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The latest bid to restore Northern Ireland’s powersharing institutions has failed.
The attempt to elect an Assembly speaker – a prerequisite of reconstituting the devolved legislature – was always set to fail, due to an ongoing DUP block on the operation of Stormont.
Devolution in Belfast has been in flux since February when the DUP withdrew its first minister from the governing executive in protest at the economic border created in the Irish Sea by Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.
The party has vetoed several attempts to resuscitate the powersharing institutions following May’s Assembly election.
Two previous bids to elect a speaker, which would open the way for the nomination of first and deputy first ministers and the formation of a new executive, have also failed.
Controversial Government legislation that would empower UK ministers to unilaterally override the protocol on Irish Sea trade, which it agreed with the EU in 2019, is currently making its way through Parliament.
The DUP has linked its return to Stormont with the progress of the Bill.
While it had been anticipated that the Bill’s passage through its Commons stages last month might have prompted the DUP to take an initial step back into powersharing by allowing the election of a speaker, the resignation of Boris Johnson and subsequent uncertainty over the next prime minister’s attitude to the Bill has seen the party delay that first move.
Ahead of Wednesday’s sitting, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he could not provide a timetable for his party’s return to powersharing, insisting it will only decide when the incoming prime minister is in office and has made clear his or her intent on the protocol.
Wednesday’s recall of Assembly, instigated by the SDLP, saw two MLAs nominated for the post of speaker – the UUP’s Mike Nesbitt and the SDLP’s Patsy McGlone.
Both politicians were also nominated in the previous two unsuccessful attempts to elect a speaker.
As on those occasions, the DUP voted against the nominations on Wednesday, wielding its veto to block either man being appointed.
During a debate before the votes, Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill directed her address at the DUP as she described the party’s block on powersharing as “unforgivable”.
“All of your actions will not wash away the protocol, the British Government legislating to denounce the protocol will not wash away the international rule of law,” she said.
“The reckless approach of the DUP and by the Tories in London is all about themselves and themselves only, their own selfish interests and to hell with the ordinary people, to hell with the people who are actually struggling to actually put a roof over their heads, to keep a roof over their heads, to actually heat their homes, and the pressures which they’re facing in their everyday life.
“But you don’t appear to care and I would encourage you to care.”
However, DUP MLA Brian Kingston denounced the Assembly recall as “stunt politics”.
“These proceedings are not a genuine attempt by the parties opposite to restore the political institutions, rather they demonstrate a wilful disregard for the views of unionists and the principle of powersharing itself in Northern Ireland,” he said.
Mr Kingston said the protocol had caused a “deep fracture in our politics”.
“That fracture will continue to grow unless it is dealt with now and is dealt with through arrangements which command cross-community consent,” he said.
Newly elected Alliance MLA Patrick Brown, making his first address, called for reform of Stormont structures to “put an end to ransom politics”.
He said it was no longer tenable for one party to be able to block the formation of an assembly and executive.
“Until this place can operate in a mature and democratic fashion, our ability to deal with situations like the cost-of-living crisis will continue to be curtailed,” he said.
He branded the situation a “scandal”, adding: “The blame for that scandal rests solely on the shoulders of the DUP.”
SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole, the leader of the official opposition at Stormont, said it was “preposterous” that the DUP was waiting for the Conservative leadership contest to play out.
“The cost-of-living crisis has got worse since the last time we met, inflation is now at nearly double digits … we know that there are projections out there that it could be £500 a month in energy costs for families. This is unprecedented in the lifetimes of many people,” he said.
“Are the DUP seriously saying we don’t need a government, that hundreds of millions of pounds can sit unspent at Stormont when people go without support while that cost-of-living crisis bites?
“I think that is frankly unconscionable.”
TUV leader Jim Allister said there was a straightforward reason why the recall was only a “stunt sitting”.
“That very straightforward reason is the protocol,” he added.
He said too many MLAs did not want to face “reality” that the protocol was incompatible with Northern Ireland’s constitutional position as an “integral part of the United Kingdom”.
Other than nominating their colleague Mr Nesbitt as a potential speaker, no UUP MLAs participated in the debate.
Ahead of the sitting, Mr Nesbitt said he did not believe the recall would achieve anything while there are still outstanding differences over the protocol.
“It’s not going to go anywhere. Everybody knows it’s not going to go anywhere. So we question the point of doing this,” he said.
“I think what would be better than a show, a public show in that chamber, is party leaders getting together quietly, privately, and trying to resolve the differences.”