Northern Ireland’s political leaders have been warned of a “bleak outlook” this winter, even if the return of a fully functioning Stormont Executive is agreed.
Parties met with the head of the region’s civil service Jayne Brady at Stormont Castle on Thursday amid the ongoing political impasse.
The DUP has blocked the formation of a new Executive since May’s Assembly election in protest at Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.
If a new power-sharing administration is not in place within six months of the election, the UK Government assumes a legal responsibility to call a fresh poll within the following three months.
Stormont Finance Minister Conor Murphy described as “unacceptable” the ongoing absence of a functioning Executive during the cost-of-living crisis.
“We’re facing into a situation where, at the end of October, even in the caretaker capacity that we are now in, we will be out of that as ministers… so effectively left in the midst of this crisis…
“That’s an unacceptable situation.”
Mr Murphy said he challenged DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson to “give some sense of when they intend to allow the rest of us to form an Executive”.
“We can’t get any sense of clarity in relation to that,” he said.
“While people are facing into an enormous crisis, while bills are mounting, we are in a situation where we can’t get any certainty from the British government in terms of an intervention and no certainty from the DUP in terms of reforming an Executive here, which could take at least some decisions to try and mitigate some of the pressures that are building.”
Sir Jeffrey hit back, accusing Sinn Fein of “not listening” and engaging in a summer of “poke a unionist in the eye”.
“I’m not going to be poked in the eye by Sinn Fein, I will do what I believe is the right thing to do – I will stand by the word I gave to the people of Northern Ireland,” he said.
“I want this protocol resolved. I want to see decisive action taken. We need to see decisive action taken to resolve the very real difficulties that the protocol is causing for Northern Ireland, not least the impact it is having on the cost of living.
“Our position is very clear on that. We sought a mandate for our position, we received a mandate for it and I stand by what we said.”
He said support will come from Westminster and the new prime minister next week will announce further measures to support hard-pressed households across the UK.
UUP leader Doug Beattie described a “pretty sobering meeting”.
“My call is for whoever the new prime minister is going to be, they’ll have a full in-tray, but one of those items that needs to be pushed up higher is the Northern Ireland Protocol because we need it dealt with, and we need it dealt with quickly, so that we can get our Executive up and running again, and try and start dealing with some of these issues we are dealing with,” he said.
“We are in unprecedented times. We’re going to need a prime minister to make unprecedented decisions, but first and foremost we need an Executive up and running right now so that we can do some business here to try and help people.
“I would appeal to all parties to think long term, to think about the people of Northern Ireland and get themselves back into an Executive – and do it now.”
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long described a “sombre read out” in terms of the state of the economy and challenges being faced.
“Behind that, there is the spectre that in eight weeks’ time if we don’t have a fully functioning Executive we might be in a much worse position with no one there to guide or direct, with the civil service unable to take decisions on key issues and with Northern Ireland essentially being a rudderless ship adrift on high seas,” she said.
“The winter looks bleak for many people… The onus is on the DUP and the incoming government to resolve their issues in a way that respects the opinions of all of the parties in Northern Ireland and in a way that allows us to get the Executive up and running.
“We are facing into an economic crisis of the kind that we haven’t seen since the early 1970s and we are doing it with instability at Westminster and a rudderless ship here in Parliament Buildings.
“That’s just not acceptable.”