DUP vetoes proposal to extend NI circuit break by one week

The DUP has vetoed a proposed one-week extension to Northern Ireland’s circuit-break lockdown.

All the other executive parties had backed the proposal from health minister Robin Swann.

Those same parties voted down alternative proposals from DUP economy minister Diane Dodds that would have led to a partial reopening of the hospitality sector.

Divisions at the head of the powersharing administration have been laid bare over recent days as ministers struggle to agree new pandemic response measures.

The DUP had already vetoed a proposal from Mr Swann to extend the current circuit-break by two weeks, despite the other four executive parties again backing the move.

During a third executive meeting in three days on Wednesday, Mr Swann suggested a one-week extension of the measures, which have forced much of the hospitality sector to close.

It is understood the one-week proposal was designed to buy some time and avoid the cliff edge of the current regulations lapsing at midnight on Thursday.

The DUP again vetoed the proposal using a contentious voting mechanism.

The DUP blocked a proposal from Northern Ireland health minister Robin Swann to extend the circuit-break (Michael Cooper/PA)

The executive’s two main parties – the DUP and Sinn Fein – are engaged in a claim and counterclaim spat amid a failure to reach consensus ahead of the looming end of the current circuit-break.

The administration is facing mounting criticism for failing to tell businesses whether they will be able to reopen on Friday.

The DUP and Sinn Fein had clashed over Mr Swann’s original proposal to extend the circuit-break in its entirety for two weeks.

The DUP used its veto to block the move during Tuesday’s executive meeting.

That tactic drew criticism from Sinn Fein and the other three executive parties.

Alliance Party justice minister Naomi Long was particularly critical of the deployment of the cross-community vote – a mechanism designed to protect minority rights in a post-conflict society – to torpedo health regulations.

The DUP however is understood to be furious at Sinn Fein’s decision to back Mr Swann’s proposal.

The party believes Sinn Fein has backtracked on an apparent pledge to endorse the reopening of cafes and restaurants.

DUP sources believe Sinn Fein’s Dublin powerbase intervened and forced a change in direction north of the border.

DUP First Minister Arlene Foster said her partners in government had to explain why they had changed position.

Taoiseach Micheal Martin visits Northern Ireland
First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill are at odds on the issue of a circuit-break extension (Brian Lawless/PA)

Mrs Foster pointed to a Sunday media interview in which Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the executive is looking at ways of “opening things up, perhaps without alcohol”.

“She (Ms O’Neill) advocated a wide range of relaxations, she said she was proposing that to the executive and I think it is a matter for Sinn Fein as to why they now are in a situation, despite the fact there has been no change in the medical advice, none whatsoever, as to why they are now in a completely different scenario,” she told the BBC.

“They are (now) saying let us keep hairdressers and beauticians closed, let us keep coffee shops on our high streets closed and roll it over for another two weeks in the knowledge that in two weeks’ time things will not have changed and we will be back in exactly the same position, faced with exactly the same decision.”

The claims have been robustly rejected by Sinn Fein, with the party insisting it was acting in line with medical and scientific advice.

Ms O’Neill said: “Last night at the executive we were warned by the chief medical officer (Dr Michael McBride) that any easing of the current restrictions would cause ‘excess deaths’.

“The advice was stark and clear – if we don’t keep current restrictions in place for another two weeks, more people will die.

“My priority has been to save lives, protect livelihoods and ensure that our health service would not be overwhelmed by the spread of the virus.”

And the situation in the north of Ireland is that @duponline have used their veto in Executive to reject the Health Ministers recommendation & are ignoring CMO’s advice to extend lockdown by 2 weeks. While our hospitals & staff are creaking at the seams #madnesshttps://t.co/M7hXroAUIK

— Michelle Gildernew (@gildernewm) November 11, 2020

Mr Swann, an Ulster Unionist minister, and senior health officials had warned Covid-19 cases are likely to spike again in mid-December if the fortnight extension is not approved.

Sinn Fein MP Michelle Gildernew branded the DUP move “madness”.

After Mr Swann’s two-week extension was voted down, ministers turned to debating the alternative proposals tabled by Mrs Dodds.

Those discussions resumed around lunchtime on Wednesday but ministers from Sinn Fein, the SDLP, UUP and Alliance ultimately rejected them at a vote.

The PA news agency understands those measures included:

– Close contact services, including hairdressing, beauty treatments and driving lessons, resuming on November 13 by appointment only.

– Unlicensed premises, including cafes and coffee shops, reopening on November 13.

– Hotels able to serve food and alcohol to residents.

– Licensed premises remaining closed until November 27. A “safely open group”, involving hospitality sector and executive, to be established to oversee this move.

– Pubs and bars able to offer sealed off-sales from November 13.

Ahead of the meeting on Wednesday, Mrs Dodds published data suggesting the four-week circuit-break had resulted in a £400 million loss for the local economy.

A further eight new Covid-19-linked deaths were announced in Northern Ireland on Wednesday, with 791 new cases of the virus.

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