Powersharing to return in NI with Michelle O’Neill as first minister

Powersharing to return in NI with Michelle O’Neill as first minister thumbnail

Sinn Fein’s vice president Michelle O’Neill will become Northern Ireland’s first nationalist first minister (Niall Carson/PA)

PA Wire

Devolved government will return in Northern Ireland, with Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill making history as the first nationalist first minister.

MLAs will gather at Parliament buildings at Stormont later for a sitting at which a series of ministers will be appointed to a powersharing executive, and bring an end to a two-year political impasse.

The DUP, the largest unionist party in the region, has given the green light for the recall of the political institutions on the back of its deal with the Government, which party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson says has effectively removed the so-called Irish Sea trading border.

On Thursday, two pieces of legislation contained in the agreement were fast-tracked through the House of Commons, opening the way for the Assembly to return.

Business will begin with the election of a new Stormont speaker, followed by nominations for the offices of first and deputy first minister.

While Ms O’Neill will take the first minister role, the DUP has not said who it will nominate for deputy first minister, although speculation has suggested MLA Emma Little-Pengelly.

A series of ministerial positions across Stormont departments will then be filled, using the D’Hondt mechanism based on party strengths.

Party leaders met on Friday at Stormont Castle to discuss priorities for the incoming executive.

Speaking after the meeting, Sir Jeffrey said: “It is important when the executive meets that we have a real sense of what those priorities are for everyone in Northern Ireland.

“We are looking forward to the Assembly meeting, going through the formalities, getting devolution restored.”

Key among the priorities of new ministers will be dealing with the budget crisis which is affecting public services in Northern Ireland.

The Government has offered a £3.3 billion package to secure Northern Ireland’s finances when the Assembly returns, including £600 million to settle public sector pay claims.

However, Sir Jeffrey indicated that the parties would be working together to secure more money from the Treasury.

He added: “The finance piece is unfinished business which we intend to finish.”

The finance piece is unfinished business which we intend to finish

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson

While Sir Jeffrey has secured the backing of a majority of party colleagues to accept the deal, there are those within the DUP who remain deeply sceptical of the agreement to restore powersharing.

The DUP leader is also facing opposition from elements of unionism outside his party.

His deal with the Government commits to replacing the Windsor Framework’s green lane process at Northern Ireland ports, which requires percentages of goods to be checked as they arrive from Great Britain, with a “UK internal market system” that will govern the movement of goods that remain within the United Kingdom.

Checks would still be carried out but on a risk-based/intelligence-led model to combat illegality and disease, rather than routine stops of disembarking lorries.

Businesses using the internal market system would also need to be signed up to a trusted trader scheme.