December election looms as Northern Ireland Assembly fails to nominate Speaker

The DUP remain resolute on their position. Credit: Pacemaker Press

Northern Ireland's Stormont Assembly has failed to elect a new speaker just hours ahead of a deadline for fresh elections - five months after the last poll.

MLAs were recalled for a special sitting with the first order of business being electing a new speaker, SDLP MLA Matthew O'Toole nominated his party colleague Patsy McGlone, while UUP leader Doug Beattie nominated his party colleague Mike Nesbitt for the position.

The two nominations failed to secure the necessary cross-community support from MLAs.

The plenary session of the Assembly was then suspended as business cannot be carried out without a speaker.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak earlier urged the DUP to get back to Stormont.

His official spokesman said: "There's still time for the DUP and executives to get back to Stormont and we urge them to do so because the people of Northern Ireland deserve a fully functioning and locally elected executive which can respond to the issues facing the communities there.

"That was the Northern Ireland Secretary's message to all party leaders when they met yesterday but clearly the Northern Ireland Secretary has a statutory duty."

Sinn Fein Michelle O'Neill hit out at DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson for standing for election, only to then remain at Westminster which saw the former South Belfast MLA Emma Little-Pengelly co-opted into his seat.

The Sinn Fein leader described the current impasse as "his mess and a failure of leadership by him and his party".

She went on: "Jeffrey Donaldson and the DUP are in a perpetual standoff with the public, the majority of whom they do not speak for or indeed represent."

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said yesterday that he is “ready to fight” the new election.

Speaking outside the Assembly chamber on Thursday he reiterated the DUP's stance that issues around the Northern Ireland Protocol had to be resolved before his party would re-enter power sharing.

"We do not believe that sufficient progress has been made to addressing the issues of concern, to the people that we represent, we were given a clear mandate in the Assembly elections, that we would not nominate ministers to an Executive until decisive action is taken on the protocol.

"To remove the barriers to trade within our own country and to restore our place within the United Kingdom internal market.

That remains our position, so today we will not be supporting the nomination of ministers to the Executive".

Northern Ireland Secretary of State Chris Heaton Harris has vowed to call an election should power sharing not be restored by the end of Thursday.

Opening the speaking in the Assembly Chamber Michelle O'Neill said: "The electorate want grown up politicians to take everyday challenges seriously. The things that impact the lives of workers and families. Jeffrey Donaldson and the DUP do not take these matters seriously".

"To hold back power sharing and to hold down the public in the meantime is futile, it's reckless, it's shortsighted and it's also senseless".

Ms O'Neill argued that a return to direct-rule from London was not possible.

"If the DUP continue to block power sharing, let's also be clear, that direct rule as we've known it in the past is not an option. The alternative to power-sharing is joint authority between Dublin and London."

The DUP's Paul Givan defended his party's stance.

He said: "Power sharing if it means anything, has to be about consensus and consent.

"Not contempt, which is what we on these benches have been subjected to on every occasion that the recall of this Assembly has taken place over the past six months.

"Progress will not be made by trying to isolate, denigrate and intimidate the Democratic Unionist Party."

The former First Minister blamed the protocol for the lack of an Executive and called on the secretary of state to address unionist concerns.

"The DUP does support devolution," he added.

"We are ready to appoint ministers today.. but the barrier to devolution is not the DUP, it's the Northern Ireland protocol and when this is addressed we are ready to form a new Executive, both now and that will be our position after the election, irrespective of the outcome.

"What the secretary of state needs to do is get on with his job so we can get on with ours."

Alliance leader Naomi Long said the needs and interests of the people of Northern Ireland had to come first.

"What is in their interests is a functioning Assembly, a functioning executive, sustainable institutions and power sharing," she said.

She also reiterated her calls for reform of the institutions and an end to cross-community voting within the chamber.

UUP leader Doug Beattie admitted the protocol was causing "serious problems" but he argued those could be solved within a functioning Executive.

"We are being put on the windowsill of the United Kingdom and that concerns me as a whole UK unionist and as an Ulster Unionist and of course this is because of the protocol, and the protocol is absolutely an issue."

"We have to deal with those fundamental problems, there are and we do and we can't ignore it and we have been arguing this case since 2019 that we need to fix these problems. But to fix these problems, shouldn't be done at the detriment of having stable government. They can be done at the same time".

Mr Beattie went on to question the idea of joint rule between Dublin and London if no executive was formed before the deadline.

"Joint Authority, no one is defining what that is, it's just not helpful, it's not going to happen, we know it doesn't happen, the Belfast Agreement doesn't allow for it, we are just using it because we have to poke each other in the eye."

The SDLP's Matthew O'toole said he was "ashamed of this place”.

He went on: “While this Assembly sat mothballed and silent people’s homes have got colder, their trust in politics has fallen even further and their lives have gotten harder."

He also said that another election would be a “farce”.

"Without ministers, things will unquestionably get worse. Budgets will not rise, Nurses and Doctors will not be recruited, plans will not be made, investment will be stalled".

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