Aiken PR

The Briefing

‘New Decade – New Approach’ sees restoration of Stormont Executive

by Aiken PR

13/01/2020

 

‘New Decade – New Approach’ sees restoration of Stormont Executive

Introduction

After more than three years of political deadlock, Saturday saw the restoration of the NI Executive, with all main parties backing the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ framework.

The assembly was recalled over the weekend and met to appoint new Ministers, Speakers, Deputies and Committees across nine departments.

There was strong speculation that at least one of the main five parties would seek to enter the opposition benches, however, this was not to be, with the UUP, SDLP and Alliance all taking ministerial posts, courtesy of the D’Hondt system.

Out of the blocks early into their new tenure over the weekend was new Health Minister Robin Swann who declared meeting with Unions ‘a priority’ and Finance Minister Conor Murphy who called out the UK and Irish governments regarding funding commitments.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Stormont today and held a press conference, hailing today as ‘a very good day for Northern Ireland’, however, refused to be drawn on calls from Murphy and others on how much money Northern Ireland will get to deliver the ‘New Decade New Approach’ deal.

 

The new look NI Executive is as follows:

·         First Minister: Arlene Foster (DUP)

·         Deputy First Minister: Michelle O’Neill (Sinn Fein)

·         Assembly Speaker: Alex Maskey

·         Deputy Speakers:

o   Christopher Stalford (DUP)

o   Roy Beggs (UUP)

o   Patsy McGlone (SDLP)

·         Gordon Lyons (DUP) and Declan Kearney (Sinn Féin) will serve as junior ministers.

·         Alliance leader Naomi Long accepted the position of justice minister.

·         Minister for Justice: Naomi Long (Alliance)

·         Minister for the economy: Diane Dodds (DUP)

·         Minister for education: Peter Weir (DUP)

·         Minister for agriculture, environment and rural affairs: Edwin Poots (DUP)

·         Minister for communities: Deirdre Hargey (Sinn Féin)

·         Minister for finance: Conor Murphy (Sinn Féin)

·         Minister for health: Robin Swann (UUP)

·         Minister for infrastructure: Nichola Mallon (SDLP)

 NI Assembly Business Committee:

·         The Speaker, Alex Maskey (ex officio);

·         Ms Kellie Armstrong MLA

·         Ms Clare Bailey MLA

·         Mr Robbie Butler MLA

·         Mrs Dolores Kelly MLA

·         Mr Gordon Lyons MLA

·         Mr Declan McAleer MLA

·         Mr Colin McGrath MLA

·         Mr Andrew Muir MLA

·         Ms Caral Ní Chuilín MLA

·         Mr George Robinson MLA

·         Mr John Stewart MLA

 

Full Executive analysis:

There are many familiar faces who have taken up roles as Ministers, with the likes of Peter Weir returning to the helm at Education, and Edwin Poots, a former Environment Minister once again in charge of this brief as the new Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister, however, in addition to the more established figures, there are some new faces at the Executive table.

Former Belfast City Council Lord Mayor Deirdre Hargey’s appointment as Minister for Communities represents a meteoric rise from Councillor, to MLA, to Minister all within a few weeks, leaving prominent figures such as John O’Dowd on the ministerial side–line, as he embarks on a new role as Sin Fein’s Chief Whip.

 

 

Ministers and Departments

First Minister: Arlene Foster (DUP)

Context:

The DUP leader has been returned as First Minister, having endured a difficult period with the RHI investigation looming and successive disappointing elections, seeing the party lose seats at Stormont and Westminster.

Whilst Sinn Fein had previously called for Foster’s resignation as a prerequisite to the restoration of a new Assembly, the two parties will now lead the government with commitments to deliver across a wide range of policy issues.

Response:

As an integral figure to the formation of the new assembly, the First Minister has struck a conciliatory tone, and whilst stating that the deal is ‘not perfect’, she says ‘it is time for Stormont to move forward.’

Main Priorities:

–       The new First Minister and deputy First Minister will have a role in the development of a framework to recognise and celebrate culture and diversity in Northern Ireland and this role will be supported by junior ministers.

–       The pair will also be involved in the decision–making process around the new commissioners for both language traditions along with approvement of all new standards introduced.

–       The Executive Office is to form a new NI Executive joint board with the Secretary of State to review funding and give oversight to government–led transformation projects in areas such as Health, Education and Justice. 

Deputy First Minister: Michelle O’Neill (Sinn Fein)

Context:

Sin Fein’s ‘leader in the North’, Michelle O’Neill will take up the role of deputy First Minister, having previously served as Health Minister and Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development.

Michelle, despite only having been in office for ten months as Health Minister delivered a key transformational policy entitled ‘Health and Wellbeing 2026: Delivering Together’, a ten–year plan based on the findings of the Bengoa Report which aimed to modernise the NI health and social care system.

Response:

The deputy First Minister has expressed a strong wish that ‘2020 brings real change’, calling for ‘a mature and inclusive debate about new political arrangements which examine Ireland’s future beyond Brexit.’

Main priorities:

*See above

Assembly Speaker: Alex Maskey

Context:

Having first been elected as an MLA in 1998, Alex Maskey has been a prominent figure for Sinn Fein occupying roles including Chair of Social Development Committee, and formerly Lord Mayor of Belfast City Council.

Alex Maskey will now act as Chair for the newly formed Business Committee.

Response:

Whilst Patsy McGlone was widely earmarked for the role of assembly speaker, the DUP backed Alex Maskey, reciprocating Sinn Fein’s previous support for Robin Newton. In the opening exchanges on Saturday, Jim Allister highlighted this as an example of ‘a new decade, same old approach’, with Colm Eastwood labelling the appointment, ‘a missed opportunity.’

Minister for finance: Conor Murphy (Sinn Féin)

Context:

Conor Murphy is firmly established as one of Sinn Fein’s most senior figures, having previously served as MP for Newry and Armagh and as Minister for Regional Development. As a previous Chair of the Economy Committee, Conor will be familiar with matters pertaining to finance, and in the last assembly held ministers to account on issues such as Financial Review Panel findings and the ‘Going for Growth’ economic strategy.

Response:

The MLA said his head was clear to take on the new ministerial role and called on the British and Irish governments to deliver on “a substantial injection of funding, over and above the block grant”.

Main priorities:

–      The most immediate task for the new finance minister will be to cost the commitments made in the new agreement. The minister is expected to raise with the PM that NI will need ‘a lot‘ more than £1.5bn promised.

–      Conor Murphy will be in charge of deciding the business rates for the region. The minister’s most difficult task, as he will need to mitigate the consequences of the rates revaluation which is expected to result in a rise in business rates for most. In particular, he will come under pressure from the retail and hospital sector who will be disproportionately burdened by any changes.

–      With the new budget set to be presented to Stormont in March 2020, it will have a different approach this term, the agreement has promised the end of short–term budgeting and Conor Murphy is the man who needs to secure funding for all of the departments. The new approach means the department will now have to develop a multi–year budget that offers a sustained approach to public finance. The budget will prioritise investment for infrastructure and public services and it must include greater transparency on specific spending.

 

Minister for the economy: Diane Dodds (DUP)

Context:

Diane Dodds is a DUP party veteran and served as an MEP on behalf of NI for 10 years from 2009.

Diane is no stranger to the assembly having been elected as an MLA in 2003, and whilst the role of minister will be a significant career change, Diane will be familiar with key local and international economic issues from her time in Brussels.

Diane has been critical of the North/South Single Energy Market, and with ongoing cross–border projects including the North South Interconnector, it remains to be seen how her approach could impact in this area.

In other areas relating to labour and employment policy, Diane has expressed an openness to amend the Apprenticeship Levy as well as industrial strategies and sectoral strategies.

Response:

Diane Dodds’ appointment may have come as a surprise in some quarters, having only been co–opted as an MLA two weeks ago, with the last ten years of her political career spent at the EU.

The new Minister has come out positively in support of the new deal, stating ‘we need a functioning and stable assembly which delivers and deals with the practical everyday issues we all face.’

Main priorities:

Managing the impacts of Brexit will take up much of the minister’s attention in the new executive, Diane Dodds and her department will need to develop key aims for Northern Ireland in the upcoming negotiations with the EU.

–      Several key strategies require development in the areas of Energy, Renewables, Industry and Superfast Broadband

–      Renewable energy policy is to fall under the remit of the minister, a range of initiatives such as incentives for business and households to encourage microgeneration need delivered, to help the executive meet climate change goals.

–      A further priority will be the implementation of policy initiatives which create a favourable investment climate in Northern Ireland to help meet objectives in the new agreement. One such objective is cyber security with a commitment to achieve 5000 cyber security professionals by 2030, the minister will be in charge of incentivising this industry to allow it to develop.

–      The Executive will take advantage of the economic potential offered in the new ‘Cities’ deal for Belfast and Derry/Londonderry

–      In response to Brexit, the parties have recognised the need to invest in future of Northern Ireland with a focus on sustainable productivity and trade

–      As Minister, Diane will be faced with calls to amend current arrangements / legislation on minimum wage and zero–hour contracts

Minister for Health: Robin Swann (UUP)

Context:

The former Ulster Unionist leader from North Antrim will be the first Ulster Unionist to hold the portfolio since his party colleague Michael McGimpsey.

Having first been elected to the assembly in 2011, Robin has held a variety of roles including Chair of Employment and Learning Committee, and whilst he has never served on the Health Committee, Robin has worked on various health based ‘All Party Groups’ (APG) including; APG on Human Life and APG on Learning Disability.

Robin will take on the mantle of important public health strategies in areas including Minimum Unit Pricing and the fundamentals of the NI obesity strategy, amongst other key priorities.

Response:

With Swann having announced he was stepping down last year after two years as UUP leader to spend more time with his young family, his appointment will have surprised many, given its demands and time commitments.

As a matter urgency, Mr Swann requested meetings with trade unions in a bid to settle the ongoing industrial action by health workers “right away”.

He said his optimism in finding agreement comes from a new financial package and the support from other ministerial colleagues.

Main priorities:

–      The health workers’ dispute is to be the number one priority for Robin Swann, pay parity with the rest of the UK will be the first task, then he must tackle employment levels to create better environments for staff and patients.

–      Waiting times will be a major priority for the department of health, a backlog is now developing which is affecting all services, significant investment and planning will be needed to tackle these issues.

–      The Minister will also seek to address the mental health crisis in Northern Ireland. The need for a Mental Health Action Plan has been agreed by all parties but the implementation of this along with the other ongoing issues will be a difficult task for a department already facing many challenges.

–      The new agreement has tasked the minister with developing a successor strategy to the Alcohol and Drug Strategic Review Phase 2 – as part of this Minimum unit pricing is to be a key policy consideration after legislation has been introduced in Scotland and Wales

–      Other priorities will include the delivery of 900 new undergraduate places for nursing and midwifery and a new mental health action plan

 

Minister for infrastructure: Nichola Mallon (SDLP)

Context

The SDLP deputy leader and North Belfast MLA is taking on her first ministerial post, having previously served as Belfast Lord Mayor.

In recent weeks she has called for greater support for mental health services in Northern Ireland.

As infrastructure minister, progress is expected on major road upgrades like the York Street interchange, the A5/A6, Casement Park as well as the Magee Campus and Narrow Water Bridge.

It has also been agreed the Executive will “invest urgently” to boost wastewater infrastructure.

Response:

Nichola has stated that she is honoured to take up the role of Minister for Infrastructure on behalf of the SDLP and is looking forward to working with all the team ‘to improve lives, connect people and help protect our planet for our future generations.’

Main priorities:

–      ­A key theme of the agreement was the completion of new and outstanding infrastructure projects. Several projects were specifically mentioned in the agreement such as the York Street interchange, the A5/A6 road upgrades and Casement Park.

–      In terms of energy, at the top of the agenda will be the development of the long–delayed North–South interconnector and the on–going development of the all–island electricity market.

–      Another aspect of critical infrastructure which needs further funding and support is NI Water with projects in city in jeopardy unless the water system is improved. £1bn is needed to deal with wastewater, flooding and drainage issues which have plagued the utility firm. Domestic charges seem to have been quelled for the time being but may be introduced in the future.

 

Minister for agriculture, environment and rural affairs: Edwin Poots (DUP)

Context

Edwin Poots is now taking on his fourth ministerial role, having previously served in the culture, environment and health portfolios.

The Lagan Valley MLA was first elected to the Assembly in 1998 and comes from a farming background, having studied at Greenmount College, actively working as a farmer outside of Stormont.

As a strong advocate for Brexit, it remains to be seen how the Minster’s approach will impact upon the agri–sector on a cross–border basis, with issues including sustainability and supply chain coming to the fore. 

Response:

As a purported ‘young earth creationist’, Poots’ appointment, which will see him lead on issues relating to the environment has generated some criticism, however, as Health Minister Edwin was seen as a capable and pragmatic leader who could get things done.

Whilst the new assembly is in its embryonic stages, the new minister has found himself at the centre of the first inter–party storm, claiming domestic water charges could be introduced, only for deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill to rebut his claims.

Main priorities:

–      Addressing the impacts of Brexit on the agri–food sector in NI will be a key priority for the Minister. The impact Brexit will have in areas of farming including dairy have been well documented and the main challenge for the minister is to provide sufficient support initiatives for farming in the new NI agriculture bill.

–      The environment is another aspect of the new agreement that Edwin Poots will need to face in his ministerial role, the most difficult matter for him will be finding a balance between protecting the environment and the needs of farmers. Commitments have been made by all parties to introduce new climate legislation which may stir opposition in the farming community such as changes to farming strategy.

–      The minister will be tasked with establishing a new environmental protection agency which will be responsible for the creation and upholding of laws to protect the health of individuals and the environment.

Minister for communities: Deirdre Hargey (Sinn Féin)

Context:

Deirdre Hargey took over as South Belfast MLA after Mairtin O’Muilleoir announced he was leaving politics in December, at the same time as Megan Fearon.

Deirdre was the first woman from Sinn Fein to be elected Lord Mayor for Belfast and was widely considered to have been a success in the role.

With responsibility for areas including housing and benefits, Deirdre’s brief will be challenging with the continued roll out of welfare reform and need for mitigations in NI.

The new minister will also be tasked with progressing regional and sub regional stadia programmes, including the development of Casement Park.

Response:

Deirdre’s promotion to minister has surprised many from across the political spectrum, with most having tipped John O’Dowd to return to the executive having previously operated as Minister for Education.

 

Main priorities:

–      Within the agreement, specific mention was given to the completion of Casement Park along with other stadia. It will be high on the agenda for Deirdre Hargey and it would be a significant achievement for her if the project was completed under her tenure. 

–      The department has a wide remit and with housing and benefits included. In terms of these two topics, key will be the upgrading of existing housing executive properties on top of mitigating the impacts of welfare reform.

–      To some extent Deirdre will be involved in decision making around cultural debates, such as marching bands and the implementation of new Irish Language legislation, however, this task will be in co–ordination with the Executive Office. 

 

Minister for Justice: Naomi Long (Alliance)

Context:

As a former MEP, MP for East Belfast, and current leader of the Alliance Party, Naomi Long is one of the most high–profile figures within the new Executive.

This appointment represents Naomi’s first as a Minister, however, having held high–profile offices in the UK and Europe, Long will be well accustomed to the rigours of such scrutiny.

As a strong advocate of the EU, Naomi has wasted no time in getting to grips with cross–border justice having undertaken a call with her ROI counterpart Charlie Flanagan, and yesterday gaining a substantial brief from the PSNI on current challenges.

Response:

Naomi stated upon appointment that she is ‘delighted and also very honoured to be in the position to be able to fulfil the role of minister for justice in the newly–formed Executive”.

She said: “I look forward to building on the considerable legacy in justice that was built up by my predecessor, both as party leader and justice minister, David Ford. I know that he was passionate about justice issues and he infected all of us with his passion.”

Main priorities:

–      The PSNI will be a key focus for Naomi Long, the police service accounts for most of her £1bn budget, progress has already been made on funding for an extra 800 police officers estimated to in the region of £40m. 

–      Major changes will be brought forward by the Minister and her team to speed the up the court system after an audit review revealed it is much slower than England and Wales. The justice department will also be tasked with reforming the handling of sex offence cases.

–      Paramilitarism is still a recurrent issue in Northern Ireland and after a spate of high–profile murders, tackling the issue must be a key priority for the incoming minister.

Minister for education: Peter Weir (DUP)

Context:

Picking up where he left off before Stormont collapsed, Strangford MLA Peter Weir is returning to his post as Education Minister.

Having previously worked as a barrister, he initially joined the UUP but was expelled for refusing to support David Trimble’s re–election as First Minister.

A supporter of academic selection, he has previously stated that removing it would lead to more inequality by encouraging wealthy parents to send children to private schools.

Peter has served as Chief Whip for the DUP and has held prominent positions in the assembly including Education Chair and Chair of the Stormont Audit Committee.

Response:

Peter Weir’s appointment as Education Minister was one of the most likely, having served as Minister pre–suspension (of Stormont) and acted as Chair of the Education Committee previously.

Weir was criticised for a significant underspend in integrated education under the ‘Fresh Start’ agreement, with some criticising the appointment on this basis.

Main priorities:

–      The first task for Peter Weir will be to resolve the on–going teachers’ pay dispute. A number of elements in principle have been agreed between stakeholders but the onus is now on the education minister to implement the agreement.

–      The pressures around resources and finance for schools needs to be addressed by the Minister and his staff. He will need to implement long–promised reforms of school funding to ease pressures on school’s being held back by financial constraints.

–      He will be tasked with establishing an independent education commission to review areas such as special educational needs and the links between socio–economic status and performance. The minister will need to use findings as a basis for change and act on recommendations to improve the education system.