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Alliance still saying no to justice ministry as potential for crisis deepens

Alliance leader David Ford says his party's five preconditions must be met if they are to take the justice job. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire

ALLIANCE leader David Ford was last night sticking to his party's preconditions for taking the justice ministry.

With the deadline for creating an executive looming, the DUP and Sinn Féin appear no closer to finding a candidate to fill the contentious post.

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has said ministers must be appointed by next Wednesday or fresh elections would have to be called.

Alliance had been widely expected to take the portfolio as it has since the devolution of policing and justice powers in 2010.

However, Mr Ford's party decided to snub the DUP and Sinn Féin's invitation after their rejection of proposals to boost integrated education and curb the use of petitions of concern

After receiving the support of Alliance's rank and file at a specially convened meeting on Thursday night, Mr Ford has reiterated his position that the party could not nominate one of its MLAs for justice minister's role.

"This is not a high-stakes poker game but a matter of principle for Alliance," he said.

"As things stand, it is not possible for us to go into any executive – that is a position that has been overwhelmingly backed by party members."

With five days to go before the ministerial nominations, a further round of negotiations involving Alliance and Stormont's big two seems likely. However, Mr Ford is not in a mood to compromise.

"We have been clear from the start – nothing short of the five proposals we put to the DUP and Sinn Fein would be acceptable," he said.

"That is something that is not going to change."

Independent unionist Claire Sugden, who has been linked to the justice job should Alliance refuse, yesterday said she would consider an offer.

She told the BBC: "If an offer is made I will consider it. I have no wish list. I will do what I think is the right thing for my constituents."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, who announced on Thursday his party will go into opposition with the Ulster Unionists, said it was a "disgrace" for the DUP and Sinn Fein to ask anyone from outside the executive to do the job.

However, the DUP's Simon Hamilton said Ms Sugden has "the skills and the ability to be a minister" and he was "very, very confident" an appointment will be made by Wednesday.

The Northern Ireland Office has ruled out a non-MLA as justice minister, saying legislation states that "only a member of the assembly may be nominated".

Sinn Féin, meanwhile, said it is fully focused on ensuring an executive is elected on Wednesday.

But speaking in Belfast yesterday, Gerry Adams was staying tight-lipped about his party's preferences for the justice minister's post.

"Our focus at the moment is to get a full executive including the justice minister elected on Wednesday. That's our focus. That's what Martin (McGuinness) is mandated by us to do," he said.

"He is resolute about that, he is patient about that and he is confident he will succeed."

Mr Adams declined to be drawn on the prospect of a DUP justice minister, with Arlene Foster having ruled out a republican occupying the post.

"We have to have a full executive elected on Wednesday," he said. "If we don't we are into another election. So, we are looking at a series of options to make sure that the full executive is elected.

"But I am not going to discuss that on the airwaves at this time."

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