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Sam McBride

A day after unity for David Trimble, MLAs are divided as DUP again vetoes Assembly

Sam McBride

Many Sinn Fein MLAs don headsets to understand colleague Declan Kearney as he speaks in Irish


Assembly members meet following a recall petition

Assembly members meet following a recall petition

Assembly members meet following a recall petition

A day after uniting in unanimous praise of David Trimble, MLAs returned to more familiar disputatious ways — with the DUP again blocking the Assembly from functioning and robust exchanges across the chamber.

The DUP collapsed devolution in February in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol, but then expanded that protest after May’s election by also vetoing the operation of the legislature, something either the DUP or Sinn Fein can do by refusing to vote for a Speaker.

Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the first substantive item of business after a Stormont election has to be the election of a Speaker. If that cannot proceed, then the Assembly cannot operate.

Yesterday represented a third failure to elect a Speaker since May’s election. The recall of the Assembly was instigated by the SDLP with the support of Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party.

Although Speaker Alex Maskey by law stays in post until he is replaced — even though he is no longer even an MLA — the election of a Speaker is overseen by the oldest MLA, which is now North Down UUP man Alan Chambers.

He reminded MLAs that without the election of a speaker and at least two deputies, no further business could be considered but as the issue of the Speaker was debated, MLAs bent this rule by debating part of what they had planned to debate anyway after the election of a speaker — the cost-of-living crisis.

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Sinn Fein’s first minister in waiting, Michelle O’Neill, said that it was 90 days since the election and that the DUP had “failed to accept the democratic outcome of the election”.

She said: “This is a test of power-sharing and equality for the DUP”.

The Mid Ulster MLA said the DUP were continuing to “punish the public” and told the DUP benches: “All of your actions will not wash away the protocol; the British Government legislating to renounce the protocol will not wash away the international rule of law”.

Amid suggestions from within the DUP that some in the party think they should keep Stormont down to force another election in which they may recover ground, Ms O’Neill said: “A winter election during a cost-of-living crisis, when people are struggling to heat their homes, is not what people want; it’s really not what people want. They want you to do your jobs like they’re doing theirs.”

Later, Sinn Fein chairman Declan Kearney made only second Assembly speech in Irish — something for which there is now simultaneous translation through headsets. Strikingly, many Sinn Fein MLAs — among them, Ms O’Neill — reached for their headsets to understand what their colleague was saying.

New North Belfast DUP MLA Brian Kingston denounced the Assembly recall as “stunt politics” rather than a genuine attempt to restore devolution.

He said: “The Northern Ireland Protocol has caused a deep fracture in our politics; that fracture will continue to grow unless it is dealt with now and is dealt with through arrangements that command cross-community consent.”

He said that other parties had called for the “rigorous implementation” of the protocol and had to take responsibility for their actions.

Referring to the protocol legislation going through Westminster — which would ditch much of the Irish Sea border — Mr Kingston said: “Only with its passage, undiminished, can our institutions be freed from the dark shadow of the protocol. That point has not yet been reached and we will want to assess the views of any future prime minister before taking any further action.

“We are democrats. We will appoint a deputy first minister when these issues are addressed. However, at the present time such action would be premature.”

He said that his party had “a clear mandate” to resolve the protocol before returning to Government.

Alliance’s Patrick Brown said there is now “unbridled pessimism”, despite the “overwhelming mandate” from the public to form a new administration.

“We can’t go on like this… four out of five political parties have said without preconditions that we will form an Executive. There is only one of the five parties — the DUP — who are refusing to go into Government. And it is wrong that in a democracy one party, representing maybe 25% of the people, is able to veto the establishment of a Government. That is not democracy, and it has to change.”

He went on: “Those are not my words; those are in fact the words of DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson on Question Time in March 2019. The only change that I made was swapping the words ‘Sinn Fein’ for ‘the DUP’.”

He asked the DUP benches: “What has changed since March 2019?”

The South Down MLA said that Alliance had proposed an end to such vetoes which enable “ransom politics”, adding: “And if the DUP don’t like that, they can voice their opposition from the opposition benches.”

The SDLP’s Stormont leader, Matthew O’Toole, said that the DUP had previously said it would veto the Assembly until it had progress on fixing the protocol.

He quoted Sir Jeffrey saying that his party would take “a graduated response” to the passage of that bill.

Yet, Mr O’Toole said, there was no progress from the DUP even after the bill had passed the House of Commons at third reading and gone to the House of Lords.

When DUP MLAs attempted to intervene during his comments, an energised Mr O’Toole refused to accept the interventions, saying: “It’s interesting that he wants to debate in this chamber. If he wants to debate, allow us to debate properly — allow us to appoint a Speaker and debate properly.”

TUV leader Jim Allister said that the reason for Stormont’s inability to function was the protocol, “something most of the parties in this house don’t want to face up to”. He went on: “The very same people who yesterday and in recent days were effusive in respect of Lord David Trimble consciously and deliberately ignore the very telling finding of Lord Trimble about the protocol when he said that the protocol has ripped the heart out of the Belfast Agreement.”

He said that for the protocol to regard Britain as a “foreign country”, that had “constitutional implications which no unionist can come to terms with”.

People Before Profit’s Gerry Carroll said that “once again the DUP have shown themselves to be completely and utterly self-serving in their approach to politics here”.

The two candidates for Speaker were former Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt and former SDLP deputy leader Patsy McGlone. As expected, neither man succeeded in being elected, with the DUP refusing to vote for either candidate.

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