Northern Ireland

Drama marks day one of assembly

Jim Allister
Image caption TUV leader Jim Allister made his mark on proceedings

It was the the first day at Stormont and assembly members voted in Willie Hay as the new speaker and Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness as first and deputy first minister.

However the TUV MLA Jim Allister was determined to make his voice heard.

From my vantage point in the press gallery, I had a great view of the packed Stormont chamber.

I have never seen the benches so full. Suited and booted and looking smart for the cameras, the 108 MLAs had come early to get a good view of proceedings.

On my left the newly increased ranks of Sinn Fein sat bunched up alongside the SDLP group now missing familiar faces like Declan O'Loan and Tommy Gallagher.

On my right the strengthened DUP team, including newcomers Brenda Hale and Sammy Douglas, looked quite squashed.

Even though some had little room, it was clear they were enjoying themselves.

Further round the 16-strong UUP group were seated including their two new female MLAs Sandra Overend and Jo-Anne Dobson.

In front of them sat Mike Nesbitt now an MLA for Strangford. The former TV presenter managed to stand out from his dark suited colleagues by sporting a cream summer jacket.

On the other side sat the Alliance members, the sole Green MLA and the independent David McClarty.

After members had signed the register and taken lunch, proceedings began.

At first it all seemed quite sedate as the new 'father of the house' 70-year-old Ulster Unionist Sam Gardiner took the chair for the speaker's election.

The watching journalists wondered if the new appointments could go through on the nod?

Or would Jim Allister use the opportunity to make his mark? Within a few minutes we got our answer. As MLAs voted to elect a new speaker and nominate the first and deputy first minister, Jim Allister raised a series of 'points of order'.

Image caption Peter Robinson was reappointed first minister

As he stood up and down repeatedly all eyes were on the TUV leader.

He told the house that Mr Hay's election as speaker was a "consequence of another sordid deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein".

DUP MLA Willie Hay was elected as speaker with the only dissenting voice being Jim Allister's.

Sinn Fein's Francie Molloy, the SDLP's John Dallat and Roy Beggs of the Ulster Unionists were also returned as deputy speakers.

After the election of the speaker and deputy speakers, MLAs then turned their attention to the offices of first and deputy first ministers.

Jim Allister was once again on his feet. He wanted a debate - but newly elected Willie Hay made it clear that such a move wasn't allowed.

Mr Allister told the House: "We are denied the opportunity to debate that proposition particularly in circumstances where one of those is a self-confessed terrorist commander."

The jibe was aimed at Martin McGuinness who accepted the nomination for deputy first minister.

In his acceptance speech, he spoke about the last few weeks and said "this was the first election where people didn't tear strips off each other, except for the odd wee blow-up".

In response Mr Allister shouted "and you would know all about that".

Image caption Martin McGuinness retained the deputy first minister job

The proceedings continued but it was clear the new MLA for North Antrim was not a happy man. At one stage the TUV man left his seat and walked to the speaker's chair for clarification. As he walked back to his seat, some MLAS appeared to whistle.

Then, despite the TUV's man opposition, the nominations went ahead and Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness got their old jobs back.

The session ended and the business of governing began. We thought the day was over but we were wrong.

In the Great Hall outside the chamber, Mr Allister stood alone in front of the press pack and declared he would be "the conscience of the DUP".

Watching anxiously nearby was the DUP leader who wanted to conduct his own press conference.

As Jim Allister talked, the DUP leader tapped his watch.

Then Peter Robinson and his massed ranks of MLAS moved in to take Jim Allister's place in front of the cameras.

The DUP leader said "we are not going to be put off by the antics of a fringe player".

DUP MLAs smiled as their former colleague turned and then exited stage right. They were going to have the last word.

Day one and the new drama at Stormont has begun.