Executive Office should ‘do more’ to prepare for Ukrainian refugees coming to Northern Ireland, says SDLP’s O’Toole

A Stormont MLA has urged the Executive Office to “do more” to prepare for receiving Ukrainian refugees and said Northern Ireland has to be part of “finding a solution” to the crisis.

peaking to BBC’s Sunday Politics programme, the SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole said it was “simply not good enough” to say the province could not accept refugees due to the lack of a First and Deputy First Minister following the collapse of the Executive.

Mr O’Toole said the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces was the “biggest humanitarian crisis on our continent in most of our lifetimes”.

The south Belfast MLA made the comments on the back of a letter to Leveling Up Secretary Michael Gove by the Scottish and Welsh first ministers.

Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford told Mr Gove they wanted to “maximise” their contribution and act as “super sponsors” to refugees fleeing the war-torn European nation.

The governments in Holyrood and Cardiff said super sponsorship would enable Ukrainians to get clearance to enter each country quickly and be housed temporarily while they work with local partners to provide longer term accommodation, safeguarding and access to services.

A website where people can register their interest in taking part in the scheme will open on Monday, which will see people open their homes to refugees, or alternatively offer them a separate property to stay in.

All those offering accommodation will be vetted while Ukrainians coming to the UK under the scheme will undergo security checks.

On Sunday, Irish premier Micheal Martin also said Ireland has accepted 5,500 people fleeing Ukraine.

Mr O’Toole said there “definitely is” more Stormont could be doing.

“From my perspective I have already called for the Executive Office to do more to prepare to receive Ukrainian refugees,” he said.

“This is the biggest humanitarian crisis on our continent in most of our lifetimes. We need to be part of finding a solution in Northern Ireland.

“It is not simply good enough to say we don’t have a sitting First and deputy First Minister. The Executive Office needs to be preparing now.”

Meanwhile, Mr O’Toole rejected accusations his party were “letting the DUP off the hook” in trying to find a way to allow £300m of Treasury budget funds to be spent in Northern Ireland.

Finance Minister Conor Murphy has previous said legal advice received advised the money could not be spent without a sitting Executive in place.

The SDLP has suggested emergency legislation to unlock the logjam could be passed in Westminster or by use of an accelerated Private Member’s Bill in Stormont.

The SDLP MLA argued they had suggested the proposal in order to “put the people of Northern Ireland first” and insisted the party were not interested in “trying to put the DUP in a corner”.

“The DUP should not have walked out and put us in this preposterous situation. We want all parties to work together with us on the solution,” he said.

“Think about the crisis we are in. It is an emergency. We are seeing fuel bills rise beyond a historical precedent. We need urgent action to deal with it now.

“I don’t know all the legal advice Conor Murphy has seen. It is clear every party, including the SDLP, should be doing everything we can to spend that £300m.

“If we weren’t trying every avenue open to us, I think you would rightly be criticalizing us. We are battering every door down to try and make this work.

“There have been a range of discussions both at Stormont and Westminster. This isn’t about party politics for us, it is simply about finding a legal route to spend this money. I think it is certainly worth us trying.”

The Executive Office has been contacted for a response.

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