he political skills of Paul Givan and Michelle O’Neill will be tested to the limit this autumn.
The DUP’s withdrawal from North-South bodies puts it potentially on a collision course with Sinn Fein.
In June, the SDLP and Sinn Fein sought legal advice over the DUP’s no-show at cross-border meetings. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s threat to pull ministers out of Stormont if there is no movement on the protocol means the Executive may not survive beyond October.
It makes the next two months very challenging for Mr Givan and Ms O’Neill as they attempt to map a way through the pandemic and co-ordinate economic recovery, the crisis in the health service, and other pressing issues.
Over the summer, their relationship was smoother than some observers may have anticipated. Mr Givan and Ms O’Neill aren’t nipping out for coffee or swapping social media messages, but there have been no rows or disagreements at Executive meetings.
Indeed, sources say the atmosphere there is more businesslike and professional than it previously was.
That is all going to be severely tested this autumn.
Trying to prevent the external political pressures from the protocol and the DUP’s plan of action affecting urgent day-to-day business may be next to impossible.
Justice: Naomi Long
The justice department’s in-tray is a heavy one with Naomi Long’s team working to a tight timetable to have legislation passed before the end of this mandate.
There are four pieces of legislation requiring final scrutiny.
They include the Criminal Justice (Committal Reform) Bill which will support victims and witnesses by removing the option of calling on them to provide oral evidence in advance of trial.
Recent figures show an average Crown Court case now takes over two and half years to reach trial — in reality most cases take much longer than that.
The Bill also seeks to speed up Crown Court cases by supporting reforms to the committal process.
The Damages (Return on Investment) Bill is legislation that will change how the personal injury discount rate is calculated.
The Prevention of Stalking Bill is now at Committee Stage and could be given a final reading before the end of this mandate.
And finally, the Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims Bill is also in the final stages of completion.
A lot has been achieved in a short time, during trying conditions with pandemic measures impacting prisons and courts.
However, the minister will be judged on actions rather than words and so it is important she pushes ahead with the outstanding legislation before any election is called.
Health: Robin Swann
Covid-19 is still very much impacting on the health service, which was already on the brink before its arrival in Northern Ireland — thanks to years of under investment and a failure to reform the system.
Whatever time Robin Swann has left as Health Minister, coronavirus will be front and centre when it comes to every decision he makes.
For example, how do you solve Northern Ireland’s waiting list crisis in the middle of a pandemic?
After triumphantly reaching a deal with healthcare staff staging strike action over pay and conditions, waiting lists were the next big headache for the UUP minister.
Now, he is essentially firefighting as efforts to address elective waiting lists are constantly diminished as the already insufficient workforce is diverted to the Covid-19 response.
So, keeping Covid case rates, hospitalisations and deaths as low as possible will also be crucial over the difficult winter months.
Another key tool will be ensuring staff levels are robust enough to begin to tackle waiting lists —making a pay offer would be a good start, particularly as the strike action was only suspended and there is growing frustration among nurses over working conditions.
However, officials are warning budget shortfalls mean financial breakeven is going to mean difficult decisions around patient care and Mr Swann is now waiting to find out how much his department will receive from the October monitoring round.
Pressing ahead with much-needed reform is also vital, although it is questionable how much Mr Swann will be able to achieve, particularly given the DUP appears to be concentrating its efforts on the Protocol.
Finance: Conor Murphy
Like all ministers, it is not clear what might happen in the medium term as the prospect of an election looms, but Conor Murphy showed he is able to influence matters at a micro-level.
Last week he extended to March next year a moratorium on businesses being shut down if they are struggling to pay the rent on premises.
But whether Mr Murphy will still hold the finance portfolio to deliver the next budget remains to be seen.
He is arguably in a better position than others if he wants to stay in the role, even after an election.
Meanwhile, the department is talking in wider terms about the minister’s priorities.
He is committed to working collaboratively with Executive colleagues to respond and recover from the Covid crisis, and this includes “delivery of a multi-year budget which supports public services and tackles health waiting lists”.
Mr Murphy also wants to reform rates and deliver on his pledge for more frequent rates revaluations.
Other priorities include launching the £1bn Peace Plus programme, becoming a Living Wage Employer, rolling out Connect2 Hubs to enable civil servants to work locally, raising standards in local building regulations to help tackle the climate crisis and increase the number of Changing Place facilities for people with disabilities.
Economy: Gordon Lyons
Getting the economy back on track after the devastation wreaked by Covid will top Gordon Lyons’ agenda heading into the new term.
Mr Lyons has said the department’s Economic Recovery Action Plan, published in February, will be rolled out quickly.
This in tandem with the voucher scheme — £100 worth to everyone — over 18 will help to boost the economy.
More broadly, the 10X Economic Vision, unveiled under his predecessor Diane Dodds, “focuses on strengths, promotes innovation, and seeks to ensure that the benefits of economic growth benefit everyone”.
“Our skills strategy — ‘Skills for a 10X Economy’ — will address skills imbalances whilst driving economic growth, creating a culture of lifelong learning, and enhancing digital skills. I want to make the most of every individual’s ability and provide opportunities across Northern Ireland,” Mr Lyons said.
The furlough scheme, which helped to stabilise the job market after Covid hit, is due to end next month, and could see redundancies rise.
Mr Lyons’ department is also leading on the development of a new energy strategy for Northern Ireland. It will be a major driver to address climate change and our proposed vision is to achieve ‘net zero carbon and affordable energy’ by 2050.
Infrastructure: Nichola Mallon
There is still much to do in the year ahead for Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon, from capital projects to Covid recovery.
Work will be ongoing to address the MoT and driving test backlog brought about by the pandemic, while the deputy SDLP leader will also be fighting for the allocation of further funds to help address the dire state of our roads network and water infrastructure.
In terms of capital projects, Ms Mallon will be progressing the flagship £220m A6 Dungiven to Drumahoe dualling scheme, which will see the construction of a further 25.5km of dual carriageway and a bypass of Dungiven.
She is also working with the Irish Government on the All-Island Strategic Rail Review, which will look how the rail network on the island of Ireland could be improved to provide better connectivity between major cities, including Londonderry, Belfast, Dublin, Limerick and Cork.
One of the minister’s pledges to set up the first Infrastructure Youth Assembly, which aims to give young people a say on the future of our infrastructure network, is also expected to bear fruit, with applications opening for the Youth Assembly last May.
Communities: Deirdre Hargey
This term will be a busy one for Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey. Her department has been responsible for allocating millions in support grants and schemes to citizens and organisations throughout the pandemic, and will have to grapple with the fallout when these schemes come to an end.
One key piece of legislation Ms Hargey will be hoping to progress is the reform of gambling laws here.
She is taking a two-phased approach to the reforms, the first of which is legislation to deliver changes in around 17 key areas, including improving protection for children and young people and establishing a mandatory code of practice for those holding gambling licenses. This could be achieved by the end of her mandate.
It is doubtful, however, whether the second phase — which will include a completely new regulatory framework which will regulate online gambling — will be progressed this term.
Other tasks in the minister’s in-tray will be her department’s role in relocating Afghan refugees here following the Taliban’s takeover of the country, as well as calling for further funds to help tackle Northern Ireland’s housing crisis.
She is also working to bring forward her policy intention for the reversal of social security service privatisation and a return to in-house health assessments.
Agriculture: Edwin Poots
Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots looks set to remain in his post at the start of the new term despite the turbulence surrounding his brief time as DUP leader.
In the short term, the government has again extended a grace period on customs checks for goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain such as chilled meats. The changes had been due to come into effect at the start of October and would have obliged the Department of Agriculture to oversee the checks at ports.
Should this considerable roadblock be overcome, there is still the matter of Mr Poots passing his vision for climate change legislation and an overhaul of farming policy.
Last month he outlined his framework for the future of Northern Ireland’s agricultural policy.
Farmers currently receive £300m in farm payments from Europe every year but this will end due to Brexit.
Mr Poots said he wants farm subsidies in Northern Ireland to continue indefinitely, in part to help farmers meet environmental targets.
Two climate change bills are currently making their way through Stormont, with Mr Poots’ bill aiming for an 82% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 while a private members’ bill from Green Party leader Clare Bailey sets a higher target of zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Education: Michelle McIlveen
While only in the job a few months, Education Minister Michelle McIlveen has picked up the baton passed by her predecessor Peter Weir and has several yet-to-be completed tasks on her agenda this term.
The former teacher has inherited plans to introduce more flexibility around the school starting age, legislation which she has pledged to introduce before the end of the current Stormont mandate. The school starting age here — from the age of four — is one of the youngest in Europe.
Ms McIlveen also has the responsibility of implementing the recommendations of a recent report into education underachievement in Northern Ireland. Recommendations of the Fair Start report include: increasing the number of male teachers, especially in primary schools; more investment in youth work in Protestant, working-class areas; and more funding for schools in disadvantaged areas to run more extra-curricular activities.
It remains to be seen, however, just how many of the numerous recommendations can be fulfilled by the end of the year.
The minister will also be continuing to progress initiatives contained in the Children and Young People’s Emotional Health and Wellbeing in Education Framework, which was published in February.
It contains a range of initiatives, including a pilot counselling service for primary schools, a ‘text-a-nurse’ service for young people, and a new CAMHS emotional well-being in schools service.
Work on progressing some of these programmes has already started, while others are in Ms McIlveen’s in-tray.