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Return to limelight for veteran who waited quietly in the wings

By Noel McAdam

For some unionists, of course, there is no such thing as an acceptable face of republicanism. But Mitchel McLaughlin will have proven an easier pill to swallow for most unionist MLAs than Sinn Fein's first choice as Assembly speaker, Francie Molloy.

In the end, Mr McLaughlin emerged as the lead candidate after the party selected Mr Molloy to replace Martin McGuinness as Mid-Ulster MP, a seat Mr Molloy duly won.

The new Speaker has taken a relative back seat in party terms in more recent years compared, say, to Mr McGuinness or North Belfast MLA Gerry Kelly.

He was concentrating on cutting his teeth as the effective deputy to DUP Speaker William Hay, preparing himself for the role he has now - finally - taken over.

For many years after the Good Friday Agreement, Mr McLaughlin was a key 'persuader' for the party, regularly briefing the media and taking part in SF's 'outreach' programme to Protestant churches, unionists and loyalist groups.

Born in the Bogside in Londonderry, Mr McLaughlin and his wife Mary-Lou have been personal friends with Martin McGuinness for more than 40 years.

Joining the party as a backroom boy in the mid-1960s, he became a key strategist and has occupied several senior positions within the party, including general secretary and national chairperson.

He also helped develop party strategy, contributing to the landmark SF document 'Towards a Lasting Peace in Ireland'.

At both the Good Friday and St Andrew's talks, he was a key member of the Sinn Fein negotiating team, and in the three months since last October when his accession to the Speaker's role was stalled,Mr McLaughlin has been honing his capabilities as 'deputy principal presiding officer'.

Thus while republicans, of course, don't do monarchies, the election of Sinn Fein's first Speaker yesterday came closer to a coronation than anything else.

And from the outset yesterday, there was no doubt Mr Mclaughlin would take the position.

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