The plight of a six-year-old boy in need of a heart transplant has come to the center of Northern Ireland’s political deadlock, but has failed to break the deadlock.
The Stormont assembly met on Tuesday to debate an organ donation law, but the recall session ended without a speaker being elected, perpetuating a year-long paralysis of the assembly and the executive.
Dáithí Mac Gabhann, who is one of 130 people in Northern Ireland waiting for an organ, watched the work from the gallery with his parents.
Sinn Féin had called for the recall to try to elect a new speaker and let the chamber implement an organ donation law known as Dáithí’s Law. This would mean that everyone in Northern Ireland would be considered a potential organ donor after death, unless they opt out.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) blocked the appointment of a speaker in a protest against the Northern Ireland protocol, as it has done during five previous recalls. Under power-sharing rules, Stormont cannot function without DUP participation. The party’s leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, had flagged the decision beforehand.
Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) assembly member Colin McGrath said Daithy and his family in west Belfast had shown “superhuman” will in campaigning for legislation that could save his life and others. “What in the name of humanity is stopping us?” he asked the chamber.
Michelle O’Neill, deputy leader of Sinn Féin, said the chamber had a duty to legislate to save lives. “Not doing so is a dereliction of duty and is disappointing for the families involved.”
Naomi Long, the leader of the Alliance party, urged the DUP to lift the boycott over a matter of life and death. “Today is the right time, this room is the right place, now we must do the right thing.”
People Before Profit assembly member Gerry Carroll said the DUP’s stance was tough. “We are talking about a six-year-old boy who is waiting for a new heart and many others that depend on it [a heart transplant]. People’s lives are more important than protesting the DUP’s protocol.”
The DUP dismissed the criticism as blackmail and said Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris could and should bypass Stormont and push the organ donation bill through Westminster. Paul Givan, a DUP MLA and former First Minister of Northern Ireland, told the assembly: “The Secretary of State has a responsibility to take this forward.” The party accused its critics of fake outrage.
Heaton-Harris said Westminster would be a slower, more complicated route.
The Mac Gabhann family said they hoped the legislation would be added as an amendment to the Executive Formation Bill in the Commons on February 22. If the speaker accepts the amendment, it will have to go through the Commons, Lords and Commons again before receiving royal assent, a process that can take several months.
The DUP says the protocol is damaging Northern Ireland’s economy and its place in the UK. Downing Street and the EU may agree a deal to try to address those concerns by next week, according to British sources, but there is widespread expectation that the DUP will reject the move as insufficient.