SINN Fein veteran Mitchel McLaughlin is set to become the first ever republican Speaker of the Stormont Assembly, it has emerged.
The South Antrim MLA will take over from the current Principal Deputy Speaker, Francie Molloy, if, as expected, Mr Molloy wins the by-election to replace Martin McGuinness as Mid Ulster MP and then leaves the Assembly.
Under an agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein, Sinn Fein’s Principal Deputy Speaker is to take over from the current Speaker, Willie Hay, next year.
On Friday the Derry Journal in Mr McLaughlin’s home city revealed that the 67-year-old MLA was in line to succeed Mr Hay, who is also from the city and was elected as a DUP MLA.
The paper quoted a senior Sinn Fein source as saying: “In the event that Francie is successful in winning the seat, he will be replaced as MLA, and Mitchel McLaughlin MLA will take on the role of Principal Deputy Speaker in the Assembly.
“The Speaker position in the Assembly is due to transfer from the DUP to Sinn Féin in May 2014 at which time it is expected that Mitchel will be nominated by the party to take over from Willie Hay MLA.”
A Sinn Fein spokesman confirmed that Mr McLaughlin was in line to take over from Mr Molloy as Principal Deputy Speaker if the party wins the Mid Ulster by-election.
He said: “This is a contingency arrangement in the case of Francie Molloy retaining Martin McGuinness’s seat in Mid Ulster.
“However, Sinn Fein is not taking the outcome of the election for granted.”
Mr Molloy is the overwhelming favourite to win the Mid Ulster by-election — even if unionists agree on a single candidate there is scant prospect of seriously challenging for the seat.
Mr McLaughlin, who was MLA for Foyle before winning Sinn Fein’s first ever Assembly seat in the unionist heartland of South Antrim, is one of the party’s most capable performers in the Stormont Assembly.
He represents the party on two of the most important committees — the Public Accounts Committee and the Finance Committee.
The by-election is expected to be held on February 28 or March 7.
The Speaker chairs plenary sessions of the Assembly, has responsibility for maintaining order during debates, and makes rulings on disputes within the Chamber.
However, the Speaker is bound to act impartially and to give up party-political work for the duration of his term.
The position of Principal Deputy Speaker — which is effectively, ‘Speaker in waiting’ — was created after the last election after a private agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein.
That change was opposed by the UUP, SDLP, TUV, Green Party and independent unionist David McClarty but the post was created with the votes of DUP and Sinn Fein MLAs.