Mike Nesbitt leads Ulster Unionist Party into Opposition

Pressure now on SDLP leader to decide whether to remain in Northern Executive or enter Opposition

Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt is leading his party into Opposition.  Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt is leading his party into Opposition. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

In what he called a “big and bold move”, Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt has announced he is leading his party into official Opposition in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

His decision changes the dynamic of the powersharing arrangements at Stormont, and if the SDLP and Alliance follow his lead it could result in a two-party Northern Executive comprising only DUP and Sinn Féin Ministers.

The SDLP and Alliance leaders Colum Eastwood and David Ford are consulting with their parties on whether to remain in the Executive.

The focus yesterday was expected to be on the reappointment of Arlene Foster as First Minister and Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister. But Mr Nesbitt seized attention when he said in the Assembly chamber that the 16 UUP members had decided unanimously to form the first official Opposition in the Assembly’s history.

“This is a big and bold move to bring a better and more normal democracy to the people of Northern Ireland. Let battle commence,” he said.

Grandstanding

Mr McGuinness accused Mr Nesbitt of a “lack of leadership” while Mr Ford said the UUP leader had uttered the “soundbite of the day” but “some of us recognise that government is a bit more substantial than the soundbite of the day”.

Mr Eastwood said he was not “focused on stunts” but on trying to agree a programme for government in the coming weeks that would justify remaining in the Executive. “We would love to see a programme for government we can sign up to, but if we cannot, we will go into opposition. We are not going to walk away before the negotiating is done.”

Decision

Aside from the newly named Executive Office run by Ms Foster and Mr McGuinness there are eight departments in the next Northern Executive. It is expected Alliance will be invited take over the sensitive Department of Justice which it held in the last mandate.

The remaining seven will be appointed under the d’Hondt system of allocating departments based on the strength of each entitled party. Had the UUP remained, the DUP would be entitled to three ministries, Sinn Féin two and the UUP and the SDLP one each.

With the UUP out, the DUP will gain an extra ministry. Should the SDLP join the UUP, then Sinn Féin would also gain an extra department.

The Department of Justice is not appointed under d’Hondt. If the UUP, the SDLP and Alliance stayed out of the Executive, the DUP and Sinn Féin would have to agree whether to rotate the post or offer it to some other politician designated as neither unionist nor nationalist.