A new Executive has been formed at Stormont.
It is a strange and hopeful time. There is widespread optimism in the Assembly now, spanning most of the parties. Both Sinn Fein and the DUP are feeling relieved, and perhaps even confident, after their successes at the polls earlier this month.
But the SDLP and Ulster Unionists, who had a disappointing election, also have a spring in their step, now that they have taken the decision to go into Opposition, with the support of their grassroots. There was a widespread feeling that Stormont’s rainbow coalition was not healthy.
Yesterday’s ministerial appointments are being interpreted by many pundits as a good day for the DUP, which had the best election result on May 5. They no longer control finance, which is in the hands of Sinn Fein. The republican party is keen on tax and spend, spend, spend, but its scope to behave irresponsibly is limited, given the constraints on the public purse. And Mairtin O’Muilleoir is less radical than some.
The DUP has now gained the education ministry. This is of huge significance. Sinn Fein failed to abolish Northern Ireland’s grammar schools, despite its determined attempts to do so. But John O’Dowd was waging a war of attrition against selective education, by assaulting grammars in more oblique ways. If this had led to the comprehensive system that has been a disaster in Great Britain, making education more based on wealth, it would have been a tragedy for Northern Ireland.
Perhaps the most interesting ministerial appointment is Claire Sugden, as justice minister. This has the assent of Sinn Fein and the DUP, and so it keeps the Executive alive.
She is only 29 years of age and now has responsibility for a difficult ministry. Issues that she will have to manage range from legal aid reform (which has met bitter resistance in the legal world) to endless agitation at Maghaberry from dissident republicans. We can only wish her well in this position, which would not be easy for any politician, let alone one so young, and lacking in a party structure to support her.