There was a “first day at school” feeling for MLAs as they arrived at Stormont on Monday morning after the election.
The new class of 2022 were given induction sessions, had their photos taken, familiarised themselves with their surrounds, and of course, learned where the canteen is.
But with no fully functioning devolved government in sight, it is unclear just long this school term will last. Will it be a five-year mandate, or just over six months followed by another election?
Cameras, tripods and tangled cabling were strewn across the Great Hall as local and national media gathered at Parliament Buildings following a dramatic and historic election.
Sinn Féin was the star attraction after its thumping election victory, becoming the first nationalist or republican party to hold the most Assembly seats.
The party’s 27 MLAs were proudly paraded on the steps of Stormont, surrounded by a scrum of photographers and film crews.
Later the press pack piled into a first-floor room overlooking the Stormont estate and Carson’s statue as the Sinn Féin leadership reflected on the election result.
Flanked by Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, Finance Minister Conor Murphy and MP John Finucane, party vice-president Michelle O’Neill said voters want Stormont parties to “get back down to business”.
The First Minister-elect said the institutions “can’t be held to ransom” by the DUP and the British government over Brexit’s Protocol.
She said she would work with other parties of different perspectives in “partnership, not division” and that “through word and deed, I will be a First Minister for all”.
In a media appearance tightly choregraphed by Sinn Féin, the republican leader left without answering a question about whether as a First Minister “for all” she would say the words “Northern Ireland”.
As MLAs gathered in the corridors of power, there were plenty of smiles and mutual words of congratulations after a tiring six-week election campaign.
Many of the beaming faces came from the Alliance Party, whose newly more than doubled roster of MLAs gathered on the stairs of the Great Hall for group photos.
Among the 17 was Patricia O’Lynn, who secured a seat at the expense of the DUP in party founder Rev Ian Paisley’s heartland of North Antrim.
Ms O’Lynn, a former special adviser to Justice Minister and Alliance leader Naomi Long, said: “I’m just really keen to make the people who voted for me proud.”
Reflecting on the party’s success, she said: “I have dreamt of this day, the day that we had on Saturday and Sunday, for a long, long time.
“Whenever my announcement was made, the party was already on a high and I looked at (former Alliance leader) David Ford and he had a tear in his eye.
“The emotions that overwhelmed me at that time, I don’t even know if I can put them into words.”
Looking much less buoyant was the SDLP after suffering the loss of four MLAs in the election.
Surrounded by his diminished Assembly team and fellow MP Claire Hanna, party leader Colum Eastwood put on a brave face as he spoke to the assembled press.
He confirmed the party will not be re-nominating an Infrastructure Minister after SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon lost her seat in North Belfast.
“We don’t have a mandate to sit in a zombie government. We won’t take part in that and give cover to the DUP for not nominating a Deputy First Minister,” he said.
The outgoing Assembly Speaker Alex Maskey later clarified that if SDLP does not re-nominate to the post, it would pass to Sinn Féin under the d’Hondt process until a new Executive is formed.
On the unlucky-for-some date of Friday 13th, the Assembly is to formally meet to appoint ministers for a new government, but that appears unlikely.
As DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was joined by his MLA team, he reiterated his party’s position that unionist concerns over the Protocol must be addressed before a new power-sharing Executive can be formed.
With speculation of many months of Stormont in limbo before another election, is he willing to go back to voters in six months’ time if there is no resolution?
He responded: “I’m never afraid to face the people.”
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