The new DUP leader Edwin Poots has denied a delay in making ministerial appointments and said he will announce his new team when he is "ready to do it".
Mr Poots, who was ratified as the party leader following an acrimonious meeting of the party's executive in Belfast on Thursday, had previously indicated that he could reveal a reshuffle as early as Tuesday.
Instead he announced several backroom appointments following a meeting with DUP MLAs at Stormont on Tuesday morning.
He denied he had intended to unveil his ministerial team on Tuesday and told reporters after the meeting: “I will not be pushed into doing it, nor will I be held back from doing it ... a course of work is being done in terms of my engagement with MPs, MLAs and colleagues, that course of work is coming close to completion and I’ll make my announcement in a number of days when I’m ready.”
Asked if the delay was down to divisions within the party and attempts to heal that divide, Mr Poots replied “absolutely not”, adding that he was “working very extensively to ensure that we get the right team with the right balance.”
He also rejected the suggestion that the delay was down to behind-the-scenes negotiations with Sinn Féin in order to avoid a potential political crisis amid calls from the party that the DUP must follow through on commitments made to deliver an Irish Language Act.
There has been speculation that once Arlene Foster resigns as First Minister Sinn Féin might refuse to re-nominate a Deputy First Minister unless they receive assurances, for example around the timeline for progressing the legislation.
“Certainly, I have received no ultimatums nor do I expect to receive an ultimatum, because we must remember the last time that the Assembly wasn’t operative our health waiting lists went through the roof,” Mr Poots said.
“So we have now over 300,000 people on the health waiting lists, that is not satisfactory, and I can’t imagine that any of the parties wouldn’t nominate and wouldn’t want to ensure that the Assembly runs its full term.
"Certainly Sinn Féin haven't put that to me and I don't expect them to put it to me because the key important issues are around health, around the [Northern Ireland] protocol, around the issues that [the Minister for Education] Peter Weir is dealing with today, educational underachievement," he said.
Speaking in the Assembly later on Tuesday during Executive Office questions, the Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said that with a “short window left in the mandate” of this Assembly it was important “we get on with delivery” of Irish language legislation.
She and Arlene Foster walked together into the Assembly chamber for what was likely to be Ms Foster’s last question time appearance.
In the chamber Ms O’Neill said there now needed to be “delivery” on the commitments made in the New Decade, New Approach deal which restored Stormont in 2020.
“The commitment to an Irish Language Act was a key component of the NDNA deal and that is why we need to see delivery of the language and culture pieces of legislation within this Assembly mandate.
“Failure to honour these commitments is just not a sustainable position. There can be no stepping back on the commitments that were made and there can be no more false dawns,” she said.
She was challenged by the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister, who asked if Sinn Féin intended to "hold the DUP hostage" by refusing to re-nominate a Deputy First Minister until they received an Irish Language Act.
“I have no desire to hold anyone to hostage. I have a desire to make politics work and to have the political commitments that were agreed upon delivered,” Ms O’Neill said.
“Simple question; will Sinn Féin nominate a deputy first minister if the DUP does not meet your terms?”, said Mr Allister.
“It is a matter for the DUP who they decide to put forward. I am committed to power sharing, I hope that others are committed to power sharing,” replied Ms O’Neill.
Mr Poots on Tuesday announced a number of internal party appointments and said there were “further announcements to be made in a number of days’ time.”
The East Belfast Assembly member Joanne Bunting becomes Chief Whip, the Upper Bann MLA Jonathan Buckley is to be Mr Poots' Chief of Staff, and the party's new deputy leader, Paula Bradley, and party secretary Michelle McIlveen will take on new roles with responsibility for the welfare of the party's elected representatives.
The Lagan Valley MLA Paul Given is understood to be the most likely candidate for the post of first minister, with the North Antrim MLA Mervyn Storey believed to have ruled himself out.
Ms Bradley and the former minister Ms McIlveen are also believed to be under consideration for ministerial office.
Speaking to the BBC on Tuesday, Ms Bradley refused to be drawn on whether she would be one of Mr Poots’ ministerial picks, saying that the new leader had not yet made his final decision.
She also played down suggestions of conflict within the DUP. “I don’t see that we have a deeply divided party.”
While she acknowledged that what had happened during last week’s ratification meeting “wasn’t pleasant”, she said she belived “100 per cent that we can get this party back on track again, and I don’t think it’s the mammoth job that everyone’s painting it out to be.
“I do think there needs to be honest conversations had with people ... emotions are still raw but time is a great healer and I hope that over time we will be able to heal those divisions and those hurts,” she said.
The Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson, who was narrowly defeated by Mr Poots in the leadership election, said division within the party needed to be tackled.
“Those concerns do need to be addressed and I hope that Edwin and his team will look very carefully at what is being said ... we will wait and see what the party leader does in terms of his ministerial appointments.”
In regard to the next steps by the outgoing First Minister, the former DUP leader Arlene Foster, Mr Donaldson said “these are very personal decisions and it’s not for me to encroach on all of that.
"What we need in Northern Ireland is a unionism that reaches out, is a unionism that is strong, is a unionism that promotes that case for the union," he said. "That's what we need to be doing now."
End of this month
Ms Foster had previously said she would stay on until the end of this month, but last week indicated she would step down immediately if Mr Poots nominated an alternative ministerial team.
“If Edwin decides that he wants to change that team, I will have to go as well because I can’t stay with a new ministerial team of which I have no authority, and that would be wrong,” she told reporters on Friday.
Under the power-sharing rules at Stormont, once Ms Foster resigns, the Deputy First Minister also ceases to hold office.
This has the potential to trigger a political crisis. There is a seven-day time limit for the DUP and Sinn Fein to nominate a candidate to fill the respective positions, and agree each other's choices, or an election must be held.
Speaking on Tuesday the Northern Secretary, Brandon Lewis, said people in Northern Ireland had previously had "three long years without any government locally" and wanted to see politicians working together and delivering on the commitments made in the New Decade, New Approach agreement.
“I think all the party leaders are acutely aware of that and I think they do want to work towards having a good stable Executive, and I will certainly be doing all I can to work with them and talk to them as I have done over the last few days,” he said. Additional reporting – PA