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Stormont Executive ready to start meeting challenges straight away – O’Neill

Northern Ireland’s new powersharing Executive will need to begin work immediately on tackling public sector funding challenges, First Minister Michelle O’Neill has said.

In an interview with the PA news agency, Sinn Fein’s Ms O’Neill said she believes there is a sense of cohesion within the new team of Stormont ministers to press the case for an improved funding model for Northern Ireland.

Ms O’Neill also said there had not been a formal agreement between the Stormont parties around which ministries would be selected – but she denied her party had been surprised when the DUP unexpectedly took the education portfolio.

Ms O’Neill was appointed as Northern Ireland’s first nationalist First Minister when the Assembly returned from two years of cold storage on Saturday for a historic sitting.

Stormont Assembly
Newly appointed First Minister Michelle O’Neill, left, and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly (NI Assembly/PA)

The DUP, Northern Ireland’s largest unionist party, cleared the way for the restoration of the powersharing institutions when it agreed a deal with the Government to address its concerns over post-Brexit trading arrangements.

The DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly is the new deputy First Minister.

While the symbolic significance of a republican First Minister has been hailed by Sinn Fein, the two top jobs in the ministerial executive wield equal power and responsibility.

Ms O’Neill said there are many shared priorities between her and Ms Little-Pengelly.

She said: “You heard some of that overlapping in the speeches.

“Particularly around issues like childcare, that is one of the biggest issues facing families right now, affordable childcare being an option to them.

“I think this is something together, that this Executive wants to do.

“That, alongside so many other things, we know there is a big list of things to be done on all of our desks but we are ready to get down to that, and I think that is what is most important.

“I am determined to do our very best. This place has been starved of public services funding for over a decade because of the Tories in London, we can do much better than that.

“That’s a fight I think we have to fight together and I think there’s a combined effort across the Executive to have a proper funding model for here so we actually can do better public services and invest in the public sector workers.”

Stormont ministers were allocated using the D’Hondt process based on party strengths. Sinn Fein asked for a short adjournment during the proceedings after the DUP selected education as its first ministry, rather than finance as had been widely expected.

Ms O’Neill said: “I think sometimes in previous occasions we would have agreed what everybody was going to take.

“That didn’t happen. It was just a bit of go and see how it runs.

Stormont Assembly
Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O’Neill is now First Minister at Stormont (Liam McBurney/PA)

“There was no formal agreement. It fell how it fell.”

Sinn Fein appointed Conor Murphy, Caoimhe Archibald and John O’Dowd as its ministerial team.

Ms O’Neill added: “I am delighted actually that we have ended up with the department of the economy, the department of finance and the department of infrastructure.

“Three crucially important departments and three very complementary departments.

“We are really delighted to get stuck in, and the ministerial team that I have appointed.

“A strong team, strong departments, ready to get at it, they are away to meet their department officials as we speak.

“We are straight into it from Monday.”

The new powersharing Executive will hold its first meeting on Monday.