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DUP and SF view Eastwood and Nesbitt like Fathers Ted and Dougal

By Suzanne Breen

The Executive parties have dismissed the SDLP and Ulster Unionists' joint effort to hold them to account at Stormont as "the Craggy Island opposition".

In what was described as an informal Stormont briefing note leaked to the Belfast Telegraph, the governing parties have dubbed Colum Eastwood and Mike Nesbitt as the "Father Dougal and Father Ted" of Parliament Buildings.

Using comic put-downs, it mocks the Ulster Unionist and SDLP attempts so far to provide an official Opposition and claims that they haven't managed to come up with a single concrete proposal.

Headlined 'The Craggy Island Opposition', the leaked paper states: "The SDLP and UUP are good at being negative, at running down not just the Executive but public services. Mike and Colum have been likened to Steptoe and Son.

"But when it comes to policy issues, they are Father Dougal and Father Ted - any proposal, any initiative, any budget choice is met with either 'Down with this Sort of Thing' or occasionally 'Careful Now'. That's the sum total of their combined platform."

Using language and a tone which will surprise many people, the comparison to the Channel 4 sitcom is extensively employed by the author of the Stormont paper.

Earlier this year First Minister Arlene Foster had suggested that Mr Nesbitt and Mr Eastwood had come up with the nickname 'Marlene' to refer to both her and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, although the term had been used for some time beforehand.

The DUP leader hit back at her party's conference last month, dubbing the UUP and SDLP leaders as the "Steptoe and Son" of Northern Ireland politics.

And now the Father Ted comparison appears to be the latest DUP and Sinn Fein effort to cast comic scorn on their political rivals.

The Stormont paper says that Mr Nesbitt told the UUP conference in October that the two parties had to work in partnership if they were to convince the electorate they were a viable replacement for the Executive.

It continues: "Sadly for Mike, he faced an almost immediate revolt in the ranks.

"UUP MP and former leader, Tom Elliott, popped up in the media to say he didn't know where 'Vote Mike, Get Colum' had come from. He also said the idea of a joint opposition should be knocked 'on the head'.

"It would seem Tom's view is winning.

"There hasn't been a single concrete proposal from the 'Vote Mike, Get Colum' coalition - let alone an agreed policy platform. It can't be due to inexperience or time.

"Both parties had ministers side-by-side in the Executive from the restoration of devolution nine years ago. The business of governing - the choices and priorities before us all - shouldn't be a mystery to them.

"It almost seems Mike is really in the Tom Elliott refusenik camp, despite his words."

The briefing note states that Mr Nesbitt had "self-identified as leader of the Opposition, despite Colum telling anyone who will listen that he's nobody's deputy".

It continues: "The UUP has established a 'Stormont Opposition' Twitter account complete with its own party logo. Does the party think it's an Opposition and alternative Government all by itself? Does it secretly hanker back to the days pre-1972 when it ruled the roost on its own?"

The Stormont briefing paper claims that the record of the SDLP and Ulster Unionists doesn't inspire confidence.

"The SDLP's claim to have a 'costed' Assembly election manifesto fell apart spectacularly in the course of just one radio interview.

"That's hardly surprising from a party whose grand budget plans in the past involved privatising forests and the Executive selling off an airport it doesn't own. The UUP might even be worse," it continues.

"Never forget this was the party that put out the welcome mat for austerity. Back before he was Colum's new best friend, Mike Nesbitt was a Conservative Party general election candidate - through the UCUNF alliance with the Tories. That was the 2010 election that saw David Cameron single out Northern Ireland as a region in line for cuts."

The briefing note alleges that the UUP is "making just as much sense" today.

"Its Brexit blueprint proposed a trebling of the Executive's spend on infrastructure with no notion where this extra £2bn plus a year would come from," it states.

"In recent months, Mike's party has managed to both criticise the Executive for borrowing too much and attack it for not borrowing enough. It has also appeared to both support and criticise the plan to reduce corporation tax to 12.5%."

The Stormont briefing note concludes: "It has been suggested that having a credible, joint Opposition will improve Assembly politics.

"That can only be judged when or if one ever comes along. At the minute all we have is a Craggy Island Alliance. And that's not a blessing."

The UUP last night said that the briefing note represented "a new low" for the DUP and Sinn Fein.

"If this is a sign of things to come under the new communications regime, it is all very regrettable," a spokesman said.

He said the Executive had "spent an awful lot of taxpayers' money on expertise to try and improve their messaging" and hoped that this wasn't "a sign of what they've purchased".

The UUP spokesman added: "In terms of dysfunctionality, we have watched as the two governing parties enter different lobbies on many occasions over the past number of weeks.

"This is a scandal prone Executive - whether it be Nama, the Social Investment Fund or the Renewable Heat Incentive, all of which are serious failures lying at the clay feet of our leaders."

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