Bill Clinton has used the reopening of the Northern Ireland assembly to make a thinly-veiled dig at Brexit.
The former US President waded into British politics today by telegraphing his concern that the country’s divorce from the EU could unravel the peacekeeping efforts of the Good Friday Agreement.
During his time in the White House, he was instrumental in brokering talks between the unionist and nationalist sides which eventually led to the 1998 Accords that paved the way for stability after the Troubles.
The flagship element of this deal was the creation of the Assembly in Stormont, which sat today for the first time since 2017 following a new power-sharing agreement brought to the table by a British government exasperated with the three-year stalemate between Sinn Fein and the DUP.
As the previously warring parties agreed a compromise, President Clinton tweeted: ‘I care deeply about the people of Northern Ireland, and I’m thankful their leaders are coming together in the spirit of the Good Friday Accords to stand-up the Executive and restore the government functions that people of all communities require.
Bill Clinton has used the reopening of the Northern Ireland assembly to make a thinly-veiled dig at Brexit (pictured speaking in Limerick in 1998)
First Minister Arlene Foster and party colleagues are pictured as politicians in Northern Ireland returned to the Stormont Assembly
Former US President Bill Clinton, who was a major supporter of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, welcomed today’s development, although he urged caution with Brexit claiming it must ‘respect the Good Friday Accords and the sacrifice and vision of so many people, more than two decades ago’
During his time in the White House, he was instrumental in brokering talks between the unionist and nationalist sides which eventually led to the 1998 Accords that paved the way for stability after the Troubles (pictured with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in the 1990s)
‘I remain hopeful that Brexit will respect the Good Friday Accords and the sacrifice and vision of so many people, more than two decades ago.’
President Clinton, who served as a Democrat in the Oval Office between 1993 and 2001, worked closely with Prime Minister Tony Blair to bring about the agreement which is widely believed to be one of his greatest foreign policy achievements.
Since the 2016 Leave vote, he has warned of the impacts of Brexit, especially on Northern Ireland.
Speaking in 2018 he said Brexit could ‘consign one of the greatest nations in human history to a smaller role just so the people who have historically been in control can stay there’.
Under Boris Johnson’s Brexit withdrawal deal, which sailed through the Commons with the backing of his hefty post-election majority, there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic – but this will mean Northern Ireland will remain partially aligned with the EU on certain areas.
After Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith guaranteed a new power-sharing agreement called New Decade, New Approach between Sinn Fein and the DUP, the mothballed Stormont Assembly reopened and appointed ministers today.
DUP leader Arlene Foster resumes the first minister role she lost when the last coalition executive collapsed in 2017 while Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill has become deputy first minister.
Despite the titles, both offices hold equal status in the ministerial executive.
Ms Foster said she was ‘deeply humbled’. The DUP leader said there was plenty of blame to go around for the three-year powersharing impasse but she insisted it was now time to look to the future.
Former Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, left, with current party leader Mary Lou McDonald in Stormont today
Naomi Long, leader of the Alliance Party has been appointed Justice Minister in the reconvened Northern Ireland assembly
The Ulster Unionist Party, pictured, has agreed to participate in the devolved government
Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster, pictured, is likely to be First Minister
Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill, pictured right, will likely be Deputy First Minister
Significantly, given one of the key disputes at the heart of political crisis, Ms Foster made reference to an Irish language phrase in a speech that stressed the need to work together going forward.
‘When I visited Our Lady’s Grammar in Newry, the pupils gave me a lovely picture as a gift,’ she said.
‘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 40 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.’
Ms O’Neill said it was a ‘defining moment’ for the region.
‘After three years without functioning institutions with the five parties forming the new Executive, it is my hope that we do so united in our determination to deliver a stable power-sharing coalition that works on the basis of openness, transparency and accountability, and in good faith and with no surprises,’ she said.
‘I am honoured to follow in the footsteps of my dear friend and comrade Martin Mc Guinness taking up the position of deputy first minister, and as joint head of Government I too pledge to follow the example of Martin by actively promoting reconciliation, and building bridges we can all cross to end sectarianism and bigotry.’
All five of the main parties will form the region’s new powersharing executive.
Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey, pictured left, has been elected speaker of the new Assembly
The UK government has committed to a ‘major investment package’ to mark the resumption of the Northern Ireland Assembly in Stormont, pictured
Moments before business resumed at Parliament Buildings at lunchtime, the Ulster Unionist Party confirmed it will take up a ministry in the coalition executive while the Alliance Party said it had accepted an invite to fill the justice ministry.
They will join the DUP, Sinn Fein and SDLP in the administration. It marks a significant development as the last executive prior to Stormont’s collapse in 2017 did not include the three smaller parties.
After the landmark deal to restore devolution, the Assembly has returned three years on from the acrimonious collapse of the institutions.
Powersharing returned after the DUP and Sinn Fein, the region’s two largest parties, agreed to re-enter a mandatory coalition ministerial executive.
They have both signed up to a deal, tabled by the UK and Irish governments, that offered compromise resolutions to a range of long-standing disputes on issues such as the Irish language.
The endorsement of the two parties was essential for the formation of an executive, as peace process structures mean an administration can only function if it includes the largest unionist party and largest nationalist party.
Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey had been elected as the new speaker of the Assembly.
The rest of the new ministerial executive will be elected later on Saturday afternoon.
The plenary session is scheduled to last for three-and-a-half hours.
The ‘New Decade, New Approach’ deal will also be accompanied by what the UK Government has promised will be a major investment package.
Government funding is set to help tackle a host of acute problems facing a public sector that has been floundering amid the governance vacuum.
One of the most high-profile of those is an industrial dispute in the health service that has seen nurses take strike action on three occasions in the last month.
Under the terms of the deal, the new executive will also take action to reduce spiralling hospital waiting lists; extend mitigation payments for benefit claimants hit by welfare reforms; increase the number of police officers on the beat; and resolve an industrial dispute involving teachers.
The last DUP/Sinn Fein-led coalition government collapsed in January 2017 over a row about a botched green energy scheme.
That row subsequently widened to take in more traditional wrangles on matters such as the Irish language and the thorny legacy of the Troubles.
However, hardline unionist Jim Allister criticised today’s developments. His Traditional Unionist Voice party is opposed to the powersharing government.
He said: ‘I get it that people are desperate to have their health service fixed, but I will not join in the pretence that an Executive, which can only exist by the grace and favour of a party that doesn’t want Northern Ireland to exist, will bring them the stability that they crave.
‘I also remind the public that the present health crisis was made in Stormont.
‘It was the Executive which broke with pay parity for nurses, it was the Executive that reduced the number of beds in our hospitals.
‘Of course you’re only here today because of a double blackmail. Blackmail of a Secretary of State who says ‘I have the money to fix the health service but I won’t give it unless there is an Executive’.
‘A Secretary of State who shamelessly put the life of an Executive above the life of the sick.
‘And of course the blackmail of Sinn Fein that you can only have a government if you pay the ransom that they demand.’
Naomi Long of the Alliance Party is the Northern Ireland Assembly’s new Justice Minister.
Speaking after her nomination she said: ‘The deal which the governments have put forward is imperfect, I think all of us recognise that it is a compromise on the positions that each of the parties has taken in the negotiations.
‘But we cannot ask others to do what we are not willing to do ourselves and on balance I believe that it is an honourable compromise and that if implemented with good will and if implemented in a spirit of co-operation and inclusion, can form the basis on which we can deliver improved government for the people here in Northern Ireland.
‘There is optimism outside this place, it would be perhaps overstating our position as one that is optimistic, we are realistic about the prospects of this agreement.
She added: ‘There is a lot of work to be done, but we are also determined that it will succeed and we will play whatever role we can in ensuring that it does.’