Northern Ireland news

SDLP quits power-sharing Northern Ireland government

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood (centre) has confirmed his party will go into Stormont's first official opposition. Picture by David Young/PA Wire
David Young and Lesley Anne McKeown, Press Association

THE SDLP has announced it is quitting the power-sharing administration in Northern Ireland to form part of the newly established opposition.

And it looks like Alliance is still not prepared to accept the Justice ministry role.

Members at a meeting of the party’s council backed party leader David Ford’s recommendation not to accept the sensitive ministry at this time.

The party, which does not have enough seats to go into official opposition, made the decision following the lengthy meeting at the Park Avenue hotel in east Belfast.

The move by the SDLP comes a week after fellow architects of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the Ulster Unionists, also opted to take their seats on the opposition benches.

With the Alliance Party having indicated its unwillingness to re-take the executive's contentious justice ministry, the new government in Belfast could be solely made up of the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the party had made a "bold decision" to leave the executive.

Mr Eastwood claimed the SDLP had entered the post-election negotiations with the determination to find a Programme for Government they could sign up to, but added: "It is clear that we are not able to achieve that and we now have to go and speak to our party."

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt hailed the SDLP's decision to join his party on the opposition benches.

While it is not yet clear whether the two parties, which were instrumental in striking the historic Good Friday Agreement, will come to a formal arrangement to work together to oppose the DUP/Sinn Fein executive, some degree of co-operation is expected.

Mr Nesbitt, who announced his party's decision not to enter government last week, said he looked forward to working "collaboratively" in what he described as Northern Ireland's "first ever cross-community opposition".

"I am delighted that the SDLP have chosen this path," he said.

"I am confident it will lead to new beginnings and possibilities for devolved government.

"We have been heartened by the extraordinary level of support which we received since we made our decision last Thursday and I am sure the SDLP will receive similar praise and encouragement."

He added: "I very much look forward to working in partnership as we bring on this new era. Be in no doubt, together we can offer the opportunity of a real fresh start.

"We will move swiftly to sort out the nuts and bolts of how we maximise our impact and effectiveness."

Asked if the SDLP would work with the UUP, party leader Colum Eastwood said: "The SDLP has proven over the years that we can work with other parties.

"We will work with whatever other parties want to work with us, but it is important to be clear - the SDLP has our own mandate, we will work to that mandate, we will stand by our policies and our own ideas and that's what we will approach this next mandate with.

"We are determined that this will be a constructive and positive opposition - not opposition for opposition's sake."

Earlier in a hard-hitting joint statement, First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Martin McGuinness slammed the SDLP accusing the party of dishonesty.

"For the SDLP to now claim they do not agree with the Programme for Government process is dishonest given that they were part of developing it," the ministers said.

"The new PfG has not been plucked out of thin air. It has involved extensive consultation with political parties in the Executive, including the SDLP, dating back to last December.

"Either the SDLP had no intention of joining the new Executive and are playing to the gallery and the media.

"Or, they failed to grasp the new approach to government and are not up for the challenges ahead.

"Or, in an act of desperation inspired by their poor election result, they are now preparing to slavishly follow the Ulster Unionist Party out of government."

Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness pledged to move forward.

"We are committed to putting together the best possible PfG that will create more and better jobs and investment in our health service, our schools and support for the most vulnerable in society," they added.

Meanwhile the Alliance Party still has to confirm whether it will take on the contentious Justice Ministry after walking out of Stormont Castle after just a few minutes.

The decision on whether to accept the DUP/Sinn Fein offer to again take on a post it has filled since 2010 has become crucial to the viability of the next executive.

If the cross-community party declines, Stormont will be facing another crisis, just weeks after the Assembly election, as neither the DUP or Sinn Fein are likely to allow the other to assume the politically sensitive portfolio.

That mutual veto has been overcome in recent years by the willingness of Alliance to take the job.

Alliance Party leader David Ford has made clear his party will only fulfil the role again if it achieves progress on five key policy issues - building an integrated society; funding of services, not division; "cleaning up" of politics; investment in jobs, skills and economy; and ending all forms of paramilitarism.

Green Party MLA Stephen Agnew and Independent unionist Claire Sugden have also been summoned to Stormont Castle amid speculation they could be offered the justice portfolio.

Mr Agnew described his discussion with the First and Deputy First Ministers as "worthwhile and constructive" but said more progress was needed.

He said: "We raised our key issues including Green New deal, integrated education and investment in early years provision. The traditional parties have failed to address these issues to date.

"However we would need more progress on our issues before we could recommend going into government to our party members."

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