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Back to school mood as Stormont prepares for new term in office

By Rebecca Black

Published 13/09/2016

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood with colleagues Nichola Mallon and Alex Attwood before a meeting with Secretary of State James Brokenshire at Stormont
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood with colleagues Nichola Mallon and Alex Attwood before a meeting with Secretary of State James Brokenshire at Stormont
Carla Lockhart

It was shiny shoes and full attendance at Stormont yesterday as MLAs returned to work for the first time after their long summer recess.

From the basement canteen to the Great Hall, it was all about catching up after a not so restful summer.

Inevitably unionists sparred, on this occasion gently, over the Ulster Unionist Party's 10-point Brexit plan. "Where was the DUP's?" asked UUP MLA Alan Chambers.

"In our manifesto," retorted the DUP's Paul Girvan.

And outside a busy question time for Education Minister Peter Weir, the talk was of Jim Allister's challenge to the Speaker over why the Nama controversy was not on the agenda, and DUP MLA Brenda Hale's revelation in the chamber that she had been the victim of a stalker.

As he lined up his prepared answers, Mr Weir joked: "First day back is not dissimilar to the first day back at school, but in my case I had a lot of homework too."

His party colleague Mervyn Storey, on the other hand, said that no longer being Finance Minister meant that he was enjoying the opportunity to refocus on his constituency work.

New shoes may be a back to school essential, but the North Antrim man said he had simply had his re-heeled for £5.

"People say that's because I walk very quickly and am hard on my shoes," he said.

One of the newest MLAs, Carla Lockhart (DUP), said some of the longest-serving Assembly members such as Mervyn have been a great source of guidance to her as she finds her feet.

She was dressed very smartly in a pencil dress, form-fitting jacket and high heels but, perhaps following Mervyn's thrifty example, said she hadn't invested in a new pair of shoes for the occasion.

"I posted on my Facebook this morning: give a girl the right pair of shoes and she can conquer the world," she said.

"It's a Marilyn Monroe quote."

There were different pressures for the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood.

"Any 'night before the first day back' rituals I had are out of the water now we have a baby," he joked. "But we had a nice day out on Sunday to the north coast, Portstewart and Portrush.

"It was great today to see all the party group back again, and a lot of new faces who are raring to go."

As well as the newer faces, there was also the return of some more familiar faces, such as DUP veteran William McCrea, who lost his Westminster seat last year.

He received a party pass for the building to keep his hand in. "I don't like not being busy," he said.

Ulster Unionist MLA Jo-Anne Dobson said her essential first day preparations included ensuring the car was filled with petrol for her commute from Banbridge.

"It is a bit like going back to school or uni, you need to make sure you are prepared and have done all your reading," she said.

"It is exciting too, being back and seeing colleagues from across Northern Ireland you may not have seen for a while, with everyone being back in their constituencies."

Sinn Fein MLA Conor Murphy joked that living amid the beautiful scenery of South Armagh he didn't need to go away anywhere, but relented to reveal he had holidayed on the continent for a week during the summer.

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