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Saturday 9 December 2023 Dublin: 11°C

As it happened: DUP accused of 'thwarting democracy' as party blocks election of Stormont speaker

Here we go, or do we?

LAST UPDATE | May 13th 2022, 5:50 PM

THE NEW NORTHERN Ireland Assembly met for the first time today with the DUP following through on its pledge to block the election of a Speaker. 

It means that the Assembly has been adjourned to ‘a future date’ with an Executive not formed as a result. 

Just after noon today, the 90 MLAs gathered in the chamber and signed the roll of membership after last week’s election.

Sinn Féin is the largest party in the Assembly and is entitled to nominate a first minister but the first order of business was to elect a new speaker. 

After the DUP confirmed it would be opposing both nominees, the required cross-community support could not be secured and no Speaker was elected.  

The Assembly has now been adjourned with Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill saying that UK PM Boris Johnson is set to travel to Northern Ireland for talks on Monday.

Afternoon, Rónán Duffy here and we’ll get straight into it as current speaker Alex Maskey is already speaking.

maskey Youtube Youtube

Maskey is outlining that he’s been informed that Jeffrey Donaldson is not taking up his seat and is staying as an MP. 

Former party MP Emma Little-Pengelly has been co-opted to replace her leader on the Stormont benches.

As the MLAs sign the roll of membership, they will designate as nationalist, unionist or other.

Alphabetically, the Alliance party is up first, their 17 MLAs will designate as ‘other’. 

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MLAs must also make the following undertaking, a member cannot sign the Roll of Membership until they have given this undertaking: 

“I undertake:

  • to support the rule of law unequivocally in word and deed and to support all
  • efforts to uphold it;
  • to work collectively with the other members of the Assembly to achieve a
  • society free of paramilitarism;
  • to challenge all paramilitary activity and associated criminality;
  • to call for, and to work together with the other members of the Assembly to
  • achieve, the disbandment of all paramilitary organisations and their structures;
  • to challenge paramilitary attempts to control communities;
  • to support those who are determined to make the transition away from
  • paramilitarism;
  • to accept no authority, direction or control on my political activities other than
  • my democratic mandate alongside my own personal and party judgment.”

DUP members are now signing the Roll of Membership under the watchful eye of the clerk of the Assembly speaker Alex Maskey of Sinn Féin. 

The first order of business after the signing of the roll is the election of a new speaker and deputy speaker, the DUP has said it intends to block this

There’s former First Minister Paul Givan of the DUP, who resigned in February as part of unionist protests against the Northern Ireland Protocol. 


Here’s more of Donaldson’s explanation for his MLAs signing the roll but blocking the election of a speaker: 

I am here with my Assembly team today for the first sitting of the Assembly.

My members will be signing the roll and taking their seats for the first time.

As I have made clear this morning we have taken the decision not at this stage to support the election of a speaker.

I believe that we need to send a very clear message to the European Union and to our government that we are serious about getting this protocol sorted out. Because of the harm it is doing, undermining political stability, damaging the agreements that have formed the basis of political progress made in Northern Ireland, to our economy, contributing to the cost-of-living crisis, this matter needs to be dealt with.

While others sit on their hands we are not prepared to do that. We need decisive action taken by the government.

Here’s the plan for the next few hours, the Roll of Membership is scheduled to take until 1pm when there’ll be a break until 2.30pm when the Speaker’s Business comes up. 

In short, most of the action (if you want to call it that) won’t be happening until about 2.45pm. 

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Maskey now asks the 27 members of his own party to sign the roll. He also uses it as a chance to get some Irish in there, something he didn’t do for Alliance, DUP or People Before Profit: 

I’ll now ask members of the Sinn Féin party to sign the roll, le bhur dtoil.

Maskey, by the way, did not stand for re-election. 

Before entering the chamber, Sinn Féin MLAs held a moment of remembrance for Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed on Wednesday by Israeli forces in Jenin, in the occupied West Bank.

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This is about as close as we can get to the Roll of Membership, members officially take their seats by signing it.  

This can be done before the election of the Speaker or at any time during a sitting of the Assembly, the former is taking place here. 

A member cannot participate in proceedings until they have signed the Roll of Membership.

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That’s Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd, who failed in his 2019 challenge to Michelle O’Neill’s position as vice president of Sinn Féin. 

If he had won, it would likely have been he looking at becoming the first nationalist First Minister.

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The SDLP’s turn to sign the roll now. 

The party now has 8 MLAs, having lost 4 seats in the election. 

Maskey now invites the two Independents to come forward and sign the roll.

Both Claire Sugden and Alex Easton designate us ‘unionist’. Sugden is a former UUP member and Easton is formerly of the DUP. 

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We’re onto the next piece of business now. Essentially, Maskey has to read over the roll to ensure all is in order. 

To do that, the sitting is suspended for just under two hours until 2.30pm. 

We’ll keep this liveblog ticking over though with the devleopments outside the chamber. 

This is the Sinn Féin team of MLAs in the Assembly. The party won the same number of seats as last time out in 2017 but the DUP losing three means it is now the largest party. 

O’Neill says she encourages “other parties to urgently join us in the Executive”.

It’s only the DUP which is refusing to do this so that’s who that is aimed at. The UUP also has problems with the Protocol but party leader Doug Beattie has said they can best be solved with a Northern Ireland government in place. / YouTube

Here’s the video of Donaldson facing the media earlier and confirming that his MLAs will be taking their seats but not electing a speaker. 

Donaldson himself is not taking his seat and will be staying as an MP, with his seat being co-opted by party colleague Emma Little-Pengelly. 

Donaldson can return to Stormont if he so chooses but his position is that he will not do so until there is ‘decisive’ action on the Protocol. 

Hello again, Rónán Duffy back from lunch here with MLAs also minutes away from returning. Let’s catch up on what we can expect in the next hour or two. 

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Alex Maskey is back, pretty much on time. Three mins later as you can see in the corner there.

He’s firstly speaking about changes in rules that allows MLAs to speak in Irish or Ulster Scots without being expected to provide an English-language translation.

Maskey makes clear that if a new Speaker isn’t selected he will remain as Speaker, even though today is his last day in the Assembly.

Says it was an honour for him to fulfill the role. 

The last two years we have been able to meet the challenges of getting the Assembly re-established and keeping the Assembly functioning to take important decisions during the pandemic.

We were also able to progress a record amount of legislation for a relatively short mandate. I can say that none of that would have happened without strong cooperation between the parties.

“I have before that I wish the public had a greater opportunity to see the positive relationships that can and do exist here right across the chamber.”

Maskey says there is a “huge desire and goodwill both at home and abroad to see this work”. 

“There is a heavy responsibility upon all of you who are here today and who have taken your seats and this assembly into the future.”

Maskey gets a warm round of applause in the chamber and he jokes that “you’re obviously glad to get rid of me.” 

After checking the Roll of Membership, he notes that there are 18 members who have designated as ‘other’. So not Unionist or Nationalist. 

Those ‘others’ are 17 Alliance MLAs and one from People Before Profit. 

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Maskey asks if there any nominations for Speaker. 

Doug Beattie of the UUP has nominated his party colleague Mike Nesbitt. Nesbitt is a former UUP leader and UTV journalist. 

The SDLP has nominated Patsy McGlone. 

Both Nesbitt and McGlone accept the nomations. They will need to be voted on. 

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Michelle O’Neill is speaking now, she said there is “no needed to be in a rolling crisis”: 

The democratic outcome of this election must now be respected. Today, I stand ready, we stand ready to elect a Speaker, form an Executive and take on the leadership of the Northern Executive as a First Minister for all, under government that works for all of the people. 

O’Neill says that the DUP cannot “punish the public” and “prevent us from putting money into people’s pockets.”

“Every party in this chamber told the electorate that they would turn up on day one, the DUP have failed on day one,” she says. 

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The DUP’s Paul Givan is now speaking on behalf of the DUP, with his party leader Jeffrey Donaldson not taking up his seat. 

He thanks Maskey for his work as Assembly and notes Maskey is one of only three members in the chamber who was an MLA back in 1998 after the Good Friday Agreement. 

Giban is now onto attacking the Protocol and saying no Unionist member in the Assembly supports it. 

“We do not consent. That is a fundamental cornerstone of the Belfast agreement,” he says. 

The Democratic Unionist Party received a mandate at the Assembly elections, a mandate to remove the irish Sea border and our mandate will be given respect.

He says Sinn Fein is “abandoning the principles of power-sharing”. 

The Northern Ireland Protocol and the Belfast Agreement are incompatible. You cannot have both. So now is the time for action, not for further delay, or for procrastination. The Democratic Unionist Party’s position is resolute.

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Alliance Party leader Naomi Long is now speaking and has been thanking Maskey for his work as Speaker. 

It was a lengthy thanks and its noteworthy how everyone has been guinein in thanking maskey for the job he did as speaker.

Long says that Alliance Party support the choice of vote Mike Nesbitt and Patsy McGlone as speakers. 

She asks the DUP to change its mind and also support the election of a Speaker: 

Mr. Speaker, to turn up here to sign in, to take salaries and refuse to take seats is a slap in the face for every family that struggled to make ends meet…. I would appeal to the DUP to think long and hard before they insult the electorate. 

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UUP leader Doug Beattie has shaved his beard for the occasion.

He stands up and says nothing for a few seconds.

“Silence, the same silence we were subjected to for three years when Sinn Féin walked out. The same silence we’re now going to be subjected to if the DUP don’t support a Speaker,” he says. 

We can do something to end the silence without compromising the DUP’s position on the Protocol, which is an issue,” Beattie says. 

We can today make the point we need to make in regards to the Protocol, but also elect a Speaker, in order to do some business. So we don’t have silence. 

He describes Nesbitt as a man of honesty, as he nominates him as Speaker. 

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The SDLP’s South Belfast MLA Matthew O’Toole is nominating  Patsy McGlone as Speaker.

He says that McGlone “embodies social democratic politics, constitutional Irish nationalism, but critically cross-community politics.” 

He says, however, that his words are “largely in vain” because the DUP is “demeaning the entire democratic process” by not allowing a Speaker to be elected.  

The DUP, a party which has the word democratic in its name has decided to thwart democracy today.

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Jim Allister of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) says both McGlone and Nesbitt would both make “perfectly adequate and good speakers” but that it would not be appropriate to elect them in the circumstances. 

His reason is the Protocol, saying that unionist concerns are being “trampled on”: 

When a community is downtrodden, when a community is ignored, when it’s legitimate protests are trampled underfoot, then the unionist community is entitled indeed to say ‘nay’, it must. 

Allister gives way for Long to come in, with the Alliance leader saying that the DUP is using the leverage of “the pain of the public of Northern Ireland”. 

Allister comes back in and says Long “speaks in an irrational way, because the Protocol itself is causing pain”. 


People Before Profit’s sole MLA,  Gerry Carroll of Belfast West, is now speaking. 

He says he speaks as “the socialist opposition in this house”.

Carroll says the DUP’s actions of being obstructionist are “unacceptable”.

They ignore that plight of workers and those struggling, which is why we’re seeing Translink workers take strike action next week, which is why we’re likely to see Assembly staff themselves going on strike in the near future.

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Sinn Féin’s Aisling Reilly is now speaker as ghaeilge. She notes that members can now speak in Irish in the house with instant translation for other members in the house. 

“Irish is not a threat to any member or any member of society, it is something which should be celebrated,” she says. 

Just to be clear about the election of a Speaker and claims from the SDLP that the DUP is set to “thwart democracy”. 

The election of Speaker has to be approved by a majority of both nationalists and unionists, so the DUP with 25 of 37 Unionists  can block it by themselves. 

A number of MLAs now standing up to say their piece. 

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Andrew Muir MLA of the Alliance Party: 

The people of Northern Ireland consented and voted overwhelmingly for these institutions to be set up for ad for an Executive to be formed. No single party should be able to hold this place to ransom.

Jim Allister of the TUV says the Alliance is ignoring the principle of consent, where both communities should be entitled to decide on an issue. 

“I have to say it is somewhat cynical of parties who for years have been complaining that you can’t have majority rule to now be calling for majority rule,” Allister says. 

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Daniel McCrossan, SDLP MLA for West Tyrone: 

Regardless of how anyone may feel about the Protocol and the difference of opinion on the Protocol, no one in this house was given a mandate to sit at home tomorrow. Nobody.

“You should think long and hard with any distraction drama over a Protocol, because this is real life.”

Speaker Alex Maskey makes a comment that MLAs are at risk of “raising the temperature but making no further progress”.

He says that public is watching and that members are here to elect a Speaker, so they should not be attacking one another. 

Bit of an incident here. 

Gary Middleton (DUP) suggests that the Alliance and SDLP had “broken lockdown rules” during a trip to Dublin. 

Long intervenes and says “lockdown rules were not breached or I would not have travelled”. She urges Middleton to “reflect and withdraw those remarks”. 

Middleton says the people will “judge for themselves”. 

Maskey is getting a bit impatient about how long this is taking. 

He says he would ask speakers to conclude so the general public “can get out of their misery”. 

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Independent Unionist Claire Sugden thanks Maskey for his work as Speaker, says he has been “a fair Speaker and particularly in relation to smaller parties”. 

Sugden speaks about the election for female candidates, saying the election “did feel particularly brutal against women”.

She says that she hopes they can find a way through the impasse. 


Here comes the vote. 

Maskey asks for the approval of McGlone and Nesbitt as Speakers, loud Yays in response as well as Nays from the DUP. 

That means a there’s no consensus and a counted vote must be taken. 

Interesting point here, journalists this week had been asking Michelle O’Neill to use the term ‘Northern Ireland’ in reference to her possible position. She did so today. 

Back to the business of the vote. 

Tellers are Robbie Butler (UUP) for the ayes and Emma Little Pengelly (DUP) for the nays. 

MLAs are now emptying out to cast their votes. 


We’re now waiting on the result of the vote with the expectation that it will fail to get a majority of unionist MLAs. 

Overall, the election of speakers will likely have a majority of the Assembly but without cross-community support the motion cannot proceed. 

On the motion to make Mike Nesbitt (UUP) speaker, the motion is defeated. 

In total 54 members voted, of which 28 voted Aye, so a small majority. 

No nationalists voted.

There were 36 unionists who voted but only 10 Ayes, so no majority on the unionist side. 

In terms of the others, so Alliance and PBP, all 18 voted aye.

Next up the motion on making the SDLP’s Patsy McGlone speaker. 

The vote to make SDLP’s Patsy McGlone has also been defeated. 

In total there were 87 members who voted, with 62 Ayes, a strong majority. 

There were 34 votes on the nationalist side with 34 Ayes, so an unanimous majority. 

On the unionist side there were 35 votes, with only 10 voting Aye, so no majority. 

Again, 18 of 18 others voted Aye. 

The maths is fairly clear, with the the DUP’s 25 members being decisive in stopping a unionist majority in votes on both Nesbitt and McGlone. 

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Members, the Assembly has been unable to elect the Speaker today and therefore we are unable to conduct our first item of business. Therefore, we can proceed no further. Any further settings of the Assembly can only be held to first elect a Speaker and Deputy Speaker. 

I will remain in office until my successor is elected, I’m particularly conscious that functions remain for a Speaker to carry out in these circumstances, and particularly that it is my responsibility to engage with the parties an brin members back for a further setting to the elect a Speaker and Deputy Speaker. I would prefer that of course to be as soon as possible.

The Assembly is now adjourned. 

Just to be clear, we don’t know exactly when the Assembly will meet again. 

Outgoing Speaker Alex Maskey said only that the Assembly was adjourned until “a future date”. 

It all means of course that we won’t have a new Executive formed for now.

Ministers in the outgoing Executive can stay on in a caretaker capacity for six months, with the SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole asking Maskey whether MLAs can still submit questions to those ministers. 

He added: ”As a party which qualifies for opposition, what consideration will be given to us parties who qualify for opposition organising themselves into an opposition in order to challenge those caretaker ministers?”

In response, Maskey said the Assembly is “very, very limited in what it can do” but that MLAs can submit questions to ministers. 

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said it had been a “shameful day” for the DUP.

Speaking in the Great Hall at Stormont, after the Assembly’s adjournment, she said:

Despite the fact that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland voted for parties that wanted to return to government, that wanted to see the Assembly work, and despite the fact that even those who voted for the DUP gave them no mandate to block a return to the Assembly, we have found ourselves in that situation today.

“But while this is a sad day for the people of Northern Ireland, it is a shameful day for the DUP.”

Long continued her criticism of Donaldson and the DUP:

“I am appalled that we could not even challenge the person who made this decision because having been returned as an MLA only a week ago, he has disappeared off to his safety net at Parliament.”

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Sinn Fén’s Michelle O’Neill has said the DUP has “punished the electorate” by boycotting the election of a speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and that “the public deserve better”.

O’Neill said the DUP’s action to boycott the election of an Assembly speaker “isn’t tolerable, it isn’t acceptable, it isn’t good enough”.

O’Neill also announced that Sinn Fein MLA for Upper Bann John O’Dowd would be taking up the role of Infrastructure Minister in a caretaker capacity, after the former minister Nichola Mallon of the SDLP lost her seat in last week’s election.

We’re going to wrap things up on this bright Friday evening with clouds of uncertainty (as ever) hanging over when Northern Ireland’s institutions can return. 

Last week, Boris Johnson had said the UK government would not be taking an active part in efforts to restore power-sharing so his trip to Northern Ireland on Monday is certainly noteworthy.

We’ll see what happens then but if reports about the UK government’s plans to ditch parts of the Protocol are correct then it could be a particularly stormy week ahead. 

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