NI election 2022: DUP threatens to stop NI Assembly functioning

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Sir Jeffrey Donaldson says his party has still to decide on whether it will support the election of a new assembly speakerImage source, Liam McBurney
Image caption,
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson says his party has still to decide whether it will support the election of a new assembly speaker

The DUP has refused to say if it will support the election of a new Speaker when the Northern Ireland Assembly meets on Friday.

It is due to be the first order of business after the assembly election, which saw Sinn Féin win the most seats for the first time.

The assembly cannot function if a speaker is not elected.

Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill accused DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson of holding society to ransom.

The DUP - Northern Ireland's second-largest party by assembly seats after the 5 May election - said it would not nominate ministers to form a new executive until its concerns about the Northern Ireland Protocol - the post Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland - are resolved.

The protocol is an issue under fresh scrutiny following the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The elections cemented a majority for assembly members who accept the protocol, including the new largest party, the republican party Sinn Féin.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the protocol was "not working for the balance of the Good Friday Agreement".

The protocol, part of the government's Brexit deal with the European Union, was designed to ensure free trade could continue across the Irish land border by keeping Northern Ireland aligned with the bloc's single market for goods.

Image source, PA Media
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Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the Northern Ireland protocol had undermined the Good Friday Agreement

However, it has faced criticism from some unionists who argue it has undermined Northern Ireland's position in the UK by placing additional checks on some goods crossing the Irish Sea.

The managing director of Marks & Spencer in Ireland and Northern Ireland warned the time needed to process goods travelling this route to Northern Ireland could increase seven-fold if the protocol was implemented in full without the current mitigations.

"If the easements weren't in place for us, every vehicle would take another seven hours with 20 people working on it, that is a significant difference for Northern Ireland," Sacha Berendji told a Lords sub-committee on Wednesday.

He said the changes brought about by Brexit had cost the company about £30m to continue to supply both parts of the island.

Sir Jeffrey told BBC News NI his party's assembly members (MLAs) would attend Stormont on Friday to sign the membership roll, but that a decision still had to be made about the election of a Speaker.

The prime minister told BBC News that the protocol's rejection by much of the unionist community means "we have to fix it".

"I don't think it needs to be a big drama," he added.

Earlier, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said comments by the UK government about taking unilateral action on the Northern Ireland Protocol had gone down "really badly" across the EU.

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Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney believes a "landing zone" is possible on the NI Protocol

Mr Coveney said he believed there was a "landing zone" for progress, but that this should come through partnership "as opposed to grandstanding, threats and unilateral action which doesn't help anybody".

The US administration said it urged the parties to continue dialogue "to resolve differences and bring negotiations to a successful conclusion".

"We recognize that there have been challenges over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol and that talks between the UK and EU to resolve these continue," a spokesperson for the State Department continued.

"The best path forward is a pragmatic one that requires courage, cooperation, and leadership."

The election of a new Speaker needs cross-community support from both unionist and nationalist members.

A new Speaker would mean assembly business could take place for up to six months, even in the absence of a functioning executive.

The latest impasse comes after the 5 May election cemented a majority for assembly members who accept the Northern Ireland Protocol, including the new largest party, republicans Sinn Féin.

Friday's scenarios

No Speaker is elected on Friday

  • There would be no debates, committees or private member bills, nor assembly scrutiny of ministers
  • There can also be no appointment of a first and deputy first minister
  • The current ministers can continue to oversee their departments in a caretaker capacity, however, they do so without being part of an executive, limiting their powers

A Speaker is elected, but the DUP do not nominate for deputy first minister:

  • MLAs can take up their roles and can hold debates, sit on committees and hold ministers to account
  • However, no deputy first minister means no first minister as this is a joint office
  • Without the positions, there is no executive to take new decisions on matters such as the budget
  • Ministers can continue in a caretaker capacity to head up their departments
  • If there is no agreement to elect a Speaker, this can still happen within a six-month period

A Speaker is elected and the DUP nominate for deputy first minister:

  • This would mean Northern Ireland has an assembly of MLAs and an executive of ministers
  • The executive parties can examine issues such as a programme for government and the budget
  • D'Hondt, the process for selecting how many ministers each party is entitled to, can take place to re-allocate portfolios
  • MLAs can also become chairs, deputy chairs and committee members through this process
  • Debates, scrutiny, private member legislation and other routine matters of devolved government can resume

Sir Jeffrey said he believed the pressure his party was bringing to bear on the issue of the protocol was beginning to have an impact.

"It's action I want to see and until I see that action and I'm satisfied that it deals with the issues that need to be dealt with in relation to the removal of that internal border within the United Kingdom, I can't make a decision [on returning to government] until I see what is going to happen here," he said.

"The government has to act."

Speaking after meeting Mr Coveney, Ms O'Neill said Sir Jeffrey's comments were "not good enough" and accused the DUP of holding society to ransom.

"I'll make this call to him again today, join the rest of the parties who will be there on Friday, who will be there to elect a speaker, who will be there to nominate ministers for positions, who will be there to get down to business," she said.

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Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O'Neill accused the DUP of holding society to ransom

Ms O'Neill added that the protocol was here to stay and accused the British government of "pandering to the DUP".

Naomi Long, leader of the Alliance Party, said any unilateral action by the British government would be "utterly reckless".

"We are very clear on what they [the government] should be doing - they should be engaging very intensively with the European Union and any change they make to the protocol needs to be mutually agreed by the UK and EU," Mrs Long said.

Before his meeting with Mr Coveney, Doug Beattie, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), said the Irish foreign minister knew there was a "landing zone" for sorting out unionist concerns with the protocol.

"That landing site is no checks on goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland," he said.

Mr Beattie said that despite these issues, it didn't give the DUP "the excuse to stay out of government".

Colin McGrath, who was elected for the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in South Down, said the election of a Speaker was necessary to ensure ministers could be held to account.

If the move is blocked, he told BBC News NI's Talkback programme: "The DUP need to go off and consider can they legitimately use the word democratic at the start of their name."

'Worsen current arrangements'

The EU claimed the proposals would reduce paperwork and checks on goods entering NI from Great Britain.

But the government said they would "worsen the current trading arrangements".

The UK verdict was part of an escalating dispute which could soon see the government scrapping parts of the deal.