Foster pledges to ‘get Northern Ireland moving’ as Assembly sits again

Three years after its collapse the Northern Assembly was formally back in business at lunchtime on Saturday following Thursday night’s publication of the British-Irish agreement to restore Stormont.

And as the wheels of the powersharing administration slowly cranked back into gear after 36 months of paralysis the incoming DUP First Minister Arlene Foster pledged to “get Northern Ireland moving forward again”.

“We won’t solve every problem immediately but local Ministers will get on with key reforms in schools and hospitals,” she promised.

The session of the Assembly began at 1 pm with the election of a speaker and deputy speakers, with DUP East Derry DUP Assembly member, George Robinsons initially chairing proceedings.

Before moving to those elections he went though the list of members who had resigned or been replaced since the last full meeting of the Assembly three years ago.

There were three nominations for the position of speaker, Alex Maskey of Sinn Féin a West Belfast MLA; East Antrim MLA Roy Beggs of the Ulster Unionist Party; and Mid-Ulster SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone.

Peter Weir of the DUP caused some surprise by stating his party was supporting Mr Maskey for the speaker position, appearing to demonstrate that from the outset his party and Sinn Féin were determined to make the restored dispensation work.

Mr Weir said the MLAs were embarking on a “long journey, a never-ending journey to make life better for all of us”, while adding, “It is a challenge to all of us to work together.”

To no surprise the first discordant note of the day came from Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister who referring to the title of the deal, New Decade, New Approach, said it was the same “old carve up between DUP and Sinn Féin”.

“Nothing has changed, nothing is new and nothing good will come of it,” he said, while adding that the sight of DUP MLAs trooping through the lobby to “support a Sinn Féin speaker will not be lost on many”.

Mr Allister would have preferred to see Mr Beggs or Mr McGlone as speaker because “neither of them has baggage that would prevent them from doing the job”. It was “the same old, same old”, he complained.

Nonetheless, the vote was held and Mr Maskey was duly elected, and normal business could begin with the Sinn Féin MLA in the speaker’s chair.

Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin leads her party into the chamber in Stormont. Photograph: Michael Cooper/PA

Sinn Féin applauded his election in the chamber but the DUP members did not, although DUP members voted for him.

Mr Maskey offered a big “hardy thank you” to those who voted for him, and said it was significant he was elected by a cross-community vote. He hoped the Assembly could continue its work in a “spirit of generosity” and “reconciliation”.

Business then continued through the afternoon with the next due order of business electing deputy speakers.

Those elected to the deputy speaker posts were Christopher Stalford of the DUP, Roy Beggs of the UUP and Patsy McGlone of the SDLP.

The next work was the election of a business committee followed by the election of DUP leader Arlene Foster as First Minister and Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill as Deputy First Minister, and then a new Executive.

That work was expected to take until about 4.30 pm.

Northern Secretary Julian Smith and the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney whose publication of their New Decade, New Approach agreement late on Thursday prompted the parties to re-enter Stormont were not present but wished the parties well.

Mr Smith had warned that if there was no agreement by 11.59 pm on this coming Monday he would call Assembly elections – a challenge most parties, particularly the DUP and Sinn Féin, did not want to face.

“What a week,” wrote Mr Coveney in a tweet. “The ingredients of pace, leadership and a fixed deadline have given the politics of this place another chance,” he added.

In a tweet to the leaders of the five main parties Mr Smith wrote, “Well done good luck!”

The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar said: “This is a historic day for Northern Ireland.”

“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. I want to thank the Tánaiste Simon Coveney, Secretary of State Julian Smith, and their teams, for the enormous effort and hard work over the last number of months in drafting New Decade, New Approach.”

He added: “I look forward to working with representatives in Northern Ireland as they begin working together again on behalf of all people in Northern Ireland. I am also looking forward to an early meeting of the North South Ministerial Council as part of working with the Northern Ireland executive, in the interest of everyone on this island.”

UK prime minister Boris Johnson described the day as momentous, and said in a statement: “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.

“The parties of Northern Ireland have shown great leadership in coming together to accept this fair and balanced deal in the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland.

“After three years without devolved Government, an Executive can now get on with the job of delivering much-needed reforms to the health service, education and justice.

“We could not have got this far without the Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith who has dedicated himself to this process and has worked closely with the Northern Ireland parties and Irish Government to make this happen.”

Under the new deal, the new Executive and Assembly will deal with a wide range of matters such as the Irish language, the sustainability of a reformed Assembly and the petition of concern.

The British and Irish governments also promised a major injection of financial support to address matters such as the health crisis, education, housing, infrastructure and building the Northern Ireland economy

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MoT crisis: Call for clarity as sanction threat hangs over Northern Ireland motorists

DUP MLA Jim Wells, who had the party whip removed in 2018, said it was “disappointing” that DfI has not been open or reacted quickly to clarify the matter.

“This is what we used to blame faceless direct rule ministers and civil servants for… now it appears the Department for Infrastructure is behaving in exactly the same way,” he told BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show.

“So many questions have been raised and I think the department needs to be out there and be flexible in answering legitimate questions almost immediately.

“It’s only when you think through the whole MoT system that you realise there are so many various complexities, in a system that has been taken for granted, and it has broken down and the department needs to react much more quickly.”

Four-year-old cars have never had an MoT test certificate, so there is no MoT to extend.

Speaking on Tuesday afternoon, Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon pledged to open with the public about the situation and commissioned two separate reviews into the matter.

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“I am closely monitoring this situation and I will be upfront and honest with the public,” she said.

“That’s why I have asked that communications issue regularly to the public, staff and Executive colleagues. Efforts have been put in place to deal with the imminent challenges facing customers, but that’s not enough.

“I have instructed officials to present urgently to me further options to put in place a full business recovery plan to get this service back into full operation.”

Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs proposed introducing emergency legislation to extend the period from which new cars are exempt from having an MoT test carried out.

“We need to ensure that those who are driving relatively new vehicles can keep them on the road. It seems very strange that vehicles that are 10 or 15-years-old are given exemptions, but if your vehicle is four-years-old and you can’t get an MoT, you are not given an exemption,” he said.

“It would be absolutely ridiculous to be adversely treating those who are facing this situation through no fault of their own.”

Mr Beggs said there will also be major problems down the line whenever vehicle lifts are back up and running, as there will be a significant backlog of appointments.

Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon described the situation as a “mess” and has extended opening hours at testing centres in a bid to minimise disruption.

She said the Association of British Insurers had assured her policy holders will not be penalised “for something that is entirely out of their control”.

However, question marks remain over possible sanction on motorists caught on the road without the valid paperwork because they cannot get an MoT.

Police said officers were being directed to “exercise discretion”.

“The DVA is working to contact all owners of four year old cars to book them for MOT tests in the coming days,” a PSNI spokesman said.

“Priority is being given to those with MOTs that have expired or expire today, so motorists can tax their vehicles.

“Driving without vehicle tax is not prosecuted by PSNI and is the remit of DVLA. Where a police officer detects a vehicle without tax and it is outside of the 14-day grace period provide in the legislation, a referral is made to the DVLA.

“Given these exceptional circumstances where PSNI detects a vehicle without a valid MOT certificate, providing the vehicle is in a roadworthy condition, officers would be encouraged to exercise discretion.”

Jim Wells said potentially thousands of motorists could find themselves sanctioned.

“We need absolute clarity and we are not getting it from infrastructure and the police,” the added.

“There will be hundreds of people detected everyday [without an MoT] and we need a total amnesty.”

DfI and the DVLA have been contacted for a comment.

Belfast Telegraph

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Over 90% of nurses vote to strike over pay and conditions

RCN boss Pat Cullen feels nurses have been pushed to breaking point
RCN boss Pat Cullen feels nurses have been pushed to breaking point

RCN boss Pat Cullen feels nurses have been pushed to breaking point

Lisa Smyth

By Lisa Smyth

November 8 2019 7:00 AM

More than nine out of 10 Royal College of Nursing (RCN) members have voted in favour of strike action in protest over patient safety.

In an unprecedented development, 92% of RCN members in Northern Ireland have voted in favour of walk-outs and 96% of members have voted for industrial action.

It is the first time in the 103-year history of the organisation that nurses have voted in favour of such drastic action in a bid to protect patients’ lives and increase wages for hard-pressed nurses.

It is a devastating blow for officials and a row erupted last night after the Department of Health accused unions of “making demands they know the department cannot meet”.

A spokeswoman said: “We fully accept that staff in health and social care feel deeply frustrated. The budgetary pressures across health and social care are clear for all to see.

“Despite claims to the contrary, there is no separate or untapped source of funding for pay increases.

“It all comes out of the one health budget. Every pound spent on one priority area is a pound not available for another.

“Industrial action this winter can only exacerbate an already very difficult situation.”

However, RCN Director in Northern Ireland Pat Cullen stressed that nurses here have been pushed to breaking point by unsafe staffing levels.

As of June, there were more than 2,900 vacant nursing posts and the RCN has been calling on the Department of Health to act to address the situation, which has become so severe that patients face waits for bedpans, basic observations are not being carried out and dying patients are not getting proper care.

Most recently, excessive trolley waits in emergency departments have also been blamed on the shortage of nurses.

Ms Cullen said: “Northern Ireland nurses will be angered, but not entirely surprised, at this statement from the Department of Health.

“It is the same rhetoric that has been deployed for many years in seeking to justify a failure to ensure that we have enough nurses to provide safe and effective care for the people of Northern Ireland, and to demonstrate that the Department values the nursing workforce that it employs. Contrary to what the Department is claiming, the RCN is taking action primarily over the staffing crisis in our health service and not over pay parity.

“We are always prepared to continue to talk to the Department in order to try to find a solution that will be acceptable to our members but we have no confidence whatsoever that this discussion process will now suddenly lead to staffing and pay issues being adequately addressed by the Department.

“It is clear that officials have still not grasped the strength of feeling within the nursing workforce in Northern Ireland or the gravity of the crisis that is now engulfing the health service in Northern Ireland.”

The RCN UK Council will meet early next week to decide what form industrial action will take. It could involve nurses refusing to carry out non-nursing duties, including housekeeping duties, right up to not undertaking any work at all for a set period of time.

Two unions, Unison and Nipsa, are also balloting members over possible strike action as the row over pay and conditions threatens to bring the health service to its knees.

Nurses in Northern Ireland are the lowest paid in the UK – a registered nurse at the top of band five here earns £797 a year less than a colleague with equivalent experience and qualifications in England and Wales. They are paid £1,427 less every year than their equivalents in Scotland.

UUP health spokesman Roy Beggs said: “Nurses are the backbone of our local health service.

“The significance of their overwhelming decision to vote for strike action cannot be overstated.”

Belfast Telegraph

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Alex Kane: Unless Robin Swann’s successor can slow the UUP’s decline, he’s just changing the name on the leader’s door

Those figures make life difficult for any leader who is serious about the UUP having a clear, unambiguous, stand-alone identity: the sort of identity which might attract some non-voting pro-Union support, as well as ending what has become a growing drift to Alliance from one-time UUP supporters.

The other difficulty for the UUP is that it has tried one thing after another to end the spiral of decline.

Reg Empey built an electoral policy/pact with David Cameron (the UCUNF project), but it failed to deliver any seats in the 2010 general election.

His successor, Tom Elliott, lasted less than 18 months and, announcing his resignation, complained that some people had not given him a fair “opportunity at developing and progressing many initiatives”; adding that the hostility began immediately after he became leader.

His successor, Mike Nesbitt, had a tendency to drift from one position to another. And, while his ‘Vote Mike and get Colum’ stance had merit, he never really took the time to persuade his grassroots.

The 2017 Assembly election, which saw MLA numbers reduced from 108 to 90, was always going to be difficult, while the UUP also found itself squeezed by the ferocious, post-‘crocodile’ battle between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

So, what does the UUP do now? It is inconceivable that the next leader wouldn’t be an MLA and they only have 10 of those.

There has been speculation that Nesbitt might be tempted to throw his hat into the ring, but I would be surprised (although, as Mike himself would remind me, he has surprised me in the past).

There has also been speculation about Lagan Valley’s Robbie Butler. He is enormously likeable and articulate and doesn’t seem to have enemies across the party. That said, his profile is low and now is not the time for a leader with a low profile.

The most experienced MLA is East Antrim’s Roy Beggs, who was first elected in 1998, but there is nothing to suggest that he has any interest in the role.

I’m also assuming, although I might be mistaken, that John Stewart, Rosemary Barton, Andy Allen and Alan Chambers are out of the picture. That leaves Doug Beattie and Steve Aiken, both elected in 2016.

Apart from Swann, they are easily the highest-profile members of the party and both would be firmly on the liberal wing.

But does being liberal actually guarantee more votes? The examples of Empey (seven years) and Nesbitt (five years) would suggest no.

Elliott (18 months) and Swann (30 months), both of whom would be regarded as coming from the traditional wing, didn’t deliver votes, either.

Which leaves Beattie and Aiken with a huge problem: is there a ‘magic’ ingredient for rescuing the party? And, if there is, do they possess it?

Both men have admitted that they will be ‘taking soundings’ before confirming a decision to stand. Yet, that strikes me as just working out which of them would be the most effective at promoting a ‘liberal’ platform; a platform which mightn’t even keep the votes of the traditional wing.

In other words, trying to reach out to the sort of pro-Union base which either doesn’t vote, or has shifted to Alliance, or Green, might, in fact, do nothing more than shift existing UUP voters to the DUP or TUV, while not attracting the targeted new votes at all.

The UUP has always regarded itself as a broad church; a strategy that worked when there wasn’t much choice for unionist voters.

But it’s very hard to be a broad church against an ongoing background of electoral decline and falling representation.

And it’s even more difficult to be a broad church when parties like the DUP, Alliance and TUV are catering for the specific needs of specific groups of voters.

So, a new UUP leader who starts from a position of being a ‘liberal’ risks perpetuating the decline if he is seen to alienate the traditional wing.

And he risks perpetuating the decline if he tries to cater for two internal groups with contradictory ambitions for the party.

He also risks perpetuating the decline – by losing the 55% of members who support either a full merger, or electoral alliances/pacts – if he tries to position the UUP too far away from the DUP.

How would Doug and Steve meet those challenges and deliver the thing which the UUP needs most: the slowing down of the decline and hard evidence of sustainable electoral progress?

Because, if they don’t have a strategy for that delivery, then they are doomed to be nothing more than a new name on the door of the leader’s office.

Unionism will face huge challenges if there is a no-deal Brexit, or a deal which unsettles the pro-Union majority.

In either of those circumstances, the case for a new form of unionist unity will dominate the political agenda. How would Doug and Steve react?

They are both men of honour, integrity and talent. The job both may seek is a daunting one: in essence, the preservation of the UUP.

Winning the leadership isn’t enough. Both came into politics because of an innate sense of public service and duty. And both have much to contribute. I wish them both well.

Belfast Telegraph

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Proper plans weren’t made for Stormont return, says Sugden

Claire Sugden
Claire Sugden

Claire Sugden

Suzanne Breen

Independent unionist MLA Claire Sugden has hit out at the five Executive parties for not planning in advance for the return of devolution.

The former justice minister said that with MLAs now having to consider 600 statutory rules, it was limiting how often the Assembly could sit.

She said there was now only one plenary session a week which disadvantaged MLAs from the smaller parties and independents like herself.

Ms Sugden said: “The suspension of devolution for three years has meant a huge build-up of statutory rules that have to be scrutinised by MLAs and respective committees.

“Legally, these rules must be considered within 10 plenary days.

“The only way to realistically do that is to reduce the number of plenary days.

“So rather than the Assembly sitting twice a week, as it used to, it is now sitting once a week.

“MLAs are losing our voice in the Assembly because of the political intransigence which left us without government for three years.”

Ms Sugden said that the big parties were aware in October that Stormont would face this problem if devolution was restored.

“They could have asked the Secretary of State to change the legislation at Westminster to give the Assembly more time to consider the statutory rules,” she said.

“But they didn’t so we now have to focus on cleaning up the mess of the past.

“It is very frustrating because people want to see MLAs sitting in the Assembly, and that will now be happening only once a week for the next few weeks.

“Some of us had hoped to hit the ground running, and that is what the public wants too.”

The Ulster Unionists’ Roy Beggs expressed concern that MLAs on committees had been given too little time to scrutinise statutory rules.

Belfast Telegraph

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