DUP under mounting pressure to drop Assembly veto to let organ donor law pass

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The DUP is facing mounting calls to drop its block on the Stormont Assembly sitting so that a stalled organ donation law can be implemented in Northern Ireland.

MLAs have been recalled to Stormont next Tuesday in an attempt to elect a Speaker and debate the implementation of the legislation.

The planned law, named after six-year-old Belfast boy Daithi MacGabhann, who is waiting a heart transplant, has become a touchstone issue in the political debate around the powersharing impasse at Stormont.

It is understood that Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill, who tabled the petition, has invited the MacGabhann family to Stormont for the recalled session.

However, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson reiterated on Friday that his party would not return to devolved government unless issues of concern around the Northern Ireland Protocol are resolved and accused the UK Government of using the issue as “blackmail”.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health at Stormont said draft regulations around the delayed legislation are currently being finalised and will be available to MLAs at the beginning of next week.

Organ donation legislation
Seph Ni Mheallain with her six-year-old son Daithi MacGabhann at Hillsborough Castle for a meeting with Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris (Liam McBurney/PA)

The DUP is preventing the functioning of both the Assembly and the ministerial executive in protest at the post-Brexit protocol.

Only the Assembly would need to be up and running to pass the regulations required to implement the opt-out organ donation system.

Daithi underwent another heart procedure in England this week.

On Friday, his father Mairtin MacGabhann implored the region’s politicians to do all they could to get the law implemented.

“We’ve just got to get this done. Come on,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.

“Daithi deserves it. The organ donation and transplantation community deserve it.

“I’ve said it before, it’s much more than Daithi’s Law, it’s the beacon of hope.

“It’s the hope that the transplantation and organ donation community here, we just need a wee bit of hope at the moment.”

On Thursday, former DUP first minister Paul Givan said the party would meet on Monday to consider its position.

The issue will come to a head next Tuesday when the Assembly will be recalled in the latest  attempt to get a new Speaker elected.

The recall petition submitted by party vice president Michelle O’Neill also calls on MLAs to debate whether the Assembly should support the commencement of the opt-out legislation.

Several previous recalls of the Assembly have all ended in failure due to the DUP’s stance on preventing the election of a Speaker.

“We’ll be having a group meeting on Monday morning and we’ll take a position as to the approach that we take,” Mr Givan told the BBC’s The View programme.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, has urged Westminister to deal with the organ donation legislation (Brian Lawless/PA)

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has raised concerns that this route would take longer and might prove difficult. It is unclear whether the scope of the Executive Formation Bill would be wide enough to permit the addition of such an amendment.

Sir Jeffrey said: “The Government has had more than two years to deal with the protocol.

“The fact that the imposition of the protocol has caused the collapse of devolved government was entirely predictable.

“There will be no return to devolved government until the protocol is dealt with decisively and we have arrangements that unionists, as well as nationalists, can support.

“Parliament is sovereign and has responsibility for Northern Ireland in the absence of devolution.

“I have written to the Secretary of State and indicated I will table an amendment in Westminster on 22 February to enable the completion of Daithi’s Law by the springtime as originally planned.”

Coronavirus – Tue Mar 23, 2021
Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly Alex Maskey said no recall motion had yet been submitted (Liam McBurney/PA)

While the Government has been urged to pass the legislation at Westminster, Mr Heaton-Harris wrote to all the Stormont parties on Thursday insisting the return of the Assembly was the “quickest, most straightforward” path to pass the law.

He told politicians in a letter that they could progress the legislation in a single Assembly sitting by electing a Speaker, and without the need to nominate a First Minister and deputy First Minister and reform the executive.

But in a letter to MLAs, Stormont Speaker Alex Maskey said the issue was one of “timing and choreography”.

He said: “If the relevant secondary legislation was laid, it is theoretically possible for any recall notice to include firstly the election of a Speaker and Deputy Speakers, and then a motion citing the relevant regulations and seeking their approval.

“At this stage, the regulations have not yet been laid and therefore do not formally exist for the Assembly to approve at a recalled sitting, whether or not a Speaker and Deputy Speakers were elected.

“I also understand that the order has not yet been laid to commence the Organ and Tissue Donation (Deemed Consent) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 Act.

“The Act would have to be commenced before the regulations could be laid.”

Northern Ireland Affairs Committee
Conservative MP Simon Hoare, who is chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, has criticised the failure to pass organ donation laws at Stormont (Brian Lawless/PA

“The regulations are subject to the affirmative resolution procedure in the Northern Ireland Assembly and will be available to elected representatives by the beginning of next week.

“Once the draft regulations are affirmed, a three month lead-in time will be required to facilitate implementation planning, including increased public awareness activities before the new system goes live.”

On Friday, the chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Simon Hoare, heavily criticised the ongoing failure to pass the laws at Stormont.

“It’s appalling. It’s a dereliction of duty and it is political self-service rather than public service,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.

“My prayer is that the parties will listen to a father’s voice, will come together next week to elect a Speaker and to start to deliver on the modest and legitimate aspirations of the people of Northern Ireland.”

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