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New Northern Ireland Assembly faces stuttering start as horse-trading kicks off

By Noel McAdam

Published 10/05/2016

Alliance leader David Ford with his party’s MLAs
Alliance leader David Ford with his party’s MLAs
The DUP’s Emma Little Pengelly on the steps of Stormont yesterday
The SDLP’s newly elected West Tyrone MLA Daniel McCrossan
People Before Profit MLA's Gerry Carroll (left) and Eamonn McCann
Sinn Fein’s Cathal Boylan, John O’Dowd and Catherine Seeley

Northern Ireland's newly-elected Assembly will not be fully functioning for another fortnight - and perhaps even longer.

And by then it will be only six weeks until the 108 MLAs begin their 10-week summer recess.

A late May bank holiday may also prevent the return of routine plenary sessions on the Hill.

So not much business or legislation is expected to be completed this side of July 2, when Stormont closes for the summer.

The first meeting of the new legislature is on Thursday, but that is only to confirm the reappointments of First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, and to elect a new Speaker.

The share-out of ministries under the d'Hondt formula is not expected to take place until Monday, May 23.

By that time the Ulster Unionists and SDLP are expected to have decided whether they are taking their seats on the Executive, or will become part of the official Opposition.

But speculation over which party will take which department was already under way even before the election count finished last Saturday afternoon.

The DUP has first pick and is widely expected to opt again for Finance Minister, despite strong indications during the election campaign it would take Education first.

There is speculation Sinn Fein, which has next choice, will plump for the new Department of the Economy, with former MP Conor Murphy or Mairtin O'Muilleoir being tipped for the post.

The DUP also has the third choice and could then decide on Education or Agriculture. If it again passes on Education, it could go to the Ulster Unionists, as the party has fourth pick.

The biggest-spending department is Health, and could be left until last, as it was after the last election in 2011. That would mean it falls to the SDLP.

The returned and new MLAs were consumed with less lofty affairs yesterday as they gathered at Stormont, mostly for party meetings. Some of the old hands were showing the new kids on the block the ropes.

Gerry Carroll and Eamonn McCann - representing the only new party in the Assembly, the People Before Profit Alliance - were on their way back home by lunchtime, promising not to return until Thursday.

New Sinn Fein MLA Catherine Seeley admitted to being a little awestruck. "It's quite surreal. It is very like the first day of school," said the former teacher, who made headlines after coming in for sectarian abuse online while working in a Protestant school in Belfast.

The SDLP's Daniel McCrossan, who made it through the internal party wars in West Tyrone, was among those taking a rest on the steps outside.

"There's a whole new face to the party. We have a new energy which I believe will help to rebuild the party right across the province," he said.

The Union flag was flying at Parliament Buildings yesterday, but it was nothing to do with the return of the local legislature. It was because it was Europe Day, one of the designated dates when the flag is hoisted.

Belfast Telegraph

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