Northern Ireland

Stormont sketch: There’s a growing sense we won’t be back on the hill any time soon

A television screen displays a live feed from the Assembly chamber as Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O'Neill addresses fellow politicians
Stormont Assembly Sinn Fein Vice President Michele O'Neill speaking in the Northern Ireland Assembly chamber at Parliament Buildings at Stormont in a recall to nominate a Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Picture: Liam McBurney/PA Wire (Liam McBurney/Liam McBurney/PA Wire)

The six previous recalls to elect an assembly speaker since February 2022 were unsuccessful so there were few on Stormont’s blue benches who believed the latest effort would be any different. The speaker’s election, followed by that of a deputy and principal deputy speaker, is always the very first item of business on the agenda. If no speaker is elected, however, then there’s no more assembly business.

Under the rules as they are, the speaker must have the support of both the largest unionist and largest nationalist party. To block the speaker’s election, DUP MLAs simply had to vote against the proposed candidate, as they duly did when the Ulster Unionists nominated Mike Nesbitt and the SDLP nominated Patsy McGlone.

Overseeing the proceedings from the speaker’s chair was so-called Father of the House, Ulster Unionist Alan Chambers, who as the eldest MLA not seeking to be elected speaker, was given responsibility for reminding everybody of the rules and calling MLAs to speak. There was an understanding among the parties that only one representative from each would address the chamber for no more than five minutes, therefore limiting the time of the sitting.

First up in the preamble ahead of voting was first minister designate Michelle O’Neill, who, as is customary for the leader of the assembly’s largest party, was seated to Mr Chambers’ right on the benches the DUP had occupied since Ian Paisley agreed to share power with Sinn Féin some 17 years ago. As expected, the Sinn Féin deputy leader took the opportunity to berate her counterparts across the floor for boycotting power-sharing and more recently spurning the British government’s £3.3bn financial package.

DUP MLA Gordon Lyons speaking in the Northern Ireland Assembly chamber at Parliament Buildings at Stormont
Stormont Assembly DUP MLA Gordon Lyons speaking in the Northern Ireland Assembly chamber at Parliament Buildings at Stormont (Liam McBurney/PA)

While Sir Jeffrey Donaldson “remains in suspended animation, undecided”, she said, children with special educational needs and their parents suffer, as do patients on waiting lists.

Ms O’Neill argued that there was a “dangerous attempt underway to discard the democratic outcome of the assembly election”, a DUP tactic that could ultimately threaten “reconciliation, and the fabric of this society”.

The DUP’s Gordon Lyons, who ahead of yesterday’s recall had already labelled it a “stunt”, was having non of it but first he paid tribute to his late colleague David Hilditch, who died in November. The East Antrim MLA said his party was seeking to enhance the British government’s financial package further and he urged the secretary of state to release money to resolve the public sector pay dispute.

When it came to Alliance leader Naomi Long’s turn, the ‘big two’ were reminded that their actions had ensured the institutions were operational for only two of the past seven years, and that they both supported the veto that enabled Stormont to be collapsed in the future.

As is customary, speaking time was subsequently given to the Ulster Unionists’ Robbie Butler, the SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole, TUV leader Jim Allister and People Before Profit’s Gerry Carroll.

The outcome of the vote, conducted using the laborious and antiquated lobbies method, was as expected and proceedings concluded one hour and 12 minutes after they’d begun.

Given that countless opportunities for the DUP to end their boycott have already presented themselves, there appears to be an growing realisation that rather than face down hardliners Sir Jeffrey is going to sit this one out. Declaring the death of Stormont altogether is perhaps premature but there’s a sense that we won’t be back on the hill this side of summer.