Arlene Foster says there is no stitch-up on Northern Executive

Politicians claim DUP and Sinn Féin have already decided on programme for government

Arlene Foster and her Assembly team outside Stormont. The 108-member Northern Assembly is due to meet on Thursday to re-elect Foster  First Minister and Martin McGuinness Deputy First Minister. Photograph: David Young/PA Wire

Arlene Foster and her Assembly team outside Stormont. The 108-member Northern Assembly is due to meet on Thursday to re-elect Foster First Minister and Martin McGuinness Deputy First Minister. Photograph: David Young/PA Wire

 

Negotiations aimed at agreeing a programme for government for the next Northern Executive are to begin today with the smallest of the five main parties still refusing to say if they will take part in the new administration.

The DUP, which won 38 seats in the Northern Assembly elections, and Sinn Féin, which won 28 seats, will drive the negotiations.

The new 108-member Northern Assembly is due to meet on Thursday to re-elect Arlene Foster as First Minister and Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister. A new speaker to replace Sinn Féin’s Mitchel McLaughlin is also expected to be appointed then.

Formal opposition

Previous and new Assembly members gathered at Parliament Buildings in Stormont yesterday, including Eamonn McCann and Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit – who won seats in Foyle and West Belfast respectively – and Claire Bailey, who gained a seat for the Greens in Belfast South.

The Ulster Unionist Party, SDLP and Alliance must decide in the next two weeks whether they will enter the Executive with the DUP and Sinn Féin or if some or all of them will go into formal opposition.

Based on the 16 seats that the Ulster Unionist Party won and the 12 seats the SDLP won in the election, both parties are entitled to one ministry each in the next Northern Executive which is reduced in size from 12 to nine departments.

The Alliance with eight seats cannot, based on its strength, take a seat. However, it is expected that it will be offered the sensitive Justice portfolio previously held in a similar arrangement by Alliance leader David Ford.

Mr Ford, UUP leader Mike Nesbitt and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood have said they will not make a decision on entering the Executive until they know whether they can accept the next Executive programme for government.

Mr Nesbitt said he was also waiting to hear from PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton on the status of the IRA and other paramilitary groups.

UUP, SDLP and Alliance politicians have expressed suspicions that the DUP and Sinn Féin already have decided on what the programme for government should contain.

Initial discussions

DUP leader Ms Foster, who posed with her new Assembly team outside Parliament Buildings yesterday, said there was no such stitch-up.

She said she wanted the negotiations to be inclusive and that it would not be a case of the other three parties having to “take it or leave it” as regards the programme for government.

Mr McGuinness said initial discussions on the new programme had been going on for weeks. “I think it’s incumbent on everybody over the course of the next number of days to try to conclude that as soon as possible,” he said.

“What we have tried to do is put together a programme for government that everyone can agree with.”