A new dynamic, and maybe a fresh start
When Northern Ireland was granted devolution the unspoken hope was that the mandatory coalition government would, as politics and politicians matured, evolve towards something like a normal democratic institution, with a ruling cohort and an effective Opposition.
With the SDLP now joining the UUP and a number of other minor parties and an independent Member on the Opposition benches at Stormont - possibly to be joined by the Alliance Party - the Assembly chamber now has the appearance of the usual parliamentary model.
Is this something of a mirage, or the beginning of a new era - a fresh start, but not the one envisaged in the agreement reached late last year? Some might argue that the Opposition, as currently constituted, have only one thing in common, namely they are against the ruling DUP/Sinn Fein duopoly.
A more magnanimous view would be that the new set-up could be the impetus needed for serious, questioning politics at Stormont. It could give the UUP and SDLP the opportunity to put clear water between themselves and their erstwhile unionist/nationalist bedfellows and revitalise their own appeal at future elections. Equally, it may be the chance for the DUP and Sinn Fein to work more cohesively as partners in government, even if their political ideologies remain at polar extremes.
Much, of course, depends on how the two big parties solve the riddle of filling the Justice Ministry. If Alliance remains unconvinced of the worth of taking the post, and no one else steps forward, what does Arlene Foster, as First Minister, do? Could the post become a jobshare rotated between the DUP and Sinn Fein, or would Sinn Fein have to be bought off by allowing it to take control of the purse-strings in the administration? The First Minister would have difficulty selling either solution to her most trenchant supporters, especially since she said she could not trust "rogue ministers" in the last mandate, when the DUP left the Executive for a short period.
But the First Minister, uniquely, has a trump card that she can play at any time - the petition of concern, which can veto any proposed legislation she doesn't like.
Every other party would require additional support to play that same card.
It is something, however, she should use only sparingly, otherwise it negates the very idea of democracy.