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Big two rattled as rivals will no longer carry can for tough decisions. Let real politics commence

By Suzanne Breen

Published 20/05/2016

Northern Ireland politics just got interesting. For far too long, proceedings at Stormont were deadly dull. Only the political anoraks paid attention. The public largely turned off.

In the immediate aftermath of the Assembly elections, it looked like nothing much had altered. How wrong that was. For with the SDLP yesterday announcing it is joining the UUP in forming an official opposition, everything is changed utterly.

Hopefully, we can at last have something resembling normal politics here. Sinn Fein and the DUP are clearly rattled by the dramatic developments. The smaller parties have for so long provided them with political cover for unpopular decisions in the Executive.

But the election results made clear that if the UUP and SDLP kept doing what they have been doing, they were walking the plank.

And so, as Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness gave their first joint post-election press-conference, it increasingly looked like the next five years will be a case of 'Just the Two of Us'.

Alliance surprised many political observers, who believed they were so covetous of power, they would roll over. Reform of the petition of concern mechanism tops their list of demands, but yesterday Arlene Foster was in no mood for surrendering what has become such a vital tool for her party.

Sources said that the First Minister was "very forceful" during her meeting with the party, which lasted just 10 minutes.

It is understood that there was a "strong exchange of views" between Naomi Long and Mrs Foster.

By saying he wasn't in a position to currently recommend Alliance taking the justice portfolio, David Ford has left the door open to the DUP. But there was a growing feeling at Stormont last night that the two big parties might just forge ahead without Alliance.

DUP sources said that Mrs Foster felt her party had won the election and she wouldn't be held to ransom by Alliance, which had shed votes in the poll. They said Alliance had left itself "wriggle room" on taking the ministry, but that the DUP weren't overly keen on making the compromises David Ford was demanding.

Alliance sources said they would hold firm on the petition of concern issue.

They said it offered the possibility of a fundamental change in the way the Assembly operated, opening up the likelihood of progress on equal marriage and abortion law reform. There was speculation that the DUP and Sinn Fein were giving serious consideration to offering the justice ministry to independent MLA, Claire Sugden, or else divvying the job up between them.

An Alliance source said: "If we don't get a phone call by Monday, we will know that the DUP and Sinn Fein are bluffing or whether they really do have a 'Plan B' regarding the justice portfolio."

There was surprise across the parties in Stormont that Green leader, Steven Agnew, had expressed interest in the justice ministry.

The Greens so impressively increased their vote in the election, and succeeded in winning a South Belfast seat, because they were seen as outside the Stormont tent.

They were able to capitalise on an anti-establishment mood. Alliance, by contrast, were seen as part of the Stormont set.

Alliance sources believed that if Mr Agnew entered the Executive, the Greens would lose their radical image. However, Mr Agnew is unlikely to be offered the position.

The SDLP decision to go into opposition was never in doubt. Increasingly media savvy, the party made its announcement just in time for the evening news. Claire Hanna described the mood at yesterday's SDLP meeting as "genuinely exciting".

She said: "Every MLA was in favour of opposition. We are doing this with our eyes wide open. We know it's not a silver bullet. But, at last, our party has a real sense of purpose. We're up for it. We've got our bite and our fight back."

The way is open to the DUP and Sinn Fein to run the justice department similarly to OFMDFM, with two figures appointed, either rotating the position or sharing it.

If that transpires, it is likely the DUP would take the lead role first, in order to appease grassroots unionist fears of Sinn Fein having control of such sensitive matters.

A big question is funding for the new opposition. Just £60,000 has been laid aside for it. TUV leader, Jim Allister, said this was grossly unfair, given that the Executive will have the entire civil service, as well as an array of special advisers, to support it.

"If the opposition is going to perform its job of shadowing ministers well, then it needs proper resources," he said.

The times they are a changin' at Stormont, and that's no bad thing.

Belfast Telegraph

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