Who could take ministerial roles in a new Stormont Assembly?

Devolved government is set to return to Northern Ireland for the first time in two years on Saturday. These representatives could take the most prominent roles in the new Assembly

Michelle O’Neill

When 47-year-old Michelle O’Neill is elevated to the first minister post there will be huge satisfaction among Sinn Féin supporters and a likely feeling of spine-shuddering despair from unionists as the new political reality hits home hard.

O’Neill has played a central role in Sinn Féin usurping the DUP as the largest party in Northern Ireland. She was anointed the Sinn Féin leader in Northern Ireland as a seriously ill Martin McGuinness passed on the baton in 2017.

Already experienced as a minister she was fast-tracked by Gerry Adams and the late Martin McGuinness, quickly and quite smoothly finding her leadership legs despite some internal mutterings that the likes of Conor Murphy or John O’Dowd should have got the job.

The main controversy attached to her follows from her remarks last year that there was no alternative to the IRA campaign of violence during the Troubles, a position she still holds, and a view that continues to leave a sour taste in the mouth of unionists and quite a number of nationalists as well.


But equally she has an easy and affable personality and a nice human touch, and that was never more evident than when she showed real warmth in expressing condolences to King Charles on the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth – an occasion at Hillsborough Castle when, with Jeffrey Donaldson also in attendance, the monarch tellingly noted that Sinn Féin now was “the biggest party”.

O’Neill’s late father, Brendan Doris, to whom she was very close, was an IRA prisoner and later a Sinn Féin councillor. He died aged 54, with O’Neill taking over his Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council seat in 2005.

She believes her personality reflects his: “He was a very relaxed person. He never got over-excited about anything. I think I have certainly got a lot of his characteristics.”

In the Northern Executive she served as minister for agriculture and rural development and also as minister of health, in 2016 presenting the Bengoa Report, a 10-year plan on how to modernise the health system in Northern Ireland, and if health is to be reformed, it may need resurrecting.

Her task now is to help get powersharing working again and to strike a good relationship with the DUP deputy first minister, most likely Emma Little-Pengelly, and to prove, as she has said from the start of her appointment as Sinn Féin vice-president in 2017, that she wants “to deliver for all citizens”.

Emma Little-Pengelly

The DUP has not yet been specific but it is likely that the Lagan Valley Assembly member Emma Little-Pengelly will be appointed alongside Michelle O’Neill as deputy first minister for Northern Ireland. This will give the DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson time to mull over whether to stand down from the House of Commons in the next Westminster general election and move to Stormont as first minister.

The 46-year-old MLA was co-opted to Lagan Valley in May 2022 to replace Donaldson who decided not to take his Stormont seat and to remain as an MP for the Lagan Valley constituency.

Donaldson could be co-opted back as an MLA if he doesn’t run again for the House of Commons but in the meantime Little-Pengelly is expected to take the post, which although deputy in name carries the same power and responsibility as the first minister position – a point she is likely to emphasise in the coming months.

She is daughter of Noel Little, who in 1989 was arrested in Paris, and later convicted, as part of an alleged plot to smuggle in arms from South Africa for the Ulster Resistance group. Little-Pengelly has denounced paramilitarism and said her father’s arrest and absence from part of her childhood had a “profound” impact on her and her family.

She qualified as a barrister in 2003 and also lectured at the University of Ulster before taking up politics.

Like O’Neill in Sinn Féin, she too earned quick promotions within the DUP – although her career path has been more stop-start – winning the favour first of the late leader Ian Paisley, for whom she was a special adviser when he was first minister from 2007. She remained in that post for eight years when Peter Robinson took over as first minister in 2008.

She was co-opted as MLA for South Belfast in 2015, succeeding the late Jimmy Spratt who had to retire due to health reasons, holding on to the seat in the 2016 election, but losing in the 2017 election when the constituency was reduced from six to five seats.

She was appointed a junior minister in 2015 and also served as chairwoman of the finance committee after the 2016 election.

She was elected MP for South Belfast in 2017, taking the seat from Dr Alasdair McDonnell, but two years later lost out to Claire Hanna for the SDLP. She was co-opted as an MLA for Lagan Valley in May 2022.

Similar to O’Neill, she is personable and these two prospective leaders should have the capacity to strike up a collegiate and pragmatic relationship – although the same was said about O’Neill and Arlene Foster before that joint stewardship deteriorated.

Edwin Poots

Without Edwin Poots, the 58-year-old MLA for Lagan Valley and prospective new speaker of the Northern Assembly, it seems probable that the return of the Northern Executive after a two-year boycott would not have been possible. Throughout these negotiations to restore powersharing, the big question was whether Poots would support Donaldson or side with what the DUP leader calls the “nay-sayers”.

He had good reason to be jaundiced about the current leader considering that after his very short-lived, almost farcical, period as leader of the DUP in 2021 it ultimately was Donaldson who got the top job. But, pragmatic in his politics, in the more recent inter-party convulsions Poots decided to hold with Donaldson and the deal on offer rather than heed the more siren negative calls of the likes of Nigel Dodds, Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley.

He is one of the most experienced politicians in the Assembly, being first elected in 1998 and since then holding the ministries of the environment, of culture, arts and leisure, of health and of agriculture.

Conservative in his views, he faced criticism over his reluctance to allow blood donations from gay people and also was caught up in a row after Arlene Foster became the newly elected first minister, saying her most important role was as “wife, mother and daughter”.

To accusations of sexism he responded that his most important job was as “husband, father and son”.

Naomi Long

Unless Sinn Féin and the DUP conspire to frustrate her, the Alliance leader Naomi Long is likely to return as the minister of justice for Northern Ireland.

Long has transformed the fortunes of Alliance, leapfrogging the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP to move from fifth to third place in party rankings in the Assembly.

No wonder the DUP and Sinn Féin are wary of her as under her direction Alliance has increased the middle-ground vote, gaining support from centrist unionist and nationalist voters alike.

The justice portfolio, because it is such a sensitive department, requires a cross-community vote which means that unionists are likely to veto Sinn Féin having the post and nationalists are likely to block the DUP taking up the role.

The department therefore effectively is in their gift. The 52-year-old Alliance politician and MLA for East Belfast could lose the justice post if SF and the DUP nominate independent unionist and former justice minister Claire Sugden instead, but it would be a move viewed as a severe case of begrudgery and, at the time of writing, Long remains favourite to fulfil that role.

Long, in her career, has served as a Belfast councillor, an MLA, and MP and an MEP, her biggest political scalp winning East Belfast in the Westminster election of 2010 and, astonishingly at the time, unseating the DUP leader Peter Robinson.

Conor Murphy

Sinn Féin as the lead party has first choice of the Executive’s eight full ministries outside of the first minister and deputy first minister office. Conor Murphy, who has served both as an MP and MLA for Newry and Armagh, will have the pick of the two plum departments, the economy and finance.

Having served as finance minister, the expectation is that he will opt for the economy job, a key post now that Northern Ireland will have access to both the UK and EU markets, and likely to become an attractive destination for foreign direct investment.

Murphy (60) was sentenced to five years in prison in 1982 for IRA membership and possession of explosives.

He was embroiled in controversy over claims that 21-year-old Paul Quinn, who was brutally beaten to death in 2007 by a suspected IRA gang, was linked to criminality, comments that he finally apologised for and retracted in 2020.

Generally, Murphy is viewed as an able and pragmatic politician who can work with all parties, is an effective minister and can strike deals.

Gordon Lyons

If Conor Murphy takes economy, it is likely that the outgoing DUP economy minister Gordon Lyons will opt for finance. The 38 year old also is one of those who has quickly shot up the DUP promotion ladder and is viewed as a capable, reflective and efficient politician.

He was first elected as a councillor for the Mid and East Antrim Council in 2014. The following year he succeeded Sammy Wilson as the MLA for East Antrim as Wilson chose to hold on to his East Antrim House of Commons seat.

He was appointed a junior minister in the Executive in 2020 and when Edwin Poots temporarily stepped down as minister of agriculture for health reasons, he took over that role. He also served as a DUP chief whip.

He was appointed economy minister in 2021 after Jeffrey Donaldson took over as DUP leader. He is considered a solid supporter of Donaldson.

Paul Givan

Former DUP first minister Paul Givan appears in a good position to get a portfolio from his leader Jeffrey Donaldson although which one may depend how the departments are divvied out on Saturday.

He could be in line for the health ministry, that is if Sinn Féin doesn’t nab the department first. And that would represent a big change in Northern Ireland politics as mostly health was the last portfolio chosen because it was seen as a poisoned chalice.

However, Robin Swann of the Ulster Unionist Party made such a success of the department in the previous Executive, particularly in his management of Covid, that either the DUP or Sinn Féin may feel duty bound to take over the reins.

It will be a difficult task. Over the two-year DUP boycott of Stormont, the health service suffered severe deterioration with long waiting lists and staff demoralisation. There would be a certain political symmetry if the DUP tried to correct the mess.

Givan is 42 and is now an experienced politician, having served as first minister, albeit for just over half a year from 2021 into 2022, and also as communities minister from 2016 to 2017. He is the current DUP spokesman on health which leaves him well placed for the post.

The late Martin McGuinness said Givan’s decision to scrap a £55,000 grant to the Líofa Gaeltacht bursary scheme, designed to help people from a disadvantaged background travel to Donegal to learn Irish, was the “straw that broke the camel’s back”, in terms of McGuinness’s decision in 2017 to bring down that powersharing administration for three years.

The DUP privately acknowledged it acted in a ham-fisted manner in that and other matters in terms of its relationship with Sinn Féin. Givan, if he gets a ministry, may have learned some lessons about cross-community political relations from that experience.

Robin Swann

The Ulster Unionist Party has yet to decide whether it will take its single portfolio or join the SDLP in opposition. If it decides to join the Executive the UUP leader Doug Beattie may offer Robin Swann a ministry, particularly as he proved an effective minister of health during the Covid crisis.

If Sinn Féin and DUP swerve past health, Swann, the MLA for North Antrim, could be back in situ or he could be chosen for a different department.

Swann, who was first elected as an MLA in 2011, became the unopposed UUP leader six years later. But that did not go well and he resigned in November 2019.

He took over health in 2020 as Covid spread across Northern Ireland. The public was impressed with his handling of the pandemic to the extent that when he stood in the 2022 Assembly election he topped the poll.

Modest and diligent, a mark of his popularity was his jointly being awarded the UK Politician of the Year in 2022 by Civility in Politics.

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Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times