Three years after its collapse the Northern Assembly was formally back in business at lunchtime on Saturday following Thursday night’s publication of the British-Irish agreement to restore Stormont.
And as the wheels of the powersharing administration slowly cranked back into gear after 36 months of paralysis the incoming DUP First Minister Arlene Foster pledged to “get Northern Ireland moving forward again”.
“We won’t solve every problem immediately but local Ministers will get on with key reforms in schools and hospitals,” she promised.
The session of the Assembly began at 1 pm with the election of a speaker and deputy speakers, with DUP East Derry DUP Assembly member, George Robinsons initially chairing proceedings.
Before moving to those elections he went though the list of members who had resigned or been replaced since the last full meeting of the Assembly three years ago.
There were three nominations for the position of speaker, Alex Maskey of Sinn Féin a West Belfast MLA; East Antrim MLA Roy Beggs of the Ulster Unionist Party; and Mid-Ulster SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone.
Peter Weir of the DUP caused some surprise by stating his party was supporting Mr Maskey for the speaker position, appearing to demonstrate that from the outset his party and Sinn Féin were determined to make the restored dispensation work.
Mr Weir said the MLAs were embarking on a “long journey, a never-ending journey to make life better for all of us”, while adding, “It is a challenge to all of us to work together.”
To no surprise the first discordant note of the day came from Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister who referring to the title of the deal, New Decade, New Approach, said it was the same “old carve up between DUP and Sinn Féin”.
“Nothing has changed, nothing is new and nothing good will come of it,” he said, while adding that the sight of DUP MLAs trooping through the lobby to “support a Sinn Féin speaker will not be lost on many”.
Mr Allister would have preferred to see Mr Beggs or Mr McGlone as speaker because “neither of them has baggage that would prevent them from doing the job”. It was “the same old, same old”, he complained.
I remain hopeful that Brexit will respect the Good Friday Accords and the sacrifice and vision of so many people, more than two decades ago.
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January 11, 2020
Nonetheless, the vote was held and Mr Maskey was duly elected, and normal business could begin with the Sinn Féin MLA in the speaker’s chair.
Sinn Féin applauded his election in the chamber but the DUP members did not, although DUP members voted for him.
Mr Maskey offered a big “hardy thank you” to those who voted for him, and said it was significant he was elected by a cross-community vote. He hoped the Assembly could continue its work in a “spirit of generosity” and “reconciliation”.
Business then continued through the afternoon with the next due order of business electing deputy speakers.
Those elected to the deputy speaker posts were Christopher Stalford of the DUP, Roy Beggs of the UUP and Patsy McGlone of the SDLP.
The next work was the election of a business committee followed by the election of DUP leader Arlene Foster as First Minister and Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill as Deputy First Minister, and then a new Executive.
That work was expected to take until about 4.30 pm.
Northern Secretary Julian Smith and the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney whose publication of their New Decade, New Approach agreement late on Thursday prompted the parties to re-enter Stormont were not present but wished the parties well.
Mr Smith had warned that if there was no agreement by 11.59 pm on this coming Monday he would call Assembly elections – a challenge most parties, particularly the DUP and Sinn Féin, did not want to face.
“What a week,” wrote Mr Coveney in a tweet. “The ingredients of pace, leadership and a fixed deadline have given the politics of this place another chance,” he added.
In a tweet to the leaders of the five main parties Mr Smith wrote, “Well done good luck!”
The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar said: “This is a historic day for Northern Ireland.”
“All parties and politicians in Northern Ireland are to be commended for their decision to put the people they represent first and make measured compromises to reach a deal. I want to thank the Tánaiste Simon Coveney, Secretary of State Julian Smith, and their teams, for the enormous effort and hard work over the last number of months in drafting New Decade, New Approach.”
He added: “I look forward to working with representatives in Northern Ireland as they begin working together again on behalf of all people in Northern Ireland. I am also looking forward to an early meeting of the North South Ministerial Council as part of working with the Northern Ireland executive, in the interest of everyone on this island.”
UK prime minister Boris Johnson described the day as momentous, and said in a statement: “As we begin a new decade, we can now look forward to a brighter future for all in Northern Ireland, with an Executive that can transform public services and improve people’s lives.
“The parties of Northern Ireland have shown great leadership in coming together to accept this fair and balanced deal in the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland.
“After three years without devolved Government, an Executive can now get on with the job of delivering much-needed reforms to the health service, education and justice.
“We could not have got this far without the Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith who has dedicated himself to this process and has worked closely with the Northern Ireland parties and Irish Government to make this happen.”
Under the new deal, the new Executive and Assembly will deal with a wide range of matters such as the Irish language, the sustainability of a reformed Assembly and the petition of concern.
The British and Irish governments also promised a major injection of financial support to address matters such as the health crisis, education, housing, infrastructure and building the Northern Ireland economy
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