LONDON (AP) — Northern Ireland’s main British unionist party scuttled an attempt to restore the collapsed Belfast-based Assembly on Tuesday, refusing to budge on a Brexit-related boycott that has kept the legislature on ice for a year.
Politicians remain deadlocked despite signs of progress in talks between the U.K. and the European Union on ending the post-Brexit trade dispute behind Northern Ireland’s political crisis.
Lawmakers were called to the Stormont assembly building in an attempt to pass a new organ-donation law. The bid failed when the Democratic Unionist Party used its veto to block the election of a speaker — a prerequisite for any business to be done.
Under Northern Ireland’s political system, power is shared between Irish nationalists and British unionists, and neither side can govern without the other.
The DUP veto scuttled an attempt to pass “Daithi’s Law,” which would replace an opt-in organ donation system with one that presumes most adults to be potential donors unless they opt out. The bill is named for Daithi MacGabhann, a 6-year-old boy awaiting a heart transplant.
DUP legislator Paul Givan said his party supported the opt-out organ law but would not budge on its boycott. He said the U.K. government in London could step in and pass the necessary regulations while the assembly was suspended.
Daithi’s father, Mairtin MacGabhann, said it was “a very disappointing day.”
Northern Ireland is the only part of the U.K. that shares a border with an EU member nation, Ireland. When the U.K. left the bloc in 2020, the British government and the EU agreed to keep the Irish border free of customs posts and other checks to preserve the open border that is a key pillar of Northern Ireland’s peace process.
Instead, there are checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. Unionist politicians say the new trade border undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. They are refusing to return to government until the trade barriers are removed.
The political impasse has left Northern Ireland’s 1.8 million people with no functioning government and facing a new election that almost no one wants. Last week the U.K. government extended the deadline for forming a new government by a year in an attempt to buy breathing time to find a solution.
The U.K. government hopes to resolve the EU trade dispute and break the political impasse before the 25th anniversary in April of Northern Ireland’s 1998 Good Friday peace accord. It is pinning its hopes on striking a deal with the EU that would ease the checks and coax unionists back into the government.
Achieving that long looked unlikely, as Britain threatened to unilaterally rip up parts of the Brexit agreement, and the EU accused the U.K. of failing to honor the legally binding treaty.
But the mood has improved since Prime Minister Rishi Sunak took office in late October, and the two sides have held constructive talks. However, any compromise by Sunak will be a hard sell to the DUP and is sure to anger staunch Brexiteers who form a powerful faction inside the governing Conservative Party.
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