New Assembly to meet for first time

The election of a new Speaker and deputy speakers will be on the Assembly's agenda
The election of a new Speaker and deputy speakers will be on the Assembly's agenda

The Assembly will meet on Thursday for the first time since last week’s election – but the real decisions about the formation of a new Executive will take place away from the public eye.

The 108 MLAs will, one by one, sign the Undertaking and the Roll of Membership, before a one-hour break after which outgoing Speaker Mitchel McLaughlin will make a final speech to the chamber.

Mr McLaughlin – the first republican to hold the post – will then oversee the election of his successor, who is expected to be the DUP’s Robin Newton, and the election of deputy speakers..

That will be followed by the formal appointment of Arlene Foster as First Minister and Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister, after which the cross-party business committee – which decides what goes on the Assembly’s order paper – is appointed.

But away from the public proceedings in the chamber, the two smaller parties which qualify to be in the Executive – the UUP and the SDLP – and the Alliance Party, which has the chance to take the Justice Ministry because the DUP and Sinn Fein would support them taking the post, will be pondering whether to take up those seats.

Over recent days members of those three parties have been divided as to whether to go into Opposition – a decision which they are likely to have to take by next week.

Some members of the smaller parties believe that after performing poorly in last week’s election they must take the next five years to rebuild from the Opposition benches. But others within those parties believe that such a move could consign them to years of irrelevance.

On Tuesday, the smaller parties received a copy of the current DUP-Sinn Fein proposals for a Programme for Government.

On Wednesday night, in an indication of the Green Party’s growing significance after an election where it performed strongly, doubling its number of MLAs to two, Green leader Steven Agnew revealed that he had met with SDLP leader Colum Eastwood “to discuss ideas for the Programme for Government”.

Mr Agnew said that during the “constructive meeting” he had highlighted the Green Party priorities of investment in the Green New Deal, early years provision and progress on integrated education.