Northern Ireland’s political leaders will accommodate up to 2,000 Syrian refugees in the region not because they are required to, but because they want to, Martin McGuinness has said.
The Deputy First Minister said the five main parties in the Assembly were of the same mind about the need to do everything they could to welcome those fleeing the war-torn country.
Mr McGuinness said the quota of refugees allocated to the region from the 20,000 set to be accommodated across the UK over the next five years may be less than 2,000.
But he said that was the number that could reasonably be placed in Northern Ireland.
Addressing a Sinn Fein event focusing on the refugee crisis at Parliament Buildings, Belfast, he said Stormont officials continued to work on preparatory arrangements for the potential arrival of Syrians despite a current political crisis engulfing the coalition government.
“We certainly can make a huge contribution, relatively speaking, within our own sphere of influence here in the North,” he said.
He added: “I have no doubt (DUP leader) Peter Robinson feels as strongly about this as I do, I have no doubt (Alliance Party leader) David Ford feels as strongly, I have no doubt (SDLP and UUP leaders) Alasdair McDonnell and Mike Nesbitt feel as strongly on this issue as I do.
“So I think while people in other places do it because they are forced to do it, I think we collectively will do these things because we really want to do it, because we think it is the decent thing to do.”
Mr McGuinness said he hoped a resolution to Stormont’s budgetary problems could enable more social housing to be provided - homes which could be used to accommodate both the refugees and local people in need.
He said officials will explore other accommodation options for the refugees, stressing all would ensure they were treated with the “respect and dignity they deserve”.
Sinn Fein Euro MP Martina Anderson is travelling to Jordan at the weekend to visit a camp where 90,000 refugees currently live.
She compared the exodus with those who left Ireland during the potato famine of the 1840s.
“We need to remember Ireland has its own history of coffin ships, of people who left these shores,” she said.
“I know there are some people who have genuine concerns about what would happen here as a society (if many refugees come) and I think that as Irish people we will give them a ‘cead mile failte’ (one hundred thousand welcomes) – we will welcome them.”