Paul Givan and Michelle O’Neill have accepted their nominations as First and deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland, despite significant opposition from senior DUP members over the process.
DUP leader Edwin Poots formally nominated Lagan Valley MLA Mr Givan at a special sitting of the Stormont Assembly on Thursday.
Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy nominated his party colleague Ms O’Neill to take up the role of deputy First Minister.
Mr Givan thanked his party leader for having “confidence in me”.
He told the Assembly he shares the same “drive and determination” to serve the people of Northern Ireland as the party leaders before him.
He added: “There is much goodwill from the public for this place to work.
“We must recognise there is more in common than separates us. Northern Ireland is a special place.”
The process went ahead despite a morning of uncertainty and unease from senior DUP figures who questioned their party leader’s decision to proceed.
It is understood a significant majority of DUP MLAs and MPs voted against Mr Poots’s decision to nominate a Stormont First Minister.
The vote was taken after a heated internal party meeting at Parliament Buildings ahead of the nomination process in the Assembly.
The PA news agency understands that Mr Poots and First Minister designate Mr Givan had left the room before the vote took place.
One senior party source at the meeting described the atmosphere to PA.
“Dreadful. Utterly dreadful. Never experienced the like of it,” said the source.
On Thursday morning, party MPs and peers sent an urgent email to Mr Poots urging him to hold off nominating Mr Givan until he explained his decision to reconstitute the powersharing administration after Sinn Fein secured a key concession on Irish language laws.
A post-midnight announcement by the UK Government committing to pass the stalled laws at Westminster in the autumn, if they are not moved at the Stormont Assembly in the interim, was enough to convince Sinn Fein to drop its threat not to nominate a deputy First Minister as joint head of the devolved Executive.
The development came after a night of intensive talks involving Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis and DUP and Sinn Fein delegations in Belfast.
An email sent to Mr Poots, a copy of which has been seen by the PA news agency, is signed by defeated leadership candidate Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, party chairman Lord Morrow, senior MPs Sammy Wilson, Gregory Campbell and Gavin Robinson, former deputy leader Lord Dodds and a number of other senior members.
In total seven of the DUP’s eight MPs signed the email, with Ian Paisley being the exception. The party’s five peers also signed it.
Many of those who signed the email would have supported Sir Jeffrey in his leadership bid, though some, like MP Paul Girvan, supported Mr Poots’s candidacy.
The email read: “We note the announcement made by the Secretary of State in the early hours of this morning that both you and the Sinn Fein leadership have agreed to nominate a First Minister and deputy First Minister on the basis that Westminster will legislate on the Irish language and other matters if the Assembly fails to do so by October. We are also in receipt of your email this morning regarding this agreement.
“We are very concerned about this development and therefore, are urgently requesting that you meet with us as DUP Members of Parliament and peers to explain the basis of your agreement with the Secretary of State and Sinn Fein before any further steps are taken in this process, including the nomination of a First Minister. Assuming you will have prior consultation with your Assembly Group, we would be happy to join this meeting.
“You have often spoken of the need for accountability and transparency within our party and it is now essential that you consult with us as representatives of the people of Northern Ireland before you proceed further. We look forward to hearing from you thereto.”
Speaking following her nomination, Ms O’Neill said: “We have monumental challenges ahead which require the same unity of purpose, the same urgency as we tackle the totally unacceptable hospital waiting lists which have left people crucified in pain and without hope.
“We must immediately set about addressing this issue together. We must mount a case to secure the funding from the British Government to rebuild and transform our incredible public health service.
“Our people, and the heroic health service workers we are blessed with, deserve nothing less. Nothing less.”
A stand-off between the Executive’s two main parties over the thorny language issue had been threatening the future of the fragile institutions in Belfast.
The issue came to a head this week as a result of the process required to reconstitute the Executive following the resignation of ousted DUP leader Arlene Foster as First Minister.
The joint nature of the office Mrs Foster shared with deputy First Minister Ms O’Neill meant her departure automatically triggered the removal of Ms O’Neill from her position – as one cannot hold post without the other.
While Mr Poots, who succeeded Mrs Foster, has vowed to implement all outstanding aspects of the New Decade, New Approach deal, he has declined to give Sinn Fein a specific assurance that he will move on the language laws in the current Assembly mandate, a key demand of the republican party.
Amid the dispute, earlier this week Sinn Fein asked the UK Government to step in and move the legislation at Westminster instead. The DUP had warned Mr Lewis against such a step, characterising it as an overreach into devolution.
However, in the early hours of Thursday the Secretary of State announced that the Government would table the language legislation at Westminster in October if Stormont had failed to do so by the end of September.
Welcoming the move, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said Mr Lewis’s intervention was the “only viable way” to break the deadlock. She confirmed the party would renominate Ms O’Neill later on Thursday.
“This matter of language rights has been a long running saga,” she told a post-1am press conference on the Stormont estate.
“For a very long time, the DUP has sought to frustrate these rights.
“That is most unfortunate, it’s also unacceptable. And tonight we have broken through that logjam of DUP obstructionism.”