Northern Ireland: Foster, O’Neill lay out aims for reconciliation at Stormont

First Minister, Deputy First Minister declare commitment to powersharing in North

The re-appointed Northern Ireland First Minister and Deputy First Minister have pledged to seek common ground and to promote reconciliation.

DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O'Neill in taking up the two top posts in the restored Northern Executive concentrated on trying to achieve good working relationships into the future.

Ms Foster said that, in relation to the previous three years, there was “plenty of blame to go around but the time has come to move forward with resolution”.

"Lessons have been learned and it is time to get Northern Ireland moving forward again," she said.

She said that after the “three lost years” the focus now must be on dealing with issues such as the health crisis and other public service problems.

“I pledge to work in a collegiate manner with all parties across this chamber to ensure that our public services are improved, and that every citizen feels valued and that we lay a solid foundation for the next generation,” added Ms Foster.

“In 2021 Northern Ireland will celebrate its centenary and we want to do so with safer streets, better schools and a first-class health service, free at the point of need,” she said.

Ms Foster added, “Within this chamber there are people who are British, Irish, Northern Irish and European. There are many identities and those of us who are here today should have each of our identities respected. That is why we reached the fair and balanced deal, which caters for British and Irish, as well as new and emerging identities. We want everyone to feel at home in Northern Ireland.”

She referred to a commitment to establish the Armed Forces Covenant and a veteran British soldiers’ commissioner which, she said, was “very significant for young men and women from these shores who have, or continue to defend democracy all over the world”.

Ms Foster also referred to how the speaker and others in the chamber were Irish republicans and how she was a unionist with a “strong British identity”.

“But regardless of our differences we must seek out common ground,” she said.

She recalled how, when she visited Our Lady's grammar school in Newry, the pupils gave her "a lovely picture as a gift".

She continued, “It has hung in my office ever since and in Irish it states, ‘together we are strong’. We have many differences and Michelle’s narrative of the past 40 years could not be any more different to mine. And I am not sure we will ever agree on much about the past.

“But we can agree that there was too much suffering, and that we cannot allow society to drift back and allow division to grow.

"Northern Ireland is succeeding in many ways. It is time for Stormont to move forward, and show that together we are stronger for the benefit of everyone… So, let us get down to work and, most importantly, let's get Northern Ireland moving again."

‘New era of politics’

Sinn Féin deputy leader Ms O’Neill said the day was a “defining moment” for Northern Ireland politics. “From today the parties represented in this chamber undertake to cooperate in every way that we can in order to rebuild public trust and confidence,” she said.

“Our mission must be to deliver good politics, to deliver on health, education and jobs for everyone across the whole community,” she said.

“I see no contradiction in declaring and delivering on our firm commitment to power sharing with unionism in the Stormont Assembly, while also initiating a mature and inclusive debate about new political arrangements which examine Ireland’s future beyond Brexit.”

Ms O’Neill added, “Similarly, there is no contradiction in unionism working the existing constitutional arrangements while taking its rightful place in the conversation about what a new Ireland would look like.

“We can do this while maintaining our independent, distinct political identities and working in the best interests of all of the people. This is my firm commitment.”

Ms O’Neill said she was honoured to follow in the footsteps of the late Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. “I too pledge to follow the example of Martin by actively promoting reconciliation, and building bridges we can all cross to end sectarianism and bigotry,” she said.

She said a “resistance to equality caused the Executive to fall” and a “refusal to embrace citizens’ identity and rights left people frustrated, angered and divided”.

“This cannot be repeated. Today we, each of us, are called on to lead, to build common cause for a society that makes room for, and gives respect to, every citizen, to deliver a power-sharing government that is truly grounded in fairness, inclusion. and that has the courage to lead from the front in these times of change.”

Ms O’Neill welcomed the Irish language proposals in the agreement and pledged that the new Executive will move immediately to settle the healthcare workers’ industrial action.

She added, “As we approach the centenary of partition let’s not refight 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.

“It is my sincere hope that 2020 is a time of real change which reinvents the optimism and hope we have experienced before, but our young people have not.

It is time now for parties to have courage, as we choose hope over fear and enter a new era of politics in this society.”