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Only a major emergency will interrupt Stormont shutdown

On The Hill

By Noel McAdam

On completion of its first, full, uninterrupted four-year term in more than 40 years — a remarkable and historic feat in itself — the Stormont legislature shuts up shop next week and will not return for almost 50 days.

For, while next year still looks clear, this would not be Northern Ireland if we did not have our annual election.

The Executive, however, also shifts into neutral with no meetings of Stormont ministers planned for the same period, or even slightly longer.

The last meeting of the current Executive is therefore pencilled in for next Thursday, March 24.

New ministers will not be appointed until a week after the May 5 election, with the first Executive session of the new mandate then likely to be delayed for a further seven days — an overall gap of eight weeks.

An emergency, of course, could provoke an earlier return — as it did with the summer floods two years ago, for example, and the big freeze and thaw over Christmas and the New Year — but otherwise we are back into the territory of political purdah.

Which does not mean the province is left rudderless. Ministers remain in charge of their respective departments right up until polling day, and the First and Deputy First Ministers right up until they are reappointed.

But the reality is most ministers will be out on the doorsteps seeking re-election, leaving senior civil servants effectively in day-to-day charge.

The new Assembly is due to resume exactly a week after the election, on Thursday May 12, during which time intense inter-party negotiations are likely to have sorted out the new portfolios.

Restoration of First and Deputy First Ministers and election of a new Speaker is the first business of the day, but the entire D’Hondt procedure will probably be run through for all 12 departments, apart from Justice, where minister David Ford, the Alliance Party leader, remains in situ for another year after being appointed by cross-community vote last year.

The share-out of ministries, who opts for the ‘poisoned chalice’ of health, will Arlene Foster remain as Enterprise Minister, and whether Caitriona Ruane returns as Education Minister, will be the main points of interest.

Arguably, the biggest single change since 2007 has been the relationship between the DUP and Sinn Fein. They are still a long way from trust, but have forged a reasonable working partnership which even a bruising election campaign is unlikely to seriously damage.

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