NUS-USI President Robert Murtagh has welcomed the return of the Northern Ireland Assembly after agreement was reached on the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ Deal.
The Northern Ireland Assembly is due to reconvene on Saturday 11 January at 1pm. MLAs will elect a First and Deputy First Minister, followed by a new Executive.
Robert said, “Northern Ireland has spent three years without a government. This has put a devastating strain on public services and meant that key human rights issues, like equal marriage and abortion decriminalisation, had to be fought for through the Westminster government.
“Students have supported a return to devolution since the collapse of the Assembly and we are pleased that an agreement has been reached. The ‘New Decade, New Approach’ deal is by no means perfect, but it does make a number of positive commitments to civil society.
“Although there is no specific Acht na Gaeilge as part of the deal, there is the provision for the Irish language to be confirmed in statute, and we welcome the introduction of a Commissioner to promote its usage. We will continue to work with Irish language groups in their efforts to campaign on the areas where the deal falls short.
“We are disappointed by the limited reforms to the Petition of Concern, a mechanism which has regularly been used to block legislation which would support the human rights of minority groups. As part of the deal the parties have committed to using the mechanism only “in the most exceptional circumstances and as a last resort” and we hope that they uphold this commitment in the coming months.
“With the UK set to leave the EU on 31 January, this is a critical moment for Northern Ireland. We need strong political leadership advocating for Northern Ireland to ensure that our citizens do not lose out as a result of Brexit. The creation of a Brexit sub-committee is a positive one and we are keen to ensure that we will be able to speak to members about how Brexit is likely to affect the 200,000 students in Northern Ireland.
“We welcome the commitment to end short-term budgeting and to making decisions on a longer-term basis. We also welcome the acknowledgement of the value of citizen engagement in decision-making and the provisions which allow for the use of a Citizens’ Assembly.
“While the deal does speak about extensive reforms to the primary and secondary education system, there is limited mention of further and higher education. The next Assembly must commit to future proofing Northern Ireland by investing in an accessible, fully-funded and lifelong tertiary education system with students and workers at its core. We are pleased to see plans to expand the Ulster University campus at Magee college, and to introduce 900 more Nursing and Midwifery undergraduate places over the next 3 years.
“However, if the Executive plans to expand the number of places available, in order to address the current shortfall in nursing places, they need to urgently review the financial support available for nursing students. The average nursing student currently receives £430 per month. Throughout their course nurses take on multiple placements working full-time for the NHS, which limits their ability to supplement their income through additional work. It is unrealistic to expect anyone to be able to meet their basic living costs, like rent, food and travel, on such a low income and we urge the Executive to take this into consideration when making plans for a sustainable health service in Northern Ireland.
“We look forward to working with the new Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly over the coming months and engaging with them on the key issues which matter to students in Northern Ireland.”