Politicians in Northern Ireland have been unable to put their differences aside for even one day in order to pass Dáithí’s Law – legislation that would help a six-year-old boy (and more than 130 others) to get a life saving organ transplant.
A single sitting of Stormont was all that was required for MLAs (members of the legislative assembly at Stormont) to elect a speaker and pass a bill they all claim to support (an opt-out system for organ donation was passed by the assembly last year but it requires secondary legislation to be implemented).
Dáithí’s Law would make everyone in Northern Ireland an organ transplant donor, unless they opt-out. As such, it would massively increase the number of organs available for life saving transplants.
It is named after six-year-old Belfast boy Dáithí MacGabhann who has been waiting for a heart transplant since 2018. Dáithí (pronounced Daw-hee) had a cardiac procedure in London last week yet managed to be at Stormont today with his family and campaigners, all gathered with a lot of hope but very little expectation.
Because divisions run deep in Northern Ireland and not even St Valentine’s Day could deliver any kind of romantic ending failed as the DUP put political ideology before saving peoples’ lives by once again blocking – for the sixth time – the nomination of a speaker. Even for just one single sitting on one single day to vote through Dáithí’s Law.
However, it was not a surprise. The DUP’s refusal to get the assembly back up and running and share power with Sinn Féin is the main part of its protest against the Northern Ireland protocol – an inevitable part of the Brexit which it campaigned for.
Its decision today to block proceedings has seen them roundly condemned. MLA Gerry Carroll (from the People Before Profit party) spoke for many, calling their stance “cruel”, and adding: “We’re talking about a six-year-old boy who is waiting on a new heart; and the many others who depend on [an organ transplant]. People’s lives are more important than the DUP’s protocol protest.”
As per usual, the DUP brushed off disapproval, dismissing the criticism as false outrage and arguing the legislation equivalent to Dáithí’s Law should be passed at Westminster on behalf of Northern Ireland. DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP said he intends to amend the executive formation bill “to empower the secretary of state [for Northern Ireland] to enact regulations required for this vital legislation to become effective”.
However, that will take far longer and mean that the “vital legislation” – that could have been passed today – will be even more delayed, as Sir Jeffrey fully knows.
Because the secretary of state Chris Heaton-Harris has already told Sir Jeffrey – and all the other politicians in NI – that relying on Westminster would be “a long and arduous process”.
He explicitly told them that restoring the Assembly for a single sitting to pass Dáithí’s Law is the quickest way to get organ donation legislation. In a letter sent to representatives last week, Heaton-Harris said MLAs didn’t even have to nominate a first and deputy first minister, they only needed to elect a speaker.
Heaton-Harris told politicians it is within their power to “to recall the Assembly and have this legislation in place in a matter of days”.
He wrote: “This would only require MLAs to work together to elect a Speaker, not necessarily nominate a First and Deputy First Minister — although, as I have always made clear, I hope that you would be able to do this too.
“With a Speaker elected, MLAs could then affirm the regulations, which would allow the Department of Health to implement the necessary changes.”
Despite this, the DUP decided not to elect a speaker. Dáithí’s father, Máirtín Mac Gabhann said it is “very disappointing”.
“It’s Valentine’s Day, it’s heart day, it’s also congenital heart defect day and there was maybe an opportunity here to have a bit of a fairytale ending where Dáithí’s Law is concerned,” said Mac Gabhann.
“Unfortunately, that’s not to be and we’re not at all surprised, but we’d never lost hope and even up until that last second, we still had a wee bit of hope, even though it was all but confirmed beforehand.
“Today gives us the opportunity now to solely focus on Westminster, on the secretary of state, on Jeffrey Donaldson’s amendment.
“We will want to speak with our MPs again and there was talk of a joint amendment, because it’s very clear from the floor today that all parties are in support.
“It’s just very disappointing that it couldn’t get over the line today.”