INDEPENDENT 2024-02-03 16:07:10


Michelle O’Neill makes history as Northern Ireland’s first nationalist first minister

Stormont’s first nationalist First Minister Michelle O’Neill has pledged to work with unionists to build a better future for Northern Ireland.

The appointment of the Sinn Fein vice president provided a moment of history on the day the powersharing institutions returned after a two-year hiatus.

DUP MLA Emma Little-Pengelly was nominated as deputy First Minister.

Taking up the post, she said she and Ms O’Neill come from “very different backgrounds”, but for her part she will work “tirelessly to ensure that we can deliver for all in Northern Ireland”.

The two top jobs in the ministerial executive wield equal power and responsibility, but the elevation of a republican to the office of first minister, by virtue of Sinn Fein becoming the region’s largest political party in the 2022 Assembly election, is undoubtedly a significant symbolic moment for Northern Ireland.

The DUP, the largest unionist party in the region, has agreed to the recall of the political institutions on the back of its deal on post-Brexit trade with the UK Government, which party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson says has effectively removed the so-called Irish Sea trading border on goods remaining within the UK.

On Thursday, the Government fast-tracked two pieces of legislation contained in the agreement through the House of Commons, opening the way for the Assembly to return on Saturday.

The proceedings commenced with the process of nominating a speaker, with former DUP leader Edwin Poots elected to the role.

Addressing the chamber after her appointment was confirmed and she affirmed the pledge of office, Ms O’Neill said the restoration of the institutions marked a “moment of equality and progress”.

“A new opportunity to work and grow together,” she said. “Confident that wherever we come from, whatever our aspirations, we can and must build our future together.”

Ms O’Neill said the public were relying on each of us to act in their best interests and to serve our whole community in good faith.

“We must make powersharing work because collectively, we are charged with leading and delivering for all our people, for every community,” she said.

“In common cause we must make life better for workers, families, communities. To create hope and opportunity.”

Ms O’Neill urged all MLAs to be “respectful of each other”.

“The days of second-class citizenship are long gone,” she said.

“Today confirms that they are never coming back.

“As an Irish republican I pledge co-operation and genuine honest effort with those colleagues who are British, of a unionist tradition and who cherish the Union.

“This is an assembly for all – Catholic, Protestant and dissenter.

“Despite our different outlooks and views on the future constitutional position, the public rightly demands that we co-operate, deliver and work together.

“We must build trust and confidence in our ability to do that.

“That will require courage and ambition not just from us who are elected but from the public.

“We can all invest in this and the more of us that do the better the chance it has.”

The republican leader said the new ministerial executive “undoubtedly face great challenges” as she listed the issues besetting public services in the region.

She said ministers had to work together to challenge the UK Government to provide more funding for Northern Ireland.

Ms O’Neill reflected on the achievement of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.

“I was a 20-year-old mother at the time of the agreement, and I remember vividly the sense of hope and optimism,” she said.

“I got right in behind politics and have worked since then to build the peace.

“There is no question that our society has been fundamentally transformed because of the peace process.

“I stand here proud, elected First Minister as someone who represents the Good Friday generation, and someone who will lead us into the next 25 years.

“I am also an Ulster woman, a Tyrone woman and a deeply proud Irish and European citizen.

“This is an historic day which represents a new dawn.

“For the first time ever, a nationalist takes up the position of First Minister.

“That such a day would ever come would have been unimaginable to my parents and grandparents’ generation.

“Because of the Good Friday Agreement that old state that they were born into is gone.

“A more democratic, more equal society has been created making this a better place for everyone.

“This place we call home, this place we love, North of Ireland or Northern Ireland, where you can be British, Irish, both or none is a changing portrait.

“Yesterday is gone.”

Ms O’Neill said her appointment reflected the change that society in the region had undergone.

“I am a republican,” she said.

“I will serve everyone equally and be a First Minister for all.

“To all of you who are British and unionist; Your national identity, culture and traditions are important to me.

“I will be both inclusive and respectful to you. None of us are being asked or expected to surrender who we are.

“Our allegiances are equally legitimate. Let’s walk this two-way street and meet one another halfway.

“I will be doing so with both an open hand and with heart.”

Commenting on the legacy of the Troubles, Ms O’Neill said much suffering and trauma persists as a result of the injustices and tragedies of the past.

“We must never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families,” she said.

“I am sorry for all the lives lost during the conflict. Without exception.

“As First Minister I am wholeheartedly committed to continuing the work of reconciliation between all of our people.

“The past cannot be changed or undone.

“But what we can do is build a better future.

“I will never ask anyone to ‘move on’, but I do hope that we can ‘move forward’. I want us to walk in harmony and friendship.

“My eyes are firmly fixed on the future. On unifying people and society.

“Every generation must write its own chapter, define its own legacy.”

Ms Little-Pengelly said she recognised that for many, it is a “historic moment”.

She said there must be no dominating from any side to another, calling for a “new approach of recognising the concerns of each other and finding solutions together”.

“We are all born equal and the people who look on this sitting today demand us to work together,” Ms Little-Pengelly said.

“Michelle is an Irish republican, and I am a very proud unionist. We will never agree on those issues but what we can agree on is that cancer doesn’t discriminate on our hospitals need fixed.

“Let us be a source of hope to those young people watching today, not one of despair.

“Let us prove that difference is something that can be a strength through recognition and respect. That difference need not be a barrier to progress and delivering.

“This is my pledge. I love this place we call home. I will work tirelessly for delivery for all the people of Northern Ireland from every background. I will do so with the best of my abilities honoured by the privilege and opportunity to do so.

“Let’s do it side by side and let’s keep Northern Ireland moving forward.”

British aristocrat wife of Killers of the Flower Moon producer falls to death at hotel

Isabelle Thomas, the British documentary filmmaker and wife of Oscar-nominated Killers of the Flower Moon producer Bradley Thomas, has died aged 39 after falling from a hotel in Los Angeles.

Thomas, also known as “Izzy”, died by suicide and was discovered “with multiple traumatic injuries” at the Hotel Angeleno, according to records from the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Police sources indicated that she was found dead at the scene when emergency responders first arrived.

In a statement to the LA Times, her family called her “the light of our lives”.

“She was courageous and took all life’s opportunities without fear, showering love and kindness on her friends, family, and children along the way,” their statement said.

“Her projects were as diverse as her passions, reflecting a curiosity about people and our culture that inspired everyone lucky enough to spend time with her. We remember her as a soulmate, beautiful daughter, sister, devoted mother and wife.”

Born in the Cotswolds, Thomas was the daughter of Sir Henry Lawrence, 7th Baronet of Lucknow, and his ex-wife Penelope.

She attended Oxford University and once advised former prime minister David Cameron on his Tech City start-up initiative, which he launched in 2010. She also DJ’d and reportedly partied with Amy Winehouse while living in London.

At the time of her death, she had been living in California with her husband and their two children, twins Poppy and Grace. She was also stepmother to Lucy and Charlie, his children from a previous relationship.

Bradley Thomas, an American film producer, is currently in the middle of awards season, as he co-produced Martin Scorsese’s epic, Killers of the Flower Moon, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone.

Actor and TV presenter Jameela Jamil, a friend of Thomas, was among those to pay tribute following the news of her death.

“I lost a friend very suddenly this week,” she wrote on Instagram. “Don’t wait ’til later. Don’t presume you can just grow old together. Don’t presume the world is fair or makes sense. Don’t take anyone or anything you love for granted for a minute.

“My heart is completely and utterly broken and I don’t think I will ever recover.”

Writing for Deadline,editor Mike Fleming said he had just seen Isabelle and Bradley at a Golden Globes party and was “shaken” by her death.

“I had just seen Izzy and Bradley at an Apple Golden Globes party and I’m shaken to the core by this,” he wrote. “She was a beautiful, kind and vibrant woman who would light up a room.

“Born in Bath and a graduate in Neuroscience from Oxford, Izzy moved to Los Angeles to follow her passion for storytelling and filmmaking. She went on to produce a documentary on the subject of kindness, and another more recently on pickleball. She was a member of The UCLA Center of Storytellers and Scholars Advisory Board.”

She and Bradley Thomas were married in 2018, and appeared together at red carpet events as Bradley’s career progressed thanks to successes with Clint Eastwood’s 2018 film The Mule, Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, and the Palme d’Or-winning 2022 satire, Triangle of Sadness.

His earlier production works include Farrelly brothers comedies such as Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, and Shallow Hal.

He and Thomas had been seen together as recently as 13 January, when they were photographed at the 2024 Bafta Tea Party at the Maybourne Beverly Hills.

Fleming said that her family had requested privacy at this time. In lieu of flowers, they are asking friends and those touched by her to consider contributing to the Mental Health Coalition.

If you are experiencing feelings of distress, or are struggling to cope, you can speak to the Samaritans, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.

If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.

Bus driver dies after attack at station in Elgin as boy, 15, arrested

A 15-year-old has been arrested following the death of a 58-year-old bus driver.

A spokeswoman for Stagecoach North Scotland said: “We are shocked and saddened by this news and our immediate thoughts are with the family and friends of our driver who has sadly passed away.

“Safety is our number one priority and incidents like this are extremely rare.

“We are doing everything we can to support our colleagues and our driver’s family as well as assisting the police in their investigation.”A Police Scotland spokeswoman said: “Around 10.40pm on Friday, February 2 2024, police were called to the St Giles Road area of Elgin following a report of the assault of a 58-year-old man.

“Emergency services attended, and the man was taken to Dr Grays Hospital in Elgin where he later died.

“A 15-year-old mah has been arrested in connection with the incident and inquiries are continuing.”

Elgin bus station was closed on Saturday as police investigated the incident, with operator Stagecoach Bluebird cancelling a number of services.

Moray MSP Richard Lochhead, who is also the Scottish Government’s Minister for Small Business, said he had spoken to local police and Stagecoach.

He said: “My thoughts are with the bus driver’s loved ones and friends and it goes without saying that the local community is shocked by this tragic and horrific incident.

“This will also be an incredibly difficult time for everyone at the local Stagecoach depot.

“Everyone working on our local buses provide an essential service and should be able to return home safe and well from their shift.

“I’ve been in touch with the police and the bus company. In the meantime, my thoughts are very much with everyone affected.”

More to follow on this breaking news story…

Tesco issues four-week warning to anyone with a Clubcard

Tesco has issued a four-week warning to customers to spend their Clubcard vouchers before they expire at the end of the month.

The supermarket giant warned Clubcard shoppers only have until 29 February to use £18m worth of Clubcard vouchers before they expire.

More than 20 million people in the UK hold a Tesco Clubcard, which allows shoppers to receive discounts on selected items as well as rack up points they can redeem later as vouchers for use in-store.

The vouchers were issued in February 2022, and while shoppers are racking up points, many are forgetting to use them before they expire.

The reminder for shoppers to use their old vouchers comes as more than £125m of new ones will be ready to use from 5 February.

Emma Botton, Tesco Group Customer Director, said: “Household budgets are still under pressure, and we want to help them stretch further.

“With more than £18m worth of vouchers due to expire at the end of the month, we’re reminding customers to spend them now.”

Tesco Clubcard vouchers are issued every three months in February, May, August and November. Customers can use their Clubcard vouchers on their weekly shop or fuel, or to pick up a new deal with Tesco Mobile.

They can also treat themselves by exchanging their Clubcard vouchers for 2x the value with 100+ Reward Partners including PizzaExpress, Alton Towers Resort and Hotels.com.

Earlier this year, Tesco announced that customers can collect double Clubcard points when they shop until February 25.

It is the first time the supermarket has offered a double points event like this in over a decade, with over 20 million Tesco Clubcard members set to benefit.

Jonnie Irwin shared heartbreaking regret after terminal cancer diagnosis

A Place in the Sun presenter Jonnie Irwin has died aged 50, his family announced on Friday (2 February).

The former TV host had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 2020. After initially keeping his illness private, Irwin revealed his condition in November 2022 after being told the cancer had spread from his lungs to his brain.

The news of his death was shared on the presenter’s Instagram account alongside a statement.

“It is with heavy hearts that we share the news of Jonnie’s passing. A truly remarkable soul, he fought bravely against cancer with unwavering strength and courage. Jonnie touched the lives of so many with his kindness, warmth, and infectious spirit,” the post read alongside a photo of Irwin and his wife Jessica Holmes.

Tributes have quickly poured in for Irwin, with Jasmine Harman – his Place in the Sun co-presenter of more than 200 episodes – saying her “heart is broken”.

Unmissable New York State experiences

Events in Clapham must not be used to block genuine asylum claims

Abdul Shokoor Ezedi is the subject of a nationwide manhunt in connection with a horrific assault in south London, involving a mother, two girls and some bystanders who attempted to intervene in the attack. This must primarily be a police matter, to be dealt with through the criminal justice system, with the interest of the victims and the safety of the public central at all times. A crime has been committed, and one of extreme violence that has, so it is said, left those affected with “life-changing” injuries.

Understandably, it has captured the public’s attention and sparked concerns. Quite rightly, the issue of using corrosive substances to injure and disfigure people is one that horrifies, and attention needs to be paid to the ready availability of acids and corrosive alkalines which, in the wrong hands, can be just as dangerous as a firearm or a blade. These assaults were carried out on a residential street and, as far as can be judged, with some forward planning.

Inevitably, because Ezedi has been granted asylum in the UK, this aspect of the case has also attracted comment, some rational and constructive, but far too much which merely seeks to use the misery of the victims of this assault for predictable and spurious political purposes.

How Turkey has dealt another blow to Rishi’s ‘stop the boats’ plan

Rishi Sunak’s promise to “stop the boats” has suffered another setback. The Home Office has declared Turkey an unsafe country for the purposes of asylum, meaning deporting anyone there could risk their life, in breach of domestic and international human rights law.

It is not the biggest setback he’s faced – everything to do with the Rwanda scheme has been far more embarrassing and damaging – but it’s undoubtedly an uncomfortable end to a difficult week. Questions about the asylum system as it has worked under successive Conservative governments have also been raised by the case of the chemical attack suspect, Abdul Ezedi. So on an important issue where the government hopes to gain some political advantage over Labour, the headlines continue to be all about chaos and failure.