Stormont might never return if it collapses, warn both the UUP and SDLP
On the day Arlene Foster stepped down as Northern Ireland’s first minister, there was a stark warning that devolution may never return if the power-sharing executive collapses.
The leaders of both the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP expressed their concerns over the stability of Stormont after Mrs Foster addressed MLAs in the chamber for the last time yesterday.
During her farewell speech Mrs Foster, who was ousted as DUP leader last month and replaced by Edwin Poots, also said the ongoing row over Irish language legislation threatens to destabilise the devolved administration.
UUP leader Doug Beattie said he feared some politicians wanted the institutions to fall and the return of direct rule from London.
“I don’t think it’s something that people should be wishing for,” he said. “Because once Stormont collapses, it’s going to be incredibly hard to get it back up and running again, if we ever will do.”
Mr Beattie urged the DUP and Sinn Fein to show maturity and reach an agreement.
He highlighted that the next phase of Covid-19 relaxations in Northern Ireland will not be able to be signed off by the executive as scheduled on Thursday if nominations do not happen before then.
“If they have to lock themselves in a room, close the doors, and thrash this out until they get a solution, then that is exactly what they have to do for all of the people here,” said Mr Beattie. “I suppose it’s like everything here in northern politics – for some reason, there always has to be a winner and there always has to be a loser.
“And what we’re saying is find the centre ground here, find something that we can all coalesce around and try and get this thing moving, so nobody has to just give without receiving here.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood accused the DUP and Sinn Fein of turning Stormont into a “soap opera” amid the latest stand over the renomination of the first and deputy first ministers.
“I fear if this place comes down this time, it won’t come back,” Mr Eastwood told a Stormont press conference.
“Does anybody really want Boris Johnson dealing with our health crisis? Does anybody think Matt Hancock is the right man to sort out the issues in Northern Ireland? I for one don’t.
“And it’s about time these two parties stopped thinking about themselves and looking after their own interests and started thinking about the public out there. People are sick of it.
“We’re still going through a pandemic and waiting lists are out of control.
“What are they going to do about it? Stop all the messing, nominate a first minister and a deputy first minister and let’s get on with delivering all of those things in NDNA (New Decade, New Approach) and all the other things that people want us to deal with.”
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said the British government had agreed to move the Irish language legislation through Westminster after a meeting last night.
“A number of weeks ago the British government offered to legislate for Acht Gaeilge in this way,” she said.
“At that time we said our preference was that Irish language legislation would be delivered through the Assembly and Executive as was agreed in New Decade New Approach. We have pursued that option vigorously over the last number of weeks.
“We have engaged intensively with the DUP and with party leader Edwin Poots. He has told us that they will not be delivering Acht in this mandate.
“This legislation was negotiated a year and a half ago and it is now incumbent on the British and Irish governments to act.”
Earlier, Michelle O’Neill fired a warning shot to the new leadership of the DUP, stating that powersharing cannot be built on broken promises.
Sinn Fein’s leader in Stormont said the Northern Ireland Executive must be grounded in “fairness and inclusion”.
However, Ms O’Neill wished outgoing the outgoing first minister and former DUP leader well for her life away from Stormont.
Ms O’Neill said: “I want to say that Arlene, I want to wish you the very best for the future and for your family, for your beloved mother who you’ve spoken about on a number of occasions.
“I hope you get more time to spend with your family.”
Alliance Party deputy leader Stephen Farry said there was an onus on all the Executive parties to publicly commit to implementing all outstanding aspects of the New Decade, New Approach deal.
“The standoff may be between DUP and Sinn Fein, but all five Executive parties should be making clear that expect NDNA commitments to be delivered in a timely manner,” he tweeted.
Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister said the impasse highlighted the “absurdity” of the powersharing structures.
He accused Sinn Fein of engaging in “ransom politics” and treating DUP leader Edwin Poots like a “small boy”.
“The ransom price for Edwin Poots is to give in on their preposterous Irish language demands,” he told reporters at Stormont.
“So it’s a test of Edwin Poots. Is he going to be not just spoken to as a small boy by Sinn Fein, but is he also going to do their bidding? That’s the test for him.”
In a statement, NI Secretary Brandon Lewis praised Arlene Foster as a “truly dedicated public servant”.
“I would like to thank the outgoing First Minister for her service to Northern Ireland over nearly two decades. She has been a truly dedicated public servant and I wish her all the best for the next chapter in her career.
“It is now essential that the transition to new leadership is as smooth as possible, and I have encouraged both the DUP and Sinn Féin to ensure that their nominations for First Minister and deputy First Minister are put forward in good time.
“The people of Northern Ireland need strong political leadership. It is paramount that there remains a functioning Executive that is able to work in the best interests of all the people and communities of Northern Ireland, delivering on the issues that matter to them most.
“Over the coming days I will remain resolutely committed to engaging with all the Northern Ireland parties and doing everything I can to ensure that a stable and functioning Executive continues to be in place.
“History has shown that political stability cannot be taken for granted and we all have a responsibility to protect it. It is the foundation on which a peaceful, more prosperous future for all the people of Northern Ireland is built.”
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