David Young, Jonathan McCambridge and Cate McCurry (PA)
The Stormont Assembly is to be recalled as rival parties attempt to ramp up the pressure on the DUP to end its boycott of powersharing.
A petition tabled by Sinn Fein has gained the requisite 30 MLA signatures to secure a recall of the crisis-hit institutions.
The Assembly will now be recalled on Wednesday at 12pm but, unless the DUP drops its stance, the bid to restore the devolved legislature will end in failure.
Several previous attempts to reconstitute the Assembly have already failed as the DUP has not supported the election of a speaker at the outset of the sittings.
Without a speaker in place, the Assembly cannot proceed with further business.
The DUP has refused to engage with the devolved institutions in Belfast in the wake of May’s Assembly election, meaning it has not been possible to form a ministerial executive.
The boycott is part of the DUP’s campaign of opposition to Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol and the party says it will not return to powersharing until decisive action is taken to remove the protocol’s economic barriers on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Negotiations between the UK Government and the EU to resolve differences over the protocol are continuing.
The latest recall petition is centred around the cost-of-living crisis, with Sinn Fein’s motion calling for a debate on why people in Northern Ireland have not received energy support payments.
The lack of clarity on when the Treasury-funded payments will be made has become the focus of intense political dispute amid the ongoing powersharing vacuum.
Households in the region are due to be credited with a £400 payment automatically, to help with energy costs this winter as part of a UK-wide scheme.
In his autumn statement, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said all households in Northern Ireland would receive an additional £200 payment, in recognition of the region’s dependence on home heating oil.
While consumers in the rest of the UK have already begun to receive support payments, there has been no decision about how and when they will be made in Northern Ireland.
Business minister Graham Stuart told the Commons last week that he cannot see the Energy Bill Support Scheme payments being issued to Northern Ireland before Christmas but is hoping to “stand that up” in January.
He also said that it should be a ministerial executive in Northern Ireland dealing with the payments.
Sinn Fein has repeatedly stated that had the Stormont institutions been in place, then the payments would have already been made.
But the DUP has disputed this and has blamed the Westminster government for holding up the payments.
Sinn Fein’s recall petition states: “That this Assembly expresses deep concern that struggling families and households have not received the £600 payment that many are desperately relying on; calls on the DUP to end its boycott of this Assembly; and supports the immediate appointment of an Executive to provide urgent help for those struggling with the cost-of-living crisis through the winter months.”
Meanwhile, Taoiseach Micheal Martin has said that the Executive should not be held “hostage” by any one party.
Speaking at the Shared Island forum in Dublin Castle on Monday, Mr Martin said: “The Assembly and Executive shouldn’t be hostage to any one party and in my view the DUP should go into the Executive and ensure the functioning of the Assembly.
“I said the same about Sinn Fein in previous years. I believe when elections happen there’s an obligation on those elected to fulfil the mandate of the people and take your seats and endeavour to make government work.”
Mr Martin made the comments as he defended the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney’s response to the collapse of the institutions.
“I think Mr Coveney has done a very fine job in terms of the work he’s been doing on a range of fronts, including working with the parties in the north,” Mr Martin added.