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All smiles as Assembly class of 2017 opens.... but there's nothing on the blackboard

By Noel McAdam

There were hugs and handshakes as Northern Ireland’s Assembly members met for the first time since the election.

It might have had a back-to-school feeling but the deputy head has resigned and the headmistress was not being allowed in her office

Nonetheless the friendly demeanour of MLAs was in sharp contrast to their respective stances in the talks just a half mile away at Stormont House.

Now reduced to 90, the old and new MLAs elected just 10 days ago were unable to transact any business because of the stalemate between them.

But that was no reason why the greetings and goodwill had to be dispensed with, even in the canteen and the chamber itself where the atmosphere was almost carefree and certainly surreal.

As the Sinn Fein team arrived en-masse, and made their way between the two benches of seats, many of them made a point of shaking hands with People Before Profits’ Gerry Carroll.

DUP traditionalists Edwin Poots and Paul Givan were deep in conversation with the SDLP’s Patsy McGlone and newly-elected Pat Catney - three of the four of them representing Lagan Valley.

Naomi Long had a wee word with Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill, both of them departing in smiles and there was a virtual queue at one point to hug the sole independent MLA Claire Sugden.

It was a short session - only 45 minutes - and the fact that the main parties cannot even agree on a new Speaker meant the DUP’s Robin Newton was back in the chair, even though most of the other parties have denounced him after he allowed then First Minister Arlene Foster to address the last Assembly, in its closing hours, without the permission as required by ex-deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

Mr Newton spoke only to reaffirm that the nature of the meeting meant MLAs would not be able to raise points of order and any concerns could be brought up with his office - outside the chamber.

Then, by party group, starting with Alliance, the MLAs first signed the undertaking of office which includes working for the disbandment of all paramilitary structures and support the rule of law.

They then, one by one, signed the register and by 4.45pm had started the clock ticking towards the first official hurdle under legislation resulting from the St Andrews Talks, which lead to the restoration of devolution in 2007 - in a fortnight.

So around 5pm on the last Monday of this month, Secretary of State James Brokenshire can decide whether to go for another election, although he is only required to do so “in a reasonable time period”.

Mr Brokenshire was absent from the talks yesterday - the small matter of a three-line whip for Brexit votes in the House of Commons keeping him away - but Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan was present to keep the pressure up.

As he held a number of party meetings, the Dublin minister said: “There is a positive disposition on the part of all parties who are now currently in the Assembly.

“It is important that the urgency of the situation be fully acknowledged and I detect an acknowledgement in that regard.

“We have two weeks within which to form an Executive in accordance with the wishes of the people in the recent election.”

Mrs Long, meanwhile, said: “It’s now up to the parties to get round the table and get a deal sorted as soon as possible. That is what really matters.

“People voted in the hope they would see that change and we would be able to move our society forward.”

Perhaps if some of the affable atmosphere in the Assembly chamber can find its way to the first round-table meetings expected any day now. 

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