DUP threatens to shut down Northern Ireland Assembly too amid Brexit rules row

BELFAST — The Democratic Unionists may block the election of a speaker for the Northern Ireland Assembly, opening a new avenue of obstruction that would shut down the region’s newly elected legislature.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said his party’s 24 other lawmakers would appear at Parliament Buildings when the 90-seat assembly convenes for the first time Friday — but may well stop proceedings once they sign the registration book. Signing in allows newly elected members to start collecting their £55,000 base salaries.

When asked Wednesday whether the DUP would nominate one of its members to serve as the assembly’s neutral speaker, the next essential item on the agenda, Donaldson said his party might block a candidate from any party.

Donaldson suggested he would order the speaker’s election to be blocked unless the British government in London meets DUP demands for the post-Brexit trade protocol to be unilaterally abandoned. “Obviously I’m waiting to hear what the government have to say,” Donaldson told BBC Radio Ulster.

The assembly cannot legally operate without a speaker. Power-sharing between the British unionist and Irish nationalist blocs — a central goal of the U.K. region’s 1998 peace accord — requires both sides to agree on a speaker before electing a cross-community government.

Until Wednesday, most observers had expected the DUP to permit election of a speaker — particularly because the party was likely to fill the role as second-largest in the chamber. Sinn Féin, the biggest Irish nationalist party, had held the speaker’s chair since 2020 but the incumbent didn’t contest last week’s election, when Sinn Féin overtook the DUP for the first time.

If the DUP blocks election of a new speaker, this wouldn’t simply stymie a vote on government formation. The assembly itself would shut down, adding another layer of dysfunction to Northern Ireland’s unravelling governance.

As in any parliamentary system, Northern Ireland’s government ministers are supposed to be held accountable in assembly debates and committee meetings. Without a speaker, the assembly cannot hold debates or organize committees.

This means Northern Ireland’s leaderless caretaker government could face no parliamentary scrutiny at all.

Only seven of the coalition’s 10 positions remain filled following the DUP’s decision in February to withdraw from the top post of first minister, a move that also forced out Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill as deputy first minister. Another minister, Nichola Mallon, last week narrowly failed to retain her assembly seat.

None of the ministerial survivors — three DUP, two Sinn Féin and one each from the moderate Ulster Unionists and cross-community Alliance — has the power to take new decisions. As a result, Northern Ireland is unable to spend more than £300 million provided by the U.K. Treasury.

Reflecting the DUP’s isolation, other party leaders all met Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney during his visit Wednesday to Belfast. But Donaldson skipped face-to-face contact in favor of a phone call.

“We want the executive up and running, so we should all go back in and deal with the protocol,” said Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie, whose party wants checks on British goods arriving at Northern Ireland ports to be reformed and reduced, not removed. “We believe having a government that can argue the case on the protocol is the way to do business, whereas the DUP believe that having no government is the way to do business.”

Sinn Féin’s O’Neill, who would become first minister if the DUP relents, accused Donaldson of “punishing society” by blocking government spending on households’ soaring utility bills and Northern Ireland’s medical waiting lists, the worst in the U.K.

In Dublin, Prime Minister Micheál Martin posted a video calling for Britain to keep negotiating with the European Commission, not to reject the EU’s proposed reforms to the protocol’s operation as U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss announced Tuesday night.

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