Crisis becomes circus in Belfast

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A stream of political posturing and grandstanding has masked the DUP’s refusal to accept the result of this month’s election to the Stormont Assembly, in which Sinn Féin emerged as the largest party.

The decision by Jeffrey to block the restoration of the Stormont Assembly by refusing to nominate a speaker was condemned by all of the other parties. Despite this, members of the DUP joined the other parties at Stormont to sign up for the collection their salaries in a tense day ‘first day’ of photo-opportunities and media interviews.

With his unionist veto now carrying a greater priority than international law with the London government, a cheerful DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson showed no indication of being concerned about public opinion.

The election of a speaker, which requires cross-community support from both unionist and nationalist members, would have enabled Assembly business to resume for up to six months, even in the absence of a full executive.

But for now, the DUP move has left Stormont shuttered, with ministers in a ‘zombie’ Executive still in place.

The action, after voters had rejected the DUP boycott and its arguments about the Brexit protocol, fuelled public anger.

Adding to the insult, Donaldson co-opted former DUP MP Emma Little Pengelly, who had been rejected in the most recent Westminster election, to his seat in Lagan Valley, which he has vacated. Donaldson has said he intends to remain at Westminster as an MP ‘until issues with the Protocol are resolved’.

Sinn Féin First minister-elect Michelle O’Neills, whose appointment was also blocked by the DUP action, said the situation isn’t acceptable.

“It is not good enough for the people here that the DUP is holding society to ransom, punishing society, preventing the establishment of a speaker and an executive to actually respond to the things people are worried about,” she said.

She expressed concern that the political institutions in the north of Ireland were being put at risk due to an “ideological war” between the London Government and the EU. “It’s a game of chicken that were caught up in the middle of.”

Ms O’Neill branded the DUP stance as “shameful”.

“It’s intolerable that they’re sitting outside the executive at a time when we have a cost-of-living crisis,” she said.

“It is absolutely shameful on their part.

“Here we are 11 days after the election when the people voted, they voted in large numbers for politics to work, they voted for parties to work together.

“We’re listening over the course of 24 hours to a situation around families struggling to provide food for their children over the summer months and what we have is no executive in place and that’s all because the DUP are stomping their feet about a Brexit which they helped deliver, the hardest possible Brexit which they helped deliver.”

Ms O’Neill said the already established joint UK/EU committee on the implementation of the protocol should be the route to resolve problems with the arrangements.

She said the public “want an Executive, want an Assembly. They want it working for them, they want money in their pockets to deal with the cost-of-living crisis and we can do all of that whilst trying to make the smooth implementation of the protocol.

“We will not be held to ransom by the Tory government, their internal fights between their own members. We are all being held to ransom here and that is not acceptable.”

A sense of pantomime only increased when British prime minister Boris Johnson arrived at Hillsborough Castle outside Belfast on Monday, ostensibly to negotiate a solution, despite it being public knowledge that he planned to renege on the Brexit deal.

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald has described her meeting with Johnson as “fairly tough” – and accused the London government of “placating the DUP”.

Speaking to reporters outside the gates of the Castle on Monday afternoon, a visibly angry Ms McDonald said she received “no straight answers” from Johnson on either the Protocol or restoration of the Stormont Assembly.

Accompanied by Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill and Conor Murphy, Ms McDonald told the media: “It seems to us absolutely extraordinary that the British government would propose to legislate to break the law. It’s an extraordinary proposal and one that would amplify the bad faith with which the Tory government has conducted itself from beginning of the entire Brexit debacle.”

Asked about the timescale for restoring the Assembly following a “future date” adjournment to elect a Speaker – which must have cross party support - Ms McDonald said Michelle O’Neill is the “first minister in waiting” and “we want to get on with things and get back to business”.

She added: “I’m sorry to report that we’ve had no straight answers really from the British prime minister except a confirmation of what we already knew, which is that in fact this impasse is entirely co-ordinated between themselves and the DUP, and if the DUP are acting shamefully in holding back government, well then the British government is behaving even more shamefully.”

She criticised the “very cynical antics of the Tory government” as she arrived for a meeting with Mr Johnson.

“People have had it now with the choreography between No 10 and the DUP,” she said.

“People have voted for real change and that’s what people are going to get.”

Her party’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill said they had told Johnson that the hold-up in the establishment of the Executive and the Assembly is unacceptable.

“Boris Johnson should know that the other parties, the vast, vast majority of us, don’t need a pep talk about getting back to work or getting back to business in government. It is in fact the DUP that is holding everyone else to ransom and that’s deeply unacceptable.

“We’ll also put it to Boris Johnson that there has been choreography between Downing Street and the DUP in this play of events. We believe strongly that the Prime Minister has given cover to Jeffrey Donaldson and his party and their antics of holding everything back, and we’ll be saying to him very clearly that that needs to stop.

“There is no reason why the Executive and the Assembly cannot and should not meet and should be working, and working hard on behalf of the people.”

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