Stormont focus turns to speaker

William Hay Image copyright bbc
Image caption William Hay was the speaker of the last assembly

In the run-up to the election I pointed out that, after four years staying above the party political fray, Willie Hay had to campaign as a partisan DUP candidate rather than being returned unopposed as speaker.

The former Stormont speaker, Lord Alderdice, believes the rules should be changed to bring Stormont into line with the Dail, where the speaker is automatically returned.

At the time the TUV leader Jim Allister contacted me to query whether the DUP had not signed up to a deal which would give the speaker's position to Sinn Fein in the next mandate.

DUP sources played this down, and it was evident that Mr Hay himself hoped to be back in the job.

On Monday, Martin McGuinness praised Mr Hay's contribution as speaker, but referred to the job as "symbolically significant".

On Tuesday, there were indications that Sinn Fein has raised the issue, pointing to a promise made in the chamber by the former first minister Ian Paisley.

At the time of Mr Hay's election as speaker back in May 2007, Ian Paisley said: "I acknowledge that at the next assembly election, we will support a candidate drawn from the other side of the House.

"Of course, that will rest with the people because we will go back to the people for new mandates.

"However, all things considered, if we do well we will support someone from the other side of the house in the next parliament."

So it's there in black and white - a promise from the DUP to back a nationalist speaker.

Will Sinn Fein hold Peter Robinson to Ian Paisley's pledge? Is their former deputy speaker Francie Molloy poised to take the chair?

Given that the new republican team is 29 strong, and they need 30 MLAs to sign a petition of concern, some argue that Sinn Fein would prefer to retain its full quota of MLAs rather than lose one to the neutral speaker's role.

Could Sinn Fein's negotiators just be using the Paisley promise regarding the speaker's job as a useful bargaining counter as part of their wider dealings with the DUP?

All should become clear on Thursday when the assembly will meet to elect a new speaker.

The five main party leaders who met this afternoon agreed to put the appointment of ministers off until Monday of next week.

Conveniently this buys the Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott a bit more time to determine how David McClarty will jump.

The former deputy speaker is being courted to rejoin the Ulster Unionist fold, after winning election as an independent following his de-selection by his local party in East Londonderry.

A keen amateur thespian, Mr McClarty has been exacting all the dramatic tension he can from the decision which confronts him.

Perhaps we shall only know his decision when he signs the Stormont register on Thursday.

During a news conference in the Great Hall around lunchtime, Martin McGuinness wouldn't confirm reports that, when it comes to ministerial appointments, Sinn Fein might, with the exception of the deputy first minister, completely change its executive team.

The theory is that the previous ministerial team could become committee chairs, perhaps shadowing the departments they used to run.

This might then allow the party to raise the profile of other politicians in key areas, like Martina Anderson in Foyle, John O'Dowd in Upper Bann or Caral Ni Chuilin in north Belfast.

A cynic might suggest that a complete shake-up would spare any blushes for Caitriona Ruane - a decision to drop her and keep the rest of the team might be viewed as a surrender to her critics.

However, if this occurs, will Conor Murphy and Michelle Gildernew's noses be put of joint? Sinn Fein sources didn't deny the reports, only describing them as "speculative".

So far as the pecking order of departments is concerned, it's clear the DUP will take Finance first, whilst the betting is Sinn Fein will then opt for enterprise.

This would leave education as the DUP's second choice.

From then on things are less clear - a lot of parties appear interested in Social Development and Regional Development.

Health, with its potential for pitfalls, could be one of the later picks.

Employment and Learning, with the pending matter of tuition fees, might also be one the bigger parties are happy to pass on.

I could run through all the speculation about who might get what, but I looked back in the archive of the "Devenport Diaries" and found a previous game of "Fantasy Executive" I played years ago.

Safe to say, it was horribly wrong, so until firmer indications are forthcoming I might just leave it there.

PS Stormont had the air of a first day at school about it on Tuesday as all the new MLAs got their security photos taken and congratulated each other (often across party lines) on their respective elections.

My prize for the best one liner goes to the new Ulster Unionist MLA for West Tyrone Ross Hussey who greeted the East Londonderry MLA David McClarty.

Mr McClarty is the centre of considerable attention over whether he will rejoin the party, so Mr Hussey obviously had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he enquired "and you are?"