Northern Ireland

SDLP seeks Stormont apology over power-sharing collapse

Monday will see the first official Opposition day at Stormont when motions challenging the Assembly to act to reform will be debated.

Stormont Opposition leader Matthew O’Toole has challenged parties to back his motions on the first Opposition Day in the Assembly to reform the institutions.
Stormont Opposition leader Matthew O’Toole has challenged parties to back his motions on the first Opposition Day in the Assembly to reform the institutions. Stormont Opposition leader Matthew O’Toole has challenged parties to back his motions on the first Opposition Day in the Assembly to reform the institutions.

DUP and Sinn Féin assembly members are to be asked to apologise for the collapse of Stormont and will be challenged to commit to reform to prevent future collapses during the first official Opposition day.

Opposition leader Matthew O’Toole has proposed three motions calling for a commitment to reform the institutions in the Programme for Government and an ad hoc committee to consider legislation to prevent further collapses.

The SDLP tabled three motions on Monday:

  • To ask that MLAs take ownership of the “decline in public services” that occurred during the previous ten years and express their shame at the suspension of devolution during that period.
  • Members are asked to apologise to public sector workers who have “experienced pay injustice” and to put an end to one party’s ability to bring down institutions.
  • Formation of a special committee to study laws aimed at preventing Stormont from collapsing under one party in the future.


Mr O’Toole described the motions as a “real test of how serious all parties are about, not just the principle, but delivering on reform”, and expressing regret.

Striking public sector staff at Belfast City Hall in January when an estimated 150,000 workers took part in walkouts over pay
Industrial strike Striking public sector staff at Belfast City Hall in January when an estimated 150,000 workers took part in walkouts over pay (Liam McBurney/PA)

It will be the first Opposition day at Stormont in recent years following the decision by the SDLP to go into Opposition.

The SDLP and UUP previously formed an official Opposition in 2016, however this came to an end in January 2017 when then deputy first minister Martin McGuinness resigned, effectively collapsing the institutions until 2020.

The Assembly was revived in January after two years of disruption following the resignation of then first minister Paul Givan as part of the DUP’s protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Mr O’Toole told the PA news agency that parties expressing regret over the political instability and committing to reform would mark a “milestone where we move on to something more sustainable from veto and stalemate”.

Former first minister Paul Givan
Brexit Former first minister Paul Givan (Peter Morrison/PA)

Mr O’Toole said those suspensions led to public services “falling to the worst state in western Europe in some cases, particularly the health service”.

“That is why our first Opposition day is focused squarely on reform of the institutions, reforming how Stormont works so this can’t happen again,” he said.

“We’re not just setting out aspirations. This is about actually getting binding commitments and a process in place to stop Stormont ever collapsing again. Reforming the rules so that veto cannot be used to collapse government again.

“We also have a motion on public sector pay, which is an important priority to make sure public sector workers get paid as quickly as possible.

“But the particular outcomes that we’re hopeful we can achieve on our first Opposition day is, a specific commitment from the top of the Executive that the removal of the veto, reform of the institutions so this place can’t collapse from one person resigning, and another motion which creates a practical mechanism for that, an ad hoc committee that will come up with proposals that can be delivered back to the Assembly by September and can be implemented before the end of this mandate.”

Mr O’Toole said polling shows a vast majority of people in Northern Ireland want to see Stormont reformed.

“We can’t have a situation where one party can collapse the institutions,” he said.

“Whatever the issue that they are aggrieved about, and there will be issues that are difficult, that parties need to be robust about. We acknowledge that, inclusive government is difficult, but you can’t accept the idea that in 2024 that we can go on with this toxic cycle of collapse and restoration. We can’t allow that to happen again.”

Mr O’Toole acknowledged that the SDLP had a difficult election result in 2022 which left them without enough MLAs to be entitled to a place in the Executive.

Asked would they have gone into Opposition had they been entitled to an Executive seat, he said: “It’s a hypothetical situation, I think our strong view would have been that Opposition was an essential role for us to play whether we had qualified for a ministry or not.

“I think I would have been making the argument, and I think lots of my colleagues would have agreed that it was the right thing to be in Opposition whether we had, eight, nine, 10 or 12 MLAs. We think the role of Opposition is an important and essential one, and we think it’s important for us as a political party to set out our stall.

Matthew O’Toole acknowledged that the SDLP had a difficult election result in 2022
The SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole and his party colleagues Matthew O’Toole acknowledged that the SDLP had a difficult election result in 2022 (Oliver McVeigh/PA)

“We deeply believe in protecting the institutions, but sometimes protecting the institutions and making politics work here can be done better from Opposition, and I think that’s where we are now.

“I think our role is upholding and protecting the Good Friday Agreement, and I think we’re doing that from constructive Opposition, and I think you’ll see that on Monday with our motions for reform. (If they’re passed), that’ll be a huge achievement for us that would prove that we’re delivering from Opposition.

“We are genuinely excited and energised by it, and I think we’re delivering a clear set of priorities for the public in terms of holding the Executive to account in a constructive and robust way.”

One month in, Mr O’Toole said he believes they have already changed the tenure of politics.

“We challenged the First and deputy First Minister on not collapsing the institutions again, and I think people have noticed that, and noticed the answers that we haven’t got,” he said.

“Simply asking that question (whether they will commit to not resign and collapse the institutions) in a polite way is not a stunt as it was called, it was doing our job of accountability.”