11 January 2020
Below is the full text of the acceptance speech delivered by Arlene Foster MLA in the Northern Ireland Assembly upon taking up the position of First Minister of Northern Ireland.
First of all, I congratulate you on being elected to serve as Speaker of this House.
It is a role with much responsibility to ensure members on all benches are heard and I look forward to working with you and the broader Speaker team.
Mr Speaker, to serve as First Minister of Northern Ireland is deeply humbling and brings with it an enormous responsibility to the people we represent. This is the fourth anniversary of when I first took up this role.
A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then but today the real work starts.
The last three years have focused too much on division and recrimination. There’s plenty of blame to go around but the time has come to move forward with resolution.
The lessons have been learned. It’s time to get Northern Ireland Moving Forward Again.
However, the restoration of this Assembly and Executive alone will not solve our waiting lists or reduce the staff pressures in our hospitals. Indeed, simply filling posts will not resolve the mental health challenges our society is facing at the moment.
There needs to be action. Decisions need to be made.
The Bengoa Report must be implemented. It already has cross party agreement. It was a ten-year plan but that was in 2016 and we have now lost three years.
But to deliver this transformation will not be easy. It will require courageous decisions by Members on all sides of this House.
I pledge to work in a collegiate manner with all parties across this chamber to ensure our public services are improved, every citizen feels valued and we lay a solid foundation for the next generation.
In 2021 Northern Ireland will celebrate its centenary. We want to do so with safer streets, better schools and a first-class health service free at the point of need. The National Health Service is unique to the United Kingdom. We must work together to protect it and strengthen it.
Within this chamber there are people who are British, Irish, Northern Irish and European. There are many identities. That is who each of us are. Each identity should be respected.
That is why we reached a fair and balanced deal which caters for British and Irish as well as new and emerging identities.
We want everyone to feel at home living in Northern Ireland. In particular, I draw attention to the commitments to fully implement the Armed Forces Covenant and establish a Veterans Commissioner. These are very significant for young men and women from these shores who have or continue to defend democracy all over the world.
Mr Speaker, you, along with other members in this chamber, are an Irish republican and I am a Unionist with a strong British identity but regardless of our differences, we must seek out the common ground.
When I visited Our Lady’s Grammar in Newry, the pupils gave me a lovely picture as a gift. It has hung in my office upstairs ever since, just above my shoulder. In Irish, it states: “Together, we are strong”.
We have many differences. Michelle’s narrative of the past forty years could not be more different to mine. I’m not sure we will ever agree on much about the past, but we can agree there was too much suffering, and that we cannot allow society to drift backwards and allow division to grow.
Northern Ireland is succeeding in many ways. It’s time for Stormont to move forward and show that ‘together we are stronger’ for the benefit of everyone.
Fixing problems in schools and reforming our health service so people receive timely treatment should be the priority for all parties.
Let’s get down to work. Let’s Get Northern Ireland Moving Again.