Will changing of guard mean new direction?

Arlene Foster

Arlene Foster is promising a new style, but no change in the fundamental values of the DUP.

The next few months will provide an opportunity to assess if the DUP is heading in a more liberal direction, or standing its traditional ground, albeit with more modern slicker presentation.

Health Minister Simon Hamilton's announcement that he would approve blood donations from gay men if experts decide it's safe appears a pointer.

It's hard to imagine either of his predecessors, Jim Wells and Edwin Poots, making a similar announcement.

But if the health minister felt emboldened by Mrs Foster's impending promotion, in her initial interviews the new leader has avoided any further gestures.

Instead, Mrs Foster has reiterated the DUP's opposition to same sex marriage and declined to respond directly to questions about whether DUP MLAs might get a free vote on abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality (Mrs Foster referred to the need to assess the recent judgement on the issue from Mr Justice Horner).

Although the new leader explicitly rejects the notion that the DUP has an old wing and a new wing, like every political organisation, its members aren't carbon copies of each other.

Among those gathered at an east Belfast hotel to applaud Mrs Foster's elevation, for example, were Alderman Maurice Mills who reportedly blamed Hurricane Katrina on an annual gay event and MLA Pam Cameron who privately insisted, when challenged over same-sex marriage that she had gay friends, wasn't a "homophobic bigot" and was one of many who would "see NI move forward".

Mrs Foster will probably enjoy, like most new leaders, a honeymoon period. But the five months between now and the assembly elections will undoubtedly provide opportunities to test her instincts, not just on these social and moral issues.

The DUP isn't the only party to have staged a changing of the guard during 2015.

The SDLP also has a new young leader. Colum Eastwood, like Arlene Foster, has to manage a party in which there is a range of views on issues like same sex marriage, which the party officially supports, or changes to the abortion law, which it doesn't.

Image caption The SDLP has also changed leader, with Colum Eastwood now in the top position.

While Mrs Foster was getting unanimously elected, Mr Eastwood was accusing both the DUP and Sinn Féin of failing to live up to their promises in the Fresh Start deal.

Section F of the deal promised that agendas would be circulated one day in advance of executive meetings, a move intended to address the concerns of smaller parties that they weren't being given enough time to examine important policies decided behind closed doors by the big two power brokers.

But Mr Eastwood complained that Mrs Foster - in finance minister mode - had circulated her draft budget just 12 hours before Thursday's executive meeting and put the final document before ministers only 20 minutes before they were required to vote.

The SDLP leader described this as "a political snub" and "a deliberate attempt to disenfranchise the people we represent".

Alliance ministers also voted against the draft budget, claiming "there was no justification for rushing the budget within hours".

Some of the faces at Stormont's top tables may be changing. But my guess is that many of the arguments between the parties will still sound awfully familiar.