Speaker urges parties to grasp spirit of 1998 peace deal and restore Assembly

Stormont speaker Alex Maskey has urged political parties to uphold the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement by restoring the devolved powersharing institutions.

In a New Year message to all MLAs, Mr Maskey said it cannot be denied that the “reputation of the Assembly has not matched the high hopes that existed for it in 1998”.

Devolution has been in flux since last February when the DUP withdrew its first minister from the ministerial executive in protest at Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.

Outgoing speaker Mr Maskey has been unable to leave his position because several attempts to elect a new speaker and restore the Assembly and executive have been frustrated by the DUP.

In his letter to MLAs, Mr Maskey said he would make arrangements for the Assembly to meet and elect a new speaker “as soon as it is clear that this can be achieved”.

He added: “It is not for me to comment on the issues behind the current impasse.

“Members come to the Assembly with their own views, and the right to express those has to be respected.

“However, no-one should be surprised that the speaker will always want to see the Assembly fully functioning at the earliest opportunity.

“It is important that the Assembly should be able to exercise all the powers devolved to it, particularly at a time when the pressures on our community are increasing by the day.”

Mr Maskey added: “It will also be 25 years since this Assembly first sat in July 1998.

“While I hope I will no longer be in office at that point, it is important that these anniversaries should be marked at Parliament Buildings and I will be liaising with officials and the Assembly Commission to have planning in place to ensure that happens.

“Despite the numerous subsequent negotiations there have been to focus on outstanding issues, undoubtedly the momentum has been disrupted throughout the past 25 years.

“It also cannot be denied that the reputation of the Assembly has not matched the high hopes that existed for it in 1998.

Alex Maskey
Alex Maskey delivered a new year message to MLAs (Liam McBurney/PA)

“Since the return of the Assembly in January 2020, I made clear on a number of occasions that the Assembly remained on probation and had much to do to build public confidence.

“Some three years on, that will now be an even bigger task.

“However, regardless of past disappointments, it remains imperative that we return to having a functioning Assembly.”

The speaker continued: “However, as we focus on seeking to see the Assembly restored in 2023, I would ask that we set our sights higher than just having parties taking up posts because they are entitled, or expected, to do so.

“Given the scale of the challenges ahead, we need every party to uphold the spirit, as well as the letter of the Agreement, being determined to make the institutions work collectively, to build agreement, beyond just individual party views, to protect the interests of every part of our community.

“I believe that we all want to see issues resolved to have the Assembly restored and I would again encourage that to happen as soon as possible in this new year.”

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has invited Stormont leaders for fresh talks this Wednesday in his latest attempt to break the powersharing deadlock.

Twitter hacking
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has convened talks with NI political leaders this week (Niall Carson/PA)

If a new executive is not formed by January 19, the Government assumes a legal responsibility to call a snap Assembly election by April 13.

Irish premier Leo Varadkar, who was reappointed Taoiseach for a second term last month, is also due to visit Northern Ireland before the deadline.

Talks between the UK and EU to resolve the impasse over the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol are continuing, with both sides continuing to say a deal is possible.

The DUP has made clear it will not allow a return to powersharing until radical changes to the protocol are delivered.

The region’s largest unionist party has blocked the formation of a new administration following May’s Assembly election and prevented the Assembly meeting to conduct legislative business as part of its protest over the Irish Sea trading arrangements.

It claims the protocol has undermined Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom by creating economic barriers on trade entering the region from Great Britain.

Mr Heaton-Harris has cut the pay of MLAs by 27.5% to reflect the fact they are currently not doing their jobs as legislators.