The white smoke filtered into the late night (early morning) sky early last week when the DUP confirmed plans to re-enter the Executive after two years out. There was an air of optimism on Saturday as that Executive was formed but it wasn’t without the customary controversy. Of course it wasn’t.
Justin McNulty’s double-jobbing was a problem ever since he agreed to manage Laois for a second time; this time he took on the role while still a ‘working’ MLA. It was an issue for the SDLP when he accepted the role in October – much to the surprise of his party colleagues – but there was no functioning Executive, so the issue was more moot. But it was certainly a problem on Saturday when the former All-Ireland winner left Stormont “without seeking permission”.
Hopping on a helicopter in order to beat the traffic in time for a 6pm throw-in in Wexford raised further questions. There’ll be no shifting allegiances to the Greens in the near future! Mr McNulty’s future in the party of the late, great Seamus Mallon looks ropey at best. Opting to go it alone, as an Independent, is also a possibility. Who the SDLP would co-opt in if Mr McNulty was to accept the party proposal on the table – believed to include joining the Newry, Mourne and Down District Council chamber as a councillor – is another question. There are a couple of candidates but time will tell how this all plays out for the official opposition.
Speaking of opposition, Markethill TUV councillor Keith Ratcliffe, echoed the sentiments of his party leader (Jim Allister) in blasting the DUP for falling “miserably short” in seven key areas. DUP’s Newry and Armagh MLA, William Irwin, responded by saying this is “not the time for unionist disunity or infighting” and that “substantial progress” had been made towards his party’s seven tests.
Meanwhile, County Armagh has landed itself with two portfolio holders in Portadown’s John O’Dowd, who will look after Infrastructure, and Camlough’s Conor Murphy, who has been tasked with the economy.
In terms of Infrastructure, momentum has really swung in the favour of the Portadown to Armagh rail link re-opening, especially given the outcome of the All-Island Strategic Rail Review which includes it in its list of recommendations. A technical study suggests the same, prompting an £800,000 windfall to help carry out a feasibility study.
But it’s education that will matter to many in Co Armagh. In early 2022, the Department of Education announced a whopping £794m investment in the Northern Ireland’s schools estate. This included new builds for St Catherine’s College in Armagh, Portadown College, Killicomaine Junior High School in Portadown, and St Paul’s High School in Bessbrook.
However, those developments were ‘paused’ last year due to a lack of funding. UK government money could well signal the waving of a green flag to have these projects begin in earnest.
History may have taught us to be cautious there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic…