Will the make-up of the new Executive see resolution of some of the biggest challenges leftover from the last mandate?

03 June 2016 - by Matthew Coyle

Public Affairs Analyst Matthew Coyle takes a look at the make-up of the newly formed Executive and the implications that this might have on some major policy issues.

In the aftermath of the recent D’Hondt process that ran last week in the Northern Ireland Assembly, we are now living in a new political reality. With the UUP and the SDLP refraining from engaging in the selection of ministries, opting instead to form the Assembly’s first Opposition, it fell to the DUP and Sinn Féin to divvy up seven departments between themselves.

As Independent MLA Claire Sugden continued to ponder her new life as Justice Minister – a contentious post for which she was deemed the safe choice by a cross-community majority of MLAs – her Executive colleagues were selected to fill the remaining spots around the table.

Roles were reversed. For the first time since the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Féin will take charge of fiscal matters, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir’s assumption of the Finance portfolio coming less than a year after last summer’s period of constitutional crisis and present First Minister Arlene Foster’s period as a gatekeeper guarding against the threat of any nationalist holding the purse strings.

Similarly, South Down MLA Chris Hazzard, besides being one of the younger members of an already youthful Executive line-up, now heads up the freshly minted Department of Infrastructure, his inbox populated by more than one project with a high price tag.

The DUP, too, has seen the scope of its influence shift from fiscal responsibility to more fundamental considerations. Veteran MLA Peter Weir has long served as the party’s point person on education and thus his appointment as Education Minister is as unsurprising as it is significant. Weir was vocal in his criticism of John O’Dowd’s previous tenure in the same job. How the post-academic selection and Irish language elements of the latter’s agenda fare under the gaze of the new Minister remains to be seen.

The Department for the Economy, which has taken on the higher education functions of the now defunct DEL, would fall to Weir’s party colleague Simon Hamilton (no stranger to implementing reforms), thus affording the DUP the chance to steer education in Northern Ireland from pre-school to third level.

Hamilton’s successor at the Department of Health is no stranger to the demands of ministerial office, of course. Michelle O’Neill’s time as Agriculture Minister was marked by a number of challenges, including a horse meat controversy and a slump in milk prices. Emerging relatively unscathed from those experiences is no small feat, an indication that she is suited to facing the often bruising nature of her current brief.

The ongoing review of the health service by Professor Rafael Bengoa is one looming issue for O’Neill, as is the length of hospital waiting lists, the state of local cancer treatments and the mathematical contortions required to deliver on a Sinn Féin (and DUP) pledge to pump £1 billion into the system.

And with O'Neill's swift decision to lift the ban on gay men donating blood, she has given the impression that she will not be behind the door in dealing with the challenges facing her in the new Department of Health. 

It will be interesting to see if her Executive colleagues are equally as keen to resolve some of the big outstanding issues on which agreement could not be reached in the last mandate.