Northern Ireland Assembly fails to elect a speaker

This session was an attempt at getting Stormont up and running again after the Assembly broke down in 2022

Michelle O'Neill speaks as MLAs behind her listen
Michelle O'Neill addressing the assembly chamber this afternoon

A vote for Assembly speaker in Stormont was unsuccessful and the Assembly adjourned without electing a new speaker or carrying on any new business.

Mike Nesbitt of the UUP and Patsy McGlone of the SDLP were nominated by their parties for the role of speaker of the assembly however did not receive the vote needed for the sitting to proceed to the next stages.

Earlier in the sitting, Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill warned the Stormont assembly may never return as MLAs gathered this afternoon to elect a new speaker and appoint first and deputy first ministers.

The move follows a petition brought by Sinn Féin - and is the sixth recall of the Assembly since May 2022

The Assembly collapsed in early 2022 due to the DUP’s protest over post-Brexit trade rules for the north.

Ms O’Neill told the assembly chamber: “If Jeffrey Donaldson does not change his approach, then this sitting may well be the final one of this assembly.

“I fear that the democratic institutions of the Good Friday Agreement are in freefall.

“While this is reprehensible, those are the hard facts before us.”

Ms O’Neill accused the DUP of refusing to accept a nationalist first minister at Stormont.

She said: “The argument that this (Stormont suspension) continues to relate to the Windsor Framework has lost all credibility.

“Few people out there know what the DUP are talking about and fewer care because it’s not in the common good.

“The hardship and suffering, the bread-and-butter issues for workers, families, households and businesses is what counts, and it’s what the DUP still refuse to prioritise.

“The only remaining explanation for the DUP boycott is the refusal to accept a nationalist first minister.

“There is a dangerous attempt underway to disregard the democratic outcome of the assembly election and this threatens our democratic governance, public administration, reconciliation and the fabric of this society.”

DUP MLA Gordon Lyons said a recalled session of the Northern Ireland Assembly is a “cynically orchestrated” stunt.

Mr Lyons told the Stormont chamber: “This recall is much like the five others that came before it. It is a stunt.

“It has been cynically orchestrated to coincide with the industrial action scheduled across our public sector.

“This has been done in an attempt to make the public believe that the restoration of the assembly today will lead to the cancellation of the strikes tomorrow.

“Sinn Féin know full well that there is no prospect of a speaker being elected today.

“They know there will be no ministers nominated today.

“They know that if even those do happen, the pay issue will not be settled today but will be subject to negotiation. It is disingenuous to suggest otherwise.”

Mr Lyons said the barrier to public sector pay increases was not the lack of a Stormont executive, but lack of finance.

He said: “We shouldn’t forget that the Department of Finance was able to progress a range of decisions on public sector pay over the course of the last year - so those powers still exist.

“However each decision had to be affordable under the budget imposed by the Secretary of State (Chris Heaton-Harris).

“That is where the crux of the problem was, and is - the cake simply isn’t big enough.

“Much has been made by some other parties here, of the additional resource offered by the Government.

“Resource that wouldn’t be on offer if it were not for the DUP highlighting this issue. The extra money on the table is a good start, but it is just that.”

Alliance leader Naomi Long called for the Stormont institutions to be reformed as the Assembly made another attempt to revive the institutions.

She told the Northern Ireland Assembly: “While the focus today is rightly on the boycott of the DUP, I say this to other party leaders – there is no point coming to this chamber bemoaning the bind in which we find ourselves time and time again, whilst simultaneously defending and refusing to address the structural weaknesses that enable it.

“The only conceivable reason any party would want to retain the power to collapse these institutions is if they intend to use it or the threat of it to subvert normal democratic process.

“I want the institutions restored as soon as possible, but more, I want them reformed so that no single party can ever again hold these institutions and, with them the best interests and future of our people, to ransom.

“Because it is those who live in this community who suffer as a result of repeated collapses. Our inability to sustain government has impeded public sector reform.”

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long
Stormont Assembly Alliance Party leader Naomi Long (Liam McBurney/PA)

Ulster Unionist MLA Robbie Butler told a recalled sitting of the Northern Ireland Assembly that the DUP will be to blame for the impact of a public sector strike in Northern Ireland.

He said: “Tomorrow around 150,000-160,000 public servants will take action on an epic scale.

“The impact will be felt not just by those individuals, but by their families and every one of us.”

He added: “The blame for the impact of the strikes – and I will not mince my words today as I may not get a chance to speak in this chamber again – the blame lies squarely with the DUP.

“I don’t think the blame lies squarely with every member, less so with the MLAs here.

“If I was a betting man, I would wager that most of the people to my right haven’t even seen the deal that is on offer (from the UK Government).

“In my opinion, the blockage lies with a small number of DUP MPs and Lords who are far removed from the impact on public services and lives here in Northern Ireland.”

Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister said Sinn Fein’s recall of the Assembly “reeks of insincerity”.

He said: “The pretence is that the motivation is to get this place, these institutions, up and running again.

“Yet there is a studious avoidance of asking the question why these institutions have failed.”

He added: “They have failed fundamentally and unavoidably because of the (Northern Ireland) Protocol.

“Upsetting and dismantling the constitutional equilibrium of the Belfast Agreement that some claim to support.”

Social Democratic and Labour Party MLA Matthew O’Toole
Stormont Assembly Social Democratic and Labour Party MLA Matthew O’Toole (Liam McBurney/PA)

SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole told the Assembly: “Tomorrow, true public servants some 170,000 of them, will forego a day’s pay they can ill afford in order to stand in freezing temperatures, not for an exorbitant pay rise but for the modest deal that has already been promised to them and not delivered.

“These are real public servants, unlike some in this chamber and elsewhere who stand for election, they take seriously the trust that is placed in them and the service they perform.

“These are the nurses and health professionals who save lives and provide the care we need at some point in our lives and all of us will need in the future.”

He added: “This chamber and these institutions only matter to the extent that they serve the public. They aren’t serving anyone at the minute other than the narrow, self-interest and self-obsession of a few hardline, usually online voices.”

Acting Speaker Alan Chambers said that because of the failure to elect a Speaker, no further business could take place and the session was suspended.