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No point in Assembly recall while protocol differences remain – Nesbitt

UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings at Stormont (Liam McBurney/PA)
UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings at Stormont (Liam McBurney/PA)

Political party leaders at Stormont would be better off meeting privately to resolve differences over the Northern Ireland Protocol than staging another failed attempt to elect an Assembly speaker, an Ulster Unionist MLA has said.

However, former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt insisted that parties need to work to restore the powersharing institutions, stating that challenges faced now are not as steep as those overcome by David Trimble.

The Stormont Assembly will meet on Wednesday in a third bid to nominate a speaker after more than 30 MLAs signed a recall petition.

The SDLP, which brought the recall motion, said the plenary session would serve as a challenge to the DUP to get back to work.

The Stormont institutions have been in flux since February when the DUP withdrew its first minister from the devolved executive, calling for the UK Government to act on the post-Brexit protocol.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s party has remained firm, resisting a number of attempts to resuscitate the powersharing institutions.

The DUP has made clear it will continue to block the election of a speaker, meaning that the institutions will not be restored on Wednesday.

Without a speaker, no further Assembly business can be done, including the nomination of new first and deputy first ministers.

UUP MLA Mr Nesbitt was unsuccessfully nominated for the role of speaker on the previous two occasions when the Assembly was recalled.

He said he did not believe the recall would achieve anything while there were still outstanding differences over the protocol.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

He said: “It’s not going to go anywhere. Everybody knows it’s not going to go anywhere. So we question the point of doing this.

“I think what would be better than a show, a public show in that chamber, is party leaders getting together quietly, privately, and trying to resolve the differences.

“We have challenges. We don’t have crises at the moment. Let’s deal with the challenges.”

The recalled sitting of the Assembly was originally due to take place last week but was postponed following the death of Lord Trimble, one of the key architects of the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

Speaking after a special session at Stormont where MLAs paid tribute to the Nobel laureate, Mr Nesbitt said: “There is only one fitting tribute to David Trimble and that is for all of us here at Stormont to get the institutions back up and running again, to deal with the issues including the protocol and to deal with everything that we have to deal with.

“What we are dealing with are challenges but they’re nothing like what David Trimble had to overcome 25 years ago.”

He added: “We need get need to get back to consociational powersharing responsibility-taking government here at Stormont.”

Coronavirus – Wed Apr 22, 2020
SDLP Stormont leader Matthew O’Toole (Liam McBurney/PA)

SDLP Stormont leader Matthew O’Toole said it was “outrageously cruel” for the Assembly not to be functioning in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis.

He said: “Since the Assembly last met, the crisis facing families and households across Northern Ireland has deepened.

“Energy prices are spiralling, fuel costs are prohibitively high and thousands are now facing the additional burden of back-to-school costs with no additional support from the people they elected three months ago on a promise to help.

“The challenge that the SDLP opposition will make to the DUP tomorrow is simple – get back to work or explain yourselves to the thousands of families who have been held to ransom for the last 90 days.

“The excuses about the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill have evaporated now that the legislation has passed its Commons stages.

“Continuing to deny people urgent support is unethical, immoral and outrageously cruel.”