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Suzanne Breen

Sisterly solidarity won't protect Foster and O'Neill who'll surely be looking over their shoulders

Suzanne Breen

It wasn't quite the Chuckle Sisters, but there was no shortage of smiles and solidarity exchanged between the two women now leading Northern Ireland's new power-sharing Executive.

As the Assembly sat for the first time in three years, Michelle O'Neill said it was her "sincere wish that 2020 brings real change".

Arlene Foster spoke of how she would never agree with the Deputy First Minister on the past, but they were determined to forge a new future together.

Neither has any real choice. Foster took over the reins in the DUP four years ago amidst high hopes that her leadership would represent a break with the past. As Enterprise Minister for seven years, she had impressed many.

Today, her reputation outside the DUP is at rock bottom.

While no immediate threat exists to her leadership, there are those inside the party who will swoop and strike if she messes up power-sharing this time.

The new Executive gives Foster the chance to reinvent herself. To prove that she is not the bogeywoman that she has appeared to nationalists in recent years.

She began the outreach by revealing that a picture she was given with an Irish phrase during a visit to Our Lady's Grammar School in Newry hangs on her wall.

It was a start, but it will take a lot more than that to clear the crocodile cobwebs.

Despite her win over John O'Dowd in the vice-presidential contest, Michelle O'Neill is not a leader in a rock-solid position. After decades on an upward trajectory, Sinn Fein is stagnating here electorally.

It was humiliated in Foyle in last month's Westminster election. The SDLP's top team looks much more polished and professional these days than its nationalist rival.

There are doubts in the party grassroots about O'Neill's ability to cut it at the top level. She now has the opportunity to prove her critics wrong.

Conor Murphy was the party's first choice for the Executive. He represents a safe, solid pair of hands. But his style is managerial as opposed to dynamic.

That Sinn Fein selected Deirdre Hargey despite her just being co-opted into Stormont should surprise no-one. She was held in high regard by all parties in City Hall during her time as both mayor and Sinn Fein's group leader. Given the SDLP's staggering vote in South Belfast, the Shinners also need to profile Hargey in case their Assembly seat is at risk in the next election.

The DUP opted for tried and tested hands in its ministerial team. With Diane Dodds, Peter Weir and Edwin Poots, it has the whiff of the old guard.

With two 20-something ministers - Claire Sugden and Megan Fearon - the last Executive had an entirely different feel.

The Ulster Unionists' decision to take the health portfolio was a courageous or crazy one depending on your viewpoint. The party deserves immense credit for stepping up to the plate when the DUP, Sinn Fein and SDLP all slid away.

For the first time, there is gender equality at the Executive table - women account for 50% of ministers. Nichola Mallon will bring graft and gravitas to her infrastructure portfolio. And sisterly solidarity will not protect Michelle or Arlene if Naomi Long believes the two big parties aren't playing fair.

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