DUP brands Stormont recall a ‘stunt’ as latest attempt to restore powersharing fails

Unionist party refuses to election of speaker after being urged by Sinn Féin to drop boycott to assist people with cost of living crisis

The latest attempt to restore the powersharing institutions at Stormont has failed, after the DUP branded a recall of the Assembly a “stunt”.

The party had been urged by Sinn Féin to drop its executive boycott to help deliver energy support payments to people in Northern Ireland struggling to deal with the cost-of-living crisis.

But during the recalled session of the Assembly on Wednesday, the unionist party once again refused to back the election of a speaker, meaning that no other business could take place.

During an often heated debate, Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie apologised after stating that DUP MLAs were screaming and whining “like a girl”.

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This was the fifth unsuccessful attempt to elect a Stormont speaker since the Assembly elections earlier this year.

The DUP has refused to engage with the devolved institutions in Belfast in the wake of May’s election, meaning it has not been possible to form a ministerial executive.

The boycott is part of the DUP’s campaign of opposition to Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol and the party says it will not return to powersharing until decisive action is taken to remove the protocol’s economic barriers on trade between Britain and Northern Ireland.

Negotiations between the UK government and the EU to resolve differences over the protocol are continuing.

Sinn Féin’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill told the Assembly that any resolution to the protocol difficulties would not be resolved at Stormont.

Ms O’Neill urged the UK and EU to intensify negotiations but she said that in the meantime it was vital MLAs were able to do their jobs at Stormont.

“It is clear for all to see that the DUP’s political tactics is to abandon our people to a Tory government intent on inflicting cuts and austerity on the most vulnerable in our society,” she said.

Households in Northern Ireland are due to be credited with a £400 payment automatically, to help with energy costs this winter as part of a UK-wide scheme.

In his autumn statement, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said all households in Northern Ireland would receive an additional £200 payment, in recognition of the region’s dependence on home heating oil.

While consumers in the rest of the UK have already begun to receive support payments, there has been no decision about how and when they will be made in Northern Ireland.

In a blunt message to the DUP, Ms O’Neill added: “We all want these issues to be resolved but, in the meantime, we’re elected to be here in this chamber to have people’s backs, to get the £600 out into their pockets. They are crying out for help. They need us to do our job. They elected us to do our job. So I call on you again – you should be ashamed of yourselves in this chamber today.

“The public need our support – do your job, turn up.”

Representing the DUP, MLA Gordon Lyons said: “This recall of the Assembly is nothing more than a farce.

“We know it is a stunt, the public know it is a stunt and the other parties know it is a stunt also.”

Mr Lyons claimed Sinn Féin was using the recall as a way to “distract” from claims made at an ongoing Special Criminal Court trial in Dublin linking the party to organised criminality.

He also said the levers to deliver cost-of-living support were in Westminster, not Stormont.

Referring to energy support payments, he added: “This was a scheme devised at Westminster, promised by Westminster and now needs to be delivered by Westminster.

“In the summertime, there was a way forward and a mechanism identified for delivery. Energy suppliers and the Utility Regulator worked hard to put that in place and at the last minute, the Government has started to consider alternative options.

“The time for dithering is over. They have the money, the systems and the capacity to deliver this and they need to get on with it.

“And that is key; there are things that we have the money, the power and the capacity to deliver and there are things which are outside our control.”

Speaking before the Assembly session began, Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie called on Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris to hold a summit to brief Stormont parties on the progress of negotiations over the protocol.

Mr Beattie said: “Today’s recall is gesture politics and it is borne out of frustration because nothing has happened over this past number of months.

“Through the whole month of November nothing happened and we are now into the first week of December and nothing has happened, and there is not likely to be anything happening.

“We have squandered two months. It is looking like we will go into January with no plan to deal with the issues we now face.

“Political parties need to know what is going on and we are receiving absolutely no briefs.

“I am now calling on the Secretary of State to put a plan in place for early January, to instigate a summit for all of the parties. To get a brief from the UK government, from the EU exactly where we are in regards to the protocol.”

On Tuesday evening, Mr Heaton-Harris reaffirmed his intention to cut MLAs’ pay by 27.5 per cent, but did not clarify when exactly the cut would come into effect.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has said he will make a statement on when MLAs’ pay will be cut “very, very soon”.

He said: “I’ll be saying something about that very, very soon, but I’ve only just gotten the powers to do it.”

When asked whether it was an empty threat in an attempt to encourage the powersharing institutions to be reinstated, the minister told reporters in Belfast: “I think I’ll follow through.”

Mr Heaton-Harris also said he was optimistic that the Stormont Assembly and executive could be restored by the new January deadline.

He said: “I will always be a glass half-full man, and yeah I think we can do it.

“The most important thing to help get the Assembly back and the executive up and running is to get a working deal on the protocol and that work is ongoing and I really do believe that can be done.”

Also on Wednesday, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said it would be a “great shame” if Stormont powersharing is not restored in time to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement next Easter.

Mr Varadkar also said it is unfortunate that, without the institutions “up and running”, nobody can legitimately say they speak for the people of Northern Ireland”.

Mr Varadkar’s Cabinet colleague Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney met with Mr Heaton-Harris in Belfast on Wednesday to discuss the powersharing impasse and the linked political logjam over the Protocol.

The DUP is blocking the functioning of the powersharing institutions in Belfast in protest at the protocol.

Unless the DUP changes its stance in the coming months, Northern Ireland will be without a powersharing government when the region marks April’s landmark anniversary of the 1998 peace deal that established the devolved institutions in Belfast.

Mr Coveney said the UK and EU both needed to compromise if a resolution to the row over Irish Sea trade was to be reached.

The DUP has been urged to drop its boycott of the devolution to help deliver energy support payments to people in Northern Ireland struggling to deal with the cost-of-living crisis.

Speaking in Government Buildings in Dublin, Mr Varadkar said: “It would be a great shame if we marked the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement next Easter and didn’t have the institutions that were established in that agreement up and running. I think that would be a real shame.

“What I would say to all the parties in Northern Ireland, when it comes to any issue, whether it’s the protocol, whether it’s economic issues, whatever they are – we want to hear the voice of Northern Ireland.

“Without an Assembly functioning and without an Executive, there is nobody who can legitimately say they speak for Northern Ireland. The parties and party leaders can only say at the moment that they speak for their parties.”

Mr Varadkar said the Government wants an executive formed and a first minister and deputy first minister elected.

He added: “We want to be able to hear the voice of Northern Ireland on any decision we make that affects them and unfortunately that’s not possible at the moment.”

Speaking in Belfast after meeting Mr Heaton-Harris, Mr Coveney said: “The big challenge here is can we get devolved government back up and running at a time when people in Northern Ireland desperately need political leadership here in Northern Ireland out of Stormont, and can we do that while issues around the protocol are being resolved or is it possible to resolve the protocol issues and on the back of that have a changed political environment here that can allow devolved government to function again.

“They’re the big issues and we need to do everything we can to make sure that we respond to them positively.”

He said the EU and UK negotiating teams had engaged on “a lot of detail” this week.

“They have difficult issues to resolve,” Mr Coveney added.

“They’ve got to find landing zones, that involves compromise on both sides and I think the EU has shown a willingness to show that level of compromise and I think they will respond generously to the UK if there’s an appetite to try and close out a deal here.” – PA