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Assembly return a ‘special day’ for Northern Ireland

The events at Stormont today have been described as a “special day for the people of Northern Ireland” as devolved government was restored after two years of suspension.

Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill made history when she was confirmed as the first nationalist or republican First Minister.

She will serve alongside DUP MLA Emma Little-Pengelly as deputy First Minister.

Former DUP leader Edwin Poots was elected as the new Assembly Speaker.

President Michael D Higgins said the reactivation of the Assembly “will be welcomed by all those who wish to see an effective system of power-sharing”.

He also praised the first speeches by Ms O’Neill and Ms Little-Pengelly in their new roles as “impressive in their inclusion and warmth”.

“The speeches of both the First Minister and the deputy First Minister were most impressive in their inclusion, warmth and their wish to get to grips with all of the important practical tasks that they will face,” he said.

“This obvious shared desire to work together offers the best of prospects for the institutions to serve all of the people and to meet their differing needs.

“I wish the First Minister, deputy First Minister and their Ministers well in their new roles in the work that lies ahead of them as we look ahead to the full restoration of all of the institutions of devolved government.”

The DUP’s Edwin Poots is the new Speaker of the NI Assembly

‘Heartfelt congratulations’

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar offered his “heartfelt congratulations” to the new First Minister Michelle O’Neill and the Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly on their election.

Speaking at Government Buildings, Mr Varadkar said: “It’s really good to see the Assembly and Executive functioning again. I really want to see the Good Friday Agreement work for everyone on the island.”

He said he looked forward to “an early meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council, so we can talk about those North-South issues that are important to all of us, like agriculture food safety and tourism”.

The Taoiseach said: “I believe that the new Executive and new Assembly can last. Certainly, as far as we’re involved, the Irish Government will do everything we can to make sure that the new First Minister and new Deputy First Minister, and their teams, get a fair wind and get our support and I look forward to meeting with them soon and working with them.”

Asked about possible difficulties re-establishing the North-South Ministerial Council, Mr Varadkar replied: “We have no dates set, as yet, for the first meeting of the new North-South Ministerial Council, but the Good Friday Agreement is a package. It’s about the Assembly and Executive power-sharing in the North. It’s about North-South bodies. It’s also about the East-West relationship. So for it to work, it has to work in the round.”

‘A number of real challenges’

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin said he looks forward to working with all the new ministers.

But he said Northern Ireland “faces a number of real challenges”.

“While the last few weeks and months have focused on restoring the Assembly and Executive, the hard work now begins in earnest,” he said.

“Northern Ireland faces a number of real challenges.

“An Executive working collectively – and prioritising real, everyday needs over questions of identity – can meet these challenges.

“The Government stands ready to support the work of the Executive and to work in partnership with the British Government in this.”

The Tanaiste also said he looks forward to an “early meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council (NSMC).

“The NSMC will play a key role in the period ahead in making sure that we make the most of shared opportunities, including supporting the all-island economy, which continues to be a source of prosperity, growth, and livelihoods for many from all communities across this island,” he said.

“Northern Ireland’s unique position as part of the UK internal market while, at the same time, having unique access to the EU’s single market of nearly 450 million people provides a solid opportunity for growth.

“It will now be for the Executive and Assembly to ensure that Northern Ireland can prosper and grow using these unrivalled opportunities.”

NI Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris (C) said a £3.3 billion financial package was no available

‘Democracy restored’

The Northern Ireland Secretary of State has said that democracy has been restored in Northern Ireland.

Speaking in the Great Hall at Stormont following the appointments of a First and Deputy First Minister, Chris Heaton-Harris said today was a “historic moment”.

He said it was a great day for everybody in Northern Ireland, for businesses, for people and for public services.

Mr Heaton-Harris said he was “extremely confident” that this government would be “sustainable in the very long term”.

He said the £3.3 billion financial package previously offered was now available.

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