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SDLP announce they are entering official opposition at Stormont

David Ford 'not in a position to recommend Alliance takes justice minister role'

By Claire Williamson

Published 19/05/2016

SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood with his Party colleagues, announces that the party will go into opposition
SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood with his Party colleagues, announces that the party will go into opposition
PACEMAKER BELFAST 19/05/16 The SDLP's Colm Eastwood and Alex Attwood speak to the media outside Stormont Castle. Picture Matt Bohill.
Crunch meeting take place at Stormont Castle in east Belfast between Northern Ireland's main political parties over the makeup of the new Executive. Left to right. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and First Minister Arlene Foster leave the Castle after the talks to speak to the media. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
First Minister Arlene Foster and and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness speak to the media at Storming Castle on Thursday. The various parties have been meeting at Stormont Castle in a series of talks that could decide the fate of the next Northern Ireland Executive. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
First Minister Arlene Foster and and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness speak to the media at Storming Castle on Thursday. The various parties have been meeting at Stormont Castle in a series of talks that could decide the fate of the next Northern Ireland Executive. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Crunch meeting take place at Stormont Castle in east Belfast between Northern Ireland's main political parties over the makeup of the new Executive. Left to right. The Green Party's Clare Bailey and Steven Agnew pictured after leaving the talks. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Crunch meeting take place at Stormont Castle in east Belfast between Northern Ireland's main political parties over the makeup of the new Executive. Left to right. The Green Party's Clare Bailey and Steven Agnew pictured after leaving the talks. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Crunch meeting take place at Stormont Castle in east Belfast between Northern Ireland's main political parties over the makeup of the new Executive. Left to right. The Alliance Party's Stephen Farry and leader David Ford pictured leaving after the talks. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

The SDLP have announced they are entering opposition at Stormont.

It comes shortly after Alliance party leader David Ford announced that he is not in a position to recommend his party takes the justice minister role within Northern Ireland's Executive.

The SDLP are the second party to announce they will not join the DUP and Sinn Fein in the Stormont executive following the Assembly elections on May 5. - the UUP were the first.

It follows talks with the First and Deputy First Ministers on the new Executive's formation.

Earlier on Thursday Northern Ireland's First and deputy First Ministers accused the SDLP of "dishonesty" over the programme for government negotiations.

But on Thursday evening SDLP leader Colum Eastwood made the announcement of what he termed a "bold decision".

SDLP Party Leader Colum Eastwood decision to form Stormont opposition: Full statement

Mr Eastwood said: "It is now clear that other parties are not prepared to work on a Programme for Government that can bring about that change.

"We have made the bold decision, a decision that hasn't come lightly to us, but it is a decision we need to take nonetheless.

"The SDLP is tonight announcing that we will go into Opposition to form a constructive opposition to the main party Executive. That's what we are going to do, we are going to work very, very hard to put forward alternatives to what the other parties have done and what they have failed to do.

"This is a party who are determined to see change in this assembly."

Mr Eastwood added: "We will work with whatever other parties want to work with us but it is important to be clear. The SDLP has our own mandate we will work to that mandate and stand by our policies and our own ideas."

UUP 'congratulate SDLP' on creating cross-community Stormont opposition

The Ulster Unionist party congratulated the SDLP on their decision to create Northern Ireland's first ever 'cross community opposition' at Stormont.

Party leader Mike Nesbitt said: "I am delighted that the SDLP have chosen this path. I am confident it will lead to new beginnings and possibilities for devolved government. We have been heartened by the extraordinary level of support which we received since we made our decision last Thursday and I am sure the SDLP will receive similar praise and encouragement.

“I enjoyed working with Colum Eastwood during his time on the Committee of OFMdFM during the last mandate. I very much look forward to working in partnership as we bring on this new era. Be in no doubt, together we can offer the opportunity of a real fresh start.

 "We will move swiftly to sort out the nuts and bolts of how we maximise our impact and effectiveness.”

Alliance decline justice minister position

Meanwhile the announcement by the Alliance party not to accept the DUP/Sinn Fein offer to again take on a post it has filled since 2010 has become crucial to the viability of the next executive.

With the Alliance party declining it is unlikely either the DUP or Sinn Fein will allow the other to assume the politically sensitive portfolio.

That mutual veto has been overcome in recent years by the willingness of Alliance to take the job.

An Alliance Party delegation left Stormont Castle after a meeting with Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness that lasted 10 minutes.

The DUP and Sinn Fein have also met with the Green Party and Independent MLA Claire Sugden over the possibility of taking on the role of the justice minister.

'Not on the same page'

In a statement David Ford MLA said he was not in a position to recommend to Alliance members that his party take the justice ministry.

Mr Ford said the "negative DUP and Sinn Fein response to Alliance's proposals left the party leadership with no choice but to not nominate a Minister".

He said a number of propositions around Alliance's 'five steps' contained in its election manifesto were rejected by the DUP and Sinn Fein.

"Alliance submitted a paper to the DUP and Sinn Fein on Tuesday outlining where we believed movement could be made and today they responded.

"It is clear we are not on the same page when it comes to seeking progress for our society and as such, I cannot recommend to Alliance Party Council this evening we take the Justice portfolio.

"There has rightly been public frustration over the repeated failures of other parties in the Executive and a different approach is undoubtedly needed.

"Alliance does not want more stop-start politics but rather is concerned with taking Northern Ireland forward faster. We sought reassurances the DUP and Sinn Fein agreed with us on fundamental reforms to benefit our community. However, judging by their response, that is not the case.

"The proposals Alliance put to the DUP and Sinn Fein were ambitious and would have moved Northern Ireland forward. We have engaged constructively throughout this entire process, with delivering for our community foremost in our minds.

"It is clear there is a problem for the DUP and Sinn Fein to resolve in terms of finding a Justice Minister but they have rejected our solution. It is now up to them to resolve the problem over the next six days."

OFMDFM: 'SDLP dishonesty'

Following Mr Eastwood's earlier comments Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness issued a joint statement.

It said: "For the SDLP to now claim they do not agree with the Programme for Government process is dishonest given that they were part of developing it.

“The new PfG has not been plucked out of thin air. It has involved extensive consultation with political parties in the Executive, including the SDLP, dating back to last December.

“The SDLP were involved in this process every step of the way. At no stage during it did they raise any objections, concerns or, more importantly, alternatives to this planned approach.

“The SDLP attended four workshops on the development of the new PfG from December to February.

“These workshops clearly set out the objectives for May, and a further later phase setting out specific actions to be taken.

“You would have to question why at this stage - and because of the SDLP involvement from the outset - they now say the framework they were fully involved in lacks ambition."

The statement continued: "Either the SDLP had no intention of joining the new Executive and are playing to the gallery and the media.

“Or, they failed to grasp the new approach to government and are not up for the challenges ahead.

“Or, in an act of desperation inspired by their poor election result, they are now preparing to slavishly follow the Ulster Unionist Party out of government.

“We are committed to putting together the best possible PfG that will create more and better jobs and investment in our health service, our schools and support for the most vulnerable in society.”

Following his meeting with the ministers, Green Party leader Steven Agnew and MLA Clare Bailey said it would be "problematic" for the party to take the justice ministry.

He said: "This was a worthwhile and constructive meeting as it allowed Clare and I to put forward Green Party issues.

“We raised our key issues including Green New deal, integrated education and investment in early years provision. The traditional parties have failed to address these issues to date.

“However we would need more progress on our issues before we could recommend going into government to our party members."

Clare Bailey MLA added: "Given that our justice system currently upholds discrimination in many areas, to take up the role as it is would be problematic.

“We would need advancement in abortion reform and marriage equality as a starting point.”

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