Northern Ireland power-sharing executive formed after justice post filled
A new power-sharing executive has been formed in Northern Ireland after an independent Assembly member stepped in to fill the contentious justice ministry.
Claire Sugden's decision to accept a Democratic Unionist/Sinn Fein offer to take the politically sensitive portfolio has averted another potential logjam at Stormont and enabled the coalition administration to get up and running before a post-election deadline.
Her selection allowed the other vacant ministerial seats to be filled, with the DUP taking the education portfolio and the appointment of a first Sinn Fein finance minister among the significant moves.
Independent unionist Ms Sugden, who at 29 has just two years' experience as an elected representative, has been propelled into one of the most high-profile jobs in the devolved government.
With the Ulster Unionists and SDLP having opted to form an official opposition and the Alliance Party also deciding not to re-enter the executive in the wake of this month's Assembly election, the DUP and Sinn Fein had faced a quandary as to who would be justice minister.
Both parties previously vetoed the other taking the job, instead relying on the cross-community Alliance Party to fill the post.
Without a justice minister an executive would not have been formed and another election would have been likely.
Ms Sugden's elevation from the opposition benches has avoided that scenario.
The East Londonderry MLA, a daughter of a former prison officer, said the job represented a "huge challenge" but she was "up for it".
"This is probably the most difficult decision I have had in my life," she said.
"It did cause me a lot of anxiety over this last week but it is an opportunity for me, for my constituency and most importantly it's an opportunity for Northern Ireland.
"And I am looking forward to it."
DUP First Minister Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness flanked the young MLA in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings in Belfast as her appointment was confirmed ahead of a special Assembly sitting on Wednesday.
Mrs Foster said Ms Sugden would be a minister for "all the people" of Northern Ireland.
"Martin and I are delighted that Claire has agreed to be the new justice minister in the new mandate and we are very much looking forward to working with her," she said.
Mr McGuinness hailed Ms Sugden as "impressive and progressive".
"I am equally as delighted as Arlene that Claire has agreed to take up this onerous responsibility, this very challenging position but we have every confidence in her ability," he said.
There was sharp criticism of the appointment from the benches of the newly formed official opposition.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said offering such a key job to a lone MLA represented a "corruption" of democracy.
"We are not in favour of this because it is a corruption of the (1998) Good Friday Agreement," he said.
He also made reference to Ms Sugden's previous strident criticism of the power-sharing administration, when she described Stormont's leaders as "jokers" in a "house of cards".
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said a DUP/Sinn Fein "stitch up" had handed the justice ministry to "someone who does not deserve it".
He claimed the DUP were preventing nationalists becoming justice minister and Sinn Fein were happy to let that happen.
"It is clear to us now that we are still at a stage with a ban on nationalists entering the justice department," he said.
After Ms Sugden's appointment was confirmed, Assembly business turned to the less contentious process of filling the other ministries.
The posts were allocated using the D'Hondt formula.
The DUP had first pick and selected Simon Hamilton as Economy Minister.
Sinn Fein then selected Mairtin O'Muilleoir as Finance Minister - the first economic portfolio the republican party has held in the administration.
The DUP nominated Peter Weir as Education Minister and Sinn Fein announced Chris Hazzard as the Minister for Infrastructure.
The DUP's decision to take education is set to be significant in the long-running debate over Sinn Fein attempts to end post-primary academic selection. The DUP is a firm supporter of selection and has fiercely opposed the efforts of previous Sinn Fein ministers to scrap it.
Sinn Fein in infrastructure could trigger progress in stalled projects to undertake major road upgrades in the west of the region.
The DUP took the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs with Michelle McIlveen as minister.
The party also took the Communities Department, with Paul Givan.
In the last ministry selected, Sinn Fein took health, appointing Michelle O'Neill.
The DUP's Alastair Ross and Sinn Fein's Megan Fearon were appointed as the administration's two junior ministers.