Parties could force the DUP to return to Stormont daily

The DUP could be forced to repeatedly return to the Assembly to defend its decision to block a fully functioning Executive as there is no limit on recall petitions under Stormont rules.

t comes after a second attempt to elect a speaker failed on Monday.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s party has so far blocked the speaker’s election and the formation of an Executive following the Assembly elections as part of its protest against the NI Protocol.

However, nationalist parties have vowed this will not be the last attempt to resurrect power-sharing.

There is no limit in standing orders to how many recall petitions can be made.

If a petition receives 30 signatures and the acting speaker grants permission, the DUP could, in theory, be forced to return to the chamber every day.

It is understood that if the DUP failed to turn up to a recall debate, the UUP could elect a speaker without it.

Michelle O’Neill said: “We will come back again, we will do this again, because I am not giving up. We believe in making this institution work and we still, at this point, call on the DUP to join with the other parties who actually want to make politics work.”

She added: “The DUP are punishing the public. It is the public who are missing out. It is the public who are being held to ransom because of their actions.”

The SDLP said it will support “whatever action necessary” to restore an Assembly and Executive to deal with issues impacting people in NI, including the cost-of-living crisis and hospital waiting lists.

Party leader Colum Eastwood didn’t rule out the possibility of further recalls.

On Monday night he told the Belfast Telegraph: “I think we have to strike the right balance between pressurising the DUP to do the right thing and avoiding making a mockery of the Assembly.

“The bottom line is the DUP need to go back to work immediately. No issues with the protocol will be resolved by this boycott.

“Boris Johnson doesn’t care what happens with the Assembly. We have legislation ready to go to unlock the cost-of-living money from London. We need a speaker, at a minimum, to get the money spent.”

It now raises the question of whether Northern Ireland households will be able to avail of a £400 government grant to reduce energy bills.

Finance Minister Conor Murphy previously said an Executive was needed to release those funds and Chancellor Rishi Sunak admitted that all options had to be explored.

Under the scheme, all households in Great Britain will receive the grant from October.

To do the same, Stormont would normally receive proportional funding — £165m in this case — as a result of ‘Barnett consequentials’, the mechanism used to calculate spending in the devolved regions.

The Department of Finance (DoF) said on Monday: “The finance minister is committed to working with the Treasury to ensure the Energy Bills Support Scheme will provide assistance to citizens here given the absence of an Executive.

“Dialogue between the Department of Finance and the Treasury is ongoing.”

MLAs were in the chamber on Monday following a recall petition brought by Sinn Fein to elect a speaker, deputy speakers and to appoint a first minister and deputy first minister.

The two nominations for the role, the Ulster Unionists’ Mike Nesbitt and the SDLP’s Patsy McGlone, failed to secure the necessary cross-community support from MLAs. The plenary session of the Assembly had to be suspended as business cannot be carried out without a speaker.

UUP leader Doug Beattie has proposed that, in the absence of a functioning Executive, groundwork be laid and a consultation reopened on the budget to allow local people to have their say.

“This would mean that when an Executive is restored we can hit the ground running,” he said.

“This should also be an opportune time to convene all-party talks to start work on a Programme for Government so that when an Executive is established, a lot of valuable work will have been done. I have written to the head of Civil Service, Jayne Brady, asking her to convene these talks as soon as possible.”

A DoF spokesperson told the Belfast Telegraph that the department is continuing preparatory work on the budget to ensure it can be progressed as quickly as possible following restoration of the Executive.

“This includes ongoing engagement with party leaders and government departments,” she added.

The DUP is maintaining its position that it wants to see action from the Government over the protocol before backing a new speaker to allow the Assembly to start fully functioning again.

It described the recall of the Assembly on Monday as a “stunt”.

DUP East Belfast MLA David Brooks said the Alliance Party and the SDLP lack consistency in their approach to electing a speaker.

Mr Brooks said Sinn Fein blocked the appointment of a speaker and ministers in 2017.

“In 2022, both the Alliance Party and the SDLP are taking a different approach when the matter undermining devolution is the NI Protocol. This time, despite zero unionist support for the protocol, the Alliance Party and the SDLP want the government to operate as normal.”

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