UUP's plan for Stormont opposition: Empey tables Lords move, but party may not take on role
Published 24/01/2014 | 11:59
Ulster Unionists have launched a bid to establish an official opposition at Stormont – although they might not form it themselves.
Party boss Mike Nesbitt said: "Stormont is up and running and while not as effective as it should be, it is not going to collapse. This is the next logical move towards more normal politics."
His predecessor as leader, Lord Empey, has tabled an amendment to the Northern Ireland Bill now going through the House of Lords to ensure any opposition in the Assembly is protected from Executive parties.
Any move to form an opposition is unlikely this side of the next Assembly election, in 2016, and the formal request to set it up would have to come from a party.
Lord Empey said: "With the present stalemate at Stormont, we think this is the right time to move forward with a positive contribution to strengthen our democracy.
"This proposal has no effect on any party's rights; rather it will provide greater opportunities for MLAs to hold the Executive to account. The reason for having this in primary legislation is to ensure that the opposition at Stormont would be protected from the parties of the Executive."
But NI21 leader Basil McCrea said his former party was going about things "in a pretty confused way" and questioned whether it would back his own party's private member's Bill for an Opposition.
"If the stalemate is as bad as they claim, surely the honest thing to do would be to leave the Executive now and fight for opposition rights from the backbenches. To do otherwise would suggest to the people of Northern Ireland that they are not actually serious about this," he said.
"Lord Empey's amendment is attempting to give powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly which it already possesses. This is constitutionally very questionable and I doubt it will gain support within the Northern Ireland Assembly or in the House of Lords," he said.
Lord Empey said his proposals would allow a party to approach the Assembly Speaker if it wishes to have opposition status.
While the party supports the principle, the UUP would not necessarily form it itself.
Mr Nesbitt also made clear he could not foresee a time when Northern Ireland would not require a cross-community government and argued it made sense for more than one party to be involved in an opposition.
In its 2011 Assembly manifesto the UUP said it believed there should be an official opposition in place in Stormont by 2015.
"...a formal and recognised opposition... gives voters the choice between a sitting government and a credible alternative. It is apparent that when this element of choice is not available the public tends to disconnect."