Northern Ireland’s assembly gathers on Saturday to appoint a new first minister and deputy first minister, as the region’s executive returns to office after a deal to end three years of political paralysis.
The rare weekend sitting of the assembly at Stormont, outside Belfast, comes one day after the Democratic Unionists and the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin party backed a joint proposal from Britain and Ireland to restore the power-sharing executive.
Institutions set up under the 1998 Good Friday peace accord to end decades of sectarian conflict have been suspended since a spending row over a botched green energy scheme toppled the DUP-Sinn Féin government in January 2017.
Previous efforts to settle the row proved fruitless as the rift between the parties widened over Brexit, which the DUP supports and Sinn Féin opposes.
The deal on Friday followed the British government’s threat to call regional elections if agreement was not reached by Monday — an unappealing prospect to both the DUP and Sinn Féin after each lost support in last month’s UK general election.
Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP, is on track to return as first minister, the post she held in the last government. In a tweet on Saturday, Mrs Foster said: “We won’t solve every problem immediately but local ministers will get on with key reforms in schools and hospitals.”
Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin vice-president, is likely to become deputy first minister, taking post last held by the late Martin McGuinness, the former paramilitary leader who was one of the key architects of the IRA’s peace strategy.
The office of first minister and deputy are posts of equal power drawn from both sides of the region’s historical divide — largely Protestant unionists who want the region to stay in the UK and mainly Catholic nationalists who want it to join the Irish Republic.
An order paper published on Friday night shows that the first business on Saturday will be the election of a speaker and deputy, followed by the appointment of the first and deputy first ministers and the election of ministers.
The Social Democratic & Labour party, the second-largest nationalist party, has signalled that it will take up its right to one ministry in the new government after throwing its support behind the deal.
The cross-community Alliance party has also backed the deal, saying it was “imperfect” but adding that “perfect cannot be the enemy of the good.”
Alliance lacks the electoral strength to an automatic right to a ministry but may take up the justice portfolio, which is allocated via a different mechanism.
The question of whether the Ulster Unionists, the number-two pro-British party, would also participate remained unclear in the hours before the assembly was due to resume. Officials close to the talks believe they might decide to stay out of government to act as an opposition party in the assembly.