Irish PM says DUP cannot be allowed to block NI Assembly

By Stephen Walker
BBC News NI Political Correspondent

Micheál MartinImage source, PA Media
Image caption,
Micheál Martin said he had always been critical of any moves to "collapse the assembly"

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) cannot be allowed to block the Northern Ireland Assembly the Irish PM has said.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has met the main Stormont parties to discuss the Northern Ireland Protocol and the assembly crisis.

The DUP is refusing to return to power-sharing unless its issues with the protocol are resolved.

Mr Martin said those issues can be resolved, but only in a negotiated settlement between the UK and EU.

The assembly is not sitting after the DUP refused to support the election of a new Speaker following the election on 5 May as part of its ongoing protest against the protocol.

The party took the action as part of its ongoing protest over the post-Brexit trade arrangement known as the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Without the election of a new Speaker, assembly members (MLAs) cannot take their seats at Stormont.

After his meetings, Mr Martin said all parties had indicated a "desire" to have the assembly running and an executive formed.

"It's my view, that after any election in any democratic part of the world, the natural follow-on is the convening of the parliament that has been elected by the people," he said.

The taoiseach said he accepted there are some issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol, but said they could only be resolved with "substantive, serious negotiations between the European Union and the UK government".

Referring to the DUP, Mr Martin said the party was willing to take up the post of deputy first minister in any new executive, but their issues with the protocol were preventing that happening.

Mr Martin added that "the assembly and the executive should operate in parallel with the UK government and the EU in the context of substantive negotiation to resolve issues with the protocol".

Image caption,
The SDLP said it had a "good" chat with the taoiseach

It is the first time the DUP leader, Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Doug Beattie and Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader Colum Eastwood, have met the taoiseach in person since the assembly election.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said his party and the taoiseach both agreed the assembly and the executive needs to formed immediately.

He said: "People have real priorities out there. The cost of living crisis is crippling families all across the north - we know the number of people who are on health waiting lists - and Jeffrey Dondaldson is playing a political game about an issue he cant resolve.

"Playing these sorts of games will not sort anybody's problems out, so it's over to Jeffrey Donaldson now.

"He can sit back and let the pressure build on him if he wants. My view is we should be sitting down together, working on the people's priorities."

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney also met on Friday.

Following the meeting, Mr Coveney tweeted that he had "made clear" to Ms Truss "Ireland's opposition to the UK breaching international law".

"The UK needs to get back to talks with the EU," he added.

'Power-sharing impossible'

It comes as the US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the protocol must remain.

Mrs Pelosi said the UK government's suggestion it could act unilaterally to change the post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland was deeply concerning and could negatively affect the Good Friday Agreement.

Responding to Mrs Pelosi, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said it was "absolutely evident" that the protocol was undermining the agreement.

"It has made it impossible to have power-sharing on the basis of consensus," he told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster.

"If Nancy Pelosi wants to see the agreement protected then she needs to recognise that in fact it's the protocol that is harming and undermining the agreement and that's why we have to deal with it."

UUP leader Doug Beattie said Mrs Pelosi's comments "are not just deeply regrettable and misinformed, but are completely wrong".

He told the BBC's Talkback programme the comments "would harden people's positions" .

"It is more negative than positive, I think we all have to watch our language in regards to these negotiations, but what we do need to do is make sure we keep negotiating," he said.

Mr Beatie said he would support the UK government changing the rules to allow an assembly Speaker to be elected.

Under existing rules, both unionists and nationalists must agree to a Speaker, which is why the DUP have been able to stall the process.

Image caption,
Michelle O'Neill said it was important for Micheál Martin to assert his role as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement

Ahead of his meeting with the taoiseach, Sir Jeffrey said "the unionist viewpoint can no longer be ignored".

In a statement, Sir Jeffrey added that power-sharing "only works with the consent of unionists and nationalists" and while he wanted to see Stormont's political institutions working fully, that could only happen by "building consensus".

Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O'Neill said Mr Martin had "a very significant role in terms of being the co-guarantor" of the Good Friday Agreement and it was important for him to "assert" that role at a time when "democracy is being denied".

She said the DUP was "holding up progress" and it was "unacceptable" that money could not be put into the pockets of people to deal with a cost of living crisis because there was no executive.

The basics

  • The Northern Ireland Protocol is part of the Brexit deal: it means lorries don't face checkpoints when they go from Northern Ireland (in the UK) to the Republic of Ireland (in the EU)
  • Instead, when goods arrive in Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK (England, Scotland and Wales), they are checked against EU rules
  • The UK and the EU chose this arrangement because the Irish border is a sensitive issue due to Northern Ireland's troubled political history

On Thursday, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said she had a "good conversation" with Mr Martin.

She said the EU and Ireland were on "the same page" when it came to the protocol and they agreed "international agreements cannot be disapplied unilaterally".

Mr Martin also held an hour-long video call with Alliance Party leader Naomi Long on Thursday.

Earlier this week he met Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O'Neill in Dublin, ahead of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's visit to Belfast.

On Friday, Ms O'Neill met with Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in Edinburgh, to discuss what she called "a number of shared priorities", as well as the political developments at Stormont.