19 August 2021 Edition
British government will not represent people’s best interests
Michelle O'Neill interviewed
What is a typical day as First Minister?
In politics and in government, there is no such thing as a typical day in this role. Every day is different with different issues and different challenges.
I spend most days at the Department and in the Assembly at Stormont. Typically, the days start early as I travel from Tyrone.
Each morning, I speak to our Ministers and other senior personnel based at Stormont to discuss the issues of the day and what business should take priority. I also then speak to the civil servants in the Department on our plans for the day ahead in terms of meetings with key sectors, other ministers from across the Executive, visiting delegations, media, etc. I also routinely speak before the Assembly answering questions from MLAs, contributing to debates or appearing before the scrutiny committee.
Pre-2017, the Executive met fortnightly, but obviously with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 when the political institutions were up and going again, we were meeting three times a week. That went to two over time and now we meet weekly with other Covid-specific meetings in between throughout the week with the Chief Medical Officer and other advisers.
A meeting of the Executive will deal with Covid-19 plus a whole spectrum of policy decisions from across the nine Departments, not least Brexit, tackling health waiting lists, mental health, housing, the economy and decisions on funding supports for the business or community sectors for instance. That requires briefing, reading, and getting to grips with proposals ahead of each meeting. So, you can see there’s a rhythm to the weekly cycle.
In the past, Executive meetings were held in the Executive room in Stormont Castle around a circular table, but with the pandemic, just like everyone else, we do meetings virtually even though everyone may be on Stormont grounds and in relative close proximity. I chair half of the meeting and Minister Paul Givan chairs the other half. Given the importance of the issues we are considering and agreeing, most meetings start at 10.30am and finish in the afternoon.
Of course, things can change very quickly in the course of a day and things may arise suddenly or unexpectedly and have to be dealt with and that can mean a change of plans or change of travel arrangements, but that is the nature of the job.
I try to find time in each morning to walk with my close friends at home, but that isn’t always easy, particularly during the week, but even if I get the chance to get out early in the morning, it really helps clear the head and set you up for the day.
Alongside my duties as Joint Head of Government and Leas Uachtarán, of course there are also the day-to-day things we all have to do. Thankfully, I have great support from my family for all of that, but there are days where I could certainly be doing with a few more hours.
What sort of constituency work do you do, how do you balance the Executive workload and your role as an MLA?
As well as being Joint Head of Government representing the people in the North, I am elected as an MLA by the people of Mid-Ulster to represent them and that is an honour and a privilege I take very seriously.
Alongside the business of government, there is also the day-to-day work of helping people locally, dealing with their cases, and getting them the support they need.
Thankfully, we have a great team in Mid-Ulster and my colleagues Linda Dillon and Emma Sheerin are a great support in the constituency, together with Francie Molloy and all those who work in offices and Sinn Féin activists in the area who help out.
Generally, if I’m not at Stormont, either in Parliament Buildings or Stormont Castle, or on a Ministerial visit, I’ll be in the constituency office in Coalisland or Cookstown or out and about in the local area meeting people, visiting local groups, and dealing with issues.
During the pandemic, I have definitely made use of technology more than before to hold meetings which has cut down on some travel. Of course, this was done as a necessity to limit travel and to keep people safe, but it has shown us how to adapt to new ways and what can be done with technology. And I hope that the lessons we have learned will allow us to continue to make changes after the pandemic in terms of cutting down travel which will help lower our carbon footprint, but will also be better for people’s work-life balance.
Finding a balance between my role as a Minister, Assembly Leader, Leas-Uachtarán, and my work in the constituency can be a challenge; it’s a juggling act, but the key is being organised, planning ahead, and having a great team ably working with me on each of those fronts.
There have been some changes in the Sinn Féin Assembly team, can you take us through that?
It’s an exciting time for the Sinn Féin Assembly team and one which will see a number of changes. We have already some changes with new faces coming in as people stand down after many years of public service and we will see more in the time ahead.
In particular, I’d like to pay tribute to Seán Lynch who recently stood down as an MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone after many years of working for the entire community. Seán has been a stalwart of the party both in the area and at Stormont and has shown great leadership and commitment and his experience will be missed, but we are fortunate enough to have Áine Murphy replacing him and she has recently signed in as the newest MLA in the Assembly and I have no doubt she will make an excellent contribution to our team.
Also, Alex Maskey has announced he will not be standing again at the next election after decades of tireless service as an elected representative both on Belfast City Council and in the Assembly. He will remain in place as an MLA and as Speaker until the end of the mandate and even after that I have no doubt we will continue to benefit for his experience as he will continue as a republican activist.
Comrades Martina Anderson and Karen Mullan will also stand down before the Assembly returns after summer and take up new roles within the party organisation; Karen focussing on cross-border work of elected members in the North West and Martina on an international basis promoting the case for reunification. I want to wish them every success in these roles and thank them for all that they have given as outgoing public representatives.
We also have a number of other new candidates who have been selected to stand in the election and others will be selected in the coming weeks and months.
Change is a natural and positive thing within a political party. We are in a new era and what I have characterised as a Decade of Opportunity. We need to constantly learn, change political and societal conditions, and be on the frontline of bringing about progressive change. Throughout the years, we have continually brought on new people who bring with them new ideas and new energies and, together with the experience we already have in the Assembly team and across the party, it is that mix that makes us what we are.
How do you bring the all-Ireland cross border dimension into your role?
Sinn Féin is an all-Ireland party. So, no-one will be surprised that my role as Leas-Uachtarán is a national one. As Joint Head of Government, the all-island dimension plays a major part.
When the political institutions got up and running again, the all-Ireland institutions were an integral part of that. The North South Ministerial Council is a key part of the political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. All of the political institutions need to be working.
And the pandemic has shown us the absolute need for greater co-operation across the island. We are a small island. We work best when we work together. It simply makes sense to have increased working relationships across the island.
There cannot be an à la carte approach to the political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. The DUP cannot pick and choose. The all-Ireland institutions are as important as the other institutions.
We are committed to implementing all the political institutions of the Agreement. The recent meeting of the North South Ministerial Council, which was attended by Ministers from across the island, is the way forward and points to what we can achieve when we work together. There are huge opportunities for cross-border development, investment, and collaboration in the delivery of public services which we cannot afford to underplay, and must maximise.
How are you coping with dynamics and challenges of dealing with the other political parties in Stormont?
We have a five-party Executive at Stormont. This is a positive dynamic and reflects proper power-sharing as envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement. Every Minister has made a huge contribution during the Covid-19 response. Little did we know when the Executive returned in January 2020, what was around the corner. So, while it isn’t always easy, particularly when parties have very distinctive political outlooks, the pandemic has shown us we can all work together on the issues of common cause that matter to people. That is what the public want and deserve. That is why we worked to secure the return of the political institutions; to provide good government to people. It hasn’t all been plain sailing and we have had differences of opinion, but we’re adults and we have managed to work together to put the interests of the people first. That is what government is about. That is why I am in government.
We will not always agree on everything. We have a coalition comprising parties to the left, centre, and right. There will be issues we will not be able to reach consensus on, but what I will do every day is work to deliver good government in the interests of the people we represent.
Dealing with the British Government must be a challenge, how do you plan for this?
As Joint Head of Government, I work on a daily basis with Ministers from the other Executive parties and with Ministers from across the island as part of the North South Ministerial Council. As Ministers, we also deal with the British government on a weekly basis to promote and advance the interests of the people we serve.
As Irish republicans, we know that the British government has not, cannot, and will not represent the best interests of the people of the North. They have shown that time and time again. Whether through Brexit or through the recent legacy proposals brought forward by the British government. Through their proposals, they have shown absolute disregard for those who have lost loved ones during the conflict. In fact, the proposals from the British government were an added insult.
We have raised this directly with the British government on repeated occasions. And we have reiterated to the British government its commitment to deal with the legacy of the past as agreed in the Stormont House Agreement and the need for that agreement to be implemented in full.
The British government also agreed to the protocol with the European Commission and that international agreement also needs to be implemented in full. We have had the British government publicly declare its intention to break international law. That is totally unacceptable. The British government need to recognise these facts and implement all agreements it has entered into as a matter of urgency.
What are the challenges and issues dealing with the Irish Government?
I and our team work with Ministers from across the island. All-Ireland working is crucial to the political institutions. The pandemic has shown all of us the importance of working together across the island and for the Irish government to work closely with the Executive.
The indifference of the British government as shown by Brexit has led many people to look to a new future, beyond Brexit and beyond the Union. We all have an opportunity to shape our own future under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and we need to start preparing for that now.
The Irish government have a central role to play in the preparations for a new Ireland. Conversations on constitutional change are already underway across the island and we need to see the Irish government take a lead in that. The establishment of the Shared Ireland Unit is a welcome first step. We now need to see the Irish government going further and establishing a Citizens Assembly and Constitutional Convention on Unity, bringing forward a green paper on constitutional change, and creating a ministerial portfolio with responsibility for preparing for a new Ireland.
Those who say that it is not the time are out of step with the national sentiment and expectation for change during this decade. Now is the time to prepare for a referendum on Unity.
What are the objectives and challenges for the coming year?
We face many challenges as we face into the new Assembly term. The Covid-19 pandemic is still with us and our first priority must be to keep people safe and save lives. We also need to ensure our vaccine roll out continues across the island. Thanks to the efforts and cooperation of the people, we have been able to move along our pathway to recovery. We want to continue to keep moving along that pathway. Obviously, the pandemic still continues to pose a serious threat but we can continue to move forward if we work together.
We also need to see our economy recover after an incredibly difficult year. We need to be able to realise the potential of the special economic circumstances of the protocol which allows businesses in the north to access both the EU and British markets in order to be able to attract jobs and investments. For that to happen, we need to see the protocol implemented and honoured as agreed.
As an Executive, we are committed to creating a better society and to build more housing, create more jobs, and improve our health service for both patients and staff. We expect to see the Irish Language Act brought into law shortly and a Coimisinéir Teanga established. This represents respect for our national identity by the State and provides public services to those who wish to access them as Gaeilge. These are the things I am working towards every day and what all our ministers are focused on.
I will work with Ministers and with my party colleagues across the island to deliver that.