NI parties pledge to make Assembly work despite ‘imperfect’ deal

Northern Ireland’s smaller parties pledged their commitment to making the Stormont Assembly work, despite an “imperfect” draft deal.

Gathering in the chamber for the first full sitting in three years, a willingness to make it work was heard all by apart from Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister.

SDLP’s deputy leader Nichola Mallon was among those who joined the new Executive after being nominated as Infrastructure minister.

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The SDLP’s Nichola Mallon and Colin McGrath speaking to the media in the great hall of Stormont Parliament buildings in Belfast (PA)

She said it must deliver “genuine powersharing” and urged delivery on health, education and securing welfare mitigation.

“They are big commitments and we have been pushing both governments because we need to see financial support, clear financial support. But all of us must honour those commitments,” she said.

“We genuinely want to see powersharing. We genuinely and sincerely want to work with all parties, so that we can improve the lives of everybody living in Northern Ireland.

“We have entered in good faith and we are taking at face value that everyone else is acting in the same spirit.”

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Steve Aiken, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (Michael Cooper/PA)

Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken warned that government in Northern Ireland needs to be “transformed to work again”.

“We have a real task ahead of us because if anything we have seen over the last couple of years is that Northern Ireland desperately needs open, transparent, accountable and responsible government that is actually open to everyone in Northern Ireland to see how we are going to make changes,” he said.

“Over the next two years, or however long this assembly is going to run, we must be able to make our government work.”

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Naomi Long, leader of the Alliance Party and new Justice minister (Michael Cooper/PA) 

Alliance leader Naomi Long, the new Justice minister, said her party is determined to tackle the work that needs to be done.

“The deal which the governments have put forward is imperfect, I think all of us recognise that it is a compromise on the positions that each of the parties has taken in the negotiations,” she said.

“There is optimism outside this place, it would be perhaps overstating our position as one that is optimistic, we are realistic about the prospects of this agreement.

“There is a lot of work to be done, but we are also determined that it will succeed and we will play whatever role we can in ensuring that it does.”

Green Party leader Clare Bailey expressed concern at the level of action in Northern Ireland over climate change.

She welcomed commitments made in the draft deal which include a strategy to reduce carbon emissions and an independent environmental protection agency, but pointed out the region is the only place across the UK or Ireland yet to endorse a climate act.

“Let this new decade and new approach be one where Northern Ireland is no longer left behind as a place apart,” she said.

Independent unionist MLA Claire Sugden said that Northern Ireland’s problems will not be fixed overnight.

The former justice minister added: “If anything we need a root-and-branch review of every department in Northern Ireland, but it’s good that the wheels are now moving and I look forward to working with each and every one of you.”

Meanwhile, Mr Allister said he refused to “join in the pretence that an Executive will bring stability”, saying it can be pulled down by a party that “doesn’t want Northern Ireland to exist” in reference to Sinn Fein.

He also claimed the Assembly was sitting “because of a double blackmail”.

“Blackmail of a Secretary of State who says ‘I have the money to fix the health service but I won’t give it unless there is an Executive’,” he said.

“And of course the blackmail of Sinn Fein that you can only have a government if you pay the ransom that they demand.”

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