Members to rise in their places. I first ask the Rt Hon Peter Robinson to affirm the terms of the Pledge of Office.
The First Minister (Designate) (Mr P Robinson): Mr Speaker, I affirm the terms of the Pledge of Office as set out in schedule 4 to the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
Mr Speaker: I now ask Mr Martin McGuinness to affirm the terms of the Pledge of Office.
The deputy First Minister (Designate) (Mr M McGuinness): A Cheann Comhairle, glacaim leis an Ghealltanas Oifige. I affirm the terms of the Pledge of Office as set out in schedule 4 to the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
Mr Speaker: I now confirm that the Rt Hon Peter Robinson and Mr Martin McGuinness, having affirmed the terms of the Pledge of Office, have taken up office as First Minister and deputy First Minister in accordance with section 16B of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. I offer my congratulations to you both.
There will be an opportunity for speeches. I will begin by calling the First Minister and then the deputy First Minister to address the House. I call the First Minister, the Rt Hon Peter Robinson.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
The First Minister (Mr P Robinson): Thank you, Mr Speaker. Before I commence my remarks, I wish to place on the record of the House my deep condolences, and those of my colleagues on these Benches, to my friend and colleague, and the party’s new deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, on the passing of his father Joe, earlier this morning. Joe was well known to all of us on these Benches; he was a great man, and he will be greatly missed. He was a devoted husband, father and grandfather, and a loyal and dedicated public representative. His passing will be genuinely mourned.
I spoke to Nigel this morning. He very much would have wanted to be at my side today. Nigel, his mother and the entire family circle are grieving their huge loss, but they are fortified in the knowledge that Joe is with his Lord and Saviour.
At the outset, Mr Speaker, I express my thanks, admiration, high regard and respect to the great Ulsterman whom I have the honour of succeeding. He has been a leader without equal. His contribution has been immeasurable, and no man laboured more faithfully than he to secure the political agreement that now shapes the future. I have worked with Ian for so many years, and I am especially honoured that he nominated me today. He has laid the foundation for this new era, and it is now up to the rest of us to build on it.
Ian, many of us are glad that you did say no and that you did say never.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
The First Minister: There are questions to which no and never are the right answers.
When Enoch Powell said that all political careers end in failure, he had not reckoned on the career of Ian Paisley.
Ian, I wish you well for the future, and I wish Baroness Paisley and all your family some of the happiness and togetherness of which we deprived you over the years. However, you can expect a more-than-occasional call from me so that I can draw on your vast experience and gain advice.
Today calls on me to look forward to the future and the huge challenges that lie ahead. Although holding the post of First Minister is a great honour for me, politics is not about who fills an office; it is about what is done when in office. Ultimately, that is how history will judge us all.
We have made a good start. There are some in the Chamber who have often quoted an old Irish proverb or aphorism, which is interpreted as “a good start is half the job”. However, we must remember that it is only half the job. There is still much work to be done. A year on, the settling-in period is over. The time for the Executive and the Assembly to deliver has arrived.
There is much important work to be done. We must secure the peace that has been achieved and remove, once and for all, the last vestiges of all paramilitary organisations and activity that has, for so long, marred our Province. We must grow the economy and build the prosperity that can help the lives of all the people who live here; we must address unresolved issues in a way that commands the confidence of the community; and we must work to transform the institutions to ensure that we move smoothly to democratic normality in the years ahead.
If devolution is to be meaningful to the people of Northern Ireland, the responsibility for delivering results rests with all of us. Of course, the deputy First Minister and I will have to roll up our sleeves, and neither of us will duck the challenges or recoil from the hard work that such tasks require. After a year operating in the Executive, no one knows better than we do that there is no elevator that will take us to a successful outcome. We will just have to take the staircase — step by step by step.
However, there is a four-party mandatory coalition. I want to work alongside all my Executive colleagues, because all of us have a vital role to play in delivering for the people who elected us. We will best succeed if we are striving towards a common goal.
I will want to discuss and engage with other leaders in the House on how best we might work together to achieve the Programme for Government that the Assembly agreed, and how best we should address outstanding and unresolved issues. I know that how we deal with such matters is not the sole preserve of the two largest parties, but of all. I do not even limit that dialogue to the Executive parties; I languished too long on opposition Benches to want that.
For a moment, let me respond to some opponents outside the House. Over recent months, falling upon our ears like a fire bell in the night have been the claims that my party is somehow under pressure and is likely to lose support because we are in the Executive.
Parties have been built up and cast down from the earliest period of our history to the present day. No party has the right to expect unquestioning or automatic support from the people. Support has to be earned, and trust must be maintained.
It is true that people step cautiously when they are asked to tread new ground. The decision that we took just over a year ago, quite rightly, must be judged by our voters. I believe that the decision was right. I also believe that time is demonstrating that our judgement was sound.
There is no one out there who can offer a better, achievable, way forward. My colleagues and I will justify to those who matter — the electorate of Northern Ireland — the judgement call that we made.
Let me assure you, Mr Speaker; our actions, as we move forward, will not be limited or governed by the snarl and screech of those jarring and rancorous voices that trade on creating fear. We will waste no time looking over our shoulders at those who have nothing to offer, and whose only hope is to profit from a healthy scepticism about whether the course that we offer is safe to travel.
Ian used to say to me, when we faced difficult decisions: do what is right, though the stars fall. We did what was right, and the stars did not fall; for, when you do what is right, the people follow.
Those in the House who have been in politics as long as I have been will have seen such parties appear many times before. They seek to tap into some genuine apprehension and concern, and, though they have no attainable solution and have done nothing to commend themselves to the people, they hope to ride to office on a tide of emotion or doubt. However, they have no alternative, other than offering the people of Northern Ireland a seat on the bleachers, helplessly to observe while others take our decisions for us.
There is no part of me that prefers being a bystander, unable to influence or shape the future; unable to change or improve the lot of our people; unable to govern ourselves; and assigned to the sidelines, while, under direct rule, London and Dublin decide our fate. We have the courage to shape our own destiny, and we have the confidence to do right and to trust in the good judgement of the people.
As we move forward in this new era, we must never forget the events of the past 40 years, and, in particular, we must never forget those whose lives were cut short, those who have suffered and those who still do.
As an Administration, we are pledged to help the victims of the Troubles, and we must boost our efforts to ensure, as best we can, that victims too can share the benefits of this new era. We must not go back to the bad old days. We must learn from the past; we must not live in it.
I want to see a Northern Ireland that is not known throughout the world for the Troubles, nor even for the peace process. I want to see a Northern Ireland that is known for innovation; for its industry; for the economic opportunity that it offers; for the friendliness, warmth and charm of its people; and for the beauty, vitality and magic of its landscape.
In this new era, we have much to celebrate. There has probably never been a period since the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921 with more widespread support for both the political and policing institutions than exists today.
We, in Northern Ireland, are in the unique position of benefiting from all the advantages of being an integral part of the United Kingdom, while having more positive relationships with the Republic of Ireland than ever before. We have also enjoyed the support and encouragement of the United States of America, and we very much look forward to the visit of President George Bush in a few weeks’ time.
We are grateful for the support that we have been given from outside Northern Ireland. However, the real test of our maturity as a society will come when we all have the self-confidence to face and resolve our problems. In the past few weeks, there has been much talk of how the DUP has exercised the veto that it negotiated at St Andrews. Yes, we have exercised our veto, and we have not been alone in doing that. However, applying a veto is not an indication of strength or success; it is simply an indication that we were unable to agree.
Let me make it clear: my colleagues and I did not negotiate those changes as a weapon to be used against other parties, but as a safeguard — for as long as it is needed — of the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland. The truth is that unless we can create a shared society, we will not truly have turned the corner as a people.
Therefore — if I can rework the words of Abraham Lincoln, which were uttered almost 150 years ago — let us strive on to finish the work we are in and bind up the wounds of our divided community.
In all that I do as First Minister, I will — with God’s help, and He granting me an ample portion of strength and wisdom — work to put the interests of the people of Northern Ireland first. I pledge to work unstintingly to help navigate the Province towards a better and finer day.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
The deputy First Minister (Mr M McGuinness): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a thabhairt do Ian Paisley as an obair a rinne sé, agus guím gach rath ar an Chéad Aire nua. Ní neart go cur le chéile.
First, I also want to express my sympathy for, and give my condolences to, Nigel Dodds, his mother and his family. I thank my party leader and friend, Gerry Adams, for the nomination as deputy First Minister. I accept the post, being fully aware of its responsibility and potential as a coequal partner in leading the Executive.
I congratulate Peter Robinson on his appointment. I agree with Peter that neither of us is afraid of hard work. I look forward very much to working with him in the time ahead. I am conscious that leading the Executive along with Peter Robinson brings a high level of expectation. We must deliver a real and marked improvement in people’s lives, and how we conduct our business and resolve our differences impacts directly on that task.
I am an Irish republican; I want to see a reunited Ireland created by peaceful and democratic means; I want to see the unity of green and orange. I am committed to working these institutions with the new First Minister, a committed unionist, to deliver for all of the community, our citizens and the most disadvantaged. Bringing about change does not impact on our respective political ideologies.
I am also committed to working with every party and Member in the Assembly in delivering a new and better future. The eyes of the world have been upon us in the course of recent years, as regions have looked to Ireland and to our peace process as an example of conflict resolution. I have no doubt that that will continue as we, as a society, seek to continue to move forward in partnership.
Despite what the cynics and begrudgers might have said over the past year, we have made huge progress. We have achieved what many said was impossible — we are in a stable power-sharing and all-Ireland institutional arrangement. We have agreed a Programme for Government, a Budget and an investment strategy.
There is much hurt in every section of our community. People have lost loved ones, and many others have been injured in the course of the conflict. They are an important constituency. A commission is now in place to address the needs of victims and survivors. As an Executive, we are proactively tackling the divisions in our society, and we will continue to do so.
Across a range of issues, we have confounded the critics, and, from differing positions, we came to an effective agreement. We have shown that we can work together. Peter Robinson and I were part of the Executive that achieved that, and I am committed to working with him positively and constructively as we meet the new challenges that we now face.
The all-Ireland political institutions are up and running and delivering for all the people who live on this island. They offer us an island-wide approach to dealing with problems, offering solutions and bringing benefit to all.
Over the past year, the institutions have bedded down under the leadership of Ian Paisley and me. It has been a remarkably historic year. From the beginning, we treated each other with respect. I pay tribute to Ian Paisley for the role that he played, and I wish him and his wife, Eileen, well in the future.
Throughout the past year, we enjoyed much support and goodwill from all the people of Ireland, but we now enter a new phase. As far as I am concerned, the honeymoon period is over. It is now about hard work; people expect results, and we have come here to deliver for the people. Our people want a future for themselves and for their children, and they want prosperity at a time when the cost of living is spiralling. We must continue to grow our economy to generate wealth, deliver effective public services and protect the most vulnerable in our society.
The recent investment conference was a success, and I am confident that it will lead to tangible results. I echo Peter Robinson in thanking the US Administration and those who came to support a very successful economic investment conference.
Our people want an end to division, and they want to be valued equally. As an Irish republican, I want equality for everyone, not only for nationalists and republicans. We have a responsibility to promote tolerance and to celebrate our cultural and linguistic diversity. We must be open to the new communities that have enriched our society in recent years, and we must stand with them in the battle against racism.
The war is over. In Armagh, after the first meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council to take place since 2002, Ian Paisley generously remarked that we had to end the divisions and the old hatreds of the past on our island. That means proactively tackling the scourge of sectarianism. Difference, in our past, meant division. In the future, we must ensure that difference is not seen as a threat but as something to cherish and celebrate. We must start talking to one another and not at one another. We, as political leaders, must take the lead, particularly in the Chamber.
Our people want to feel safe in their homes and on the streets, and I want the Assembly to have policing and justice powers to ensure that that happens. We must continue to invest in health, education and elderly people. We face significant challenges in the global economy because of rising prices and a downturn in the housing market. We also face challenges as we journey out of conflict and attempt to reconcile our past with a new and better future.
Despite all the challenges that lie ahead, we will continue to make progress across this island. We are determined to bring an early conclusion to the talks that begin tomorrow to resolve all the outstanding issues from the St Andrews Agreement.
I believe that the public wants stability and progress. Acting together, the new First Minister and I intend to deliver both.
In a speech in the United States in 2006, the new First Minister said:
“I hope… that the sons and daughters of the Planter and the Gael have found a way to share the land of their birth and live together in peace.”
I very much share that hope. As joint First Ministers, the new First Minister and I, as leaders of the planter and the Gael, are charged with the responsibility to lead the way on behalf of the Executive. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Mr Speaker: As I indicated earlier, there will now be an opportunity for a representative from each of the other political parties to speak. I ask that Members limit their remarks to no more than five minutes.
Sir Reg Empey: I wish to take the opportunity to wish the First Minister well in his new post. I hope that he and the deputy First Minister will be able to inject a genuine sense of purpose, which is currently lacking, into the Executive’s deliberations. I put on record the fact that on not a single occasion since devolution returned to Northern Ireland in 2007 have the leaders of the parties that comprise the Executive met to discuss the way forward. I believe that that is one of the reasons why the First Minister’s term of office has started in an atmosphere of crisis.
Colleagues beside us told us that they had got it right in 2007; that issues had been resolved at St Andrews to ensure that there would be no more threats to devolution and that stability was guaranteed. That claim rings hollow today, as we meet here at the beginning of yet another round of talks involving both Governments. It is abundantly clear that matters are not resolved and that we are, in fact, embarking on St Andrews mark II. The truth is that the problems that we face do not lie in London or Dublin. The unresolved problems lie in this Chamber. They should be resolved here by all the parties present. That is why we are here. Once again, there has been no effort to bring the parties together to discuss those outstanding issues.
It is clear that Sinn Féin’s behaviour during the past week will convince many that the Assembly is not yet ready to shoulder further responsibility, especially on such sensitive issues as policing and justice. When it is clear that we are unable to deal effectively with day-to-day problems, what reason is there to believe that adding more into the mix will produce better results? Sinn Féin could simply not resist the temptation to indulge in yet more brinkmanship to advance its narrow and outdated agenda.
In May 2008, I, like others, had the privilege of addressing potential US investors. Along with other Ministers, I encouraged them to believe that the problems of political instability were behind us. Yet, within a few weeks, we make fools of ourselves across the world. Real damage has been done to the credibility of this institution, both at home and abroad, and Sinn Féin is to blame. Families out there are reeling from increasing food costs, rising mortgages, increased energy and fuel bills. Instead of expecting to receive help from this place, people see a wrangle over an Irish language Act and other issues. People must ask what on earth we are playing at.
The process that is being embarked upon in London tomorrow may well end in the devolution of policing and justice; maybe not now, but next year or later. There will be an Irish language Act, although not the one that Sinn Féin wants for this place. The Act could apply to those areas for which London has responsibility and not this House. Remember, the St Andrews Agreement referred specifically to “an Irish Language Act”.
Therefore, there is nothing to prevent the powers that are reserved to London being used to create such an Act, including the powers that relate to broadcasting and other matters. The republican movement is beating the door down in London to secure that, and it is not being turned away. I suggest that that matter must be watched. That may not apply here, but it may apply to matters that are not devolved. That move will be sweetened by some economic bribe, perhaps involving the proceeds of the sale of Army bases — a policy that I support — and perhaps by some statement from the late Mr P O’Neill, who we thought had gone away. Perhaps he will be resuscitated once more to allegedly provide some confidence in what might emerge.
The problems are here; they are not in London or in Dublin. Running in and out of those places, when we thought that we had moved on from all of that, is not the way forward. The way forward is to deal with our own problems because that is what we are here for — that is what we are paid for and that is what we should be doing.
Mr Durkan: I congratulate the First Minister and the deputy First Minister on their appointment by their parties today. I regret the fact that, because of changes to the Good Friday Agreement, they have not been elected by the Assembly, as they rightly should be. The Ministers and indeed the staff of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister would show better respect to the Chamber and the full authority of the Assembly if they were elected by it. A number of issues that have emerged during the past year has reinforced that concern.
The joint First Ministers have the good wishes of the SDLP as they take up the responsibilities of their office. There are challenges of that office, and there are challenges in that office. As they come to terms with those challenges, we want to work with them in the Executive, the Chamber and the Committees to take society forward, to grow our economy and to develop and improve our public services.
The First Minister and the deputy First Minister referred to the Programme for Government, the Budget and the investment strategy. Some of us voiced differences about those, which we expressed legitimately and in a measured way — only to be dismissed. The problems are now biting as Departments come to terms with delivering efficiency savings in the form of cutbacks to some services, which are hitting the community and voluntary sectors. There is uncertainty in schools and public services as reform and budgetary pressures bite. Families must cope with uncertainty about rising bills and the possible introduction of water charges. Firms must cope with the uncertainty of market pressures and cost rises.
In all those circumstances, we were treated to the phoney uncertainty this week of question marks around the future of the Assembly itself. That was a disgraceful contribution and was the result of political showboating, particularly on the part of Sinn Féin. The SDLP wants to see the institutions succeed and deliver; that is why we worked to create the institutions, which are based on the models of power sharing, North/South co-operation and strong east-west relationships. Those institutions were the centrepiece of the Good Friday Agreement, and we stood for them for a long time while other parties, which are now practising the arrangements so well, stood against them.
Is the best way to take the devolution project forward for our new First Minister and deputy First Minister to go off to Downing Street tomorrow, supposedly to talk about outstanding problems from the St Andrews Agreement, which are essentially outstanding problems between their parties? Essentially, there are outstanding problems because of a failure to resolve issues in the way in which people claimed that they had been resolved in the St Andrews Agreement — and those problems are now coming home to roost. Not only are the First Minister and deputy First Minister to talk about those problems, but, according to all the reports and briefings, they will talk about the investment strategy for Northern Ireland, education and the economy.
Those issues are the responsibility of this Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive. They are not matters that, on the first day of business, we should be bringing back to the former direct rulers in Downing Street.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Durkan: It is not encouraging or edifying, at this juncture of devolution, that that is the best that can be offered to us on the first full day in office of the new First Minister and deputy First Minister.
They should bring those issues to the House and listen to the rest of us, as we set out our concerns about the Budget and the Programme for Government. They will find in other parties people who are willing to share and help to deliver on their ambitions to ensure that this place becomes better, with a bigger sense of itself, its own community, one another, and its role in the world.
We will support the First Minister and the deputy First Minister in anything that they do for the good of the people of Northern Ireland. We will challenge them on anything that they do that lets down the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.
Finally, on behalf of my party and of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, which I chair, I extend sincere condolences to Minister Nigel Dodds on the death of his father.
Mr Ford: I also congratulate the new First Minister and the recycled deputy First Minister on their nomination by their party nominating officers to the posts that they hold. However, it is a pity that the House did not have an opportunity to vote as it would have done under the 1998 Act.
We heard two positive speeches from both Ministers about their aspirations for the future. The question that we in the Chamber are entitled to ask today is: was that rhetoric, or does it reflect reality? Three weeks ago, Members from the DUP and Sinn Féin were telling all of us, and potential US investors, that Northern Ireland was open for business and that we had stability. Then, three days ago, the president of Sinn Féin rushed off to Downing Street to create the image of a crisis.
Today, Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness have taken the Pledge of Office, having been confirmed by their parties as First Minister and deputy First Minister, thereby creating the appearance of normality. However, tomorrow, they will rush back to Downing Street, depending on the Prime Minister to get them out of the hole into which their parties have dug themselves.
It really is time that those who have been charged with Government in this place took up their duties and stopped acting like squabbling children. A year on from the time when they told us that everything was resolved is long past the time for them to be continuing to act in that way. It is time that Ministers justified their appointments and started to take the difficult decisions. It is time that they recognised that the problems of Northern Ireland should be addressed in this Building and in Stormont Castle, and not in Downing Street, Government Buildings or the White House. It really is time that they grew up.
The time for chuckling is clearly over with the change in personnel. Will that be replaced by an ongoing sham fight, or will the Executive start to take some collective action on the difficult issues that confront us, and not just individual action on the easy issues?
We have been told by Ministers that they have put the economy at the heart of the Programme for Government. However, experience throughout the world shows that one cannot have a successful, dynamic economy if one is part of a divided society. Investment in promoting good relations is not some soft, liberal response — it is absolutely fundamental if we are to have a society in which talent flourishes and public investment is maximised. That is the challenge for the incoming Administration. That is the challenge that the First Minister and the deputy First Minister have apparently responded to, yet it is the challenge on which the outgoing Administration — of which they were both part — totally failed to take action.
I listened carefully when the First Minister talked about the responsibilities of all in the Chamber, and specifically the responsibilities that he said applied to all those who were outside the Executive. I will respond to him and assure him that, if he is serious in that challenge, we on these Benches are quite prepared to engage in constructive discussion to improve the way in which the institutions work and the service that we deliver to the people of Northern Ireland — and to start to make a difference. That issue reflects back to the First Minister, because the lead must be given by the Executive, and, in particular, by the two top Ministers.
Reading the press, we see that the people of Northern Ireland demand leadership; they demand constructive action on a whole range of problems that face us. They want an end to the current shenanigans, the flip-flop from a photocall one day to angry exchange, begrudgery or sham fight the next. The question is: will the Executive now rise to the challenge to which the Ministers today said that they will rise?
Ms Purvis: Events of the past week have demonstrated the fragility of what we are all working to secure: peace and stability. I welcome the comments of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister on the need to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. We all need to deliver, particularly for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.
Disbanding the army council will not heat your house. You cannot eat an Irish language Act — [Laughter.] — Members can laugh all they want. Rising fuel and food costs mean that people will die this winter if that issue is not resolved.
I take the First Minister’s comments on board and say that I have a responsibility — as do all of us in this Chamber, particularly this Executive — to address the outstanding issues. I wish the new Ministers well, and I look forward, as does our entire community, to delivery.
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has arranged to meet 15 minutes after the House adjourns.
Adjourned at 4.33 pm.