Analysis: Nesbitt’s ‘big and bold’ move changes the agenda

SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, has a very big decision to make. Photograph: Arthur Allison.

SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, has a very big decision to make. Photograph: Arthur Allison.

 

The story was supposed to be about the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and maybe to a lesser extent about Eamonn McCann and Gerry Carroll and People Before Profit Trotskyists in the marble halls of Stormont.

But, as Martin McGuinness noted, Mike Nesbitt, with his old journalistic instincts to the fore, went for a change of headline by announcing that the 16 Ulster Unionist Party members elected to the Assembly last weekend were going into official Opposition.

In the chamber the reappointed First Minister, Arlene Foster, had just spoken about Northern Ireland being “on the cusp of a new era”. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness talked of consigning to “the dustbin of history” the past three years of an unproductive Executive which finally got its act together with last November’s Fresh Start Agreement.

Anchorman

It caught the Assembly by surprise. Certainly, earlier around Parliament Buildings there was talk that the thrust of opinion among the UUP heavyweights was to get out of the Executive even if Nesbitt preferred to remain in.

The feeling, though, was that Nesbitt would bide his time to judge whether the next programme for government, which is being negotiated, would find favour with the party or be the excuse to jump ship. As McGuinness said, Nesbitt went for the headline and he got it. It was a big move.

A predecessor, David Trimble, sweated political blood to help create the powersharing unionist-nationalist Executive that followed from the hard-won 1998 Belfast Agreement. Here was Nesbitt walking away from the agreement to form an official Opposition, and walking away from power – even if it was just a single ministry in the new nine-department Executive.

Benefits

There may even have to be some musical chairs in the Assembly so that the leader of the official Opposition can face Foster and McGuinness across the chamber.

Now the SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, has a very big decision to make. Does he stay in the Executive with his single Minister or follow Nesbitt’s lead and join the UUP in Opposition? There are differing and quite passionate opinions within the SDLP about what to do.

Eastwood wisely decided to buy time yesterday. His holding position was that entering the Executive would hinge on whether the SDLP was happy with the programme for government that is being negotiated. That gives him about two weeks.

After that, he must decide whether to take up his ministry or join Nesbitt and the UUP, which would leave Northern Ireland in the hands of the DUP and Sinn Féin with, possibly, the Alliance Party having a small say if it decides to take on the justice portfolio.