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Stormont Election

O'Neill promises to be 'first minister for all' and accuses DUP of 'holding society to ransom'

Party leaders are meeting today with Secretary of State Brandon Lewis across the day.

LAST UPDATE | 9 May 2022

stormont-budget Paul Faith / PA Images Paul Faith / PA Images / PA Images

SINN FÉIN’S MICHELLE O’Neill has said there is “no reason for a delay” in forming a power-sharing Executive and has accused the DUP of “holding society to ransom”. 

O’Neill said she intended to serve as a “first minister for all” in Northern Ireland and that there can be “no excuses” for MLAs not forming a government. 

As the largest nationalist and unionist parties, both Sinn Féin and the DUP must be part of the Executive but DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has said his party will not nominate any ministers unless there is  “decisive action” on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Newly elected MLAs have been meeting in Stormont this morning with party leaders also meeting with British Secretary of State Brandon Lewis. 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin is understood to have been speaking with each of the leaders of the main political parties in Northern Ireland today.

He spoke to Michelle O’Neill, Jeffrey Donaldson, and Naomi Long by phone earlier today and is scheduled to speak with Doug Beattie and Colm Eastwood later this evening. 

He urged all leaders to work towards setting up the Executive.

Donaldson said today: 

“It is the position we have held before the election, throughout the election campaign and will continue to hold, and that is until we get decisive action taken by the UK Government on the protocol we will not be nominating ministers to the Executive,” Donaldson said.

“We want to see stable political institutions, we want to be part of the Executive, we want to play our part and fulfil the mandate we were given by the people of Northern Ireland.

We are also clear given the damage and harmful impact the protocol continues to have on Northern Ireland, driving up the cost of living, harming our economy, impeding the ability of businesses to trade with our biggest market and fundamentally undermining political stability, undermining the principle of consensus politics. We need this to be resolved.

dup-leader-sir-jeffrey-donaldson-at-erskine-house-belfast-after-his-meeting-with-northern-ireland-secretary-brandon-lewis-following-the-historic-result-at-the-weekend-with-sinn-fein-overtaking-the DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson at Erskine House, Belfast. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The Protocol is a post-Brexit mechanism agreed between the UK and EU that allows Northern Ireland to effectively remain part of the EU’s single market for goods while also being part of the UK’s customs territory.

To maintain EU standards within the single market, some checks are required on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain, something which is strongly objected to by unionists politicians in Northern Ireland.

Speaking this afternoon, O’Neill said that the DUP’s issues with the Protocol were not a reason to “hold society to ransom”.  

“The people have spoken and they have spoken very clearly,” she said. 

“The message is one of hope, it is also one of optimism for the future, for the political leaders to work together and to make politics work.

That is my commitment as a political leader and as an incoming first minister. The electorate also demands that the parties get back down to business, to elect a speaker, to sit in the Assembly, to have it function, to appoint a first minister and a deputy first minister, to form a new Executive.

2022-ni-assembly-election PA PA

She added: “As a first minister for all, I intend to work with those from different political perspectives through partnership and not division.”

We have money to spend, we have money to put in people’s pockets who are struggling right now. We have a health service that’s on its knees and needs immediate intervention. I want to do all those things and we can do an awful lot working in partnership, but without an executive formed here today, this week. There should be no delay, that must happen right now. I worry that Brandon Lewis, the British government and the DUP are holding society here to ransom and that is not acceptable. 

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said any delay to forming a power-sharing Executive at Stormont would be “intolerable”.

She also told today’s press conference that Lewis had told her that tomorrow’s Queen Speech in Westminster would contain commitments to legislative for the Irish language. 

Tomorrow, the UK government will announce its legislative plans with unionists also hoping that it would contain “a form of words” relating to the Protocol. 

Clock is ticking

Donaldson, who is also an MP, was elected to Stormont on Friday but has also not committed to taking up a seat in the Assembly, saying he will discuss that issue with party colleagues. 

MLAs cannot hold a dual mandate, so if Donaldson continues as an MP his seat in the Assembly would be co-opted by another DUP politicians.  The DUP leader has until the end of this week to make his intentions clear in this regard. 

The Northern Ireland Assembly is due to meet for the first time since the election this coming Friday. 

Speaking this morning, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that the people of Northern Ireland want their representatives to take up their seats in Stormont, and there is now less tolerance for an “abstentionist” approach to politics.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland, the Taoiseach said both Sinn Féin and the DUP campaigned first and foremost on the bread-and-butter issues affecting voters, and that the constitutional question was less prominent in their campaigns.

“The real lessons from this election are that people want their public representatives to fulfil their mandates, to take their seats and to make the executive work for the people of Northern Ireland,” he said.

“The reasons people vote for you can be multifactorial … I think parties need to be careful that they don’t sort of adopt the mandates they have and create a rationale as to why they got those mandates.

“If you look at the conduct of the campaign, I do expect the DUP did raise the protocol issue. But in its five point plan, the other four points were essentially about the cost of living issues, plans in and around housing, health and so forth.”

2022-ni-assembly-election Alliance Party leader Naomi Long with her party's newly elected MLAs. PA PA

The non-aligned Alliance Party, which more that doubled its representation from eight to 17 seats, has been gathering this morning in Stormont. 

Joined by her enlarged team today, Long said that her party wants to see “a government up and running as quickly as possible”. 

“We’re going to see a functioning Assembly hopefully pretty soon, that will be the easier part of all of this, but to get a functioning Executive we need the DUP to step up to the plate. With power comes responsibility, and people now need to take the responsibility seriously,” she said. 

I think the DUP need to reflect on their mishandling of Brexit, on the fact they had huge influence at Westminster and overplayed their hand. It would be foolhardy for them to overplay their hand with devolution because that is a gamble that Northern Ireland can’t afford to take.

Last week’s Assembly elections returned an historic result at the weekend with Sinn Féin overtaking the DUP to become the first nationalist or republican party to emerge top at Stormont.

This means the Sinn Féin Stormont leader O’Neill is in line to become the first nationalist or republican first minister. Her party has expressed its eagerness to re-enter government, but the DUP, as the second largest party, must nominate a deputy first minister to serve alongside her in the joint office.

Speaking today, UK Government minister Michelle Donelan said that scrapping the protocol “is on the table as one of the options”. 

Resolving the Northern Ireland Protocol “has to be our absolute priority”, she said.

Donelan told Sky News: “We will not have a functioning executive unless we can resolve this problem, but I think what we need to be doing is negotiating, trying to find a tangible solution.”

“I can’t outline the solution at the moment because we are working at pace with the EU to try and negotiate that.” 

– Additional reporting from Christina Finn, Emer Moreau and PA

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