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NI Assembly restored after three-year stalemate

Alex Maskey, with Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O'Neill and Conor Murphy. Credit: Presseye

Sinn Féin’s Alex Maskey has been elected as the new Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, while Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill return as First and deputy First Ministers.

All five of the main parties have come together to form an Executive, after devolution returned to Stormont after three years of political stalemate.

The DUP and Sinn Féin have agreed to re-enter a mandatory coalition, while the SDLP has taken up its entitlement to one ministry, the UUP will also take up its ministry, and the Alliance Party has accepted an invitation to take up the Justice portfolio.

DUP leader Arlene Foster returns to the NI Assembly with party colleagues. Credit: Presseye

The first order of business was to elect a Speaker and Mr Maskey’s nomination by his party was backed by the DUP.

He said it was “an honour” to take up the role.

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Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill said: “Alex Maskey is someone whose professionalism, dedication and commitment has embodied his involvement in politics for decades.

“Alex served as the first Sinn Féin councillor on Belfast City Council and later as the first Republican mayor in the history of Belfast and, in both roles, he showed his willingness and ability to represent all citizens equally.

“A tireless and fearless advocate of those most in need in our society, Alex had always provided a voice for everyone.”

  • VIDEO: Deputy Political Editor Tracey Magee reports from Stormont

Three deputy speakers were also elected with no dissenting voices – the DUP’s Christopher Stalford, the UUP’s Roy Beggs, and the SDLP’s Patsy McGlone.

Then it was time to nominate for the top leadership positions, and Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill duly accepted their nominations as First and deputy First Minister respectively.

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In her subsequent address to the Assembly, the DUP leader said: “Mr Speaker, you, along with other members in this chamber, are an Irish republican and I am a unionist with a strong British identity – but, regardless of our differences, we must seek out the common ground.

“When I visited Our Lady’s Grammar in Newry, the pupils gave me a lovely picture as a gift. It has hung in my office upstairs ever since, just above my shoulder.

“In Irish, it states: ‘Together, we are strong.’”

Within this chamber, there are people who are British, Irish, Northern Irish and European. There are many identities. That is who each of us are. Each identity should be respected.

– First Minister Arlene Foster

Mrs Foster added: “We have many differences.

“Michelle’s narrative of the past 40 years could not be more different to mine.

“I’m not sure we will ever agree on much about the past, but we can agree there was too much suffering, and that we cannot allow society to drift backwards and allow division to grow.

“Northern Ireland is succeeding in many ways. It’s time for Stormont to move forward and show that ‘together we are stronger’ for the benefit of everyone.”

Michelle O’Neill said she was honoured to follow in the footsteps of her predecessor, the late Martin McGuinness, in taking up the role of deputy First Minister.

“I see no contradiction in declaring and delivering on our firm commitment to power-sharing with unionism in the Stormont Assembly, while also initiating a mature and inclusive debate about new political arrangements which examine Ireland’s future beyond Brexit,” she said.

“Similarly, there is no contradiction in unionism working the existing constitutional arrangements, while taking its rightful place in the conversation about what a new Ireland would look like.

“We can do this while maintaining our independent distinct political identities and working in the best interests of all of the people.”

As we approach the centenary of partition, let’s not re-fight battles of the past. It is time to bring people together.

– Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill

Ministerial appointments were made under the D’Hondt method, with the exception again of the Justice portfolio - which went to Alliance leader Naomi Long.

She said she was honoured to be supported by all sides of the house in taking up the position previously held by her party predecessor David Ford and by Independent MLA Claire Sugden.

Among the key appointments was that of Health Minister, given that Northern Ireland's health service is facing a serious crisis.

The UUP's Robin Swann takes up the role.

“I do not for one moment underestimate the challenges facing the Northern Ireland Health Service,” he said.

“In recent weeks, all parties have unanimously said they want to see the problems in our health service resolved. I trust that that collegiality and shared responsibility will continue.

“Party politics must stay out of our health service – there is simply no other issue more important than the health and well-being people of our people.”

The NI Assembly is getting back to business as usual. Credit: Presseye

The SDLP, UUP and Alliance taking up ministerial roles again marks a significant development as the last executive prior to Stormont's collapse in 2017 did not include the three smaller parties.

Saturday’s plenary session got underway at 1pm and business concluded for the day just before 3.30pm, to resume on Monday.

The last DUP/Sinn Féin-led coalition government collapsed in January 2017 over a row about a botched green energy scheme.

That row subsequently widened to take in more traditional wrangles on matters such as the Irish language and the thorny legacy of the Troubles.

The restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly has been welcomed by the British, Irish and American administrations.

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NI Assembly Ministerial Appointments

  • Economy: Diane Dodds (DUP)
  • Finance: Conor Murphy (SF)
  • Education: Peter Weir (DUP)
  • Communities: Deirdre Hargey (SF)
  • Agriculture: Edwin Poots (DUP)
  • Health: Robin Swann (UUP)
  • Justice: Naomi Long (Alliance)
  • Infrastructure: Nichola Mallon (SDLP)
  • Junior Ministers: Gordon Lyons (DUP), Declan Kearney (SF)
  • VIDEO: Political Editor Ken Reid on Day 1 of Stormont's return