By David Young and Rebecca Black, PA
Sinn Féin has insisted it will not be playing games around the appointment of a new Executive leadership team following Arlene Foster’s departure as Northern Ireland's First Minister.
The process of replacing Mrs Foster as First Minister will involve a nomination process at Stormont, which will require Sinn Féin to also re-nominate its deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill.
The looming exit of Mrs Foster has already prompted speculation that the nomination process may become a friction point that could destabilise the powersharing administration.
A refusal by ether side to nominate would mean a functioning executive could not be formed, triggering a chain of events that, if not arrested, would ultimately end in a snap election.
Party insiders in both the DUP and Sinn Féin have voiced concerns that their opponents may use the nomination process as a bargaining tool to extract political concessions.
For the DUP, that might mean an ultimatum to the UK government on removing Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.
Others have suggested Sinn Féin could use it to secure an assurance from the DUP to legislate for Irish language laws – a commitment in the 2020 deal to restore powersharing – by the end of the current Assembly mandate.
Sinn Féin Finance Minister Conor Murphy was asked about the prospect of his party adopting that approach at a media conference on Thursday afternoon.
“The fact we have to nominate a deputy First Minister is not our choice, it’s the fact the DUP are removing the First Minister which has that consequence,” he said.
“The Irish Language Act is agreed, it has been agreed with the DUP as a party, they signed up to it.
“It’s not a question of renegotiating any of these things, it’s a question of these being delivered.”
He added: “We’re not into playing games with all of this, the Executive is still in the middle of a pandemic.
“We’re not about playing games with nominations and other things, we’re about getting the things implemented that we agreed last year.”
A senior DUP source told the PA news agency that it was a “real possibility” the nomination process could prove problematic.
However, the source tempered that by highlighting that both main parties would not want to be seen to be pulling down the institutions in the midst of the pandemic.
Speaking to reporters at his department’s headquarters at Clare House in Belfast, Mr Murphy said the DUP was “clearly at war with itself” and that was “undoubtedly destabilising for the rest of the Executive”.
“Nonetheless, it’s not up to us to pick the leader of the DUP, it’s up to the party to do that itself,” he said.
“We want to continue on with as effective a government and an Executive as we possibly can with all of the parties around the table.
“The DUP have to go off and sort themselves out … and come back into the Executive with the rest of us, and recognise that powersharing is about sharing power, it’s not about trying to dominate, it’s not about trying to deny rights, it’s about actually stretching yourself in a coalition arrangement to share power with others.”