Ulster gets its first Speaker

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The Independent Online
LORD ALDERDICE was last night appointed as Speaker of the new Northern Ireland Assembly, just hours after he resigned as leader of the cross-community Alliance Party.

Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said his "political and Parliamentary experience mean he is well suited to carry out this role". Lord Alderdice will be officially known as Presiding Officer in the new body, which meets for the first time on Wednesday. He will preside over the first meeting, at which the initial job of the 108 Assembly members will be to decide if they want to elect Lord Alderdice and a deputy on a permanent basis.

He will be in pole position for the pounds 45,000-a-year post. His appointment was only made after Ms Mowlam consulted the leaders of the parties preparing to sit in the Assembly.

With the unionist-nationalist balance of the assembly, and the pro- and anti-agreement unionist blocks finely matched, it could appeal to the major parties to select a Speaker who would not diminish either of their numbers.

His resignation initially appeared to be a result of his party's disappointing showing in the Assembly elections, which secured them just six of the 108 available seats and no place in government.

It was ironic that, while the province was voting for an administration which would draw nationalists and unionists together, the party which stood against sectarianism - and managed to gather support from both communities - did not do better.

It is understood that the party came under pressure to declare itself as unionist at this Wednesday's meeting, to help Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble secure the post of First Minister.

Lord Alderdice, who denied reports that some of that pressure had come directly from Tony Blair, refused.

He will continue to represent the party in the House of Lords, where he takes the Liberal Democrat whip on other matters.