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Sinn Fein unveils ministers without IRA past to take up new Executive posts

Party's fresh faces seen as reaction to 'young' rivals

By Suzanne Breen

Published 25/05/2016

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at Parliament Buildings with his new ministerial team Mairtin O Muilleoir, Michelle O’Neill, Meagan Fearon and Chris Hazzard
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at Parliament Buildings with his new ministerial team Mairtin O Muilleoir, Michelle O’Neill, Meagan Fearon and Chris Hazzard

Sinn Fein has surprised political observers by announcing a younger, fresher team of ministers at Stormont in what is seen as a direct response to both the rise of Gerry Carroll and a more youthful, radical SDLP.

In a complete break with party tradition - apart from Martin McGuinness - none of the ministers have an IRA past.

The Deputy First Minister said he was confident Mairtin O Muilleoir, Michelle O'Neill, Chris Hazzard and Megan Fearon would perform strongly.

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Meanwhile, speculation mounted last night that 29-year-old independent unionist Claire Sugden could be on course for the Justice portfolio, but Stormont insiders said that the final decision would go down to the wire. "Nothing is over the line yet," one added.

The young East Londonderry MLA was remaining tight-lipped on the possibility of a life-changing appointment. If Ms Sudgen is not nominated, a DUP MLA is likely to take the ministry.

Alliance was last night described as "completely out of the running". A unionist source said: "Alliance has burned its boats. It overplayed its hand."

Alliance sources said there had been no contact between their party and the DUP over the ministry.

The Assembly is due to meet at midday with the Justice Minister's appointment being the first item on the agenda.

The DUP-Sinn Fein nominee will be proposed and MLAs will then vote on the issue.

The d'Hondt system will run after that, with the rest of the ministers being appointed.

The DUP's Simon Hamilton is seen as being a certainty for another term in the Executive.

At least one other woman is expected to join Arlene Foster in holding a ministry.

Sinn Fein's Mr O Muilleoir is tipped for either Finance or Economy Minister.

The 57-year-old businessman and former Belfast Lord Mayor is the most experienced politician among the party's new group of ministers.

There was some surprise that Conor Murphy and Michelle Gildernew were omitted from the ministerial team, but sources said there were still opportunities for them to be appointed as committee chairs and that both would perform prominent media roles for the party.

Sinn Fein is likely to rotate its ministers mid-term, with Mr Murphy seen by many as a future Deputy First Minister should Mr McGuinness stand aside.

The Deputy First Minister said he had "the utmost confidence" in his new team.

"They are all intelligent, committed, dedicated Irish republicans who understand the challenges that face us in the next five years," he added.

The inclusion of 24-year-old Ms Fearon was the biggest surprise in the line-up. From a well-known republican family in Dromintee in south Armagh, she has been a Sinn Fein member for nine years.

She replaced Mr Murphy as MLA for Newry and Armagh four years ago, making her the youngest political representative in Northern Ireland and the Republic.

She has a politics degree from Queen's University and has sat on several Stormont committees.

A nationalist source said: "It was no surprise to see Sinn Fein putting forward two women, but what was more unexpected was the youth of the team.

"That's a direct response to competition from within nationalist politics, with Daniel McCrossan, Claire Hanna, and Nichola Mallon all being very prominent in the SDLP."

The younger, fresher team is also seen as a direct response to the rise of People Before Profit, and particularly Gerry Carroll who topped the poll in West Belfast. Sinn Fein was criticised for running five ex-prisoners in the constituency.

Mr Hazzard was regarded as a rising Sinn Fein star until a car-crash performance on BBC Radio Ulster's Nolan Show, but others defended him saying he was defending "crazy policies".

Sinn Fein's decision to keep Ms O'Neill on also raised eyebrows, but sources insisted she was a consistently strong performer.

Belfast Telegraph

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