The Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly has announced his intention to retire from politics next year.
Alex Maskey, 69, said he will not seek re-election in the Assembly ballot scheduled to take place in May and therefore will not continue to hold the post of Speaker in the next mandate.
The Sinn Fein representative has been an MLA since the Assembly was formed in 1998 and has served as Speaker since January 2020.
In a statement on Thursday, Mr Maskey said it had been an honour over the last 23 years to serve as an MLA, initially for South Belfast and then for West Belfast.
“I am especially grateful for the opportunity the Assembly has given me to serve as Speaker,” he added.
“I have said many times that the Assembly has to prove itself and it is important to me that the Assembly is seen to work as an institution.
“Since January 2020, there have been many issues to deal with including assisting the resumption of Assembly business and ensuring the Assembly could continue to function during the pandemic.
“Despite these challenges, it has also been possible to introduce a number of positive new developments including the expansion of support for Private Members’ Bills and the establishment of our first Youth Assembly.
“I have appreciated the support of members, party leaders, party whips and Assembly Commission members throughout all of that work. In particular, I want to recognise that it has been a pleasure over the last 18 months to work closely with Assembly officials who have given me tremendous support.”
Mr Maskey added there is “a lot of work” to do when the Assembly returns from recess in September, including a record number of Private Members’ Bills.
“That is where my focus will be until then,” he added.
Mr Maskey is a former amateur boxer, and became the first member of Sinn Fein to be elected in Belfast City Council in 1983 and the first republican Lord Mayor of the city in 2002.
Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill paid tribute to Mr Maskey as a “ferocious champion of the rights of communities”.
“A former docker from North Belfast, Alex has been a courageous activist in Republican politics over the course of many decades always leading by example,” she said.
“He was the first Sinn Fein councillor elected to Belfast City Council in 1983 and led the way for real transformative change within the city.
“He was imprisoned without trial, faced down sustained threats and attacks by British state forces and their loyalist surrogates and was almost killed in an attack at his home which left him with permanent injuries. A close friend and party colleague Alan Lundy was also killed in an attack on Alex’s family home. None of this deterred or intimidated Alex.
“During the Good Friday Agreement negotiations to achieve lasting peace on our island, Alex Maskey was central to the Sinn Fein team and he has served the people of South and West Belfast with absolute dedication and distinction since the establishment of the institutions.
“His level-headed approach and strong leadership have been exemplary in his position as the Speaker of the Assembly and has won respect from across the Chamber.
“Republican activists of the calibre of Alex Maskey don’t retire; Alex will remain a dedicated activist to deliver for the people of Belfast and to achieve a new and united Ireland for all.
“I want to wish Alex and his family the very best of luck for the future.”