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Parties deciding whether to join DUP and Sinn Fein in Stormont government

Published 09/05/2016

Newly-elected MLAs have up to two weeks to thrash out priorities for a programme for government
Newly-elected MLAs have up to two weeks to thrash out priorities for a programme for government

Junior partners in previous Stormont powersharing governments are deliberating whether to join the latest administration or take up the new option of forming an official opposition.

While the Ulster Unionists and SDLP both had relatively disappointing showings in last week's Assembly election, they retain sufficient strength to take one ministerial position each in the next Democratic Unionist/Sinn Fein led coalition.

The cross-community Alliance Party does not have the numbers to be there by right, but is expected to be invited to take on the politically sensitive justice portfolio as it has done in past mandates.

With recent legislation paving the way for the main parties to enter official opposition in the Assembly for the first time since the Good Friday Agreement, all three parties now face a significant political choice over the next two weeks of talks on the shape and priorities of the next Stormont Executive.

The MLAs elected in last week's Assembly poll were at Parliament Buildings in Belfast on Monday, with a vote to formally confirm DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein veteran Martin McGuinness as the new first and deputy first ministers due on Thursday.

Once Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness are appointed there will be a two week deadline to agree a new programme for government and appoint ministers - though it is anticipated this process could be done much sooner.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said a security assessment from Northern Ireland's police chief George Hamilton on paramilitary activity would be key to his party's decision.

He said he also wanted to see a "progressive" programme for government.

"I need to look people in the eye and test them over the next two weeks, or whatever is being allocated for these negotiations, and then make a judgement call, and it will be a judgement call," he said.

"Certainly there are those who say 'let's see you all working together' and, equally, there are those who say 'the time has come for an official opposition' - we'll do what we think is right for the country."

The SDLP's newly elected MLA for West Tyrone Daniel McCrossan said his party would make a "collective decision" on the issue.

"We have a huge schedule of work ahead of us all," he said.

"Tomorrow we will re-group entirely and discuss where we go from here and lay down what we want to see from the programme for government.

"If we aren't satisfied by commitments we'll know where we are from there."

Returning Alliance MLA for East Belfast Chris Lyttle said the programme for government had to fund services, not division.

"We have a strong team who are going to go in this week and look to see if the programme for government is going to be in the best interests of everyone in Northern Ireland," he said.

"We certainly have a team capable of doing that in the executive or in opposition, to ensure we scrutinise and hold to account and offer that radical alternative if necessary."

The DUP and Sinn Fein consolidated their position as Stormont's two largest parties in the election. The DUP emerged with the same number of seats it went into the campaign with - 38 - and Sinn Fein fell one to 28.

The SDLP, the once dominant power within nationalism, dropped two seats on its 2011 tally to 12.

Although the UUP repeated the 16-seat haul of 2011, it did not make the inroads Mr Nesbitt had confidently predicted.

The Alliance Party won eight seats - the same as 2011.

Mrs Foster was in confident mood as she and her Assembly team posed for photos outside Parliament Buildings on the first day back.

She said she wanted the negotiations to be inclusive and said it would not simply be a case of the DUP and Sinn Fein presenting the other parties with a "take it or leave it " programme for government.

"I hope we all come to these negotiations with views as to what we can achieve for the people of Northern Ireland based on our manifestos," she said.

Earlier Mr McGuinness said provisional discussions on a proposed programme for government had been on-going for weeks.

"I think it's incumbent on everybody over the course of the next number of days to try to conclude that as soon as possible," he said.

He added: "What we have tried to do is put together a programme for government that everyone can agree with."

Smaller parties scored some notable successes in the election, with the previously unrepresented People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA) winning two seats and the Green Party also taking two berths in the Assembly chamber.

Veteran political campaigner and newly elected PBPA MLA Eamonn McCann said: "Our election indicates the extent to which people want change, I think it reflects the general disillusionment with the way things are going in this part of the world and disappointment in the performance of the various parties."

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