Executive office should ‘do more’ to prepare for arrival of Ukrainian refugees in Northern Ireland, says SDLP’s O’Toole

An MP for Stormont has urged the executive office to ‘do more’ to prepare to welcome refugees from Ukraine and said Northern Ireland must be part of ‘finding a solution’ to the crisis.

Speaking to the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme, SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole said it was ‘simply not good enough’ to say the province could not accept refugees due to the absence of prime and deputy prime 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 MP made the comments on the back of a letter to Leveling Secretary Michael Gove from the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales.

Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford have told Mr Gove they want to ‘maximise’ their contribution and act as ‘super sponsors’ for refugees fleeing the war-torn nation of Europe.

The governments of Holyrood and Cardiff said the super sponsorship would allow Ukrainians to gain permission to quickly enter each country and be temporarily housed while they work with local partners to provide accommodation to more term, protection 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 opening up their homes to refugees, or alternatively offering them separate property to stay in.

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

On Sunday, Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin also said Ireland had accepted 5,500 people fleeing Ukraine.

Mr O’Toole said there ‘certainly’ is more Stormont could do.

“From my point of view, I have already asked the Executive Office to do more to prepare for welcoming Ukrainian refugees,” he said.

“This is the biggest humanitarian crisis on our continent in most of our lifetimes. We must participate in the search for a solution in Northern Ireland.

“It’s not enough to say we don’t have a prime minister and deputy prime minister. The executive office must prepare now.

Meanwhile Mr O’Toole has dismissed accusations that his party was ‘letting the DUP off the hook’ by trying to find a way to allow £300m of Treasury budget funds to be spent in Ireland North.

Finance Minister Conor Murphy has previously said legal advice received indicated the money could not be spent without an executive in place.

The SDLP has suggested that emergency legislation to unblock the impasse could be passed at Westminster or through the use of a fast-track private member’s bill at Stormont.

The SDLP MP argued he had suggested the proposal in order to ‘put the people of Northern Ireland first’ and insisted the party was not interested in ‘trying to put the DUP in a corner”.

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

“Think about the crisis we find ourselves in. It’s an emergency. We see fuel bills rising beyond historic precedent. We need urgent action to deal with it now.

“I don’t know all the legal advice that Conor Murphy has seen. It’s clear that every side, including the SDLP, should do their utmost to spend this £300million.

“If we didn’t try every avenue available to us, I think you would be rightly criticizing us. We’re kicking down every door trying to make it work.

“There was a series of discussions both at Stormont and at Westminster. For us, it’s not about partisan politics, it’s just about finding a legal way to spend that money. I think it is definitely worth a try.

The executive office has been contacted for a response.

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