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Executive rids itself of old guard but are they up to the job?

Youthful ministerial team largely free of Troubles baggage - and short on political experience too

By Suzanne Breen

Published 27/05/2016

First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness with Executive colleagues ahead of the first Executive meeting yesterday at Stormont Castle, (from left) Michelle McIlveen; Mairtin O Muilleoir; Simon Hamilton; Alastair Ross; Paul Givan; Claire Sugden; Peter Weir; Megan Fearon; Michelle O’Neill; and Chris Hazzard
First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness with Executive colleagues ahead of the first Executive meeting yesterday at Stormont Castle, (from left) Michelle McIlveen; Mairtin O Muilleoir; Simon Hamilton; Alastair Ross; Paul Givan; Claire Sugden; Peter Weir; Megan Fearon; Michelle O’Neill; and Chris Hazzard

As they stepped out of Stormont Castle after their first meeting, it was clear that there is a new look and feel to this Executive. Gone are almost all the familiar old faces from the Troubles.

Apart from Martin McGuinness, none in the line-up was intricately involved in the conflict. They are free from the baggage that comes from the days of bombs and bullets and those endless funerals.

Chris Hazzard, Claire Sugden, Paul Givan, Simon Hamilton, Michelle O'Neill and Alastair Ross were schoolchildren when the IRA ceasefire was declared in 1994. Megan Fearon was a toddler.

Arlene Foster's family life was tainted by the Troubles - with a murder attempt on her father and a bomb attack on her school bus - but she herself was not a political player in those days.

Businessman Mairtin O Muilleoir was around but not even his staunchest critics could call him a divisive figure. No beret or balaclava ever covered Mairtin's face. Indeed, his lack of an IRA CV has led to him being branded a "draft-dodger" in some republican circles.

Bar the Deputy First Minister, Sinn Fein's team are all 'clean skins'. Besides, all the unionist fears surrounding Mr McGuinness when he was first appointed Education Minister in 1999 proved unfounded. The man previously dubbed the 'Butcher of the Bogside' has not just met the Queen several times, but looked genuinely delighted to do so.

The average age of our newly appointed ministers is 41, a significant decrease from the previous Executive. The 12-strong team includes five thirtysomethings and two twentysomethings. There has been extensive debate on whether Claire Sugden is too young and inexperienced for the justice portfolio.

Questions have also been raised as to whether Megan Fearon is ministerial material. Time will tell if the criticism is justified. But we can't accuse the political class of being too old and out of touch and then become infuriated when young people are promoted rapidly through the ranks.

The disconnect between the political parties and the next generation had to be addressed. It certainly can be said that some of our new ministers have hardly outstanding credentials for their positions.

Some are career politicians and few of the others had achieved anything noteworthy before they entered Stormont. But, unfortunately, that is the way of Northern Ireland politics. Apart from barristers Bob McCartney and Jim Allister, few of our elected representatives have had high-flying careers behind them.

The first photographs of our new ministers dramatically conveyed that the men in grey suits are having to make way for a new generation of women politicians. We already had a record-breaking number of women MLAs returned to Stormont earlier this month - 30 compared to just 20 in the 2011 election.

While female representatives make up 28% of the Assembly, the ministerial team is even more impressive. Five out of 12 ministers are women, a record-breaking 42%. We are finally catching up with the rest of the world on gender balance in politics.

All these statistics, however heartening and inspiring, mean little to the man or woman on the street if the new Executive doesn't deliver. The image of a fresh start is there, it is now up to the new ministers to produce the reality.

Everything about this set of politicians says they can, and should, be able to work together. It is almost impossible to imagine a blazing ideological row between Simon Hamilton and Mairtin O Muilleoir.

With an election three years away, there is no reason why the DUP and Sinn Fein can't cooperate constructively at Stormont particularly on health and employment.

People's faith in devolution will be restored, not with soundbites and photoshoots, but with action that improves their everyday lives.

Belfast Telegraph

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