Belfast Telegraph

Alex Kane: Civility at Stormont masks huge task ahead for new Executive

First Minister Arlene Foster with deputy First Minister Michelle OÕNeill at Parliament Buildings, Stormont this afternoon. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
First Minister Arlene Foster with deputy First Minister Michelle OÕNeill at Parliament Buildings, Stormont this afternoon. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Credit: : Kelvin Boyes/Presseye/PA Wire
Alex Kane

By Alex Kane

There were moments when it looked and felt like a parallel political universe: so much smiling, civility and congratulations you could be forgiven for forgetting that the Assembly hasn't actually met for three years and that for most of that time the DUP and Sinn Fein sniped and snarled at each other on an almost daily basis.

Indeed, the only discordant note (a note that came as a surprise to no one, of course) was from Jim Allister. And even he managed to laugh a couple of times.

It wasn't a given that the five parties would join the new Executive and it was only a few minutes before the session began that the UUP confirmed it would take a ministry.

That wasn't really a big surprise because, as I noted in the Belfast Telegraph a couple of days ago, Opposition would be a very difficult challenge for a party with only 10 MLAs, seven of whom have only had a few months experience in a functioning Assembly.

It was also interesting to note that the DUP and Sinn Fein had already cut a deal to replace Robin Newton as Speaker (who had previously announced he was standing down) and it probably took some people by surprise when the DUP's Peter Weir nominated, in fairly warm terms, Alex Maskey to the role.

And in fairness to Maskey he presided over a very speedy process of appointing the three deputy Speakers, First and deputy First Ministers, two junior ministers and the eight other ministers. Some of us expected to be hanging around until 5pm or later, yet everything was done and dusted by 3.30pm.

And what of the new ministerial team? There were no surprises in the reappointment of Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill. There have been rumblings in the undergrowth that Foster could be damaged when the RHI report is published- expected fairly soon- but she will, as is normal practice, have seen the references the report will make to her, so her reappointment suggests that neither she nor her party anticipate any difficulties.

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I suppose the biggest surprise of the day- in that nobody predicted it- was Robin Swann's appointment as Health Minister.

It's the biggest department, with the biggest budget and the biggest mountain of problems; and is often regarded as the poisoned chalice of politics.

Enoch Powell, a former Health Minister, described the role as "often the graveyard of political careers."

It was actually quite brave of the UUP to take it (and let's not forget that last week there were divisions within the UUP about whether they should take an Executive position at all), although at that point the only other post left was Agriculture.

But for a party in need of profile, Health makes more sense- even with all the risks involved.

Two other surprises: Diane Dodds, who only became an MLA a couple of weeks ago, is now Economy minister; while Deidre Hargey, replacing Mairtin O Muilleoir in South Belfast just after Christmas, is responsible for Communities.

It's worth noting that Foster has surrounded herself with people who have been politically close and loyal to her during what has been a very difficult three years- Peter Weir (Education), Edwin Poots (Agriculture/Environment) and Diane Dodds.

Again, a signal that she feels safe.

While it wasn't a given, either, that Alliance would go back into the Executive, Naomi Long is now Justice Minister.

She has been a councillor, MLA, MP, MEP, party leader and now minister, which is, I think, a record of some sort in UK politics.

The only jobs left are First Minister or Prime Minister. That said, Justice is a tough job and she'll need more than her usual feistiness to get her through difficult and unpopular decisions.

Of the eight ministers only three, Conor Murphy (Finance), Peter Weir and Edwin Poots have served in the Executive before and all three emerged with their reputations enhanced--which isn't always the case with former ministers.

The five new ministers, Long, Swann, Dodds, Nichola Mallon (Infrastructure) and Hargey are all experienced politicians, yet it will be interesting to see how they rise to what is usually the greatest challenge of any political career.

What will also be interesting to see is how they work together in what will be a very critical exercise in proving that this rebooted Executive won't repeat the same squabbling and silo mentality of its predecessors.

Today was a good day in the Assembly. But every day won't be as good and the smiling, civility and congratulations won't always be front and centre.

The most important thing now is that there is a huge opportunity for this new Executive to collectively make everyday life better for so many people in so many ways, as well as instilling some much-needed confidence into Northern Ireland.

Let's hope the opportunity isn't squandered.

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