First sitting of new Northern Ireland Assembly: What is expected to happen as MLAs meet

The new Northern Ireland Assembly is due to formally meet for the first time since last week’s Stormont election.

MLAs will hold their first formal sitting at Parliament Buildings at noon on Friday.

But Stormont faces an uncertain future as the DUP is refusing to resume power-sharing until its issues with Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol are resolved.

Read more:A ‘first day at school’ feeling for new MLAs – but how long will term last?

The Executive has been unable to fully function since February when then First Minister Paul Givan resigned as part of the DUP’s opposition to Irish Sea trade checks.

Here is a look at what is expected to happen on Friday, and other key decisions in the coming days and beyond:

Electing a Speaker

The 90 newly elected MLAs will sign a roll of membership for the Assembly and confirm their political designation as either “nationalist”, “unionist” or “other”.

The first item of business is the election of a Speaker – an MLA who will chair meetings in the chamber.

The Speaker is elected by a cross-community vote, which means receiving majority support and backing from both unionists and nationalists.

Until a Speaker is elected, the Assembly cannot proceed to any other further matters.

If a new a Speaker is chosen the Assembly should be able to function in some form.

However, it is unclear if that will be agreed – or who would take up the post.

In the past the DUP and Sinn Féin rotated the post between them and based on this convention, it would be the DUP’s turn.

However, with the DUP having dropped to second-largest party, it may not want to give up an MLA to referee Assembly meetings.

The Alliance Party is not expected to put a name forward, but it is unclear who other parties may propose for the job.

The only deputy Speaker returning to the Assembly is the SDLP’s Patsy McGlone, but his party could be reluctant to propose him for the top post after losing four seats in the election.

Nomination of FM and DFM

If a Speaker is elected, the process then moves to the nomination of the first and deputy first ministers.

Sinn Féin as the largest party is entitled to the position of First Minister, while the DUP will hold the Deputy First Minister role.

However, because of the joint and co-equal nature of the office, one cannot be in post without the other.

If the DUP as expected does not nominate a Deputy First Minister, then no functioning Executive government can be formed.

Ministers still in post from the old administration who were re-elected as MLAs will remain in office in a limited caretaker capacity.

Infrastructure Minister post

SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon was Infrastructure Minister before the election but cannot continue in the role as she lost her MLA seat in North Belfast.

The SDLP on Monday confirmed the party would not be re-nominating to the ministerial position.

The outgoing Assembly Speaker Alex Maskey said that if the SDLP does not re-nominate to the post by Friday, it would pass to Sinn Féin under the d’Hondt allocation process until a new Executive is formed.

Lagan Valley MP decision

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson taking up the MLA seat he won in Lagan Valley would mean he has to give up his role as MP for the constituency, triggering a by-election.

But the DUP leader has said he will not leave Westminster until his party’s concerns around the Northern Ireland Protocol are addressed.

Sir Jeffrey said the party would temporarily co-opt someone to his Assembly seat in the meantime.

Speaking in the House of Commons, the DUP leader said: “I will not leave this House until this Protocol issue is resolved. I will not leave this House until I can be sure that our political institutions in Northern Ireland have a stable foundation.”

In March, the DUP co-opted a councillor instead of Sir Jeffrey to replace Edwin Poots as a Lagan Valley MLA when he switched to South Belfast following the sudden death of Christopher Stalford.

Another election?

If no first and deputy first ministers are nominated, a new power-sharing Executive cannot be formed and caretaker ministers remain in post for up to 24 weeks.

And if there is no government formed in this time period, Secretary of State Brandon Lewis will be required to call a snap election within 12 weeks.

It means at the latest there could be another election by mid-January 2023.

Read more:A ‘first day at school’ feeling for new MLAs – but how long will term last?

Read more:Election analysis: Voters sent MLAs one clear message.. now make Stormont work

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