Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has called on Jeffrey Donaldson to be “crystal clear” that his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) will share the office of first and deputy first minister of Northern Ireland with Michelle O’Neill.
She has also urged him not to use his party’s opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit deal between the UK and the European Union as a reason to delay the formation of a new Stormont Executive.
The success of Sinn Féin in becoming the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections means it can nominate Ms O’Neill as first minister, a role that has always previously been held by unionist politicians.
The role of deputy first minister has the same joint powers as first minister.
During the election campaign the DUP refused to commit to the party taking the deputy first minister role should Sinn Féin emerge as the largest party.
Ms McDonald said on Sunday that the words “seismic” and “historic” have been used to describe the election result.
She said Ms O’Neill would potentially be the first “nationalist, republican, progressive person” to occupy the role of first minister.
Ms McDonald said Northern Ireland was created to prevent someone like Ms O’Neill taking that office and called the result “a great moment for equality”.
Speaking on Newstalk’s On the Record, she criticised the DUP’s failure to confirm it would take the role of deputy first minister.
She said a section of political unionism was “only interested in the democratic process when they come out on top or that they’re only interested in working together when it’s on their terms”.
Ms McDonald added: “I just can’t emphasise enough how essential it is for the DUP, for the leader Jeffrey Donaldson, to be crystal clear now that they will in fact share the office of first and deputy minister with Michelle O’Neill.
“That’s essential because it goes to the core of the entire project. not just of peace-building but of developing politics in the North of Ireland.”
She added: “It’s clearly not acceptable for the DUP to refuse to serve with Michelle O’Neill simply because for their first time we have a republican first minister, and I think broad opinion right across the country and beyond would find that a very unacceptable position.”
Mr Donaldson has said the DUP will not enter a future Executive unless the British government takes action to address unionist concerns about the Northern Ireland protocol.
Ms McDonald disputed a suggestion that the DUP would simply be fulfilling its mandate from the electorate if they refused to set up an Executive for this reason.
She said: “They will be letting everybody down including those who voted for them if they refuse to get back to work tomorrow with the rest of us.”
Ms McDonald said there is a cost of living crisis and the absence of an Executive means that £330 million (€386 million) available to help struggling households has not been distributed.
She said the DUP or anyone else suggesting they would “stand on the sidelines and watch as people struggle . . . is just totally unacceptable and I think will be met with very, very wide public hostility”.
Ms McDonald also said: “The reality is that the difficulties as the DUP perceive them with the protocol can only be sorted out through a process of good faith and engagement and dialogue between the government in London and the European institutions.
“That’s the fact. Keeping the institutions, keeping the Executive down in Belfast will not change the protocol one iota and furthermore, Jeffrey Donaldson knows this.
“The DUP know there is a committee, a specific committee, that is established to deal with issues around the protocol none of which are insurmountable.”
She said “very considerable progress has been made” and a deal is possible that would see up to 80 per cent of the documentation for border checks cut.
Ms McDonald said the DUP argued for Brexit: “They’ve walked themselves down a cul-de-sac and I think the politically wise thing if I can say so, but also the democratic thing, to do now is to get themselves out of that cul-de-sac and not to deepen their own difficulties which in turn mean hardship for wider society.”