Margaret Ritchie says her party wants to govern, but spelt out a clear |benchmark for participating at StormontTHE SDLP leader has branded DUP and Sinn Fein attacks on Michael McGimpsey as |"disgraceful".
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Margaret Ritchie also warned that her party could walk away from the Executive and into opposition if relations with the two largest parties became further poisoned.
Ms Ritchie’s comments underline the increasingly strained relationship between the DUP and Sinn Fein on the one side and the SDLP and UUP on the other.
Health Minister Mr McGimpsey has been engaged in a public war of words with the First and Deputy First Ministers over proposed budget cuts to his department’s spending.
This culminated when Peter Robinson told this paper that the UUP Health Minister would have been sacked had he been working in any other government.
The Ulster Unionists have also indicated that they are prepared to give up their ministerial posts and move into opposition at |Stormont.
Ms Ritchie said: "Michael McGimpsey has been treated disgracefully. A minister has a right to make a case for his budget."
Under current rules, if any party pulled out of the Stormont |Executive it would suffer a loss of public funds and lose its access as of right to posts like committee chairmanships.
There is also no provision for funding or speaking rights for parties in opposition as there is in Westminster, the Dail and the UK regional assemblies.
Ritchie categorically denied Sinn Fein claims that she had joined the UUP in asking Secretary of State Owen Paterson to change these rules.
Mr Paterson has also denied any approach from the SDLP, but the UUP have said they are seeking the change
"I support their right to ask for it," Ms Ritchie said, adding that her party could not be taken for |granted.
"Our bottom line is that we are going into this election to be a party of Government. I think we have every chance of getting two ministries next time and we want to govern," she added.
But she spelt out a clear "benchmark" for participating in the |Executive.
"If it ever became difficult for us to do our job in Government then we would review the situation. We have not reached that point at this moment, but these things are always under review" she said.
Mr McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister and Sinn Fein’s leader in the Assembly, strongly opposes such changes, saying they are contrary to the Good Friday Agreement. He said that funds for opposition rights in the Assembly could not be spared from the Stormont budget and it would be "unwarranted interference" by the British Government if they |offered to pay them.
Ms Ritchie dismissed Mr McGuinness’ comments.
She said: "Everything in life, whether it is your job or political institutions, has to be reviewed to make sure it is still effective and still resonates with the requirements of the people.
"The Good Friday Agreement was always meant to be evolutionary, it was meant to move on.
"But we have to wait until these institutions are properly bedded down."
However, her judgment is that "four years isn’t enough" for the bedding-down process to be completed.
She added: "The Assembly has to review itself by the end of the next term and there is nothing wrong with looking at these things in that timeframe. The basic principle is to deliver for people; preserving high and mighty institutions indefinitely is not the first consideration."
Ms Ritchie said Mr McGuinness was in no position to criticise other parties for seeking opposition funding or to accuse them of seeking to avoid the responsibilities of Government.
She added: "It is Sinn Fein who have received millions of pounds from the British Government for not doing the job they were elected to do in Westminster", referring to Sinn Fein’s policy of refusing to take up its seats at Westminster, but still claim Parliamentary allowances.