The Deputy Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Danny Kennedy has called for the rules by which the First Minister is chosen to be amended, in an attempt the block the prospect of either Gerry Adams or Martin McGuniess taking the office after next year’s elections to Stormont.
At present, under the terms of the 2006 St Andrews Agreement and the subsequent legislation, the First Minister is determined by whichever party enjoys the largest single number of seats. Under the terms of the 1998 Belfast Agreement however, elevation to office was on the basis not on the size of the party in Stormont, but on commanding cross-community support.
In calling for a reversal back to the rule under the 1998 Agreement, Mr Kennedy, who is supporting Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA, Tom Elliott to replace Reg Empey as leader of the UUP told “The Newsletter” that he:
“genuinely believed that Unionist confidence in the political institutions would be seriously undermined and democracy itself further weakened should the distortion of the St Andrews Agreement not be reversed”.
He continued by describing the prospect of a Sinn Fein First Minister as being likely to “horrify the unionist population”.
Writing last month meanwhile, Tom Elliott was also clear in his position:
“I have already met with the Secretary of State on this matter and if elected as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, I commit to continuing to work to take us back to the position the people agreed, that the First Minister and the Deputy command cross-community support. That is not sectarianism: that is democracy.”
The calls for a change to the rules for selecting a First Minister have also been backed by UUP Chief Whip, Fred Cobain who has warned that the party might end its links to the Conservative party if the coalition does not address the issue to their satisfaction. He told the Newsletter:
“We are now at a point where the Conservative Party, on the first minister question, will be tested on its commitment to tackling the sectarian issue.
“The Belfast Agreement was absolutely clear that the first minister would be elected on the basis of a cross-community vote, and that was the outcome agreed by the people of Northern Ireland in 1998.”
Cobain continued by stating that his “first preference would be a change in the legislation but, if the Conservative Party reneges on its commitments, we may be forced into a position of having to work with the DUP in some sort of electoral arrangement to ensure the integrity of the Belfast Agreement”.
The likelihood of the UUP splitting from the Conservatives was seriously increased by the comments of Basil McCrea, a UUP leadership contender, on Monday. McCrea spoke out against the “disastrous” agreement with David Cameron’s party, which saw the party lose its one Westminster MP at the general election. Asked whether he regretted the Tory alliance, McCrea went on to say:
“It certainly did not work. After a number of electoral pacts it is time to stand on our own two feet. We should not be relying on anyone else as a crutch. There will no formal link.”
Meanwhile, speaking to BBC Northern Ireland as part of his ongoing book promotion tour, Tony Blair has warned Governments on both side of the border not to underestimate the threat posed by “wicked” dissident republicans, intent on destroying the progress made.
In a horrifying example of what Blair spoke about, two schools were yesterday evacuated after an 8 year old boy found a pipe bomb near his school in Antrim, and police later received a coded warning from paramilitaries that a further device has been left outside a second primary school.
Justice Minister and South Antrim MLA David Ford, responded:
“These are deeply worrying developments. It is appalling to even think that someone might be so irresponsible as to place objects of this nature near schools.
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“There have been a number of pipe bombs found in the Antrim area in recent times and this is an extremely troubling trend. Those who wish to cause disruption and fear must never prevail. Anyone with information on any of these incidents should contact police immediately.”