Stormont’s leaders have clashed on their interpretation of a contentious voting mechanism that enabled the DUP to veto an extension of Northern Ireland’s circuit-break.
Addressing the Assembly, Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill accused her partners-in-government of abusing a mechanism she insisted was designed to protect minority rights, not thwart health regulations.
DUP First Minister Arlene Foster, who also fielded Assembly questions earlier on Monday, defended her party’s use of the cross-community vote to veto two proposals by health minister Robin Swann to extend the four-week circuit-break by two weeks and one week.
She conceded it was a “blunt tool” but stressed it was not limited to unionist/nationalist issues.
The exchanges came on a day when Stormont’s chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young said it was “more likely than not” that the Department of Health would be recommending the introduction of more Covid-19 restrictions before Christmas.
The deaths of a further 14 people with Covid-19 were announced in Northern Ireland on Monday, taking the death toll recorded by the department to 869.
There were also another 331 confirmed cases of the virus recorded.
After four days of bitter executive exchanges last week, a majority of ministers finally agreed to an amalgam position proposed by the DUP that combined Mr Swann’s one-week extension of the circuit-break with a subsequent phased reopening of the hospitality sector.
Mr Swann and Alliance justice minister Naomi Long both supported that proposal but insisted they only did so to prevent all the regulations limiting the opening of hospitality and close contact businesses expiring by default last Friday night.
Much of the political fall out has focused on the use of the cross-community vote, which the DUP used to twice block proposals that were backed by all of the other four executive parties.
Despite voting against the final position, Ms O’Neill was obliged to present the amended regulations to the Assembly on Monday as part of her ministerial duty to assume collective responsibility for executive decisions.
She said it was a “matter of profound concern and regret” that the DUP had used the cross-community vote.
Asked by independent MLA Claire Sugden whether she would seek to abolish the mechanism, Ms O’Neill said the device itself was not the problem, rather how some parties use it.
The Sinn Fein vice president said she could have triggered it to veto the proposals that were eventually agreed last week, but chose not to.
She told MLAs that all executive parties should not be “tarred with the same brush” in respect of criticism of the mechanism.
“Is it the mechanism itself, which is designed to protect minority rights, which I absolutely fully support, or is it the use of the mechanism?” she said.
“And it’s the use of the mechanism that’s been called into question, it’s appalling that it was used.
“I wouldn’t use it, I could have blocked the last decision in the executive but I chose not to because this is a public health crisis. This isn’t about minority rights. The Covid pandemic is impacting everybody equally.”
Ms O’Neill added: “It’s the abuse of the mechanism that’s at the heart of the problem.”
Mrs Foster was challenged about her party’s use of the mechanism during Assembly question time.
She told the Assembly it was one of a number of protections built into the system to try to seek consensus but admitted it was a fairly “blunt tool”.
“It is lawful that that is used and any impression created that the requirement only applies to unionist or nationalist issues is entirely bogus and is at odds with the Northern Ireland Act,” she said.
Mrs Foster accused some of wanting to apportion blame but said she hoped future decisions could be made without resorting to it.
“We all know those who want to apportion blame and the use of vetoes, but the truth is we should never have gotten to that point,” she said.
“I hope in our discussions in the coming days, which again will be difficult, which again will be controversial, I hope we can get to a point without invoking all of that.”
Ms O’Neill also expressed hope that ministers could put the “unedifying” events of last week behind them and work together going forward.
“Last week was a bad week all round and I do not want to see that repeated,” she added.
Earlier on Monday, Prof Young said the four-week circuit-break had reduced the spread of the virus but he cautioned that the decline was now slowing.
Echoing comments by Mr Swann on Sunday, Prof Young said he felt it is more likely than not that further restrictions will be asked for before Christmas.
That raises the prospect of more discord at the executive before the hospitality sector is scheduled to fully reopen on November 27.