Sinn Féin MLA Mitchel McLaughlin has been elected as the first nationalist Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
McLaughlin was supported by a total of 72 members with support from his own party, the DUP and the Alliance Party, and also with the support of John McCallister, Basil McCrea and Claire Sugden. He was opposed by 12 members i.e. Jim Allister and most Ulster Unionists. UUP MLA Sam Gardiner did not vote as he was overseeing the election in his capacity as the Father of the House. Fellow deputy speakers John Dallat and Roy Beggs were also nominated for the role but were not voted upon as McLaughlin had secured a cross-community majority.
The post of Speaker became vacant after the resignation of William Hay last September but the election was postponed by political disagreements prior to the Stormont House Agreement.
An engineer by background, McLaughlin entered elected politics as a Derry City councillor in 1985. He came to prominence after becoming Sinn Féin’s National Chairman in 1996 and was elected to the Assembly for Foyle in 1998. He has represented South Antrim since 2007.
He had been the Assembly’s Principal Deputy Speaker since April 2013, succeeding Francie Molloy. That position will now be held by DUP East Belfast MLA Robin Newton.
On taking office, McLaughlin thanked Beggs and Dallat for the “excellent” working relationship that he had enjoyed with them during the vacancy. “The situation we found ourselves in had the potential to be a very difficult one,” he said of the last few months, “but we all approached it from the perspective of seeking agreement in the best interests of the House and its procedures, and I think that that will serve us well in the time ahead.” He also spoke of his admiration for William Hay’s service to the Assembly and looked forward to welcoming him back to Stormont in future. Hay was elevated to the House of Lords on the following day.
“I say to all members, those who supported me and those who did not, that I am conscious that I am here to uphold the impartiality and independence of the office and the interests of the House on behalf of all of you,” he remarked. “I know that there will be times when I, as Speaker, will have to make judgments that will not please everyone, but I am focused on that and on what I might be able to do to help increase understanding and agreement inside and outside the chamber.”