An Irish-speaking nationalist politician is likely to become the Assembly’s new Speaker if Sinn Fein and the DUP reach a deal to restore power-sharing.
In what would be a historic and symbolic move for Stormont, political sources are tipping SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone to replace the DUP’s Robin Newton.
Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs Jr is also understood to be a possible contender – but Mr McGlone is the firm favourite.
With Irish language legislation a key part of any agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein to bring back the political institutions, Mr McGlone’s appointment would be highly significant.
He is one of the few fluent Irish speakers in the chamber and is a former member of Foras na Gaeilge, the public body responsible for the promotion of the language across the island of Ireland.
Before Stormont collapsed in January the SDLP MLA was bringing forward a private member’s Irish Language Bill in the Assembly.
Mr McGlone is the current Deputy Speaker, and Mr Beggs held the same position in the 2011-2016 Assembly.
Stormont sources said they expected both men would be run for the position but that the recent practice of rotating it between a unionist and nationalist MLA meant that Mr McGlone would likely replace Mr Newton.
The Assembly’s first Speaker was Alliance’s Dr John Alderdice, who was succeeded by party colleague Eileen Bell.
The North Down Alliance MLA was followed by the DUP’s William Hay, who held the position for seven years.
Sinn Fein’s Foyle MLA Mitchel McLaughlin became Speaker in 2015 but he was in the job just 16 months. Mr Newton became Speaker in May 2016.
Former Alliance leader David Ford, who has been seen by some as the ideal candidate to succeed Mr Newton, last night said that in the interests of democracy the position should go to a nationalist in the next Assembly.
“A nationalist MLA has been Assembly Speaker for just one year in 19 years since devolution was established in 1998. So it seems both logical and fair that the next Speaker be a nationalist,” he said.
Earlier this week Mr Beggs said that the election of a new Speaker should “no longer be subject to a carve-up between the two largest parties”.
He repeated the UUP’s position that the job should be filled after a secret ballot of MLAs.
However, Stormont sources said this was a non-runner and the new Speaker would be agreed as part of any overall deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein.
Mr McGlone (58) has been an MLA for 14 years.
He lives in Ballinderry just outside Cookstown. He is on the SDLP’s ‘green wing’ and has described himself as a “constitutional republican”.
Four years ago he was posted a bullet inside a sympathy card, which was intercepted by Royal Mail.
“It wasn’t a pleasant experience for myself or my family but it won’t stop me doing my job,” he said.
In 2011 an election worker’s car was petrol bombed by loyalists in Coagh. A former SDLP deputy leader, Mr McGlone was passed over for ministerial office by then SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie six years ago when she chose his colleague, Alex Attwood, for the Environment portfolio.
Mr McGlone refused her offer of a Stormont committee chairmanship and went on to challenge her for the leadership.
Dr Alasdair McDonnell won that four-way leadership contest.