Northern Ireland’s Stormont assembly has failed to elect a speaker for the sixth time since elections last May, with the biggest pro-UK political party blocking the move as it presses for sweeping changes to post-Brexit trading arrangements for the region.
The Democratic Unionist party’s continuing boycott came as long-running negotiations between London and Brussels to resolve months of wrangling over the so-called Northern Ireland protocol looked to be edging towards a deal.
The DUP’s opposition also scuppered a bid by nationalist party Sinn Féin to use the session to pass organ donation legislation, inspired by a popular campaign by the family of six-year-old Dáithi Mac Gabhann, a boy who has been waiting four years for a heart transplant.
Stormont, which has been paralysed since May, must elect a speaker in order to approve legislation, including the implementation of the organ donation opt-out bill, dubbed “Dáithí’s law”.
While the assembly has been unable to function, some crucial legislation, including the region’s Budget, has been passed at Westminster. With the boy and his family at Stormont to watch the proceedings, the DUP urged the UK government in Westminster to use its powers to pass the bill instead.
The main unionist party maintains it cannot return to the Stormont assembly or allow the formation of the region’s power-sharing executive, which it has blocked since Sinn Féin won the elections in May, until its demands on the protocol are met.
Under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended Northern Ireland’s three decades-old conflict over British rule of the region, the main nationalist and unionist communities must share power together and either side has a veto over the devolved political institutions.
Under the post-Brexit deal, which is part of the UK’s wider agreement reached when it left the bloc in early 2020, Northern Ireland remained in the EU’s single market for goods and a customs border was put in between the region and mainland Britain to avoid the politically sensitive issue of erecting a border on the island of Ireland.
The DUP argues the border in the Irish Sea dilutes the region’s status within the UK. The protocol also left the EU’s top court, the European Court of Justice, as ultimate arbiter of the Brexit rules in the region — a role some unionists say treats Northern Ireland like a colony of Brussels.
The long-running talks between London and Brussels are expected to remove customs checks on goods staying in Northern Ireland but the deal would anger hardline unionists and Eurosceptics in the UK Conservative party if it includes a continuing role for the ECJ.
“Our conditions for a return of devolution are the seven tests,” a DUP spokesman said, referring the party’s demands for a revised protocol deal, including the removal of the trade border in the Irish Sea.
The party believes its hardline strategy is working. “The government has had three years to sort the protocol and failed until we stepped out of devolution,” the spokesman added.
The UK government’s Northern Ireland Office said it was “extremely disappointing” that Stormont had failed to elect a speaker. “The secretary of state [Chris Heaton-Harris] shares the frustrations of Dáithí and the Mac Gabhann family that the political impasse in Northern Ireland is causing unnecessary delays to life-saving legislation,” a spokesperson said.
“The quickest and simplest way to implement Dáithí’s law remains for the Northern Ireland parties to progress this legislation through the assembly,” the spokesperson added.