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Sinn Féin: Northern Ireland risks winter election as voters freeze

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.

“A winter election during a cost of living crisis, whenever people can’t afford to heat their homes, is not what people want,” she told the Democratic Unionists across the Stormont chamber. “They want you to do your jobs like they are doing theirs.”

But in back-to-back votes, DUP lawmakers rejected two candidates for speaker from the moderate Ulster Unionists and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), the Irish nationalist party that sought Wednesday’s session. The DUP previously used that veto power twice in May to keep the speaker’s chair empty.

Each failure has underscored the peculiar voting rules that date back to the crisis-prone early years of power-sharing — rules that pro-EU moderates in Northern Ireland’s growing middle ground want to change.

The SDLP’s candidate for speaker, Patsy McGlone, received majority backing on a 39-21 vote. The cross-community Alliance Party, which made the biggest gains in May’s election, joined the SDLP and Sinn Féin in supporting him. Ulster Unionists abstained on the grounds that their own candidate, Mike Nesbitt, had just been rejected by the DUP.

The Good Friday agreement’s section on power-sharing grants equal veto powers to the biggest parties on each side of Northern Ireland’s traditional British-Irish divide. At the start, embattled moderates held that ground. But since 2003 it’s been taken by the DUP — which opposed the Good Friday deal — and Sinn Féin.

Such rules mean the non-sectarian Alliance cannot effectively band together with other compromise-minded parties to break any deadlock produced by the DUP or Sinn Féin, which collapsed power-sharing in 2017.

“We need to ensure that we’re not put in this position ever again. Reform of the structures is now essential,” said Alliance lawmaker Kate Nicholl.

“If you don’t want to do the work of government,” she said in remarks addressed to the DUP benches, “don’t stop the rest of us from doing so.”

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