Northern Ireland news

Bid to restore Stormont to pass organ donation law ends in failure

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O'Neill meets Dáithi Mac Gabhann in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings at Stormont (Liam McBurney/PA)
David Young, Rebecca Black and Jonathan McCambridge, PA

A bid to restore the Assembly at Stormont has failed, thwarting the chances of the devolved legislature passing a new organ donation law for Northern Ireland.

The DUP once again exercised its veto to prevent the election of a speaker, meaning no further business could be conducted.

The region's main unionist party is boycotting the powersharing institutions in protest at Brexit's Northern Ireland Protocol.

The latest in a series of failed efforts to recall the Assembly to elect a speaker was focused on a stalled organ donation law.

The law is named after Belfast boy Daithi MacGabhann, six, who is waiting for a heart transplant.

Daithi and his parents Mairtin MacGabhann and Seph Ni Mheallain were at Stormont on Tuesday to watch the ill-fated attempt to restore the institutions.

Mr MacGabhann described a very disappointing day, saying while they were not surprised, they had had a little hope that on Valentine's Day, there might have been a chance of a fairytale ending for Daithi's Law.

He vowed to focus on Westminster to pass the necessary regulations to enact the legislation.

Rival parties had attempted to ramp up the pressure on the DUP to end its boycott of devolution, but the unionist party blocked two further attempts to elect a speaker during Tuesday's sitting.

The DUP has said the regulations required to implement the opt-out donation system can be passed at Westminster in the continued absence of powersharing in Belfast.

The party says it will not return to operating devolution until decisive action is taken to remove the protocol's economic barriers on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Negotiations between the UK Government and the EU to resolve differences over the protocol are continuing.

Addressing the Assembly, former DUP first minister Paul Givan urged Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris to take forward the law at Westminster.

“The DUP supports organ donation, we encourage people to sign up to the register and we support this legislation from being brought into being,” he said.

“But the Secretary of State and the other parties in this chamber know the position that the DUP takes in terms of the restoration of these institutions.”

Mr Givan criticised Mr Heaton-Harris's handling of the issue and accused him of delivering different messages in private to the parties, from his public statements.

“The Secretary of State is not handling this issue in a way which should be befitting of the office he holds and I appeal to him to work in a manner which is much more constructive and apolitical than the approach that he has taken to date,” he said.

“The Government have legislated on other issues – same-sex marriage, abortion, the Irish language – and they were able to do that on issues which were much more controversial than an issue like this, which we are all united upon, which all of the parties in this Chamber have collectively called upon the Secretary of State to pass at Westminster given that, in the absence of an Assembly and the Executive, it remains the sovereign Parliament to do so.”

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O'Neill, who greeted Daithi and his parents on their arrival at Stormont, told fellow MLAs the recalled sitting was not about party politics.

“Today is about those of us here who are legislators fulfilling our duty and delivering through on the Organ and Tissue Donation Act 2022 – Daithi's Law,” she said.

“Over 130 people are currently waiting for an organ, 90% of people in the north support organ donation, and every party in this chamber supports this law.

“There is little else to be said. The power is in the gift of each party and every single MLA to save lives by legislating in this place here today.

“Put simply, not to do so is a dereliction of duty, and it's really disheartening for all those families involved.

“There is an onus on all of us here today to work together and most importantly to give hope to all those families who need us to get this done.”

The opt-out organ donation system was passed by MLAs last year, but the secondary legislation required to implement it cannot be approved in the Assembly due to the current political stalemate.

The opt-out system would mean adults in Northern Ireland would be presumed to be donors, unless they take a decision to opt out. It is being implemented to increase donation rates in the region.

Attention will now turn to Westminster where the DUP plans to introduce an amendment to the Government's Executive Formation Bill to facilitate the passing of the regulations.

The Bill deals with the legislation required to extend a deadline for holding a fresh Assembly election in Northern Ireland.

It will be for the Speaker's Office at Westminster to decide whether to permit the DUP's planned amendment on the organ donation regulations.

The Northern Ireland Office has cast doubt on the prospect of it being permitted, saying the scope of the Bill is very narrow.

A spokeswoman for the NIO said it was “extremely disappointing” that a speaker had not been elected on Tuesday.

“Electing a speaker would have allowed the Assembly to sit and progress Daithi's Law, as well as show voters in Northern Ireland that their locally-elected representatives are ready to get back to work,” she said.

“The Secretary of State shares the frustrations of Daithi and the MacGabhann family that the political impasse in Northern Ireland is causing unnecessary delays to life-saving legislation.

“The quickest and simplest way to implement Daithi's Law remains for the Northern Ireland parties to progress this legislation through the Assembly.”