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Ministers 'hit the ground running'

Politicians on the road to mark dawn of devolution

By Noel McAdam

Northern Ireland's devolved ministers today fulfilled their pledge to " hit the ground running" as the new political dispensation entered its first full day.

Less than 24 hours after being formally elected, a number of ministers were out on the road across the province marking the dawn of devolution.

And First Minister Ian Paisley and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness were also hosting a special reception to highlight the province's increasing cultural diversity.

Up at Stormont, meanwhile, Assembly members were meeting again to complete the election of the devolved Government team.

The historic first meeting of the power-sharing Executive was also being pencilled in for tomorrow, with regular meetings planned right through to and including July.

Executive Ministers are likely to confirm their policy priorities, which will include water charges, education, the health service and the local government shake-up.

A lot of detailed work has already been carried out on the Programme for Government committee, set up after the St Andrews Agreement, on which only the Executive parties were represented.

The committee's blueprint is believed to include proposals for a more competitive economy and development of improved public services.

Finance Minister Peter Robinson has also said a fair deal for ratepayers will be a "priority challenge".

Negotiations with Chancellor Gordon Brown on an improved economic peace dividend package are also likely to continue.

A new glossy leaflet introducing the public to the new Executive and its functions has been produced and will be distributed through newspapers and government offices.

Secretary of State Peter Hain was also due later today to report to MPs on the transfer of power to the new administration and confirm the Northern Ireland Office is being slimmed down.

Meanwhile, ministers were taking up their tasks following detailed briefings from officials in the weeks since the deal to share power between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy was in Banbridge to formally announce investment of more than £14m in local roads.

Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister Nigel Dodds was in the north west for a major business announcement focused on Londonderry.

The charm offensive also saw Education Minister Caitriona Ruane visiting schools in Antrim and Magherafelt and Culture and Arts Minister Edwin Poots meeting children from both sides of the divide involved in a north Belfast sports project.

Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie was also touring the site of a social housing development in south Belfast.

Their absence did not deter MLAs from appointing chairpersons and deputies to the committees which will monitor the ministers and their departments.

And later today the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will welcome around 200 people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds in the province.

A statement said the function "will celebrate our rich cultural diversity, highlight the importance of newcomers to our economy and zero tolerance on racism."

Belfast Telegraph


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