The latest attempt to restore Northern Ireland’s powersharing institutions has failed after the DUP continued to block the election of a speaker at Stormont.
Assembly members (MLAs) were recalled on Tuesday to attempt to pass “Dáithí’s Law”, which would introduce a system of opt-out organ donation in Northern Ireland but which cannot be implemented due to the continued lack of an Assembly or Executive.
There was no expectation ahead of the recall that it would be successful, as the DUP had made clear it would not drop its opposition to the nomination of a speaker, which is the prerequisite for all other Assembly business. It is part of the DUP’s continued protest against the Northern Ireland protocol, which has left the North without a fully-functioning Executive or Assembly for more than a year.
Efforts to change the law will now move to Westminster, but it is unclear whether this will be possible. The DUP is to table an amendment to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill, which is due in the House of Commons next week.
The Speaker’s Office at Westminster will decide whether to admit the amendment. The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) has already indicated that the scope of the Bill is very narrow and the organ donation legislation is highly unlikely to fall within this.
A spokeswoman for the NIO said it was “extremely disappointing” that the Northern parties had been unable to elect a speaker, adding that the political impasse was “causing unnecessary delays to life-saving legislation”.
“The quickest and simplest way to implement Dáithí's Law remains for the Northern Ireland parties to progress this legislation through the Assembly,” she said.
Six-year-old Dáithí Mac Gabhann, who is waiting for a heart transplant and gave his name to the legislation, watched Tuesday’s proceedings from the public gallery. His father, Máirtín Mac Gabhann, said it was a “very disappointing day” and Westminster was now their “last hope”.
He added: “We’re not letting this rest, we’re still going to fight … now we are taking the fight to London.”
Speaking in the Assembly chamber during the recall debate, former DUP first minister Paul Givan defended his party’s stance, saying “the Secretary of State and other parties … know the position that the DUP takes in terms of the restoration of these institutions”.
He accused Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris of mixed messaging and said he should “work in a manner which is much more constructive and apolitical than the approach he has taken to date”, adding that the UK government had previously legislated on other devolved matters.
The first minister designate, Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill, said more than 130 people in Northern Ireland were waiting for an organ and all the political parties supported the legislation.
“There is little else to be said. The power is in the gift of each party and every single MLA by legislating in this place here today,” she said. “Not to do so is a dereliction of duty.”
Alliance leader Naomi Long urged the DUP to “do the right thing” and elect a speaker to “open the door for this Assembly to pass the regulations and give people who are waiting for transplant surgery a better chance of survival, because for them this is a life-and-death issue”.
The UUP’s Robin Swann, who was minister for health when Dáithí’s Law was originally approved by the Assembly, said it was a law which would “not just save lives, but change lives”. While his preference was for it to be implemented at Stormont, he said the UK government should intervene to bring it in at Westminster.
SDLP MLA Colin McGrath said the continued failure to elect a speaker was an “absolute embarrassment”, and every day the legislation was delayed risked the deaths of more people on the organ waiting list.
During Tuesday’s session, two candidates for speaker – Mike Nesbitt of the UUP and the SDLP’s Patsy McGlone – were nominated, but neither was elected as they did not receive the required cross-community support.