DUP 'sends message to EU' as it blocks formation of NI Assembly over Brexit deal

13 May 2022, 16:40 | Updated: 13 May 2022, 16:48

DUP Leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson with party colleagues, speaking at the podium in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings at Stormont before entering the Assembly Chamber to sign the Roll of Membership.
DUP Leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson with party colleagues, speaking at the podium in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings at Stormont before entering the Assembly Chamber to sign the Roll of Membership. Picture: Alamy

By Sophie Barnett

The DUP has been criticised for not electing a Speaker to the new Northern Ireland Assembly, meaning it cannot function.

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The Northern Ireland Assembly met on Friday for the first time since Sinn Fein became the largest party following a historic win in the assembly elections on May 5.

The decision by the DUP, led by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, not to elect a Speaker largely blocks the normal functioning of the Assembly.

The party is protesting against post-Brexit trade arrangements between Britain and Northern Ireland, with its leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson saying he is 'sending a clear message' to the EU and the UK Government over the NI Protocol.

Speaking before the first meeting of the new Stormont Assembly, Sir Jeffrey said: "I am here with my Assembly team today for the first sitting of the Assembly.

"My members will be signing the roll and taking their seats for the first time.

Read more: Historic win for Sinn Fein as it becomes biggest party in Northern Ireland

"As I have made clear this morning we have taken the decision not at this stage to support the election of a speaker.

"I believe that we need to send a very clear message to the European Union and to our government that we are serious about getting this protocol sorted out. Because of the harm it is doing, undermining political stability, damaging the agreements that have formed the basis of political progress made in Northern Ireland, to our economy, contributing to the cost-of-living crisis, this matter needs to be dealt with.

"While others sit on their hands we are not prepared to do that. We need decisive action taken by the Government."

The Northern Ireland Protocol, a part of the UK-EU Brexit deal which keeps Northern Ireland aligned with the EU single market for goods, places a trade border in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The protocol - now under fresh scrutiny following the election - was designed to ensure free trade could continue across the Irish land border, but it has been opposed by unionist politicians.

Read more: Northern Ireland veteran brands Sinn Féin 'murderers' following election victory

Last week's vote cemented a majority for assembly members who accept the protocol, including the new largest party, the republican party Sinn Féin.

People Before Profit MLA for Belfast West Gerry Carroll criticised the DUP for their "obstruction" to electing a new Assembly speaker as communities struggle with rapidly rising energy and fuel bills.

"For all their talk about the protocol, poll after poll has shown that it isn't a priority or the number one issue that people are vexed about," he told the Stormont Assembly.

"In many ways, this is a manufactured crisis.

"The vast majority of people did not vote for this and should not be held to ransom by the DUP's self-serving actions."

Sinn Fein's Vice President, Michelle O'Neill, who would be come First Minister, told MLAs that the public is hoping that Northern Ireland's elected parties have "the maturity and courage" to take responsibility, adding that "there is absolutely no reason we should be in a rolling crisis, even for one second".

"It is the job of politicians to "properly fund" the healthcare service and to agree a three-year budget and invest in the health service, Ms O'Neill said.

"This is our hour of decision, not tomorrow, and not for a moment longer can the DUP deny democracy, punish the public, boycott this Assembly and executive, and prevent us from putting money in people's pockets.

"Every one party in this chamber told the electorate that they would turn up on day one. Well, the DUP have failed on day one."

Naomi Long used her Assembly speech to challenge the DUP to change its mind.

The Alliance Party leader said: "We are here today in order to elect a speaker so the Assembly can go about its business so that those who have been elected can serve the people who elected them.

"We come here with a can-do attitude and a commitment to serve the people who elected us.

"Many of us in this chamber represent people who did not consent to Brexit in the first place. And yet we turned up for work.

"We also don't all have equality. Some in this chamber are more equal than others and myself and my 16 colleagues' votes will count for less in this next election than everyone else in this chamber. So if we're really committed to equality, we will also be committed to reform of these institutions.

"To turn up here, to sign in, to take salaries and to refuse to take seats is a slap in the face for every family that struggles to make ends meet, for every person who sits on a waiting list.

"I would appeal to the DUP to think long and hard before they insult the electorate by doing so today."

Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie said "people will go cold and hungry in their homes" if no speaker is supported by the DUP.

After standing in silence before MLAs for several seconds, Mr Beattie said: "Silence. The same silence we were subjected to for three years when Sinn Fein walked out. The same silence we're now going to be subjected to if the DUP don't support a speaker."

"People will go cold and hungry in their homes, and from this place there will be silence," he said.

"We can today make the point in regards to the protocol, but also elect a speaker in order to do some business so we don't have silence."