Northern Ireland news

DUP rejects 'Joint First Ministers' proposal for Stormont

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has yet to say whether he will serve alongside Michelle O'Neill as deputy first minister

THE DUP last night said it was opposed to reforms that would give the leaders of the Stormont executive equal titles.

The party claimed the proposal, which has been tabled at Westminster in recent weeks by Alliance, the SDLP, and the latter's former leader Baroness Margaret Ritchie, was about its rivals "gaining political advantage".

Scrapping the first and deputy first ministers' titles and making the roles equal in name as well as in practice would have potentially spared the DUP major political embarrassment if it emerges from May's assembly election behind Sinn Féin.

It would also have signalled a desire for more stable institutions, with both the DUP and Ulster Unionists yet to commit to serving under a Sinn Féin first minister.

However, with the DUP widely expected to lose seats and fall behind its main rival, questions are already being asked about the prospects of a speedy return to devolution after the assembly election.

Sinn Féin has declined to say if it supports scrapping the first and deputy first ministers' titles, even though its former northern leader Martin McGuinness suggested as much in 2015.

A party spokesperson last night said: "It will be for the people, and only the people, to decide who becomes First Minister in line with the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

"What the public need to know is will the DUP respect the ballot box and the democratic will of the people?"

The proposal to give Stormont's leaders equal titles has been tabled in amendments to the same New Decade New Approach legislation under which the British government sought to reintroduce double-jobbing, before dramatically withdrawing the plan earlier this week.

Baroness Ritchie submitted an amendment on Thursday similar to those tabled but later withdrawn by the SDLP and Alliance late last year.

She told The Irish News her proposal would have changed the titles to 'joint first ministers', which the former MP said would "reflect their identical status, powers and responsibilities".

She also said it would remove "divisive rhetoric" from the election campaign.

The amendment was withdrawn on the request of Northern Ireland Office minister Lord Jonathan Caine, who assured the former SDLP leader that the British government would "test the appetite" for reforms after the election.

But the chances of a name change any time soon look remote, with the DUP describing such a move as "piecemeal" and "cherry picking".

"We suspect this proposal is less about improving how the institutions function and more about gaining political advantage," a spokesperson said.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he supported a change in titles.

"“This isn't 1968 and nationalists aren't second class citizens anymore," he said.

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said reforming the titles would "detoxify the election campaign".

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