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New NI Assembly bids to address social and political crisis

17 January 2020

Northern Ireland’s leaders meet amid mood of optimism


The deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Fein (front left) and Arlene Foster of the DUP, with, from left to right, Ireland’s deputy premier, Simon Coveney, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Boris Johnson, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith, at Stormont, on Monday

The deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Fein (front left) and Arlene Foster of the DUP, with, from left to right, Ireland’s deputy premier,...

THE Northern Ireland Assembly reconvened this week, after a three-year recess, with a visit from Boris Johnson and his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar. The mood was one of optimism for the future, not least from the main church leaders, who spoke of “going the extra mile”, pointing to the social and political crisis that had bedevilled the province, and the new opportunity for reconciliation.

In their statement, the leaders of the Church of Ireland, the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Roman Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, and the Irish Council of Churches described the deal agreed at Stormont as reflecting “a balanced accommodation that is focused on the common good; and one that we hope can begin to address the political and social crisis that has developed due to the prolonged absence of a functioning Executive and Assembly”.

They said: “The principles of accountability, transparency, and responsibility identified in the agreement are crucial to underpinning sustainable government and ensuring that the experience of the last three years cannot happen again. Along with the development of trust and generosity of spirit, these measures offer an opportunity to build a peaceful and just society that is centred around respect and recognition of each other’s cultural identity.”

For the political leaders, it was a mixture of dodging the question about how much money was promised to persuade all sides to shelve their differences — at least in the short term — and pointing to the promises of a bright future that lay ahead in all sectors, particularly in health, education, public services, and infrastructure projects. All these sectors have suffered badly during the interregnum, as demonstrated by the nurses’ strike in recent weeks.

When it came to the crunch, Mr Johnson would not be drawn on the rumoured £2 billion to enable parity of pay between health staff in Northern Ireland and their English counterparts, and for all the other sectors now in crisis across the province, but suggested there would be enough, and that he was “supportive”.

Mr Johnson said: “It’s not just about money: it’s about leadership . . . that Northern Ireland politicians have put aside their differences, stepped up to the plate and shown leadership, and that is a fine thing and the right thing.”

The DUP First Minister, Arlene Foster, was the minister responsible for the “cash for ash” renewable-heat incentive — a financial scandal that, in part, helped to bring down the Assembly (News, 13 January 2017). During the political vacuum, same-sex marriage and abortion were allowed into the province, by means of a Westminster decree, in October — moves that the DUP vehemently opposed.

Ms Foster, in refusing to stand aside while the inquiry into the green energy scheme was under way, prompted the late Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to collapse the Assembly. The inquiry’s report is due shortly — and so also is the first gay marriage in Northern Ireland, which will probably take place next month.

On Tuesday, the leader of the Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland, David Smyth, welcomed the “old and brave” deal, but called for an urgent meeting on the lack of abortion measures in the text.

He said: “We also hope to meet with the parties in the days ahead more broadly to represent a Christian voice as they consider their programme for government. We pray for good and sustainable local governance, for our politicians and civil servants, as Stormont springs back into life. We pray for wisdom and integrity, and a deep shared concern for the most vulnerable. We pray for new and reimagined relationships, resilient enough to withstand, and even flourish within, the inevitable political pressures which lie ahead.”

Mr Varadkar said that he hoped to see cross-border bodies set up by the Anglo Irish Agreement back in operation as soon as possible. On Tuesday, he announced that a General Election will take place in the Republic on 8 February.

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