The SDLP could dramatically quit the Stormont Executive if Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness attempt a 'power-grab' against the party's minister Mark H Durkan, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
Senior SDLP figures say the leadership would come under pressure to go into opposition if the First Minister and Deputy First Minister resurrect the Planning Bill abandoned by the Environment Minister.
As the Belfast Telegraph disclosed last week, Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness are poised to take control of the Bill themselves or farm it out to Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster.
The so-called 'redesignation' would force the Executive onto dangerous new territory and threaten the entire basis of the power-sharing administration.
Growing anger within the SDLP, which holds just one seat on the Executive, comes on the eve of its annual conference in Armagh, where last year leader Alasdair McDonnell set his face against any move towards opposition.
Deputy leader Dolores Kelly yesterday said: "I would have grave concerns over how we could remain in government if such a thing were to happen, and the debate within the party over going into opposition is continuing in any case."
Another senior member added: "There is a growing strength of feeling over the way the party has been treated but we cannot be seen to walk away on a whim.
"It would have to be something that would resonate with people – and this would be it."
Other party sources also referred to an earlier clash with Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness over the controversial Social Investment Fund, which the SDLP argued should be put under the control of the Department of Social Development, under then minister Margaret Ritchie.
They point out that both Mr Durkan and his predecessor Alex Attwood have worked to implement the local government reforms with 26 councils being merged into 11 – even though the SDLP is in favour of a reduction to just 15.
"This move (by Robinson and McGuinness) if it proves to be anything more than just scaremongering would break both the letter and the spirit of the power-sharing administration," a senior source confided last night.
"Although there are many in the party including Alasdair who are not in favour of going into opposition, I do not think we would have any credibility if we do nothing."
STORY SO FAR
Environment Minister Mark H Durkan dropped the Planning Bill after amendments – giving more weight in planning decisions to economic rather than environmental considerations – were passed in the Assembly. The amendments were introduced by First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.