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Leaders hit back at criticism of draft government plan

By David Young

Published 27/05/2016

New Justice Minister Claire Sugden meets PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton at Stormont yesterday
New Justice Minister Claire Sugden meets PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton at Stormont yesterday

Northern Ireland's political leaders have denied their agreed framework programme for government is nothing more than an "apple pie" list of vague aspirations.

First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said criticism levelled by political rivals on the blueprint's lack of specific targets and goals missed the point.

They insisted the approach of setting a general framework, and then conducting a public consultation to help shape the ultimate policies, was a more "thoughtful" way of governing - one that ensured the maximum degree of community buy-in.

Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness said such an "inclusive" process had worked to great effect in Scotland.

The new-look Stormont Executive agreed the draft plan yesterday during its first meeting.

"It's not apple pie," said Mrs Foster after the 20-minute meeting at Stormont Castle.

She added: "The whole idea is we take our ideas out to the public and they then engage with us as to how we can deliver that together."

The DUP leader said definite targets would be set when the public consultation exercise ended and the document was aligned with December's budget.

"It's a new start, we are very much looking forward to it, we hope it's a time for more thoughtful politics in Northern Ireland and we look forward to the engagement that's about to take place," she said.

She added: "We could do things in the old way and get the same results, or you can do things in a new way and get better results, and that's certainly where we are going." This month's Assembly election has ushered in a new era of politics in Northern Ireland.

Former executive junior partners, the Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Alliance, all declined the chance to enter the power-sharing administration, instead opting to sit on the opposition benches.

The change is set to significantly alter the dynamic at the executive table and in the Assembly debating chamber.

The only minister at the Executive who is not a DUP or Sinn Fein member is independent unionist Claire Sugden, who stepped up to resolve the main parties' quandary on who would fill the politically contentious justice portfolio.

The erstwhile junior Executive partners have been among the most critical of the framework approach.

Mr McGuinness said the sceptics had "ignored the purpose of what we are trying to do".

"The purpose of what we are trying to do is evolve that programme for government in consultation with the public - the greatest possible consultation with the public - so the end result will be very definite actions and objectives that we are determined to achieve," he said.

"They argue we as politicians should decide what the public should get.

"Our approach is different - what we are asking the public to do is be part of putting the programme for government together."

He added: "This isn't apple pie - the whole purpose of it is to ensure that over a very short period of time we will have a situation where there is a very dynamic programme for government but based on what the public want to see."

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