The Northern Ireland Assembly is to sit for another seemingly doomed bid to resurrect the powersharing institutions, hours before a deadline for calling another election in the North.
A six-month legislative deadline to form an administration expires on Friday. If no ministerial executive is in place by that date, the British government assumes a legal responsibility to call another election.
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 an executive.
The party’s boycott is part of its campaign of opposition to Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol and it says it will not return to powersharing until decisive action is taken to remove the protocol’s changes on trade between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Sinn Fein, supported by the Alliance Party, has collected the required 30 MLA signatures for a successful petition to recall the Assembly for a special sitting.
Outgoing Assembly Speaker Alex Maskey confirmed it will convene at 12pm on Thursday.
The sitting will see an attempt to elect a new speaker – a pre-requisite before an executive can be appointed – but that bid is set to fail, as the DUP will use its veto to block it.
MLAs will then debate a motion, tabled by Sinn Féin in consultation with the Alliance Party, that will focus on the cost-of-living crisis, the current instability at Westminster and the ongoing absence of devolved government at Stormont.
The first failed attempt to elect a new speaker came in May following the election. The Assembly has been recalled on two further occasions since, the last being in August.
Commenting on the latest recall, Sinn Féin’s vice president Michelle O’Neill tweeted: “Now more than ever, we need all parties working together & prioritising supporting people.
“The denial of democracy must end now.”
However, DUP Economy Minister Gordon Lyons branded the move a “stunt”.
He said powersharing could not be restored until changes were secured to the protocol.
“We don’t need recall stunts,” he said. “Northern Ireland needs a lasting solution which unionists can support.
“Powersharing is not possible without such an agreement. We are always willing to explain the problems one more time, but Sinn Fein has ignored unionism’s warnings for more than two years. That’s not the behaviour of people who believe in powersharing.”
While Northern Ireland currently has no first or deputy first ministers, other ministers who served in the previous mandate have remained in post following May’s election, albeit they have been significantly constrained in the decision they can take.
If Friday’s deadline passes without a full executive having been established, those remaining ministers will cease to hold office.
The British government has vowed to secure changes to the protocol, either by a negotiated compromise with the EU or through proposed domestic legislation – the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – which would empower ministers to scrap the arrangements without the approval of Brussels.
The European Commission has warned that such unilateral action at Westminster would be in breach of international law and could prompt retaliatory action.
Talks with the EU resumed recently, with both London and Brussels talking up the potential of reaching an agreed solution.
While the UK government has the ability to amend the legislation and prevent a winter election, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has made it clear he will call a fresh poll if the deadline passes, with December 15th the likely date.
It is yet unclear whether new British prime minister Rishi Sunak will stick with this approach as the deadline draws nearer.