First Republican Speaker elected in the North

First Republican Speaker elected in the North

The first republican Speaker has been elected at the North’s Assembly.

Sinn Féin’s Mitchel McLaughlin was appointed after receiving cross-community support from Sinn Féin, the DUP and the Alliance Party.

He takes over from the DUP’s William Hay who stood down in October due to ill health.

The move follows a deal, dating back to Ian Paisley’s time, between the two largest parties that Sinn Féin would take over the Speaker’s role half-way through the current Assembly term.

Last autumn the DUP refused to back Sinn Féin until a dispute over welfare reform was resolved.

Mr McLaughlin, who was applauded as he took his place, vowed to uphold the impartiality of his position.

He said: “I would say to all members, those who supported me and those who did not, I am conscious that I am here to uphold the impartiality and the independence of the office and the interests of this house on behalf of all of you.

“I know there are times when I will have to make judgments which will not please everyone. But I am also as focused on that as I am on what I might be able to do to help increase understanding and agreement both inside and outside this chamber.”

Mr McLaughlin, from the Bogside area of Derry and who represents the Foyle constituency, said there was a “more positive political environment” in the North.

He was nominated by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness - a friend of more than 40 years also from the Bogside area.

Mr McGuinness claimed the election would send a strong message about inclusiveness.

He said: “Mitchell and I have been friends for 40 years. I know his ability, dedication and thoughtfulness of his approach to political life.

“I believe him to be well suited to fulfil the onerous responsibility of being Speaker of this Assembly.

“I believe that Mitchel McLaughlin will, as William did, win the respect and admiration of the whole house.”

Mr Hay retired from the Assembly in October because of heart problems but acceded to the House of Lords and is expected to take his seat later this week.

Pledging support for Mr McLaughlin, First Minister Peter Robinson said he was prepared to “honour” the previous agreement because welfare reform was being implemented.

The DUP leader said: “Let us remember this is a house that won’t have a Speaker unless there is an agreement in particular amongst the two main parties (and) therefore would not operate and function properly without it.

“We indicated that we would honour the agreement to have a Sinn Féin nominee in that position when Sinn Féin had agreed on the issue of welfare reform. I am pleased to say and to see that has happened. I therefore intend to honour that agreement and give support to Mitchel McLaughlin.”

Mr Robinson issued a warning that party political connections should be cut.

He added: “There should be no party instructions to a Speaker. The Speaker must act independently in that office and I trust that is what will happen.”

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