The Ulster Unionist Party has been in talks with the Government on a cash package which could help form a Stormont opposition.
Leader Tom Elliott said: “For some time now the Ulster Unionist Party has been calling for a properly-funded opposition which can hold the Executive to account.” Senior UUP sources have confirmed the discussions began “some time ago”.
Financial aid from the UUs partner party the Conservatives, in coalition government with the Liberal Democrats would pay directly for advisers, researchers and other staff needed to run an effective opposition.
But the UUP has made clear they are not preparing for opposition in the near future, but instead want to improve the system at Stormont overall
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness claimed he had been made aware of the negotiations from various sources.
“I have heard it from very good authority, for example, within the NIO, that the Ulster Unionist Party are actually negotiating with the British Government a financial arrangement which would see them remove themselves from the Executive,” Mr McGuinness said.
“That they don’t want to lose the funds that the ministerial responsibilities bring to their party, but wish to be compensated,
clearly suggests that they are contemplating pulling out of the Executive, either before the Assembly elections or after the elections.”
Mr Elliott said: “Any functioning democracy requires a Government and an opposition.
“The people of Northern Ireland deserve no less and should not be expected to settle for less.
“Sinn Fein are the last people to criticise anyone regarding the funding of political parties bearing in mind the amount of money they have taken from Westminster without even bothering to turn up.”
Mr Elliott’s remarks came just 24 hours after he unveiled proposals which could bring about a shift from the present mandatory coalition at Stormont to a voluntary coalition by 2015 — allowing for an opposition to be formed.
But his suggestions were against the backdrop of sustained criticism of his party from both the DUP and Sinn Fein — of Health Minister Michael McGimpsey in particular — for wanting to be part of the Executive, but retaining the right to criticise it.
First Minister Peter Robinson said in any other form of administration the Health Minister would have been sacked.
Mr Elliott said Mr Robinson’s approach has led to “division, mistrust and bad government”.