Sixth opportunity to elect an Assembly Speaker fails as Dáithí watches from the public gallery

Looking through the Parliament Buildings' door at the misty east Belfast at the bottom of the hillWith the morning mist still lingering over east Belfast, the Northern Ireland Assembly met at noon. The first item of business was – as always in this long series of recalls – the election of the Speaker and (at least two) Deputy Speakers. Letters from Speaker Alex Maskey ahead of the sitting had reminded MLAs that their order, language and debate should be constructive and that Points of Order should not be abused.

Many MLAs walked down the steps into the Great Hall and through into the chamber. Some DUP figures could be seen slipping down another corridor behind the throng of waiting press and out of shot of the cameras. Meanwhile, upstairs in the public gallery, a young lad Dáithí Mac Gabhann sat with his parents Seph and Máirtín.

While some MLAs had come down to the Great Hall to welcome Dáithí and his family, the mood was subdued.

With Alan Chambers in the chair as Acting Speaker, Doug Beattie proposed Mark Nesbitt for Speaker. Patsy McGlone accepted his party’s nomination.

SF vice president Michelle O'Neill looks on as press photographers snap pictures of Daithi Mac Gabhann in the Great Hall of Parliament BuildingsMichelle O’Neill (Sinn Féin) began by expressing condolences to fellow MLA Alex Easton on the death of his parents. She offered solidarity to “all those who have made their home here from Turkey and Syria and who have lost loved ones in the recent quake”. And she welcomed the Mac Gabhann family who were looking down on proceedings. “The power is in the gift of each party and every MLA to save lives by legislating here today. Put simply, not to do so is a dereliction of duty …”

Paul Givan (DUP) was “delighted to see Dáithí” present and recognised that if he was in the family’s position, he would be doing the same in terms of lobbying for the legislation. He went on to reiterate the DUP’s position on wanting a sustainable basis for the restoration of Stormont. Givan said that the Secretary of State “is not handling this issue in a way befitting of the office that he holds” (by pushing it back onto the Assembly’s plate even though it’s obvious that Westminster should handle it) and has intervened on much “more controversial matters” that did not have the full backing and encouragement of all parties in the Assembly.

Naomi Long (Alliance) commended the energy that the Mac Gabhann family had put into lobbying and supporting the organ donation law. She drew attention to the other, less well known people on the organ waiting list who look forward to a wider pool of donors and a better chance of survival.

Robin Swann (UUP) held up his copy of the bill, signed by Dáithí on the day it was passed in the Assembly. It was “one of my proudest achievements” as Health Minister, commendind the way that the legislation had cleared the Assembly in just seven months, once mindsets had changed and parties worked together.

Colin McGrath (SDLP) said that the business they were addressing in the chamber wasn’t about party politics: “It’s about the 134 families whose loved ones are watching us today and are waiting on an urgent organ transplant”. He added: “How many more times does this place have to say ‘no’ when it should be saying ‘yes’ … Waiting for Westminster is the second-best option.”

Jim Allister (TUV) explained that Westminster was the only operational legislature that could progress the organ donor legislation. Regarding the operation of the Stormont institutions, he said “I fear that the Supreme Court has helped seal its fate […] by decreeing that a key component of the Act of Union is in suspension” due to the Protocol. “This place is doomed and so it should be.”

Gerry Carroll (People Before Profit) said that today was “cruel” and that the organ donation community are “just the latest in a long line of people failed by this institution”. The bill had been “brought through Stormont but wasn’t delivered by Stormont”. He suggested that it was delivered by the campaigning of Dáithí, Máirtín, Seph and countless others. And neither would this last piece of the legislation be delivered by Stormont.

With no other speakers, the vote for each candidate proceeded on cross-community lines with Mike Nesbitt and Patsy McGlone predictably unable to secure cross-community support. Speaker Maskey’s warnings had been obeyed: the session was remarkably absent of rancour. The issue of the day was too sensitive to be sullied with parliamentary theatrics.

By 12:58pm, the fifth recall was over and MLAs filed out of the chamber. In less than an hour, the ball had been thrown back in the Secretary of State’s court.

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