Back seat | 

UK secretary of state tells Northern Irish parties: Sort Stormont out yourselves

Mr Lewis signalled he would be taking a back seat as another political crisis looms at Stormont

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis

Suzanne Breen

Northern Ireland’s five party leaders will today meet UK Secretary of State Brandon Lewis as newly-elected MLAs gather at Stormont — despite no immediate hope of a new Executive being formed.

Mr Lewis signalled he would be taking a back seat as another political crisis looms at Stormont, and the Government would not be leading any talks initiative.

DUP sources have indicated that the party won’t nominate a Deputy First Minister to serve alongside Michelle O’Neill while the Protocol issue remains unaddressed.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson will travel to London tomorrow to set out the legislative changes that he wants the Government to make.

No major announcement on the Protocol is expected in the Queen’s Speech on Tuesday.

The DUP will argue that its vote, along with the TUV’s, is a mandate from unionists to remove the Protocol.

Upper Bann MLA Jonathan Buckley said: “Either the Secretary of State wants an executive or a Protocol — he can’t have both.”

A reception will be held for new MLAs at Stormont tomorrow with the first meeting of the Assembly likely on Thursday when a new Speaker will be elected.

The party leaders are set to meet at Stormont this afternoon. If a new Executive is formed later this year, Sinn Fein would have four ministers under the d’Hondt system, the DUP three, and Alliance and the UUP one apiece.

A justice minister would also be elected in a cross-community vote.

Asked if his party would go into government or opposition, Doug Beattie said: “Ulster Unionist MLAs will meet in parliament buildings on Monday. Lots of discussions will take place in the coming days by all parties.

“The people of Northern Ireland want the devolved institutions up and running as soon as possible. We will continue to play a positive role and any decisions the UUP make will be in the context of what’s best for Northern Ireland and its people.”

Without a new Executive in place, the previous one can continue in a shadow format for six months without a First and Deputy First Minister.

A series of internal DUP meetings will take place in the coming days. Sir Jeffrey has one week to decide if he will resign as Lagan Valley MP to sit as an MLA or if he is going to co-opt another party member into his Stormont seat.

Speaking ahead of meeting the party leaders, Mr Lewis pledged that the Government would address issues relating to the Protocol. However, he urged the parties to form an Executive as soon as possible.

“The people of Northern Ireland deserve a stable and accountable devolved government and I will continue to urge the leaders of Northern Ireland political parties to fulfil their responsibilities and form an Executive as soon as possible,” he said.

“This process must begin with the nomination of an Assembly Speaker to allow legislation to progress and address the important issues affecting the people of Northern Ireland.

“We have to address the outstanding issues relating to the Northern Ireland Protocol, and we want to do that by agreement with the EU, but as we have always made clear, we will not shy away from taking further steps if necessary.”

On forming a new Executive, he added: “I will remain in close contact with the party leaders, but it is for the parties to agree on a way forward. New Decade New Approach specifically introduced measures to support a process led by the parties.

“This is in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland and I urge the Northern Ireland parties to work together towards a brighter future.”

Speaking earlier on the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme, Mr Lewis described the election results as “significant”, but played down the prospect of a border poll, pointing out that unionists still have more seats than nationalists in the Assembly.

The Secretary of State will have a call with Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney following his meetings with the parties.

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