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First republican Speaker at Stormont Sinn Fein's Mitchel McLaughlin gets warning from DUP backers

By Noel McAdam

The first republican Speaker of the Assembly has been warned he must "cut any connection" with party politics in his new position.

First Minister Peter Robinson said it was essential that Sinn Fein's Mitchel McLaughlin maintain the standards set by the former Speaker Willie Hay, who was a DUP MLA.

The DUP gave almost full backing to Mr McLaughlin, after it reneged on a commitment to support him three months ago, citing Sinn Fein's failure to stick to a deal on welfare reform.

Five DUP MLAs, including former Health Minister Edwin Poots, were missing for the vote, which achieved a majority of both unionists and nationalists and resulted in history being made.

Other DUP members who did not turn up included Mr Poots' Lagan Valley colleague Jonathan Craig, Upper Bann members Sydney Anderson and Stephen Moutray and new Foyle member Maurice Devenney, who is ill. Party sources last night said the Lagan Valley and Upper Bann members had constituency business.

Until now only unionists and Alliance members - the former MLAs John Alderdice and Eileen Bell - have held the position of Speaker, who is the presiding officer over Assembly proceedings.

The Ulster Unionists voted against Mr Mitchell and Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister shouted "shame".

Within minutes of Mr McLaughlin taking office, Mr Allister asked him whether the IRA murder of former Stormont Speaker Sir Norman Stronge was a "crime".

This was a reference to Mr McLaughlin saying in a television interview in the early 1990s that the abduction and killing of Jean McConville was not a criminal act in terms of the Provisional IRA's campaign.

Mr McLaughlin immediately told Mr Allister it was not a proper point of order and warned: "Do not abuse procedures or I will respond appropriately."

Mr McLaughlin also pledged that he would uphold the impartiality required by the office but warned there would be times when his judgments would not please everyone.

"We are, I believe, in a more positive political environment now than we have been for a few years, and we have much work to do," he added.

Nominating Mr McLaughlin earlier, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said: "I believe that he will, as William did, win the respect and admiration of the whole House."

Sinn Fein came under fire, however, from the SDLP for failing to back its nominee, John Dallat, when the DUP pulled out of their arrangement in October. Yesterday, the nationalist party nominated him again.

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell said: "At a time when public confidence in the Assembly is at an all-time low, it is even more crucial to have someone of the calibre of John Dallat as Speaker."

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said he commended Mr Robinson for admitting there had been a "side deal" but nominated his own party member, Roy Beggs. Mr Robinson shouted: "Nothing of the sort".

Alliance leader David Ford said it should not have required the Sinn Fein "rollover" on welfare reform for the previous DUP/SF agreement to have been honoured.

Mr Allister said DUP members should "hang their heads in shame" but the DUP's Gregory Campbell argued: "We acknowledge when (SF) do the right thing," and said Mr McLaughlin would be tested in the months ahead.

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