Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

It's business as usual at Stormont, says new Deputy First Minister John O'Dowd

Sinn Fein man vows to work with DUP as he steps up to deputy role

Deputy First Minister John O'Dowd

John O'Dowd begins his first day in office as Deputy First Minister with a pledge of "business as usual" at Stormont.

The senior Sinn Fein figure took over from Martin McGuinness at midnight last night, and is due to remain in post until at least the end of next month, after the Irish presidential election race.

Even if only temporary, the Upper Bann MLA is the first new Deputy First Minister since devolution was restored and the first senior Sinn Fein figure to 'sit in' for Mr McGuinness.

As he prepared for briefings from officials of the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister, Mr O'Dowd insisted he is up to the task - and was endorsed by the now-suspended Mr McGuinness.

Pointing to the track record of Mr McGuinness with both former First Minister Ian Paisley and more recently Peter Robinson, Mr O'Dowd said: "Confrontation certainly hasn't been Martin's style and it won't be mine."

He said he did not foresee any problems in establishing a working relationship with Mr Robinson, and added: "I intend to work closely with Peter Robinson in the weeks ahead for the betterment of our society.

"What we (Sinn Fein) will be doing is ensuring the Executive and Assembly run smoothly."

Mr McGuinness said he had confidence in Mr O'Dowd's leadership qualities and added: "The good work that has been done here over the last number of years will continue."

No formal nomination of Mr O'Dowd proved necessary in the Assembly yesterday with Speaker William Hay instead opening proceedings with a short announcement that the new Deputy First Minister would be in position from midnight.

Mr Hay said he had received a letter from Mr McGuinness designating Mr O'Dowd "to exercise the functions of the office of Deputy First Minister".

However, Traditional Unionist Voice MLA Jim Allister asked the Speaker whether Mr McGuinness will continue to be paid as Deputy First Minister "while he pursues his project of foreign adventurism?"

But Mr Hay answered that was not a matter for him, and he had fulfilled his role. "I simply received a letter from the Deputy First Minister, which was very clear and procedurally correct, and I am informing the House of that this afternoon."

Analysis: Rising star has shown the McGuinness touch

By Noel McAdam

Four months ago he was just an ordinary Assembly Member. Now John O'Dowd finds himself in not one ministerial post, but two.

Yet O'Dowd was arguably the most obvious to fill in for the Deputy First Minister position.

In recent times he has shown the McGuinness touch, able to represent the nationalist community without treading on toes.

On parades, for example, he has taken some strides. One of the longest-running sores in O'Dowd's Upper Bann constituency is the Drumcree dispute. While he has given no indication of being prepared to accept an Orange march along Garvaghy Road, he has also been subtly critical of residents' refusal to enter dialogue.

In recent months as Education Minister, O'Dowd has seemed considerably more sure-footed in dealing with controversy than his predecessor, Caitriona Ruane.

Though there have been no concessions over the schools transfer row, he appears to have significantly lowered the temperature with rival parties, and has demonstrated a practical 'outreach' effort to Protestants.

As an MLA he lambasted the failure of unionists to tackle the ancient issue of Protestant educational under-achievement.

"The five education and library boards have been dominated on the political side by both the unionist parties opposite," he said in the chamber this year.

"What have they done to tackle Protestant educational under-achievement? They have done absolutely nothing. They have sat on their hands on every one of those boards, and have defended a system that has let their community down."

In fact O'Dowd has been a rising star in the Sinn Fein ranks for some time. As time went on in the last Assembly the party put him out to answer questions over the 11-plus schools transfer debacle much more often than then-minister Ruane.

A former school governor, he entered politics through the local hotbed of Craigavon council and came close to bringing a second Sinn Fein candidate to victory in the May election.

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