Official Report: Tuesday 15 March 2016
The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Speaker: Before we begin today’s business, I will make some brief remarks to mark the end of the mandate. After I have made my comments, I will give the leaders of the five largest parties, or their nominated representatives, an opportunity to speak for up to five minutes. Thereafter, the process will follow that used for Matters of the Day: Members who wish to contribute should indicate so by rising in their places and continuing to do so. If called, they will be allowed a maximum of three minutes to make their remarks. I do not intend for this item to last for more than 45 or 50 minutes, but I will exercise some discretion on the time limit to try to include as many Members as possible. I remind Members that I will not take any points of order on this or any other matter until this item of business has finished.
I expect today to be the last meeting of the Assembly before Easter recess and dissolution on 29 March 2016. In the weeks to come, Members, candidates and parties will have plenty of opportunity to debate the achievements of the last five years. I will use today to put some appreciation on the record in terms of the support for Members and the contribution of Members.
Since May 2011, there have been 337 plenary sessions of the Assembly and approximately 2,545 Committee meetings. I anticipate that we are likely to have passed 67 Bills, 30 of them since last September, as I am sure some of you have noticed. We have also had more than 72,000 questions tabled. Amidst all of that during the mandate, there have been 270,000 visitors to Parliament Buildings. None of that could be done without the support of the staff of the Assembly, both the secretariat and our contractors, whether connected directly to our proceedings or welcoming our visitors, providing services or maintaining the Building. As someone first elected to the Assembly in 1998, I have, since becoming Speaker, gained a deeper insight and respect for the work that goes on behind the scenes to make this institution operate. I formally record the appreciation of the Assembly for the whole team in the Building. I also recognise the work of the staff of Members and parties, who have a difficult role but who play a significant part in supporting our proceedings. We are grateful for that, too.
I thank all Members for their cooperation. We have, for the most part, conducted our business with respect and good temper. We have had some very sensitive and serious debates in a completely different atmosphere to what was possible when I was first elected in 1998.
I will be back to preside over the first sitting of the new Assembly, but today allows me the privilege to recognise those colleagues who will not be returning in May. By my reckoning, some 16 Members are not seeking re-election, seven of whom, like me, have been here since 1998. I thank them all sincerely for their contribution over those years. Regardless of our political divisions, you have all brought something different to the Chamber and your constituencies. I want to acknowledge that being an elected representative, particularly in a society with our history, is not easy, and I thank you and your families for your service.
We have a new generation coming forward, and we have a responsibility to them. With retirements and co-options, I expect that more than 30% of the Members who were elected to here in May 2011 will not be here in May 2016. That is a very significant churn, but it also represents an outstanding opportunity to take the next steps in the development of our Assembly and to helping our society come to terms with the changes that have been wrought over those years. The election will also be the first one in which those born post the Good Friday Agreement will come on to the electoral register.
At one time, many of us here today would never have imagined that we would be together in the Chamber in these circumstances. I am constantly surprised by the number of people who comment to me or stop me to say that they have been watching business and particular discussions and debates in the Assembly. Despite what at times is very hostile and negative reportage, that underlines to me that many people in our community are deeply invested in this institution. The Assembly is, of course, imperfect, and the issues that it deals with are very challenging and difficult. Those of us who played some part in getting us this far are looking to all of you who are hoping to come back to work constructively to continue to improve it. We have a tragic past to deal with, but we also need to be focused on the future. The next weeks will be largely about party politics, but let me just give a gentle reminder that it is for every Member from every party to play a part in moving society forward.
Finally, Members will know that I hosted Assembly Women's Week last week, which involved close to 1,000 participants, and again saw great efforts and commitment from Assembly staff and great cooperation and mutual respect from every political party in this institution, with women giving the lead in that respect. I end today with one last reminder to parties and the electorate about the need for the Assembly to be representative of the population. We currently have 23 female Members. That is our best record, but I think that most people would recognise that it is also a record of dismal failure. It is still nowhere near good enough. If we were truly to represent the community that we are elected by, we should have 51% women in the Assembly. When I preside over the registration of new Members and the election of a new Speaker, I will be looking very carefully to see how well we have improved on the existing record. I anticipate that we will improve on it, but I do not think that we are going to crack the 51%.
I wish all of you who are not coming back all the best for whatever the future holds. I hope that those of you seeking re-election enjoy the campaign, as well as have a successful one. To all those who are not coming back — I am one of them — I say that we should keep in touch. We are the owners of the corporate memory of this institution, and it has been a pleasure to know each and every one of you. Thank you very much.
Mr Hamilton: It is my pleasure to be able to stand in for my party leader, the First Minister, who is, of course, in the United States of America with the deputy First Minister this week doing what she does so well: working to attract jobs and investment to Northern Ireland.
I welcome this opportunity to briefly reflect on the Assembly term, which draws to an end this week. It is fair to say that the Assembly and the Executive have faced a range of challenges over the past five years. We began the term feeling the effects of the worst economic downturn in living memory and the subsequent impact of austerity. We experienced difficulties in passing welfare reform legislation to such an extent that the very existence of the devolved institutions was in serious jeopardy. In spite of our difficulties and in defiance of the doom merchants who wished to collapse Stormont, we came through our problems, and we are the stronger for it.
The Fresh Start Agreement reached in November was just that: an opportunity to begin again, to get our public finances back on an even keel and to resolve the issue of welfare reform. Welfare reform may have been the issue that threatened devolution most, but its resolution is a clear illustration of the benefits of devolution to Northern Ireland. A solution tailored to Northern Ireland's needs is always better than what direct rule would have produced.
There will be some who, for their own petty, party political reasons, will want to talk down devolution, but the evidence is clear: devolution has delivered for the people of Northern Ireland. Difficult decisions by successive Finance Ministers have ensured that we still have the lowest household taxes in the United Kingdom. We have increased investment in health and social care by over £0·5 billion, and we have employed 1,200 more nurses and nearly 300 more consultants. We have created more jobs than at any time in Northern Ireland's history, with 40,000 new jobs promoted through foreign direct investment, business start-ups and local support. We have built new roads, new schools and new hospitals, and we have rebuilt town and city centres. Our schools still produce the best examination results in the United Kingdom.
I would not, for a single second, dream of standing here and suggesting that things are perfect, because they are not. We have done a lot, but there is much more to do. If we are to keep Northern Ireland moving forward and capitalise on the progress that we have made, partnership will be required in this place. The Democratic Unionist Party firmly believes that, for all its imperfections, devolution remains in the best interests of Northern Ireland and its people. We must do the best we can to govern well in spite of those imperfections and not waste our time dreaming of an undeliverable utopia. There will always be differences, but is debate inside Stormont not infinitely better than division on our streets?
As events in east Belfast in recent days have illustrated, we know only too well that our society is still polluted with those who would drag us back to the dark days of the past. They cannot, and they will not, be allowed to succeed.
Mr Speaker, this is your last day presiding over business in the Chamber. I had the pleasure of sitting under your chairmanship of the Finance Committee almost a decade ago, and I saw for myself your capacity to fairly yet firmly do your job. You brought that same style to the prestigious post of Speaker, and, on behalf of my party, I place on record our thanks to you for the way that you have impartially dealt with the business of the House and sensitively dealt with some difficult issues. I wish you well.
This item of business also allows us to pay tribute to those colleagues and even opponents who are not running for re-election. I offer my best wishes to everyone who is stepping down, particularly my party colleagues Stephen Moutray, Gregory Campbell and Peter Robinson.
Whether friend or foe, all of us enter public service with the best interests of Northern Ireland at heart; we just have different visions on how that can be achieved. In the weeks ahead, the Democratic Unionist Party looks forward to taking our vision and our plan for a better future to the people of Northern Ireland.
Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Tá an-áthas orm bheith ag labhairt ar an ócáid seo ar maidin. It is a privilege to stand in for Martin McGuinness, who, like the First Minister, is in America.
We are very conscious that this is the last time that you will be presiding over a plenary session, although you have one more function to do. On behalf of my party colleagues in Sinn Féin, I put on record our great appreciation and deep admiration for how you carried out the Speaker's role. You brought to that role all your experience of over 40 years in political activism. We have seen your ability, wisdom, judgement, leadership and decisiveness. We have also seen, particularly in your role as Speaker, your firmness when you have had to put people in their place, be they party colleagues or not.
Even this year — the 100th anniversary of the Easter rising and the battle of the Somme — we have seen your compassion and sensitivity in the many events you held in the Assembly. That sets a template for how people can remember in a way that is mindful not only of our differences but of the fact that we have a shared narrative and a shared history. If I can break with convention once and perhaps not be pulled by you, as Speaker, I will say this: Mitchel, this team of Sinn Féin MLAs wishes you very well, and we wish you and your family all the best for the future. We know that you are not going into retirement; indeed, I have no doubt that the constituency of Foyle will have an interest in some of the work that you will do.
I also think it would be remiss of me not to mention John Dallat, the Deputy Speaker. I do not want to pick him out from the many colleagues who,as you say, are leaving this place and not seeking re-election; it is right and proper that we acknowledge all their roles and wish them all well for the future. However, I particularly want to mention John Dallat, the Deputy Speaker. I sat with John on the Regional Development Committee. He is a very courteous and hard-working person, and in his role as Deputy Speaker, he too displayed the necessary qualities of fairness and firmness when it was required.
I will make a few concluding remarks on the term. I put on record our appreciation of our five Ministers and the great work that they have carried out over the mandate. On behalf of the party, I thank all our MLAs, who, in my opinion, have made massive contributions to legislation, Committee work and the unseen work that the Assembly sometimes does not get the proper publicity for. There is absolutely no doubt that, against the backdrop of Tory-led austerity and the reduction in the block grant, the record of the Assembly in protecting the most vulnerable is there to be seen.
The Health Minister said that there were many challenges, and there will be many before us. However, if we show the stewardship and leadership that brought about the Fresh Start Agreement, none of those challenges are insurmountable. We have been innovative and have shown innovation in the past in how we addressed them.
There are headlines that the Assembly should seek praise for. When we go in front of the people, they are the final arbiters of whether this Assembly has worked and whether we, as public representatives, have fulfilled the promises we made at the last election. On May 5, the people will decide. However, there is absolutely no doubt that, against the backdrop of the economic downturn, 40,000 jobs were created. That is a plus, and it should be seen against that backdrop. The fact that we have secured and maintained the budget for health is to our credit. The Minister outlined the recruitment programme for more nurses, more allied health professionals and more consultants. There are still challenges for the health service, but we go forward from a position of strength.
It is very important, particularly against the backdrop of the recent election in the Twenty-six Counties, that, for issues like water charges, prescription charges, free domiciliary care and the delivery of education — the Minister ensured that equality was brought to the heart of all those issues and similarly with DARD and DCAL — we ensure that those in the most vulnerable places, the people who are under-resourced and those who perhaps did not have access to resources in the past are given access to them now. That is important, particularly on the issue of water charges, because we have seen how people in the Twenty-six Counties made that one of the key decisions and issues in the election.
As we go forward, our party is willing to play its part to ensure that the Assembly and the Executive will deliver for the people and protect them in future.
Mr McKinney: Mr Speaker, I think we all enter politics to make a difference. Individually, we help in the daily life of many of our constituents, but it is the Assembly's job and ours as politicians collectively to really make a difference for society as a whole. It is our job to ensure that our people can and should dare to dream that life can be better; that our children will not be forced to leave these shores for the promise of work in Australia or America because of a failing economy — I referenced the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's latest research; that our health service provides a service that is fit for the 21st century and is not dominated by waiting-list headlines, among others; that we can provide world-class education and training for our young people; and that we become a much more cohesive society that is at peace, finally, with its troubled past. Can we say that in this mandate we have achieved that ambition on behalf of all our people?
We can point to collective achievements — local government reform among them — but just months ago the echoes of our past threatened our political future, reinforcing the challenges to our delicate political system that the Good Friday Agreement could never have foreseen. We cannot look back on a mandate and claim that it succeeded when we ended with a process we called 'A Fresh Start': a fresh start that failed to properly address the needs of victims and survivors; a fresh start that had Sinn Féin and the DUP handing welfare-cutting powers back to Westminster and not resolving it in the interests of the most vulnerable; and a fresh start that failed to reference job creation, economic development or a prosperity process as a top priority. There are many big challenges facing Northern Ireland, perhaps the biggest of which is to get people into work. It is our job to create the infrastructural and educational opportunities and to maximise those opportunities. The SDLP can sum it up simply in saying that we need to make Northern Ireland work and that the Assembly needs to make Northern Ireland work.
The public know, instinctively, that we have not delivered all that we could, which is why the public are looking to the next mandate and the next Programme for Government. Following the Assembly election, this party will heavily scrutinise the Programme for Government. If it does not come up to the mark, we will not be afraid to say so. In particular, we want the Programme for Government to adopt a much more joined-up style of government that delivers much greater accountability and transparency and will itself say that it wants Northern Ireland to work.
Nine years after the resurrection of devolution, can we say that the Assembly has worked for our population of 1·8 million, when less than half are economically active and when we generate revenues of £14 billion a year and consume close to £24 billion a year in public services? With the Conservatives committed to their stringent austerity programme, there will be no special dispensation for here. Our situation is fundamentally and economically unsustainable, and that is why we will not accept anything less than a detailed prosperity strategy come May. We need to do everything we can to bring investment and job opportunities. A prosperity strategy should also include a massive programme of workforce training and skills enhancement. We need to meaningfully address the levels of social deprivation that prevent far too many people here reaching their potential and cause such strain, for example, on our health service. The legacy of the Troubles has meant that some areas have fallen behind and are now dominated by long-term mental health issues and other long-term conditions brought about by long-term deprivation and unemployment. What sort of society are we if we continue to allow the most marginalised to be further marginalised? What sort of Government have we become that we have not altered our deprivation statistics in any meaningful way in the past nine years? Creating much better social cohesion and integration must be another Programme for Government requirement.
Health reform, job creation, better infrastructure, creating world-class education and tackling social deprivation are issues on which the SDLP is not prepared to compromise. Stagnation at Stormont is no longer an option. In the next mandate, we want to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland, make things work and drive the changes that our society cries out for.
Finally, I thank all those who serve the Assembly for their positive contributions and all those who, in any way, influence and shape it. In that context, I thank you too, Mr Speaker, and I wish you well, along with all your colleagues who are retiring.
Mr Allen: It gives me great pleasure to speak on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party. Most importantly, I would like to start by paying tribute, on behalf of the party and, indeed, the Ulster Unionist MLA group, to Leslie Cree, Sam Gardiner, Michael McGimpsey, Michael Copeland and Neil Somerville, who will not be standing in the upcoming election but who all made a considerable impact in their respective constituencies and in Northern Ireland. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the dedication and hard work of Danny Kinahan MP and Tom Elliott MP, who left the Ulster Unionist Party group for Westminster last year.
I also pay tribute to Members from other parties who are stepping down. I am sure that Members from across the House will join me in wishing them well.
I want to take this opportunity to also thank all the Ulster Unionist support staff, who have been instrumental in providing support to our MLAs. It would remiss of me not to thank the support staff throughout Parliament Buildings, who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes, and staff from the statutory agencies, who we, as MLAs, work closely with on a daily basis to support our constituents.
My thanks go to you, Mr Speaker, the Principal Deputy Speaker, and the Deputy Speakers, who have presided over this House in a professional and diligent manner.
A lot has happened over the past five years. However, a lot more can and should be done to deliver a better Northern Ireland for all our people.
Last but not least, I would like to place on record my utmost thanks to Mr Welch, director of facilities; you, Mr Speaker; the team behind Mr Welch; the Assembly Commission; and all involved who have made every effort not only to accommodate me but other disabled visitors to this magnificent Building by taking measures to make it more accessible. That work is not finished, and I look forward to returning on 9 May with a strong Ulster Unionist Party team, delivering and doing what is right for Northern Ireland.
Mr Ford: Mr Speaker, particularly in the context in which you introduced this item, I suppose that it is natural that we should look back on some achievements, whether statistics on questions asked or numbers of Bills passed. However, there is certain danger that we then end up in a mood of self-congratulation, which does not entirely take into account the feelings that people in the community have about this Assembly.
There is no doubt that we have changed from the days when you and I first arrived here in 1998, but whether we have changed as much as people expected remains very much an open question. Whilst, unlike some in the Chamber, I have no doubt in my belief that devolution is better than direct rule, and I believe that we have actually shown a significant measure of delivery in comparison with what went before, we need to also acknowledge that that is a pretty low bar against which to set our standards. There are real challenges to ensuring that we deal with the frustration that is felt in the wider community and to actually addressing the key issues before us in a way in which we have not yet managed. We have not fully got a spirit of partnership and working together at Executive level, even if we do have some good examples from Committees in this place of how that should be done.
Others have referred to the so-called Fresh Start deal of last autumn. There is no doubt that it provided a degree of stability, but, all but 18 years from the Good Friday Agreement, is stability enough? We need to be moving on from the concept of saying that the institutions are surviving and, therefore, that is something good, to the point where we can genuinely say that the institutions are delivering. There is no doubt that we could look through a series of issues where we have not got the strategies in place that we need and where we have not spent the money that we should have spent on dealing with poverty and social inclusion. There are real challenges across every Department to ensure that we get a better measure of delivery in the future.
In the spirit in which others have highlighted the work of their Ministers, I certainly believe that we can say that six years of devolution of justice has made a difference. We have tackled issues like prison reform, youth justice and, I dare say, even legal aid, which were not tackled previously. As I acknowledged yesterday in the presence of a number of members of the Justice Committee, I acknowledge that that has worked, because we worked well in partnership between this Assembly, particularly the Justice Committee, and the Department. However, while we have made modest improvements on things like the removal of interface structures, there is still an awful lot more to be done that requires a much greater joining up of work between the future Department for Communities, the Department for Infrastructure and the Department of Justice than we have yet seen.
Let us acknowledge that, while we have made improvements, there is a lot more still to be done. In the same way, we can highlight some of our economic successes, and if Stephen Farry were here representing me — unfortunately for others, I am representing myself this morning — he would doubtless highlight the role that DEL has played in the creation of tens of thousands of new jobs and the 1,300 or so university places in STEM subjects and in work done around apprenticeships, all of which have been key to getting us started on the road of economic recovery, but there is such a lot more that still needs to be done.
I add my words of thanks to a number in this place who I regard as friends, if not exactly colleagues, in different parties, particularly the seven of the old guard who have been here since 1998. That number will potentially be even more diminished after the election, even should the good people of South Down decide to return Jim Wells to this place yet again, or if the good people of South Antrim return me. We are clearly going through a time of transition. Mr Speaker, you highlighted the fact that, after May, the Assembly will be significantly changed compared with five years ago, and that has to be an opportunity to move things on.
In paying tribute to those who are leaving, I particularly mention my three colleagues: Judith Cochrane, whom you know well, Mr Speaker, from her work on the Assembly Commission, where she helped to make this place run more smoothly than would otherwise have been the case; Anna Lo, who has been a phenomenal Chair of the Environment Committee and introduced initiatives in a way that some Committee Chairs can grasp and other Chairs often do not grasp; and the particular old boy who is sitting directly behind me, Kieran McCarthy. I assure you that the Alliance Party will do its best to address the age and gender issue in providing Kieran's replacement in this place. I shall leave it there, but we need to address that issue collectively.
I thank those who sit beside you, Mr Speaker — the Clerk/Chief Executive and the Clerks — and all staff, from doorkeepers, cleaners and catering staff through to the entire secretariat, for the exceptionally good way in which we are served. I also thank you, Mr Speaker, for the role that you have performed. There were those who thought that it was not possible for somebody with your political background to be the Speaker of the House. You have proved that it is possible to make change and that it can be done by anybody from any background. The way in which you sought to reach out has been very welcome to all of us. The challenge for those of us who return to the Assembly will be in building the public services that our people want, ensuring that we get that across all our public services and ensuring that, in this place, we really start to build a united community.
Mr Speaker: Thank you. If Members want to make contributions, I will recognise them as best I can when they rise in their place.
Mr Campbell: I begin my contribution by thanking all the staff in this Assembly and in previous Assemblies, whom I found to be extremely courteous, diligent and helpful at all times.
I spent yesterday morning in the Senate Chamber at an event for victims, and I sat beside one of our youngest councillors in Northern Ireland. I asked him his age, and he told me that he was 24. I then pointed out to him that I was first elected to this Chamber in 1982, 10 years before he was even born. In the first 20 years of that time, violence was prolific. Politics was mired in quicksand. An agreement was always essential, but the right basis for getting it eluded parties here. When the right basis was eventually established, it still meant that hard and difficult choices had to be made. The DUP made the right choice and choices. We took the right decisions when it would have been easier to take the wrong ones, and, for that, we make no apology. For our stance, our statements and our comments since then, we make no apology whatsoever — none.
Over the last five years, people yearned for delivery, which has begun under the guidance of the DUP. Planning for the future cannot and must not mean forgetting the past. Those who caused our bloody and deceitful past will not be allowed to erase their part in it. However much they try, they will not be allowed to do that. Battles must still be fought. For me, the arena will change and the venue will be different, but that campaign must and will be waged until it is won. I am not standing for election with my colleagues, but I am standing on the same ground, with them and beside them, and, together, we will take this country forward to be a much better place.
Mr A Maginness: In the last century, when I was first elected to the Assembly — [Laughter.]
— people used to ask me what I did. I said that I was a fireman — a political fireman who put out political fires. That is what we did for the first five years or so: we put out political fires. I have become redundant, or semi-redundant, in relation to putting out political fires. I do that only on a part-time basis now because the political fires are much fewer than they were in the past. I feel as though I have changed and become an alchemist, in that my party and I have attempted to transform the lead of sectarianism and division into the pure gold of reconciliation, cooperation and community harmony. I hope that we can change that. I hope that, as I leave this place and a new mandate starts, I can relinquish the function of alchemist and that we will have a new dispensation in which we can, in fact, create that reconciliation, because the Assembly was created as a forum for reconciliation. What we have now is good, and we have achieved significant progress, but we need to do much, much better. We need to create a situation in which we can transform power-sharing into partnership — a dynamic, active partnership based on goodwill and harmony in which we can work together for the good of all of our people: Catholic and Protestant; nationalist and unionist. That is what the Assembly is all about.
I believe that we have made small progress towards that, but we can do much, much better. I look at the Justice Committee, which was mentioned yesterday during the Justice Bill debate, and see it as an exemplar of how people can work together, despite their political differences, and create a political consensus in order to make worthwhile changes in the justice system. That, I believe, is worthwhile and an exemplar of what we can do together on a non-partisan basis. You do not have to give up being SDLP, Sinn Féin or DUP; you can continue to hold on to that but work for the common good.
Finally, Mr Speaker, I thank you for your work in the Assembly, and I thank your distinguished predecessor, Willie Hay, for all of his work. Both of you acted in the interests of the whole Assembly and the whole community. You showed your independence and wisdom, and I believe that that should be properly recognised.
Ms Lo: In 2007, when I decided to run for election, it was an exciting time filled with a promise of change to a better, more inclusive and progressive society. I have seen change, though, borrowing a line from Yeats, "peace comes dropping slow". More still needs to be done.
As someone who cares deeply about the environment, I could not have picked a more appropriate Committee of which to be Chair. I thank all of the Environment Committee members, past and present, who have worked so well together in the spirit of respect and partnership for the common good. I was delighted to have initiated the inaugural Environment Week, which I hope will be an annual event. I also express my gratitude to the very able Committee staff whom we rely on so much to function effectively. I also pay tribute to the environment sector whose expertise and commitment have been invaluable to us.
As the only ever MLA from an ethnic minority background, I was glad to be in a position to set up the all-party group on ethnic minorities and human trafficking, as well as to lobby extensively with the voluntary sector for a racial equality strategy, which was finally published last year. I hope that MLAs will continue to monitor progress on those issues and to speak out against racism. I will be watching you.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Ms Lo: As one of the few pro-choice MLAs, I was naturally disappointed that the two amendments to the Justice Bill, one tabled by colleagues and one by me, to allow abortion in very limited circumstances did not pass. We cannot afford to ignore the issue; women need our help.
I want to thank my constituents. It has been an enormous privilege to be an MLA for South Belfast, a constituency that is so vibrant and diverse.
Finally, I want to thank all the Members of the Assembly with whom I have a worked. In particular, I would like to thank my Alliance Party colleagues for their support and friendship. I look forward to seeing more positive changes in the next mandate. I wish you all the very best for the future. Thank you.
Mr Allister: Self-praise is a poor recommendation. I say that in the context of the contributions of the DUP/Sinn Féin cabal that controls this House. To many, this House and these institutions are a byword for failure and squander. The primary responsibility for that rests on those who control the House; those who heap self-praise upon themselves today.
When I was elected to the Assembly in 2011, the then First Minister, Mr Peter Robinson, boasted that the Assembly should be judged on delivery. I do indeed hope that the people will judge it on delivery because that delivery has been so abysmal that it deserves the judgement of the people on it. If that is to be the benchmark, bring on the delivery of the verdict.
Those, of course, who created the dysfunctional mess tell us that they have made a fresh start — a commentary in itself that that which they have presided over needed a fresh start. They had run it into such chaos that that is what it required. There is no doubt that they hope now to con many people that they who created the mess will in fact create a fresh start.
That fresh start, of course, was possible only by the DUP's sweeping murder under the carpet. A Government panel reported that the IRA still existed and was still armed, that it had murdered again, and that it still had an army council that had control over party and paramilitary organisation. All that was swept under the carpet for the purpose and sake of keeping the limos and the Government positions and carrying on as normal. I trust that that, too, will not be forgotten; that the price of that fresh start was indeed that ignoble start of sweeping murder under the carpet.
Mr Allister: — because they defy the basic dynamics of democracy and deny the people the right to change their Government and have a proper opposition will need a lot more than a fresh start.
Mr Speaker: Thank you for those warm and generous comments. [Laughter.]
Mr Agnew: I would like to say that it has been a privilege to serve the people of North Down over the last five years. Further to that, I am proud to have represented the views of Green Party members and supporters across Northern Ireland, as currently our sole MLA.
One of my early victories was the number of people who contacted me when I made speeches to say that they felt for the first time that someone was representing their views. As someone who had previously felt that Northern Ireland politics did not reflect me, I take it as a privilege and a position of responsibility to articulate those views and to make the arguments for the policies and values of the Green Party in Northern Ireland. However, I was never satisfied just to be here. Being elected was not, in itself, enough, which is why, in December, when my private Member's Bill became law with the Children's Services Co-operation Bill being enacted, it was a very proud day for me and my party. We were able to say that we had promised change and had delivered it in an area as vital as children's services. It was a Bill about cooperation. For that reason, I thank the Bill Office, OFMDFM and Members across the parties for their cooperation in bringing forward that very important law.
I have also sought to lead on issues such as marriage equality, transparency and environmental protection. That is why, although I go into the election confident but not complacent, I will be making the argument that we need to keep a Green presence in the Assembly and to increase it, because equal marriage, transparency and environmental protection are still works in progress in Northern Ireland.
I hope that the naughty corner will be emboldened by having more Greens at the other side of the election, and I am confident that we will provide an effective opposition to whoever make up the next Executive.
To those such as you, Mr Speaker, who are not seeking re-election, I wish you well. I believe that there is not only a life after politics but most likely a better life after politics. It is one that I look forward to but, hopefully, not as soon as May.
On your point, Mr Speaker, on the number of women in the Assembly, it has been a failure of our parties to date to get women elected, and that is why my party introduced quotas and, for the first time, is standing nine female candidates out of a total of 18. That is 50% of our candidates, because we believe that the Assembly should reflect our society.
Mr B McCrea: I rise for the last time to address the Assembly. I thank the people of Lagan Valley for the privilege of representing them over the past nine years. It seems like only yesterday that I first got here, awestruck by the names on the doors of people that I had seen only on television, and, yet, here we are.
The highlight of my time here was when I chaired the Committee for Employment and Learning. There were some great colleagues there: Jim Allister, before anybody would talk to him; Fra McCann, a great inspiration; Chris Lyttle; and Pat Ramsey. Those were good days. I enjoyed dealing with the challenges of further and higher education, youth unemployment, NEETs and careers advice. That was real politics. It was what I enjoyed. I carried on that work on the all-party group on science and technology, and, when I am gone from this place, I hope that those who are still here will take up the challenge of science and technology, because that is where the jobs are and that is where the future is.
I also enjoyed my time on the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure. I believe passionately in the arts. Arts are not an overhead. They inspire us, they unite us and they give us hope. We need to do more for the arts. Hopefully, whoever follows me will also take the lead in championing the arts.
I am proud of what I achieved and of what I tried to achieve. For those who follow me now and in the future, I will give them a famous quotation from Winston Churchill:
"Success is not final, failure is not fatal..."
— what matters is to have the courage to go on. I will go on. I will leave this place with my head high, with my colours flying, with my dignity intact and with all conviction about what is good for Northern Ireland. In conclusion, two roads diverged in the woods, and I took the road less travelled. That has made all the difference.
Ms Sugden: First and foremost, I pay tribute to all the people of East Londonderry. It has been my privilege to represent them in the House. After the loss of my predecessor and dear friend and mentor David McClarty in 2014, my constituents welcomed me into East Londonderry as their representative, and we have done fantastic work since. In my role as an MLA, I am most satisfied when I am serving my constituents, whether it be their individual needs or working with the community and voluntary groups that I have met over the past two years. It will be my privilege to continue to serve them when I am returned to the House in May.
Mr Speaker, I want to pay tribute to your leadership of the House. The way that you have conducted yourself and the way that you have harboured a sense of respect in the House should be commended. You are a gentleman. You have treated me, as a Back-Bench Member and an independent of the House, with fairness and courtesy, and you have given me many opportunities. I sincerely wish you well in your retirement.
I want to thank all the MLAs of the House. A quality of a good politician is to build relationships. It is how we get things done, and it is certainly something that I have sought to do with every side of the House. I really appreciate that every Member has welcomed me and embraced me, and we have built up those good relationships, so that we have got work done. It has not necessarily been work reported in the news, but we have done work behind closed doors. Contrary to what a lot of people think, we do sometimes do something up here.
I give best wishes to all those who are not seeking re-election. In particular, I pay tribute to my constituency colleagues John Dallat MLA and Gregory Campbell MP/MLA, particularly Gregory Campbell. We have an awful lot of work to do in East Londonderry, and I look forward to working with him when I am returned as an MLA and he continues his work as an MP.
I wish to pay tribute to the staff of the House. We have the craic. It makes the hour and a half journey coming up here much more enjoyable. Again, they have welcomed me. They are as much part of the fabric of this place as the Members and their staff, and that should be acknowledged.
Politics in Northern Ireland is changing. It is a generation since the Good Friday Agreement. That signals that we have to now embrace the new generation. Time will be a great healer in Northern Ireland — nothing else — and until the people who were involved in the Troubles are no longer involved in politics, I do not think that Northern Ireland will truly move on. The people who will remain here, maybe for the next five or 10 years, who were involved in the Troubles will pave the way for a new generation. That is important.
This mandate has not been perfect. It has actually been quite frustrating. I am a student of politics — many degrees and all that — but the one person whom I take a lot of my experience from taught me that politics is about people. We need to embrace that in the next mandate. Last year, when we saw Ministers going in and out of office, that was not respecting people. If I can encourage anything in the next mandate, it is that we start putting the people of Northern Ireland first.