Northern Ireland news

Michelle O'Neill warns DUP not to 'punish the public' as party blocks election of Assembly Speaker

Sinn Féin Vice-President Michelle O'Neill walking out of the Stormont Assembly Chamber with the SDLP's Sinead McLaughlin after signing the Roll of Membership in Parliament Buildings at Stormont. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire 
Jonathan McCambridge, PA

Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O'Neill has said the DUP "have failed on day one" as the party confirmed it would not be nominating an Assembly Speaker, leaving Stormont unable to function.

Speaking at the first meeting of the new Assembly today since last week's election which saw Sinn Féin emerge as the largest party, Ms O'Neill said the public is hoping that Northern Ireland's elected parties have "the maturity and courage" to take responsibility, adding that "there is absolutely no reason we should be in a rolling crisis, even for one second".

It is the job of politicians to "properly fund" the healthcare service and to agree a three-year budget and invest in the health service, Ms O'Neill said.

"This is our hour of decision, not tomorrow, and not for a moment longer can the DUP deny democracy, punish the public, boycott this Assembly and executive, and prevent us from putting money in people's pockets.

"Every one party in this chamber told the electorate that they would turn up on day one. Well, the DUP have failed on day one."

The newly-elected 90 MLAs entered the Northern Ireland Assembly chamber for the first plenary sitting since the election and signed the roll of membership.

Earlier today, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson confirmed his party will not an Assembly Speaker or ministers as part of its protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The Ulster Unionists nominated Mike Nesbitt and the SDLP nominated Patsy McGlone.

Mike Nesbitt was not elected in the cross-community vote.

His candidacy was backed by 51.9% of MLAs, but failed due to a lack of cross-community support.

SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone also failed in a bid to be Speaker, receiving 71.3% of the vote but also failing to receive sufficient cross-community support.

The Assembly will now be unable to function.

DUP MLA Paul Givan told the Assembly: "The DUP received a mandate to remove the Irish Sea border and our mandate will be given respect. Our message is now clear, it is time for action, words will no longer suffice.

"It is because we want these institutions to endure that we are taking the action we are taking today.

"Northern Ireland works best when we work together. Those who now call for majority rule need to recommit themselves to the principles of the Good Friday Agreement.

"We will not be dictated to, we will be treated with respect and equality. Now is the time for action."

Naomi Long used her Assembly speech to address the challenges facing politics in Northern Ireland and to attack the DUP.

The Alliance Party leader said: "We are here today in order to elect a speaker so the Assembly can go about its business so that those who have been elected can serve the people who elected them.

"We come here with a can-do attitude and a commitment to serve the people who elected us.

"Many of us in this chamber represent people who did not consent to Brexit in the first place. And yet we turned up for work.

"We also don't all have equality. Some in this chamber are more equal than others and myself and my 16 colleagues' votes will count for less in this next election than everyone else in this chamber. So if we're really committed to equality, we will also be committed to reform of these institutions.

"To turn up here, to sign in, to take salaries and to refuse to take seats is a slap in the face for every family that struggles to make ends meet, for every person who sits on a waiting list.

"I would appeal to the DUP to think long and hard before they insult the electorate by doing so today."

UUP leader Doug Beattie urged that an Assembly speaker be elected so that the public's concerns can be addressed.

After standing in silence before MLAs for several seconds, Mr Beattie said: "Silence. The same silence we were subjected to for three years when Sinn Fein walked out. The same silence we're now going to be subjected to if the DUP don't support a speaker."

"People will go cold and hungry in their homes, and from this place there will be silence," he said.

"We can today make the point in regards to the protocol, but also elect a speaker in order to do some business so we don't have silence."

SDLP MLA Matthew O'Toole told the Assembly that he was happy to nominate party colleague Patsy McGlone as speaker.

But he said: "All of my words are clearly in vain because the DUP has decided to thwart democracy.

"They are also demeaning democracy.

"In stifling the creation of an executive and the election of a speaker, the DUP has demeaned the entire democratic process.

"Shame on them."

TUV leader Jim Allister said it was not appropriate to nominate a speaker to the Assembly while the Northern Ireland Protocol is in place.

Mr Allister, the only MLA returned for his party in the election, said: "Since the leverage is in respect of this Assembly, that is why the mendacious Prime Minister we have has to be brought to the point of choice. Does he want to save the protocol or does he want to save these institutions?

"Until this protocol becomes moribund, then this Assembly must be moribund."

People Before Profit MLA for Belfast West Gerry Carroll criticised the DUP for their "obstruction" to electing a new Assembly speaker as communities struggle with rapidly rising energy and fuel bills.

"For all their talk about the protocol, poll after poll has shown that it isn't a priority or the number one issue that people are vexed about," he told the Assembly.

"In many ways, this is a manufactured crisis.

"The vast majority of people did not vote for this and should not be held to ransom by the DUP's self-serving actions."

In a statement given to the News Letter this morning, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said: "Some parties who just a few months ago were mocking the promise of decisive action from the DUP in relation to the Protocol are the very same parties now feigning surprise and outrage at a political party keeping its promise to the electorate.

“Devolution was restored on the basis of the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ agreement. We have seen delivery of, or significant progress towards nearly every aspect of that document except one.

“That is the UK government’s promise to legislate to respect Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market.

“Twenty-eight months since that promise was made and 16 months since it should have been delivered, unionists cannot stand accused of lacking patience.”

Sir Jeffrey went on to attack the Northern Ireland protocol, saying: “I have both patience and resolve in equal measure to see the Irish Sea border removed and stable as well as sustainable devolution restored.

“Unionist concerns on the Northern Ireland Protocol are not merely some political squabble which is impacting upon Stormont. The protocol is a direct challenge to the principles that have underpinned every agreement reached in Northern Ireland over the last 25 years. It erodes the very foundations that devolution has been built upon.”

Taoiseach Micheél Martin said that it is “unsatisfactory” and disappointing that the DUP will block the election of an Assembly speaker.

“The people elected an Assembly, the Assembly should meet, and then the Assembly should form an Executive,” Mr Martin said.

“Yes there are issues that unionism has raised with us in respect of the Protocol, but those issues should not prevent the establishment of the Assembly and convening of the Assembly and the formation of the executive.”

Secretary of State Brandon Lewis said it is "disappointing" that a new speaker has not been nominated for the Assembly.

"Great to have MLAs back in Stormont today, but disappointing to see a Speaker has not yet been nominated," Brandon Lewis tweeted.

"The people of Northern Ireland voted and deserve a stable and accountable devolved government. I urge the parties to come together and form an Executive."

Sir Jeffrey was not be in the chamber as he has chosen to retain his position as an MP, despite being elected as an MLA for Lagan Valley a week ago.

Instead, former party MP Emma Little-Pengelly has been co-opted to replace her leader on the Stormont benches.

Outgoing speaker Alex Maskey thanked his Assembly colleagues, as well as his family, in a speech to the Assembly this afternoon.

He also told MLAs that politicians in the north had come through political difficulties before.

Mr Maskey said: "I recognise that we are currently in a difficult political situation.

"Since 1998, we have all seen our fair share of those. Those of us who were here in 1998 and since then had big issues to deal with. However we did come through them.

"The last two years we were able to meet the challenges of getting the Assembly re-established and keeping the Assembly functioning to take important decisions during the pandemic. "

As MLAs took part in the first plenary session, a demonstration took place outside Stormont.

The trade union Unison organised the gathering calling for MLAs from all the parties to work together to deliver for the public.

Anne Speed from Unison said the first order of business in the Assembly should be dealing with the cost-of-living crisis and workers pay.

“While the cost of living is going up and up, key workers pay is not, and our members are facing into real terms pay cuts,” she said. “They need to see an executive put in place urgently to put this issue right.

“Today Unison workplace reps will be at Stormont to deliver the clear message to all MLAs that they must work together to deliver for them at this critical time.

“Unison will continue to call for all parties to take the key actions needed to advance their position of our members and their families.”

As the largest party, the new 27 Sinn Féin MLAs have taken their position on the benches on the right-hand side of the Speaker’s chair for the first time.

Under the rules of the devolved power-sharing administration, both roles are equal and one cannot be in office without the other.

The Stormont sitting comes amid increased tensions between the British government and the EU over the working of the protocol – which forms part of the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement with the EU.

British foreign secretary Liz Truss said the UK will have “no choice but to act” if the EU does not show enough “flexibility” over post-Brexit checks on goods going from Britain to Northern Ireland.

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