Belfast Telegraph

UUP's Aiken and Beattie split over entering new Stormont Executive as talks continue

 

UUP leader Steve Aiken (right) and colleague Doug Beattie at Stormont yesterday
UUP leader Steve Aiken (right) and colleague Doug Beattie at Stormont yesterday
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Ulster Unionist negotiators are split over whether the party should enter a new Executive if a deal is reached to restore power-sharing.

UUP leader Steve Aiken wants the party to take its seat in a future administration but he has met with staunch opposition from Upper Bann MLA Doug Beattie.

Under the d'Hondt system, the UUP is entitled to one ministry.

However, Stormont sources told the Belfast Telegraph that Mr Beattie believed the party should not accept it.

They said he had argued strongly in favour of the UUP remaining outside the Executive where it would be free to vigorously challenge the DUP and Sinn Fein.

"Doug Beattie believes that democracy in Northern Ireland is best served by having an opposition at Stormont," the source said. "He thinks that staying outside and holding the two big parties to account is the only way forward for the Ulster Unionists,

"He has argued that an official opposition will deliver better government in Northern Ireland and will strengthen democracy.

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"There is one at Westminster and the case made is that Stormont shouldn't be any different."

The DUP would be much more comfortable with its unionist rival inside the Executive where it would be bound by the convention of collective responsibility.

UUP supporters of going into opposition believe it would clearly distinguish the party from the DUP and improve its electoral chances.

Frustration: Kellie Armstrong
Frustration: Kellie Armstrong

If a deal is reached by the Secretary of State's January 13 deadline, the UUP executive and party officers - around 100 members in total - will decide its course.

Mr Beattie last night declined to comment but a party spokesman said: "The Ulster Unionist Party has not yet been presented with the text of a potential agreement to assess whether there is even a basis to re-enter the Northern Ireland Executive.

"Any final decision on whether we enter an Executive or not will be taken in accordance with the party rules."

Former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt led his party out of the Executive in 2015 after the IRA murder of Kevin McGuigan.

The following year, Stormont saw its first formal opposition when the UUP and SDLP declined to join the Executive.

Day two of the talks yesterday was described as "slow and frustrating" as meetings continued between the parties and Secretary of State Julian Smith and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney.

Asked about Irish language legislation, Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O'Neill said: "Clearly there will be an Irish Language Act as part of a deal. But what we need to see is a package of measures that allows public confidence to be generated again in our ability to deliver good politics.

"What success looks like to me is, yes, there will be an Irish Language Act and, yes, there will be a package of measures that looks at a range of issues."

DUP leader Arlene Foster refused to be drawn on whether there would be a standalone Irish Language Act in any deal.

"It appears that Michelle continues to reiterate her red lines, I would much prefer to look for common ground in relation to where we're going for the executive," she said. "I want a fair and balanced deal that respects everyone's identity in Northern Ireland." There was continuing disagreement between the DUP and the other parties on the petition of concern.

Ms O'Neill said: "There's been positive work done across four parties in the main around some of the issues around the petition of concern.

We have common ground in four parties and I hope at some stage the DUP will come onto the same ground as the rest of us in terms of wanting to make this assembly and executive work."

Sinn Fein has said its commitment to restoring devolution isn't at odds with its demand for a border poll. However, Mrs Foster has said this decade must be about building a successful Northern Ireland "at peace with itself".

Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong said: "Today has been a slow and frustrating day, but it's a day where we are still talking and still trying to come to an agreed conclusion. While the governments may be frustrated with us, we're frustrated with them and with each other, but we're not fighting, we're looking at detail. We're keeping going, there have been some positive and proactive conversations but we're just not there yet."

It is understood that the Secretary of State is not yet prepared to release any papers from the two governments on what a deal could look like. It could be Tuesday or Wednesday before parties have a chance to scrutinise any documents.

The UUP said it did not want to give false optimism over achieving a deal in the near future. "We are into another day of intensive talks, very much concentrating on the programme for government," Mr Aiken said.

"We must get Northern Ireland working again and we must concentrate on those issues to get Northern Ireland back up and running. Quite frankly, I don't know where we are."

Members of Irish language group Conradh na Gaeilge were left disappointed after a scheduled meeting with Mr Smith was postponed with 10 minutes' notice.

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