100 days since return of the Assembly and Executive

13 May 2024 - by Gráinne Walsh

100 days since devolved government returned to Northern Ireland, Stratagem’s Director Gráinne Walsh looks back at how the Executive and Assembly have fared

After months of speculation, a few false starts and much media attention, the Assembly sat on Saturday 3rd February for the first time in two years.

Before they could get down to the business of passing laws and tabling questions, MLAs first had to elect a Speaker and nominate Ministers to form the new Executive.

In a sitting that wasn’t without an unexpected and controversial moment or two, MLAs first nominated long serving DUP MLA Edwin Poots MLA as Speaker.

In a historic first for a nationalist party, as the largest party in the Assembly, Sinn Féin took the role of First Minister with Michelle O’Neill MLA, the party’s deputy president. The DUP chose Lagan Valley MLA Emma Little Pengelly MLA to fill the post of deputy First Minister.

Despite some criticism for having been co-opted rather than elected to the Lagan Valley seat, she knuckled down to business, cultivating a strong sense of a determined partnership between her and her new Sinn Féin colleague.

In addition to First and deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin and the DUP were entitled to 4 and 3 seats respectively around the Executive table, with two for the Alliance Party and one for the UUP. There were a few surprises with the party’s choices for Department’s – not least the DUP opting for the Education portfolio rather than Finance.  

The days and weeks that followed saw something of a return to business as usual at Stormont. Notable were the high profile, often cross-community and PR friendly Ministerial visits to schools and community groups. There was much commentary on just how well the DUP and Sinn Féin seemed to be getting along and what seemed to be a welcomed reset in relations and indeed for politics.

A particular focus was on the dynamic between the First and deputy First Ministers. However. while the public partnership was new, the two women are no strangers given both have been in the NI Executive in some form for years.  Deeper than that, they are both the children of parents active during the conflict which is an interesting reflection on the changing nature of this place.

Other new dynamics in the chamber are making for interesting watching. In addition to the DUP no longer holding the role of First Minister, the Alliance Party has more than one Department again - giving it more say than before around the Executive table.

After what appears to have been considerable internal debate, the UUP decided to go back into government taking on the health brief again.  Following the recent budget allocation for the health department, those internal divisions have emerged again with Minister Robin Swann accusing the other parties of not standing by commitments to protect health spending.  All of this is complicated by the fact that Swann is the UUP candidate for South Antrim in the general election.

In what is still a relatively new and untested role at Stormont, the SDLP took up the official opposition led by South Belfast MLA Matthew O’Toole. While the party didn’t have the numbers to enter the Executive, they have made a virtue of their position on the opposition benches. It has given the party a renewed determination to create clear blue water between them and the Executive.  

So, as the realities of public finances meet the dynamics of a multi-party coalition and the hot house of an election campaign, could this entice the UUP to join them in the months ahead?

Meanwhile the normal rhythm of parliamentary life has returned.  Lots of debates, lots of motions and lots of questions put forward by all the parties on a range of issues. Committees have taken evidence from Ministers and organisations from across society, as they begin to identify and layout their priorities for the rest of this mandate.

To date we have seen two pieces of legislation – a Budget Bill and Hospital Parking Charges Bill. The Hospital Parking Charges Bill is an attempt to remedy the implications of a PMB from the mandate and is a good reminder of the need to get legislation right. 

The Executive has only recently signed off on a Budget for 2024/25. Due to be debated in the Assembly at the end of May it comes ahead of the Programme for Government which we are anticipating before the end of June.   

Not derailed by the shock resignation of former DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson MP, our devolved institutions now have 3 years ahead of them. While all Assembly parties (and the Greens) will be contesting either or both Westminster and the Dáil elections in the next year, MLAs aren't scheduled to face the electorate until 2027.

In contrast to the beleaguered administrations in London and Dublin limping towards elections, Northern Ireland is looking forward to a packed legislative agenda and significant decision making in everything from net zero to skills and infrastructure.