A few seconds earlier, the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, had proposed Paisley, first in Irish then in English, as first minister with Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister. That alone had prompted catcalls from the DUP benches.
After the speaker of the Assembly, Eileen Bell, had called “Order” five times and sarcastically told Assembly members what “terrific” parliamentarians they were, relative silence was restored and the predicted Paisley rebuff echoed loud and clear across the chamber.
It took a mere 14-minutes for the Assembly to fail to agree a first step towards power-sharing and the democratic institutions that, exactly eight years previously, the people of Northern Ireland had voted for in the May 22, 1998 referendum on the Good Friday agreement.
Adams’s words were brief. Because of standing orders, he could not make any political points. “I want to move that Ian Paisley be returned as first minister and Martin McGuinness by returned as deputy first minister on the restoration of devolved government,” he said.
Paisley, after shouting “Certainly not” went on to say that his reasons were well known to everybody in Northern Ireland. He then sat down to cheers from the Assembly members behind him. Bell declared the nomination invalid and there wasn’t even a vote.
At a press conference in the Great Hall of Stormont Buildings, within a few minutes of the brief exchanges in the chamber, Paisley said the “charade” was over. “We are now coming down to the reality of the situation,” he said.
“Are we going to have in the government of Northern Ireland those who are terrorists, those that condoned and even planned murders, who robbed banks, who committed criminal acts and who will not support the police?”
Answering his own question, he said, “The answer of Ulster is no. There is no place in any government in the United Kingdom for those wedded to terrorism.”
What he wanted, said Paisley, was simple – “British democracy in British Ulster” and he saw absolutely no sign of Sinn Fein “bowing the knee” and “doing the right thing by the people of Ulster.”
Adams said afterwards it was no great surprise that Paisley had turned down the nomination. Smiling in the camera lights, he said “‘No’ is better than ‘never, never, never’. What you saw there was an effort by us to get the formation of an Executive. We will return to this with all speed.”
Adams said the DUP could only say “No” a few more times and that he believed its position would eventually change.
If, however, Paisley and his party continued to say refuse to co-operate in setting up a new power-sharing Executive, the British and Irish governments would have to face the challenge of wrapping up the Assembly and setting about fulfilling the Agreement.
The Ulster Unionist leader, Sir Reg Empey, has proposed the setting up of a committee to look at ways devolution could be restored but Adams said that would only be worthwhile if it included the leaders of the main parties.
“It has to be leadership led,” the Sinn Fein president said, “There is no point having a small group meeting in this building, sitting twiddling their thumbs. What we are looking for is a committee or series of committees on the restoration of devolution but it has to be leadership led.”
Paisley is ruling out, not only speaking to Sinn Fein but also to the Ulster Unionists because of their decision to include the PUP leader, David Ervine, within their Assembly group. The PUP is linked to the UVF, which is still comprehensively involved in paramilitary activity and crime.
His decision caused widespread comment this week. Many within the UUP believe it was a mistake to overturn the “no guns/no government” policy of his predecessor, David Trimble.
Ervine himself was up-front about his reason for joining the UUP group, admitting he wanted to deprive Sinn Fein of an Assembly seat by bolstering the Ulster Unionist tally.
Under current rules, that would potentially give the Ulster Unionists one more ministerial seat at Sinn Fein’s expense. It would also give unionism one more seat on the Policing Board and extra speaking rights at the Assembly.
The SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, said Monday`s session of the Assembly had been a non-event. “What we have to do is bring purpose to this whole enterprise,” he said. “We have to get back to what we have been mandated to do under the Agreement.”
Durkan said the rest of the world was uninterested in minor dramas at Stormont. “I do not think the rest of the world expected us to elect first and deputy first ministers,” he said.
“The rest of the world’s eyes are not upon us. In fact their eyes are rolling up to heaven as we continue to stall instead of doing things.”