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Sinn Fein's economic credentials face big test at Finance

Shake-up of Stormont's top team sees Big Two swapping Health and Education, with five ministerial newcomers also thrown in at deep end

By Noel McAdam

Published 26/05/2016

Claire Sugden flanked by First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness
Claire Sugden flanked by First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness
The DUP ministerial team
The Sinn Fein ministerial team

Sinn Fein has taken control of the purse-strings at Stormont for the first time in a radical shake-up for the new Executive, which will meet for the first time today.

But the Finance Minister - new boy Mairtin O Muilleoir - will have to oversee spending cuts across most Government departments during the next five years.

Republicans were able to choose the position after the DUP made the new Department of the Economy its top priority, transferring Simon Hamilton from Health.

The DUP also picked the Department of Education, which it signalled particular interest in selecting during the Assembly election campaign, with Peter Weir becoming another ministerial newcomer.

Mr Weir's party supports academic selection and has continually blocked Sinn Fein attempts to end the practice. It recently said it wanted "a more accessible and straightforward" transfer process for children.

Yesterday's reshuffle also saw the new Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs transferring from Sinn Fein to DUP hands - from Michelle O'Neill to Michelle McIlveen.

More: From backbench obscurity to top of dissident hit-list for new Justice Minister Claire Sugden

Barring First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Ms O'Neill, Mr Hamilton and Mrs McIlveen are the only members of the previous Executive to be included in the latest administration.

Ms O'Neill shifted to Health, which was - as has been the case in the past - the final department to be chosen in the shareout of ministries.

Both the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP confirmed they were opting out of their right to choose seats at the Executive table and were given Assembly recognition to form an official Opposition.

That left the DUP and Sinn Fein to share out the remainder of the jobs between them with the exception of the Justice post which, as the Belfast Telegraph predicted last week, went to 29-year-old independent unionist Claire Sugden.

However, her appointment led to a barrage of criticism from the UUP and SDLP, who argued the Good Friday Agreement had been "corrupted".

Ms Sugden, whose father was a prison officer, admitted: "This is probably the most difficult decision I have had in my life.

"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."

Ms Sugden was seen flanked by Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness, who confirmed her appointment even before the shareout of ministries under the d'Hondt system got under way.

Mrs Foster said: "Martin and I are delighted that Claire has agreed to be the new Justice Minister."

But UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said it was a "corruption" of the Good Friday Agreement that a sole MLA could be given a seat at the Executive table.

"The person (Ms Sugden), who said 'This house of cards is falling', is propping them up again (and) the largest political party has decided that its dirty, inconsistent mess is more important than moving Northern Ireland forward," he said.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood wished Ms Sugden well but said it was "disturbing that the opportunity to evolve our politics even further has been missed". TUV leader Jim Allister also criticised the appointment, saying that while the East Londonderry MLA had boasted she was independent, she had become "the placewoman of Marlene" - his nickname for Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness.

But Alliance Party leader and former Justice Minister David Ford, whose refusal to take up the position helped lead to Ms Sugden being given the job, added: "We will judge the new minister not on her age or her gender, but on how far the reform programme (which the Alliance Party initiated in office) continues."

Also joining Stormont's top team was Sinn Fein's Chris Hazzard, who was named Minister for Infrastructure, and the DUP's Paul Givan, who became Communities Minister.

Alastair Ross of the DUP and Megan Fearon of Sinn Fein, meanwhile, were named as the new junior ministers.

Economy - Simon Hamilton

Tipped as a potential future leader of the DUP, the 39-year-old father of two sons has already done the rounds as Finance and, most recently, Health Minister.

A former accountant, Hamilton worked his way up the party as a back-room policy guru, Press officer and councillor in Ards before he was elected to the Assembly on the return of devolution in 2007.

Then three years ago former First Minister Peter Robinson plunged him into the front line, replacing Sammy Wilson as Finance Minister, controlling the Stormont purse-strings just as the Westminster-driven austerity cuts began to bite.

IN-TRAY: His department may have discarded the old Enterprise, Trade and Industry parts of his title but the emphasis for the new minister remains jobs and the attraction of foreign investment, along with progress towards the expected devolution of corporation tax powers.

Finance - Mairtin O Muilleoir

He may be 57, but former Belfast Lord Mayor O Muilleoir somehow manages to fit the thrusting, new generation image of change his party is trying to promote.

Re-entering politics five years ago after a gap of 14 years, he has earned a reputation as a new breed of republican and has a sound grounding in business as head of the Belfast Media Group, which came to include the South Belfast News, North Belfast News and Andersonstown News. 

The experience should serve him well as his party tackles the impression that it does not do economics and mathematics very well.

IN-TRAY: One reason for the DUP side-stepping Finance this time may be the likelihood of becoming known as the ‘Minister of cuts’ as O Muilleoir handles departmental spending, along with the first budget of the new Assembly. Had his first engagement yesterday examining the peace dividend for working-class communities.

Education - Peter Weir

Having ceded control of Education to Sinn Fein for nearly a decade, the DUP man will want to waft the winds of change through his department. One of those expelled from the Ulster Unionists over opposition to the Good Friday Agreement, finally signing up to the DUP in 2002, the popular Mr Weir has waited a long time for his turn as minister.

The 47-year-old, who is his party’s chief whip in the Assembly, has a long record of committee work including environment, and finance and personnel as well as being a member of the NI Assembly Commission, which has day to day responsibility over the running of Parliament Buildings.

IN-TRAY: The most immediate challenge facing Mr Weir is the reduced budgets facing schools, which are being forced towards redundancies, including those of teachers, along with the continuing fallout from the primary to secondary transfer system and pre-school provision.

Infrastructure - Chris Hazzard

The 31-year-old from south Down is one of the rising stars within Sinn Fein who has no personal memory of the Troubles. He had been thought more likely to emerge as Minister of Education had Sinn Fein retained that portfolio.

Hazzard replaced Willie Clarke, who stood down to focus on council work, and will have to work fast to establish the new department which not only subsumes the former Department for Regional Development but takes in vehicle regulation and driver functions from DOE, Rivers Agency from DARD; inland waterways from DCAL, and the Strategic Investment Unit and several regeneration sites.

IN-TRAY: Within hours of his appointment, Hazzard was under pressure to confirm the go-ahead for the Narrow Water Bridge project near Warrenpoint and can expect roads projects like the A5 and A6 to figure high on his agenda, along with cuts to services such as hedge-cutting and gully-clearing.

Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs -  Michelle Mcilveen

Having been a junior minister, the 45-year-old DUP woman was appointed Regional Development Minister after Ulster Unionist Danny Kennedy’s party pulled him out of office last autumn and became viewed as a safe pair of hands.

A former councillor in Ards, she has also served as chair of the Assembly’s former culture, arts and leisure committee, as well as education.

And as with Education, the DUP will have to put its stamp on a department that has been in the hands of Sinn Fein ministers for some time.

IN-TRAY: The farmgate prices being paid to producers across Northern Ireland, with farmers taking to the streets in protest and others warning they are being forced out of business, will be top of the agenda, along with maintaining existing levels of support for the agriculture industry.

Communities - Paul Givan

The DUP man, who steered a public consultation on his conscience clause, proposal following the first Ashers bakery court case, was the youngest politician to be elected when he became a councillor in Lisburn aged 23.

Now 34, the Lagan Valley MLA has his work cut out as head of a new department that subsumes two old departments, the Department for Social Development and most of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (except inland fisheries and waterways).

His record includes three years chairing the Assembly’s justice committee and membership of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, which recommends cutting MLAs from 108 to 90 at the 2021 election.

IN-TRAY: Casement Park will be high on his list with an Assembly inquiry into GAA plans, while handing over powers to the 11 local councils to regenerate their own areas should also be a priority.

Health - Michelle O’Neill

Once again the Health portfolio was left to last, the so-called poisoned chalice of ministerial responsibilities, but O’Neill has a strong track record in the former Agriculture Department.

The 39-year-old mother-of-two has been deeply involved in republican politics since she was a teenager and was the first woman to become mayor of the former Dungannon Borough Council area before joining the Assembly.

A qualified adviser in welfare rights, she was the first Executive minister to move on proposals to shift her departments HQ outside Greater Belfast — to Ballykelly — along with the Rivers Agency headquarters to Cookstown

IN-TRAY: The two main Executive parties, DUP and Sinn Fein, have already pledged a £1bn injection into the province’s health service in the next five years, but despite this imminent boost  hospitals and GP centres are likely to remain under pressure in the foreseeable future.

Justice - Claire sugden

A week ago we could have been forgiven for asking: Claire who? But not any more, and certainly not after yesterday’s developments.

 Aged 29, she has a degree in politics, a masters degree in Irish politics and was studying part-time for a masters degree in political lobbying.

She became an MLA for East Londonderry in 2014 after being co-opted to replace political mentor David McClarty on his death.

She lives in Castlerock and is engaged to fiance Andy Anderson (33).

She may be the least experienced  of the Stormont ministers but those closest to her say she’s a quick learner — and, in the long run, will prove to be nobody’s fool.

IN-TRAY: Dealing with the hugely contentious area of Northern Ireland’s abortion legislation will certainly be one of her main tasks. The dissident threat is ongoing, and prisons are highly contentious.

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