Northern Ireland news

‘Unacceptable' for DUP to consider blocking Speaker election – Sinn Féin

Sinn Féin's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill and party colleague Conor Murphy speak to the media outside the Irish consulate at Notting Hill in south Belfast where they met Dublin's foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney. Picture by Rebecca Black/PA Wire 
Dominic McGrath and Rebecca Black, PA

Sinn Fein has criticised the DUP’s suggestion that it may choose not to elect a new Speaker when the Stormont Assembly meets on Friday.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said on Wednesday that his party has yet to decide whether to vote to elect a new Speaker when MLAs meet in the chamber in two days.

The election of the new Speaker is the first item on the agenda for MLAs following the election and requires cross-community support from nationalist and unionist members.

The DUP is refusing to return to the power-sharing Executive until its issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol are resolved.

Speaking after a meeting with Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney in Belfast, Michelle O’Neill said the Speaker has to be elected.

She said: “What we need to see is the positions filled – First Minister, deputy First Minister, all the ministerial positions filled – and let’s get down to doing business.

“I don’t think it is good enough. It is not good enough for the people here that the DUP is holding society to ransom, punishing society, preventing the establishment of a Speaker and an Executive to actually respond to the things people are worried about.

“I don’t think it is acceptable, the position Jeffrey Donaldson has articulated today.”

Sir Jeffrey told BBC Radio Ulster that his party will decide by Friday whether to elect a new Speaker.


He said: “We will be there on Friday. Our members will be there to sign the roll. We will make a decision as to how we proceed. We’ll get the group together and we’ll determine how best to take this forward.

“I’m waiting to see what the Government has to say. So that is the priority right now, to ensure that what the Government say is moving us in the right direction.

“I’m simply saying that we will need to make a decision on that. That’s one of the decisions we’ve got to make.”

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is set to tell the EU that the dispute over Northern Ireland cannot drag on, amid concerns in Europe that the UK is poised to take unilateral action on the post-Brexit arrangements in the region.

Those concerns are shared in Dublin, and Mr Coveney visited Belfast on Friday for talks with several of the Stormont parties in a bid to break the impasse on a return to power-sharing.

Ms O’Neill said her meeting with Mr Coveney was “constructive” because Sinn Fein has a “shared interest” in restoring the Executive.

“It is obvious that we made the case that we want the Executive up and running, working on behalf of the people,” she said.

“There should be no more delays. That should have happened by now. We had the election results last week. The people have had their say.

“We encourage all parties to turn up on Friday.”

Mr Coveney said people in Northern Ireland want their local politicians to be making decisions at Stormont.

He said: “Parties here in Northern Ireland need to make decisions for themselves in the context of, hopefully, the election of a Speaker this week so that an Assembly can function.

“Obviously we need to work towards finding a way towards an Executive being set up to function as well. I think people in Northern Ireland want Northern Ireland politicians making decisions on their behalf.

“We are here to support that. We have had really positive and direct and blunt conversations this morning with Sinn Fein, with the UUP, with Alliance, we are meeting the SDLP. I spoke to Jeffrey Donaldson in the last few days.

“The Irish Government wants to be a constructive part of what is a difficult process to get devolved government up and running and to get the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement functioning again.”

Alliance Party deputy leader Stephen Farry said there is a duty on the DUP to nominate a speaker.

“Without a speaker virtually nothing can happen,” he said.

“In terms of the functioning of the Assembly, the law is quite clear, that is the first function of the Assembly, to elect a speaker, so that will form an absolute block on anything else.

“I think there is a duty on the DUP to put someone in place so at least some of the basic functions can be done. Not to do so is extremely irresponsible.

“And once again the Assembly and the people of Northern Ireland become a pawn in a much much wider political game.”

Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie said a new Assembly Speaker should be nominated as a bare minimum.

He confirmed that his party would take part in the process of electing a new Speaker.

“It will be serious (if no Speaker is nominated on Friday) because up until now, we’ve been able to do some form of business because the Assembly could meet, we could do stuff, we could hold the ministers to account for the next 24 weeks because question time would continue with them and we would know what was happening in regards to the individual departments,” he said.

“If we don’t have a Speaker, we don’t have any of that. We will have no work being done whatsoever and that is not acceptable. We cannot be standing for election and then getting paid to do a job and then not being allowed to do it.

“So we, at least, as a bare minimum, need to nominate a Speaker on Friday so that we can move forward, at least in part.

“We certainly, as a party, will be nominating someone to be a Speaker.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood urged Sir Jeffrey to nominate a Speaker and also nominate himself as deputy First Minister to get Stormont functioning.

“It’s all very strange because I remember sitting in a studio with Jeffrey Donaldson only a couple of weeks ago where he was arguing that the Assembly could continue, that committee structures would continue, the ministers would continue,” he said.

“Of course these new rules were asked for by the DUP during NDNA (the New Decade New Approach deal) and now Jeffrey’s threatening not even to allow the Assembly to meet. The whole thing’s ridiculous.

“Jeffrey should be nominating himself as the deputy First Minister, a government should be formed and action on dealing with the cost-of-living crisis should be taken immediately.

“The DUP is still running after Boris Johnson hoping for some great deal from him – it’s not going to happen.”

TUV leader Jim Allister said a new Speaker should not be nominated until the protocol is “rendered moribund”.

“Any unionist who recognises the protocol as the Union-dismantling instrument that it is, and realises that Stormont is the key leverage that unionists have to force essential change, will not join the Sinn Fein clamour to elect a Speaker, because such surrenders a key part of that leverage and allows the facade of Stormont to function,” he said.


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