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DUP facing a rough ride as it ponders whether to back Sinn Fein Speaker

By Noel McAdam

Published 26/12/2014

Peter Robinson and his DUP team address the media after the successful talks
Peter Robinson and his DUP team address the media after the successful talks
Mitchel McLaughlin

The DUP is facing its first major test from the Stormont Agreement over backing for the first Sinn Fein Speaker of the Assembly.

The party backtracked on its pledge to support Sinn Fein taking over the position from William Hay, with Mitchel McLaughlin lined up as the first republican to hold the post.

First Minister Peter Robinson made it clear the party could not support Mr McLaughlin because he said Sinn Fein had reneged on an earlier deal over welfare reform.

He asked Secretary of State Theresa Villiers to make the election of the Speaker an issue in the multi-party negotiations but it did not form part of the published deal this week.

With the benefit changes resolved as part of the multi-party deal last Tuesday, the way should now be clear for Sinn Fein to take up the role in the run-in to the Westminster election in May.

The DUP may still decide to hold back until Sinn Fein proves it is willing to implement the legislation on welfare reforms.

The party's Assembly team is expected to meet early in the new year to take a decision on the issue.

A senior party source said: "I do not know what the position is on this and it did not form part of the (Stormont House) Agreement."

DUP arch-rival Jim Allister tweeted that support for a republican speaker would be the DUP's first "down-payment".

"DUP's first down-payment on its latest deal with SF will be to put the Assembly under the control of SF Speaker in January," the TUV leader said.

Sinn Fein would regard the go-ahead for the new Speaker to be elected as evidence of the "fresh start" it says the Agreement shows the potential for.

A spokesman said: "There was a deal that was done on the floor of the Assembly and this deal was reneged upon by the DUP.

"It needs to be resolved on the floor of the Assembly by the DUP stepping up to the plate and honouring that agreement.

"It can easily be resolved by the DUP honouring the deal that was done by the nomination of Sinn Fein's Mitchel McLaughlin to the post."

Even before the Assembly's summer recess, the Belfast Telegraph revealed plummeting relations between the two main parties had led to a new row over the Speaker.

Sinn Fein has accused its power-sharing partners of playing "silly buggers" over the historic takeover of the Speaker's chair - which should have already happened by the June date.

Mr McLaughlin had been expected to succeed the DUP's Mr Hay as part of an arrangement reached under former First Minister Ian Paisley and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

It was just one of a growing list of stand-offs between the two main parties over welfare reform, the Education and Skills authority, and the collapse of the peace and reconciliation centre at the Maze site.

Together these stand-offs point to the impression of the spreading paralysis of government and feed fears that the coalition Executive could still be toppled, seven years after the restoration of devolution.

Meanwhile, the Orange Order has accused the Secretary of State of showing contempt towards it and unionist parties over a parading issue. After the Stormont deal this week, the Northern Ireland Office said it would not be setting up a panel to examine a parade dispute in north Belfast.

A panel was announced in October following a suggestion from the Belfast Telegraph on a resolution to the dispute over a parade past Ardoyne, which has cost millions of pounds to police.

An Orange Order spokesman said that "Grand Lodge is extremely concerned and will be meeting with unionist political representatives at the earliest opportunity after the Christmas holidays to discuss the seriousness of the situation, created by a weak Secretary of State."

The NIO said it remained "fully committed" to seeking a resolution to the situation in north Belfast.

"When we announced the terms of reference for a panel on parading in north Belfast, we stated that a key principle was that it must command cross community support," it said.

"It has become apparent that there is insufficient support for the proposed panel among some of those most closely involved in the dispute."

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