The clock is ticking on the future of Stormont’s powersharing Executive following the resignation of Arlene Foster as first minister.
An ongoing stand-off between Sinn Fein and the DUP over Irish language legislation could topple the institutions unless resolution is found in the coming days.
Mrs Foster’s formal resignation on Monday as joint head of the devolved Executive begins a seven-day timeframe within which the DUP must renominate its chosen successor, Lagan Valley MLA Paul Givan.
However, the joint nature of the office Mrs Foster shared with Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill, means Ms O’Neill must also be renominated to her role within those seven days.
If one of the parties fails to renominate within the time period, a properly functioning executive cannot be formed and the UK Government assumes a legal responsibility to call a snap Assembly election.
Northern Ireland Secretary of State Brandon Lewis has held political meetings with party leaders to discuss the situation at Stormont.
Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald led a delegation of her party to meet Mr Lewis on Monday.
Following the meeting, Ms McDonald tweeted: “This evening we met with the British government and told them that they must move Irish language legislation through Westminster.
“This is the only way forward to finally resolve this issue. Both govts must ensure delivery.”
Earlier, DUP leader Edwin Poots and First Minister designate Paul Givan were pictured entering Stormont House.
Making her resignation speech to the Assembly chamber, the ousted DUP leader addressed the row over the Irish language that threatens to destabilise the institutions.
“Let us realise in every corner of this House, that people live here who have an Irish identity, a British identity, some have a British and Irish identity, some are British and Northern Irish and there are new emerging identities, but for all of us this place is called home,” Mrs Foster told MLAs.
“We can poke each other in the eye and have a competition of ‘my identity is better than yours’ but it is only by respecting each other’s identity that we will move forward.
“The beauty of the Union is that we can all have our identities and live here side by side.”
On Sunday, a simmering row escalated when Sinn Fein made clear it would only engage in the renomination process if it was accompanied by the commencement of legislating for protections for Irish language speakers.
On Monday, DUP leader Edwin Poots said there could be no preconditions attached to the nomination process.
He reiterated that he was committed to implementing all outstanding aspects of the 2020 deal to restore powersharing, including Irish language legislation.
However, he declined to indicate whether he would move on the language laws in the current Assembly mandate, a Sinn Fein demand, and insisted there were other priorities the Executive should be focusing on, including the health service and economy.
He said: “Setting pre-conditions is not appropriate, it’s not respecting someone’s mandate, and we cannot be in a circumstance where we have pre-conditions set for the selection of our first minister.
“And I’m not setting pre-conditions to the selection of Sinn Fein’s deputy first minister.”
But Ms O’Neill fired a warning shot to the new leadership of the DUP, stating that powersharing cannot be built on broken promises.
Ms O’Neill, who stood opposite new DUP leader Edwin Poots in the chamber as she made her remarks, said there is a need to work on the basis of “openness, transparency, accountability and in good faith”.
“That’s the only way in which we can share power together,” Ms O’Neill added.
“All of us in this chamber are called upon to lead. That means leading and delivering for everybody.
“That means delivering a powersharing that’s grounded in fairness and inclusion.
“That’s certainly what I’m here to do. I hope that we have willing partners in which to do so also because you can’t build powersharing on broken promises.
“You must deliver upon agreements that are made. I’m committed to do that. I hope others are also committed likewise to doing that.”
During her resignation speech, Mrs Foster stressed that the cultural aspects of the New Decade, New Approach agreement also included protections for the Ulster Scots/British tradition.
She said it was unhelpful to view it solely as legislation affecting the Irish language tradition.
“Too often a demand to advance Irish identity in the language of equality saw simultaneous calls to reduce or denigrate other forms of expression,” she said.
“This was always a destabilising approach in a society seeking healing, and risked simply creating a new dispossessed community.
“This cycle needed to be broken.”
Mrs Foster also used her speech to reiterate her criticism of post-Brexit trading arrangements that have created economic barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
She said relations between the UK and Ireland and the UK and EU were “out of balance” as a result of the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol.
“It is not a real partnership,” she said.
“An imbalance and an instability is built in that will fester and deteriorate.
“If Brussels continues to think the protocol is enough, they are in denial.
“Imbalance and instability in the context of Northern Ireland is a truly dangerous cocktail.
“Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and needs to be treated as such.”