Sunday 26 January 2020

Stormont opens doors after three years of deadlock

Varadkar, Clinton and Johnson hail restoration of powersharing

A general view of the Northern Ireland Executive Assembly sitting in their chamber room as the power sharing executive returned to power for the first time in three years. Photo: Kelvin Boyes/Getty Images
A general view of the Northern Ireland Executive Assembly sitting in their chamber room as the power sharing executive returned to power for the first time in three years. Photo: Kelvin Boyes/Getty Images

John Walsh and Wayne O'Connor

All five of Northern Ireland's political parties joined the Stormont Executive as the devolved assembly sat for the first time in three years yesterday.

DUP Leader Arlene Foster was nominated as first minister and Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill was elected deputy first minister on the third anniversary of the collapse of powersharing administration.

Sinn Fein pulled out of government in January 2017 because of a row over Ms Foster's role in a botched renewable energy scheme. Sinn Fein had pledged never to serve under the DUP leader again until a report into the RHI scandal has been made public. That report is set to be released in the next few months.

The restoration of powersharing was welcomed by Taoiseach Leo Vardakar, UK prime minister Boris Johnson and former US president Bill Clinton yesterday.

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Mr Clinton, one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement, said he hoped Brexit, with Britain's EU departure at the end of the month looming large, will not disrupt the harmony brought by the Good Friday Agreement. "I care deeply about the people of Northern Ireland, and I'm thankful their leaders are coming together in the spirit of the Good Friday Accords to stand-up the Executive and restore the government functions that people of all communities require," he said.

"I remain hopeful that Brexit will respect the Good Friday Accords and the sacrifice and vision of so many people, more than two decades ago."

Mr Varadkar hailed yesterday's move as historic and thanked the members and staff of the Irish and UK governments who brokered a deal last Friday night to revive the regional government.

"All parties and politicians in Northern Ireland are to be commended for their decision to put the people they represent first and make measured compromises to reach a deal," the Taoiseach said.

"I want to thank the Tanaiste Simon Coveney, Northern Ireland secretary of state Julian Smith and their teams for the enormous effort and hard work over the last number of months."

UK prime minister Boris Johnson said the Northern Executive must now deliver much-needed reforms to the health service, education and justice in Northern Ireland.

"As we begin a new decade, we can now look forward to a brighter future for all in Northern Ireland with an Executive that can transform public services and improve people's lives," he added.

Alex Maskey, a Sinn Fein MLA, was appointed speaker of the assembly, with 24 of 27 DUP members of the house supporting his nomination. Mr Maskey was interned twice in the 1970s over membership of the IRA.

In her speech to the chamber, Michelle O'Neill called for cooperation, saying it was important to look to the future.

"As we approach the centenary of partition let's not re-fight battles of the past. It is time to bring people together. We can open doors and, we can let this future in. We must give people hope and our young people opportunity," she added.

Ms Foster's speech struck a similar note.

"It's time for Stormont to move forward and show that together we are stronger for the benefit of everyone. Fixing problems in schools and reforming our health service so people receive timely treatment should be the priority for all parties. Let's get down to work. Let's Get Northern Ireland moving again," she said.

Jim Allister, the leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice Party (TUV), and Jim Wells, a DUP MLA, tabled a motion requesting that the speaker invites the Queen to address the assembly to mark the centenary of the foundation of Northern Ireland in 2021.

The Irish and British governments published a 62-page document called New Decade, New Approach last Thursday evening and called on parties to support it ahead of a deadline that would have seen elections called this week if no deal was reached. The DUP signalled last Thursday night that it would back the joint proposal to restore the Stormont Executive. Sinn Fein, and the SDLP said last Friday evening that they would re-enter government.

The UUP and the Alliance Party waited until yesterday morning to confirm they would join the executive.

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