Veteran East Belfast DUP MLA Robin Newton has been elected unopposed as the new Assembly Speaker.
But although Mr Newton received support around the chamber – seemingly after a DUP-Sinn Fein agreement to back each other’s candidates for the top two Speaker roles – there were some sharp words involving Jim Allister after Sinn Fein proposed Caitriona Ruane to be Mr Newton’s effective number two.
Mitchel McLaughlin – who just over a year ago was elected as the first republican Speaker in the history of Stormont – at times sounded emotional as he made an uncontroversial final speech before retiring.
The veteran republican thanked his officials, paying tribute to Assembly staff who work in a “confrontational and difficult environment”.
He singled out the Assembly’s chief executive Trevor Reaney, who is retiring next month, for his “calmness, courtesy and respect”.
Mr McLaughlin, whose tenure was largely without controversy save for the decision to drop the National Anthem from last year’s Remembrance ceremony, said he had worked in “representing every single member of this establishment” and had not used the post as a “party political position”.
Urging his successor to respect the non-partisan nature of the role, Mr McLaughlin said that the “independence and impartiality of the office” were paramount.
He added: “The Assembly is moving on. I welcome a new generation and wider perspectives. There are a few left who like me were here in 1998, but those remaining members represent a very significant corporate memory of how far we have come and the work that was required to achieve it.
“That is important because, sometimes, we hear complacent voices about focusing on the imperfections of this institution rather than appreciating where we might otherwise be without the Assembly.”
Proposing Mr Newton for the post, First Minister Arlene Foster said that he was “superbly well qualified” for the post and described him as “a conciliator – if such a thing exists in this house”.
Both Mrs Foster and Deputy First MinisterMartin McGuinness praised Mr McLaughlin, who had moments earlier received a round of applause from MLAs, though not all unionists joined in and some DUP MLAs looked at their neighbour before clapping in a low-key manner.
Taking up the post, Mr Newton – a former junior minister to Peter Robinson when he was First Minister – praised Mr McLaughlin’s “even-handed” approach to members.
And the East Belfast veteran said he fully accepted the requirement for the Speaker to be entirely fair and impartial.
He told MLAs that “the people of Northern Ireland are looking to us ... I want this Assembly to prove to them that we are moving forward”.
He urged MLAs towards “expressing our differences with courtesy and respect”.
DUP backs Ruane for senior role
The DUP ignored criticism from Jim Allister to support Caitriona Ruane’s nomination by Sinn Fein to be the principal Deputy Speaker.
The role, which is the de facto Speaker-in-waiting position, led to some sharp words being exchanged between the DUP benches and the TUV leader.
The UUP had put forward Danny Kennedy for the role, but the DUP – presumably as part of a private deal with Sinn Fein to endorse each other’s candidates – supported the former Education Minister. Mr Allister shouted “shame”, claiming that Ms Ruane was a “divisive figure” and describing her as the “matron” of the Columbia Three.