"Today marks the end of what has been the privilege of my lifetime to serve as the First Minister of Northern Ireland. When I first entered the Assembly 12 years ago I never expected to have the opportunity to lead the Government and serve the people of Northern Ireland as First Minister. Holding this office is one that comes with a heavy responsibility and I have often felt the weight of this burden, to do what is right for all our people. Working together as a five party Executive has its challenges but over the past eight months, working with the deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, we made progress and have made a difference that will improve our society. Since June last year the Executive has brought forward 11 new Bills including legislation that will strengthen the law against sexual offences, modernise the adoption process for children that need a family, tackle climate change and help save lives through organ donation. Meeting young Daithi and his parents and listening to them express the importance of this life-changing law speaks to the purpose of being in politics. To give people hope, to improve our communities, to make a difference for the betterment of all.
During this time we have taken over 30 key policy decisions and published strategies that will underpin future policy direction in areas that have included support for people struggling to meet the costs of living by extending welfare mitigations and the energy support scheme, ending Violence Against Women and Girls and providing refuge for Afghans fleeing persecution. We are driving forward the economy with the first City Growth deal signed for the Belfast Region worth over £1bn that will create thousands of jobs and only last week we published Northern Ireland’s Investment Strategy.
All of the progress made has been in the context of managing a public health crisis as the Covid pandemic challenged us in ways that nobody expected when the virus first arrived nearly two years ago. I have been humbled by the sacrifice and commitment of everyone who has gone the extra mile to get us through this testing time. Sadly thousands of people lost their lives and people have suffered in many ways but better days are ahead and we can look forward once again hopeful that springtime is coming and summer is on the way.
I am a committed devolutionist. I believe we as public servants to the people that elect us are best placed to find solutions to the many challenges we face by working together. What makes Northern Ireland great is the people and the values we share. Decency, compassion, respect, tolerance, helping others, improving our communities and with these shared values we can embrace our differences when we show generosity towards the diversity that enriches the fabric of our society. The ability to stretch ourselves as politicians and go beyond what we find comfortable is what we need to do if we are to fulfil the potential of living in a truly shared and united society. I believe we can do that with leadership that transcends any one particular identity.
Our institutions are being tested once again and the delicate balance created by the Belfast and St Andrews Agreements has been impacted by the agreement made by the United Kingdom Government and the European Union which created the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The consent principle is a cornerstone of the Belfast Agreement and it is my earnest desire that all sections of the community will soon be able to give that consent to the restoration of a fully functioning Executive through a resolution to the issues that have regrettably brought us to this point.
I want to thank Edwin for giving me this opportunity and Jeffrey who asked me to continue in the role when he became Party Leader. Most of all I want to thank my family, especially my wife Emma. It is often those we are close to in our families that feel the pressure, even more so than those of us in front line politics. It wouldn’t have been possible without their support.