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Mike Nesbitt urges joint Stormont talks over forming of an opposition

By Noel McAdam

Multi-party talks at Stormont should resolve the issue of establishing an official opposition in the Assembly, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has insisted.

Addressing his party's annual conference at the weekend, the MLA said an official opposition was needed "more than ever before".

And he told grass roots members the party had already begun making the case for a proper opposition in the formal talks setting – though without confirming that the UUP would form it.

In a question-and-answer session at the end of the two-day conference, Secretary of State Theresa Villiers said she would "continue to work" for an official opposition in the devolved administration.

But confirming it will be on the agenda in the current talks, she also said there would need to be broad support across the parties and it would have to be within the "principles of power-sharing".

In his remarks, Mr Nesbitt said: "The problem, I guess, is that too many politicians... are obsessed with an old-fashioned, binary approach to everything we do. Politics has to be orange or green. It has to be win or lose.

"No, it doesn't. Life is three-dimensional. Embrace the challenge and the beauty of complexity."

But both he and the party's only Executive minister, Regional Development chief Danny Kennedy, attacked Sinn Fein and the DUP for the £100m loan obtained from Chancellor George Osborne to prevent some departments from busting their budgets.

Mr Nesbitt said: "The terms and conditions of the Chancellor's loan are explicit in his letter. The DUP and Sinn Fein have signed up to the welfare reform penalties of £87m this year and £114m next. We're £100m better off this year, but £301m worse off next year. It makes a Wonga pay-day loan look generous!"

Also addressing delegates, Mr Kennedy said even the most unlikely voices were saying that former Finance Minister Sammy Wilson had been better than his successor Simon Hamilton.

And referring to last week's social development committee, which was suspended after Mr Wilson branded the TUV's Jim Allister a "thug", Mr Kennedy went on to say it was a "shame Peter (Robinson) felt he had to get rid of him (Wilson)".

"Only this week 'Wonga' Hamilton said if I didn't agree with his and Sinn Fein's payday loan, I should just refuse funding for the concessionary fare scheme, so popular and well used by so many of our older people," he added.

"Your comments are not worthy of Finance Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive, but then again, you have handed that role over to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. George Osborne now has final sign-off on our finances and you gave it to him."

Yesterday the DUP hit back at the criticism. East Belfast MLA Robin Newton said the UUP seemed eager to deride the interest-free £100m loan, yet Mr Kennedy had been "happy to take his cut".

"Whilst the UUP strategy may have been to launch petty and snide attacks on DUP ministers, such actions only exposed the UUP's lack of ideas and answers," he said.

Meanwhile, Upper Bann MLA Jo Ann Dobson and war veteran Andy Allen, a UUP newcomer, also addressed delegates.

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