Unionist MLAs put pressure on Elliott to form official opposition at Stormont
Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott is coming under increased pressure to consider early moves towards forming an opposition at Stormont.
Senior Assembly members are arguing it is now a question of when, not whether, the party quits the Executive to go into opposition.
Their comments came after a survey by the Belfast Telegraph showed nine out of 10 grassroots members believe the party would be better off in opposition.
The snapshot of opinion at the UUP annual conference showed an even higher figure (94%) in favour of legislation allowing for a formal opposition to become part of the Stormont structures.
Basil McCrea, the only other contender in last year's leadership contest which was comfortably won by Mr Elliott said it was a question of when, not if, the UUP makes a decision to give up its sole Executive seat, which would then go to another party.
"I think there is a recognition that the system of government we have here at Stormont doesn't favour the smaller parties.
"If you look at the principles of D'Hondt (the system under which ministers are appointed) I think it becomes inevitable that eventually an opposition is formed. It is a question of timing," the Lagan Valley MLA said.
"Basically not having an opposition means the system doesn't work properly and the biggest problem is that the D'Hondt mechanism dictates not only how many ministers you have (the UUP only have one, Regional Development chief Danny Kennedy) but the number of motions you can bring forward, the number of questions and supplementaries and so on."
East Belfast MLA Michael Copeland said the survey was not surprising. "My gut feeling is that any political system that does not benefit from having an opposition is a flawed system. I think in the long term the formation of an Executive becomes inevitable," he said.
"We will not be looking for any excuses just to take up the ball and walk away from the Executive. There would have to be a lot of discussions but I believe the party leadership is 100% convinced that the system needs an opposition."
Former chief whip David McNarry said, however: "I thought the results of the Telegraph survey were very interesting, albeit not scientific. But the fact is that opposition is not recognised here.
"There is no provision for it. So there would need to be the agreement of the House as a whole, as a first step. Then when D'Hondt is run, the party going into opposition forgoes the opportunity to nominate a minister to go into opposition instead."
Other unionist parties also responded yesterday to the Belfast Telegraph findings, which showed that UUP rank-and-file members trust SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie more than DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson.
The DUP's Alistair Ross said it was up to the UUP to decide on standing down from the Executive. "We are well aware of the limitations that a five-party coalition presents, and we want to see a more normal system of government achieved here.
"However, whilst we are working towards that, the people of Northern Ireland are not best served by parties adopting a semi-detached attitude to the Executive," the East Antrim MLA said.
Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister said: "The findings of the poll confirm that rank and file Ulster Unionist members see that their party is marginalised at Stormont.
"The UUP could perform a valuable role at Stormont if it were to go in to opposition, leaving it free to scrutinise the work of the Executive and put forward its own distinctive policies."
The Belfast Telegraph's snapshot survey at the Ulster Unionist annual conference showed:
- 90 % of members believe the party would be "better off" in opposition,
- 94 % say there should be legislation allowing for an official opposition at Stormont
- 80 % say Tom Elliott is the best person to lead the party into the next election.
- 96 % want to see more Catholics join the party