Westminster passes legislation to prevent Stormont collapse

"Stable governance" is needed in Northern Ireland, a Government minister has said while urging the DUP to return to the Stormont powersharing Executive.

Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns made the remarks as legislation which will protect the Assembly from collapse passed its final stage at Westminster.

Northern Ireland was plunged into a fresh political crisis last week when the DUP withdrew Paul Givan as first minister in protest at the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol.

The step also automatically removed Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill from her position as deputy first minister and leaves Northern Ireland without a functioning Executive.

Conservative former Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith told MPs that the latest powersharing crisis at Stormont was a "deeply depressing state of affairs".

The Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill will allow for the Northern Ireland Assembly to continue without a functioning Executive for at least six months.

Its passing has lessened the likelihood of an early election as one of its provisions states the Secretary of State cannot call an election for six weeks after the resignation of the first or deputy first minister.

On Monday evening, MPs passed amendments to the Bill from the House of Lords, one of which allows for the legislation to be applied retrospectively, which will cover Mr Givan's resignation last week.

The Bill is expected to receive royal assent later this week.

Addressing DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson at Westminster, Mr Burns said: "Our message very strongly to the party of the member opposite is we would rather he returned his party to the Executive, a stable Executive, stable governance, is in the interests of the people who matter most in all of this, the people of Northern Ireland."

Mr Smith said: "Having worked with so many others across this House and beyond to get Stormont back up and running two years ago, last Thursday was deeply depressing." Sir Jeffrey said amendments to the Bill will be "irrelevant" if the issues which have led to the impasse are not resolved.

He added: "I would love to see a resolution in the next six weeks because I can assure you if that happens, we will not be found wanting in terms of reinstating those institutions and restoring ministers to office."

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson says the bill will have little meaning, unless a resolution is found to issues surrounding the NI Protocol

Sir Jeffrey went on to criticise the European Union for its approach to the protocol, telling MPs: "If the European Union insisted that your constituents' personal belongings are searched every time you move from one part of the United Kingdom to another, would you hear from your constituents about that? Might they have cause for complaint?

"And yet that is what my constituents will be subjected to if the European Union has its way and the full and vigorous implementation of the protocol is taken forward."

Meanwhile, Stormont politicians have been urged to work to "salvage" what they can from the "chaos" caused by the DUP.

Sinn Fein's Stormont leader Ms O'Neill was speaking in the Assembly after party whips met to discuss how to expedite outstanding legislative Bills through to completion before the end of the mandate.

Ms O'Neill was appearing in the chamber for the first time since she was removed from her post as deputy first minister.

She made particular reference to uncertainty that now surrounds a scheduled state apology next month for victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland.

"The DUP's actions in unilaterally resigning from the Executive are reckless and have caused concern and uncertainty for businesses, for workers, for families and campaigners on a range of many important issues," she said.

"In terms of the survivors of historical institutional abuse they have caused real hurt and real trauma.

"While the DUP must bear responsibility for that, I am also very conscious that those of us who are serious about showing responsible leadership and delivering for people can and should seek to salvage what we can from the chaos the DUP have caused."

Earlier, Assembly Speaker Alex Maskey told MLAs it was his intention the Assembly passes "as much legislation as possible" in the weeks ahead.

Opening the start of business on Monday, Mr Maskey also said he had had no contact with the Northern Ireland Office about ending the Assembly's mandate at an "early stage", which would see an earlier election than planned.

Ms O'Neill said there was a wide range of important draft legislation that needed to be progressed into law before the Northern Ireland Assembly mandate ended.

She said that included Bills on climate change, organ donation, integrated education, autism, safe access zones for abortion services, a ban on fracking, welfare mitigation payments and stalking protections.

"These are all hugely important issues which all have real-life impacts and real-life consequences," Ms O'Neill told MLAs.

"Sinn Fein wants to work with the other parties to make sure they are taken forward in the limited time we have left in this mandate.

"I stand ready to do this important work, and whilst time is of the essence, progress is still possible across a range of areas. That should be the singular focus of this Assembly in the weeks ahead."