First day of the 7th Northern Ireland Assembly

It was a day of firsts.

First time in the chamber for new suite of legislators.

Ahead of the first meeting of the new Assembly, the chairs in the chamber had been straightened and two extra tables set out to allow the 90 newly elected members to sign the Undertaking and then the Roll of Membership.

Well, 89 newly elected members plus one newly co-opted member.

There was a lot of handshaking and even a few hugs and jokes across the chamber.

Speaker Alex Maskey warned the gather elected reps that there could be no Points of Order until the signing-on process was complete and he had scrutinised the pages. Thankfully the DUP hadn’t vetoed their elected reps using pens in the chamber … that might have prevented 25 MLAs getting hold of the keys to their offices.

Forty-five minutes of signing later – party by party, alphabetically, and then the two independents – business was suspended for a long lunch break.

For the first time, the Sinn Féin MLAs – now the largest group in the Assembly – were sitting to the right hand of the Speaker, having swapped sides with the DUP, observing the parliamentary tradition familiar to many from the House of Commons. While less crowded than before, the so-called “naughty corner” remains in the back left, with Gerry Carroll, Alex Easton, Claire Sugden and Jim Allister who is sitting over the shoulder of Alliance’s Patricia O’Lynn, his “crypto nationalist” (his term, not hers) North Antrim constituency colleague.

After lunch, the MLAs returned to the chamber.

“Today I stand ready to elect a Speaker, form an Executive and take on the leadership of the Northern Ireland Executive as a First Minister for All and a government that works for the people.” (Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Fein)

It was apparently the first time Michelle O’Neill had used the words “Northern Ireland” in an Assembly speech. The BBC’s Gareth Gordon notes that the significance of the Sinn Féin vice president describing herself as “a proud Ulster woman” in a speech on Monday was a deliberate olive branch that unionists didn’t spot … or ignored!

Speaker Maskey didn’t stand for re-election but continues in the role until he is replaced … his actual retirement date seems to be in the hands of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. If Alex or the deputy Speakers hadn’t turned up today – or don’t appear next time the Assembly meets – the longest-serving Assembly member present (and in case of a tie, the oldest of the longest-serving member) would have chaired business. Today that would have been the UUP’s Alan Chambers.

This afternoon the Speaker explained that simultaneous translation of Irish and Ulster Scots back into English was now available in the chamber. It means that there’s no longer a need for Irish or Ulster Scots speakers to translate themselves into English. Instead, anyone not fluent can use the supplied headphones.

Belfast West Sinn Féin MLA Aisling Reilly was the first MLA to make a speech entirely in Irish without self-translation, though it was interrupted when other members failed to get their headphones working in time. It may be some time before the MLAs and interpreters get another chance to practice. The simultaneous translation can be heard on the NI Assembly live stream.

The main business of the afternoon was to elect a new Speaker. Not for the first time, the result was known well before the division bell rang.

Doug Beattie proposed Mike Nesbitt as speaker. Matthew O’Toole proposed Patsy McGlone.

When the lobbies opened, nationalists remained in their seats and abstained, and the motion for Mike Nesbitt was “negatived”. Yes, negatived is a parliamentary word.

The lobbies reopened for Patsy McGlone. This time his motion was negatived by the DUP MLAs voting no.

Friday 13th wasn’t lucky for either of them.

Having failed to achieve cross-community majority consent – a motion needs support of 40% of those voting who designate unionist; 40% of those voting who designate nationalist; and support from 60% of everyone voting – Speaker Maskey adjourned business and the Northern Ireland Assembly fell silent … not for the first time.

So what happens next?

The DUP are waiting for the clouds to clear and a light to shine on a solution to their concerns around the Protocol, sea borders and trading arrangements. It’s not going to be a local fix.

Prime Minister Johnson will visit Northern Ireland on Monday.

Is there anything of substance that he can say or offer that would give the DUP enough to point at to return to the Executive?

Probably not.

Some of the potential significant gestures by the Conservative government would inevitably become bogged down in the House of Lords.

Maybe it would be enough to allow the DUP to return to the Assembly and vote in a new Speaker, but still hold out on a full return to the Executive?

With a Speaker (and their deputies) in place, question times would be possible – giving a modicum of caretaker ministerial accountability – along with some debates about issues of concern. It would also help justify MLAs receiving their salary (£51k) even if the legislative ‘L’ of MLA was still missing? In the meantime, MLAs are limited to submitting written questions to ministers.

We’ll find out on Monday whether a choreographed compromise is possible.

In the meantime, Sinn Féin are putting forward John O’Dowd as Infrastructure Minister to replace the vacancy caused by the SDLP not replacing Nichola Mallon.

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