South Antrim MLA Mitchel McLaughlin has been elected as the first nationalist or republican Stormont Speaker in the history of Northern Ireland.
Mr McLaughlin was appointed to the Assembly’s top job last Tuesday in the first Assembly vote since the Christmas recess.
He takes over from the DUP’s William Hay who stood down in October due to ill health.
The move follows a deal, dating back to Ian Paisley’s time, between the two largest parties that Sinn Fein would take over the Speaker’s role half-way through the current Assembly term, but in October the DUP refused to back Sinn Fein until the party agreed to welfare reforms.
Mr McLaughlin, who was applauded by colleagues in the chamber and by friends in the public gallery as he took his place, vowed to uphold the impartiality of his position.
He said: “I would say to all members, those who supported me and those who did not, I am conscious that I am here to uphold the impartiality and the independence of the office and the interests of this House on behalf of all of you.
“I know there are times when I will have to make judgments which will not please everyone. But I am also as focused on that as I am on what I might be able to do to help increase understanding and agreement both inside and outside this chamber.”
Mr McLaughlin, from the Bogside area of Londonderry, said there was a “more positive political environment”.
He was nominated by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
Mr McGuinness said: “Mitchel and I have been friends for 40 years. I know his ability, dedication and thoughtfulness of his approach to political life…I believe that Mitchel McLaughlin will, as William did, win the respect and admiration of the whole House.”
Pledging support for Mr McLaughlin, First Minister Peter Robinson said he was prepared to “honour” the previous agreement because welfare reform was being implemented.
The DUP leader said: “Let us remember this is a House that won’t have a Speaker unless there is an agreement in particular amongst the two main parties (and) therefore would not operate and function properly without it.
“We indicated that we would honour the agreement to have a Sinn Fein nominee in that position when Sinn Fein had agreed on the issue of welfare reform. I am pleased to say and to see that has happened. I therefore intend to honour that agreement and give support to Mitchel McLaughlin.”
Mr Robinson issued a warning that party political connections should be cut: “There should be no party instructions to a Speaker. The Speaker must act independently in that office and I trust that is what will happen.”
But SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell accused the two largest parties of “re-concocting secret arrangements”.
He said: “It is time we moved to an open and transparent system of government here without backdoor deals or side deals designed to shut out full inclusion and full democracy.”
Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, who nominated Roy Beggs as a candidate, claimed election of a Sinn Fein Speaker had been a “side deal” from the Stormont House Agreement.
But the most scathing criticism came from TUV leader Jim Allister, who said politicians should “hang their heads in shame”. The North Antrim MLA said: “What we are seeing today is the first down payment by the DUP to Sinn Fein arising from the Stormont House Agreement – the delivery of this side deal.
“Three months ago Mitchel McLaughlin was unelectable. As far as I am concerned he is still unelectable because he is the same Mitchel McLaughlin who, with great notoriety, told the general listening public that that most cruel of crimes – the kidnapping, the murder and secret burial of Jean McConville – was not a crime.
“Yet there are some in this House think someone of that mentality should be made Speaker of this House.”
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