DUP faces accusations of damaging democracy as Assembly sits
Political parties rounded on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for failing to elect a Speaker to the Assembly today.
The decision by the DUP, led by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, not to elect a Speaker largely blocks the normal functioning of the Assembly.
It came in addition to the party’s decision to block the formation of a powersharing Executive as part of a plan to oppose the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The stance was lambasted by several politicians in the Assembly, including by Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill.
It came during a debate on the election of a Speaker, which saw UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt and SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone both unsuccessfully nominated to the role.
Ms O’Neill, whose party emerged with the most seats in the election, told MLAs that 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.”
Naomi Long used her Assembly speech to challenge the DUP to change its mind.
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.”
Ulster Unionist Party 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.”
People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll called it a “manufactured crisis”.
The DUP defended its stance in robust terms, with DUP MLA Paul Givan telling the Assembly that his party would not be supporting the election of a Speaker.
Mr Givan told MLAs: “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.”
The DUP position was backed by Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister.
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.”
Towards the end of proceedings, outgoing speaker Alex Maskey urged MLAs not to continue making speeches, warning that it would only serve to inflame tensions.
“At least allow the public to get out of their misery,” he joked.
Earlier, Mr Maskey had thanked his Assembly colleagues, as well as his family, in a speech to the Assembly.
He also told MLAs that politicians in Northern Ireland 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.”