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Sinn Fein, DUP and TUV accused of ‘blocking Assembly reform’ after motion falls

Sinn Fein, the DUP and the TUV have been accused of “blocking Assembly reform” after an Opposition motion was voted down.

Three motions around reform of the Assembly to prevent future collapses and public sector pay were proposed by the SDLP on the first Opposition day.

The first motion expressed shame at the collapse of devolved government across five of the last seven years,

It also called for an apology to public sector workers for years of suspension, and another motion called for a swift resolution to pay negotiations for workers who staged a major strike in January.

On Monday afternoon the first motion was defeated by 47 votes to 33, with Sinn Fein, DUP and TUV MLAs voting against, and SDLP, Alliance, UUP and independent Claire Sugden voting for it.

No ministers were in the chamber for the proposing of the first motion and debate, which SDLP leader Matthew O’Toole described as an “insult to the chamber”.

Later during Executive Office questions, he asked deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly to commit to remaining in post for the rest of the mandate.

She responded by saying the best way to secure and stabilise the future of the Government in Northern Ireland is to “build constructive working relationships”.

She said work on reform is being taken forward by the Assembly and Executive Review Committee (AERC).

Speaking outside the chamber, Mr O’Toole said the public had been “badly let down”.

“At the first opportunity to show that Government will be different and to commit to departing from the politics of division and deadlock, the Executive has, sadly, failed,” he said.

Emma Little-Pengelly
Emma Little-Pengelly (Liam McBurney/PA)

“Sinn Fein and the DUP teamed up today, as they have so often in the past, to defend their toxic power to veto the functioning of government and to maintain a threat to public services over the lifetime of this mandate.

“Today was an opportunity to draw a line in the sand and say enough is enough, we will all work together in the interests of the people we represent.

“The SDLP Opposition will continue to campaign for reform that meets the needs of everyone in our society.”

Monday was the first Opposition day at Stormont in recent years after the decision by the SDLP to go into Opposition.

The SDLP and UUP previously formed an official Opposition in 2016, but this came to an end in January 2017 when then deputy first minister Martin McGuinness resigned, effectively collapsing the institutions until 2020.

The Assembly was revived in January after two years of disruption following the resignation of then first minister Paul Givan as part of the DUP’s protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Earlier, as he proposed the first motion, Mr O’Toole said public trust in the Assembly and Executive had been “profoundly damaged” by the periods of suspension.

“Our first motion today begins by expressing shame on behalf of this entire institution for its repeated collapses and the profoundly negative consequences they have had for ordinary citizens, workers and public services,” he told MLAs.

“To be clear, that isn’t about assigning blame, but it is about acknowledging a collective failure of the political class to deliver stable, sustainable government here.”

Referring to a call by Alliance leader Naomi Long at the weekend for Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris to get involved in the “heavy lifting” of Assembly reform, Mr O’Toole said his party “strongly disagrees”.

“A Tory Secretary of State working out his notice will not do the work for us. We need to do it ourselves, starting with these Opposition day motions,” he told MLAs.

“Let’s protect the best of the agreement and reform the veto that is undermining trust in the rest of it.”

Responding, Sinn Fein MLA Deirdre Hargey said her party is focused on delivering on public sector pay, the fiscal framework and plan for fiscal sustainability.

Nadhim Zahawi visit to Belfast
Sinn Fein MLA Deirdre Hargey (Liam McBurney/PA)

“If we’re seriously to address the underlying root causes of inequality, and indeed develop world-class sustainable public services, then we all must work collectively to address the funding shortfall, challenge austerity and transform our public services to meet the needs of our workers, families and communities,” she told MLAs.

“That’s what the public really want us to be doing here today and in the days ahead, and that’s where our focus is and will remain so.”

DUP MLA Jonathan Buckley questioned whether the Opposition was being “constructive”, and asked why there were no statements from party spokespeople with suggestions on how to address issues such as health service waiting lists.

He described the suspensions over the last 25 years as “regrettable”.

“The inescapable truth is that we live in a contested place,” he said.

“Consensus politics will be the only way we can stave off instability.

“The political arrangements in Northern Ireland must be capable of commanding the broad support of all traditions across our province.

“The motion before the House simply implies that devolution could still operate and succeed outside these parameters. That is fanciful to say the least. Cross-community consent has been essential to achieving progress in this province and it should be viewed as the solution and not the problem.”

Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw said reform of the Assembly has been a long-term policy of her party, adding it first published proposals 20 years ago.

“Parties are entitled to opt out of government, but they’re not entitled to force others to opt out too,” she said.

“What is required is recognition from all of us, including the proposers, that there were flaws in the original agreement, and that there was a review mechanism built into it. That was meant to iron these issues, but rarely actually did.

“We do need to remove crude sectarian vetoes, that is objectively undeniable, but we also need to ensure that the institutions operate in a way that is befitting of the entire society they’re supposed to represent.”

UUP leader Doug Beattie said he supported reform of the Assembly, adding no party should have a veto over devolved government.

“Quick fixes will not work. You pull the threads and the whole thing could unravel, so this is about sitting down and thinking this through in the long term and getting all the voices that need to be added to this,” he said.

“I’m up for that discussion. I don’t think we should be afraid of that discussion. It doesn’t mean that I am open to changing every single thing that needs to be changed within the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. It is still the bedrock of government here in Northern Ireland but I’m certainly up for that discussion going forward.”