Opposition debates shift 'slap in face for democracy'
Stormont's new official Opposition has accused the ruling parties of attempting to close down its voice in the Assembly chamber.
The UUP and SDLP said a move to replace a slot for Opposition-tabled debates every second week to an unspecified number of Opposition "days" was a "slap in the face for democracy".
UUP and SDLP chief whips Robin Swann and Alex Attwood, in what was the Opposition's first joint press conference, claimed the DUP/Sinn Fein administration was "rattled".
"In key votes on Assembly business, the DUP and Sinn Fein have shown both their arrogance and their fear, with a slap in the face for our democracy," Mr Swann said outside the Assembly chamber.
"In March, the five parties on the Business Committee of the Assembly unanimously agreed there would be provision for debates led by the Opposition, if a party or parties chose not to go into the Executive.
"Now after only two Opposition debates, the DUP and Sinn Fein today railroaded through a change, replacing Opposition motions every second week with Opposition days every so often."
Mr Attwood added: "It was a calculated attempt to close down the voice of opposition. In refusing at the Business Committee to offer any good argument for the decision, the DUP and Sinn Fein proved it was all about their weight of numbers, not about the health of our democracy.
"These actions show both their arrogance and their fear.
"Both Sinn Fein and the DUP look and sound rattled. The proof is that two Opposition debates over two days was two too many for them."
Sinn Fein's Caral Ni Chuilin said the new arrangements were in line with options set out in the Bill that led to the creation of an Opposition.
"Maybe the parties should have studied the Bill in a little detail before the SDLP rushed headlong to follow Mike Nesbitt into Opposition and off to the sidelines," she added.
DUP chief whip Trevor Clarke said: "The establishment of an official Opposition at Stormont is a step towards normal politics in Northern Ireland.
"It is right that time should be allocated to the Opposition for debates, but there is nothing wrong with looking at how other legislatures allocate time for such debates."
He added: "The Opposition's real challenge is not about the time available to make their voice heard. It is about finding something meaningful to say."