DUBLIN — Northern Ireland risks an unwanted winter election with cash-strapped voters freezing in their homes, the first minister-elect warned Wednesday as the Democratic Unionist Party again blocked the region’s power-sharing assembly from operating.
Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin — the Irish nationalist party that overtook the DUP in May’s Northern Ireland Assembly election — made the grim forecast as the main unionist party used its veto power to block the election of a neutral speaker for a third time.
Without a speaker in place, the Stormont assembly cannot operate, never mind elect a new cross-community government as the U.K. region’s 1998 peace accord intended.
The deadlock means more than £400 million already provided by the Treasury in London — representing nearly £25,000 per household in Northern Ireland — cannot be spent on aiding an overwhelmed National Health Service or reducing voters’ runaway utility bills.
To the exasperation of the other four parties in Northern Ireland’s caretaker government, Democratic Unionist lawmaker Brian Kingston said the DUP wouldn’t budge until the U.K. government’s Northern Ireland Protocol Bill becomes law without amendment.
“Only with its passage undiminished can our institutions be freed from the dark shadow of the protocol,” Kingston said, referring to the post-Brexit trade rules that require EU checks on British goods arriving at Northern Ireland ports.
Given that the House of Lords in Westminster won’t debate that bill until September and amendments from Conservative peers are considered likely, the DUP’s demands may not be met until 2023 — if at all.
O’Neill said long before then, time would run out for the assembly to elect herself as first minister and a DUP nominee as her deputy first minister.
The U.K.’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland will be “required to call a second election” by early November if the assembly cannot fill the top two posts, she said, referring to changes to power-sharing rules passed by Westminster in May.