The DUP has been urged to drop its boycott of the Stormont power sharing institutions to help deliver energy support payments to people in Northern Ireland struggling to deal with the cost-of-living crisis.
MLAs are meeting during a recalled sitting of the Northern Ireland Assembly in another doomed attempt to restore the executive.
However, the DUP labelled the recall a “stunt”, stating that it would not be supporting the election of a speaker.
The sitting began with the SDLP’s Patsy McGlone and the UUP’s Mike Nesbitt nominated for the vacant role of speaker.
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 region’s largest unionist party 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 power sharing 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.
Leading our team into Stormont, as we work to form an Executive & get the promised £600 support payment out to workers & families.
So many families are struggling to heat their home this Winter, & I will not give up on supporting them.
The blocking of an Executive must end now. pic.twitter.com/p79GXFvgQT
— Michelle O’Neill (@moneillsf) December 7, 2022
Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill said any resolution to the protocol difficulties would not be resolved at Stormont.
Ms O’Neill urged the UK and EU to intensify negotiations but she said that in the meantime it was vital MLAs were able to do their jobs at Stormont.
“It is clear for all to see that the DUP’s political tactics is to abandon our people to a Tory government intent on inflicting cuts and austerity on the most vulnerable in our society,” she said.
Households in Northern Ireland 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.
In a blunt message to the DUP, Ms O’Neill added: “We all want these issues to be resolved but, in the meantime, we’re elected to be here in this chamber to have people’s backs, to get the £600 out into their pockets. They are crying out for help. They need us to do our job. They elected us to do our job. So I call on you again – you should be ashamed of yourselves in this chamber today.
“The public need our support – do your job, turn up.”
Representing the DUP, MLA Gordon Lyons said: “This recall of the Assembly is nothing more than a farce.
“We know it is a stunt, the public know it is a stunt and the other parties know it is a stunt also.”
Mr Lyons claimed Sinn Fein was using the recall as a way to “distract” from claims made at an ongoing Special Criminal Court trial in Dublin linking the party to organised criminality.
He also said the levers to deliver cost-of-living support were in Westminster, not Stormont.
Referring to energy support payments, he added: “This was a scheme devised at Westminster, promised by Westminster and now needs to be delivered by Westminster.
“In the summertime, there was a way forward and a mechanism identified for delivery. Energy suppliers and the Utility Regulator worked hard to put that in place and at the last minute, the Government has started to consider alternative options.
“The time for dithering is over. They have the money, the systems and the capacity to deliver this and they need to get on with it.
“And that is key; there are things that we have the money, the power and the capacity to deliver and there are things which are outside our control.”
Speaking before the Assembly session began, Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie called on Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris to hold a summit to brief Stormont parties on the progress of negotiations over the protocol.
Mr Beattie said: “Today’s recall is gesture politics and it is borne out of frustration because nothing has happened over this past number of months.
“Through the whole month of November nothing happened and we are now into the first week of December and nothing has happened, and there is not likely to be anything happening.
“We have squandered two months. It is looking like we will go into January with no plan to deal with the issues we now face.
“Political parties need to know what is going on and we are receiving absolutely no briefs.
“I am now calling on the Secretary of State to put a plan in place for early January, to instigate a summit for all of the parties.
“To get a brief from the UK Government, from the EU exactly where we are in regards to the protocol.”
On Tuesday evening, Mr Heaton-Harris reaffirmed his intention to cut MLAs’ pay by 27.5%, but did not clarify when exactly the cut would come into effect.