The Democratic Unionist Party [DUP] has not disclosed whether it will support the election of a new speaker when the Northern Ireland Assembly meets on Friday following last week’s historic election.
The election of the speaker is set to be the first item on the agenda at Stormont following last week’s poll.
Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin made history by emerging as the largest party for the first time since Northern Ireland was formed in 1921.
Due to power-sharing arrangements in the country, the legislative assembly cannot function without a speaker, who must be elected with the consent of both unionists and nationalists.
But the DUP is refusing to nominate ministers until its concerns around the Northern Ireland Protocol are resolved.
The Northern Ireland Protocol - part of the UK’s Brexit deal with the EU - stipulates that checks must take place on goods coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, effectively creating a trade border in the Irish Sea.
While this avoids a hard customs border on the island of Ireland, unionists argue that this arrangement undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.
Although the DUP’s concerns are valid, the decision to prevent the assembly from functioning have been met with condemnation. Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill, who is now entitled to be named the country’s first minister, has accused the DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson of holding the country to ransom over the Protocol.
O’Neill said: “I'll make this call to him [Sir Jeffrey] again today: join the rest of the parties who will be there on Friday, who will be there to elect a speaker, who will be there to nominate ministers for positions, who will be there to get down to business.”
Even if the DUP chose not to nominate ministers to allow the executive to function, the election of a new speaker would enable assembly business to take place for up to six months.
Sir Jeffrey said that the DUP’s MLAs [members of the legislative assembly] would attend Stormont on Friday to sign the membership roll, but stopped short of saying whether it would support the election of a speaker.
Sir Jeffrey said: "It [intervention on the Protocol] is action I want to see and until I see that action and I'm satisfied that it deals with the issues that need to be dealt with in relation to the removal of that internal border within the United Kingdom, I can't make a decision [on returning to government] until I see what is going to happen here.
“The government has to act.”
UK prime minister Boris Johnson meanwhile said that his priority was upholding the Good Friday Agreement.
Johnson said: “That is crucial for the stability of our country, of the UK, of Northern Ireland. That means that things have got to command cross-community support. Plainly the Northern Ireland Protocol fails to do that and we need to sort it out.”
O’Neill however suggested that the UK government was “pandering to the DUP” and that unionists ought to accept that the Protocol will remain.
UK foreign secretary Liz Truss has suggested that the British government will continue to pursue a negotiated solution with the EU with regards to the Protocol but would not shy away from unilateral action which would override parts of the Brexit deal if a solution cannot not be agreed.
Truss’ comments came after the UK dismissed EU proposals to reduce paperwork and checks on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, amid concerns that they would “worsen the current trading arrangements”.
Simon Coveney, the Republic of Ireland’s foreign affairs minister, suggested that remarks around unilateral action were not well received by the EU, and that “grandstanding, threats and unilateral action” would not “help anybody”.
Coveney also said that he believed there was a “landing zone” for progress in negotiations over the Protocol.
Doug Beattie, the leader of Northern Ireland’s Ulster Unionist Party [UUP], said that any “landing zone” for progress had to include “no checks on goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.”
Beattie did however take aim at the DUP’s lack of movement on enabling Stormont to return, saying that it was no excuse for them to “stay out of government”.
Image taken from Wikimedia Commons