Talks over Northern Ireland Executive crumbling

Three smaller parties have refused join the DUP and Sinn Féin in the Executive


There are certain truths in politics, one of which is that politics in Northern Ireland never runs as smoothly as it could do.

This is evident following the SDLP’s decision not to form part of the power sharing executive at Stormont, and the Alliance Party’s refusal to take up the justice portfolio.

The background is that, given the obvious need to ensure no one community feels it is being dominated by another, positions in the Northern Ireland Executive are allocated to those parties with significant representation in the Assembly.

Apart from the position of justice minister, the number of posts that each party is entitled to within the Executive is determined by the complex D’Hondt system.

The system is simply a mandatory coalition between parties and since the elections earlier this month the parties have been discussing which should have control of which departments and what an agreed programme of government should look like.

Last week, the Ulster Unionist Party confirmed that it would not enter Government and instead would take up the position of the first official opposition at Stormont, allowed under legislation recently passed in parliament.

Explaining the reasons for his decision, UUP Leader, Mike Nesbitt pointed to the failure of talks over a Programme of Government to meet the two tests set by his party: that it be a ‘progessive programme’ and that the UUP  ‘sensed a will from the DUP and Sinn Féin to lead collective delivery.”

Pointing to the fact that a clear the Programme for Government does not look set to be finalised until the end of the year, Nesbitt argued that the programme would not be progressive.

He also criticised the DUP and Sinn Féin who, he said, would ‘retain joint ownership of the Programme for Government’, thereby not delivering on his test of collective responsibility and agreement.

Nesbitt argued that the decision of the UPP to enter Opposition amounted to ‘a new era for devolved politics at Stormont, and a big, bold step forward to normal democracy for Northern Ireland.’

Last night, the SDLP decided to follow the Ulster Unionists into Opposition. In a statement the party’s leader, Colum Eastwood, noted that after a ‘long two weeks’ of discussions, it had become clear that the party’s ambition for a full Programme for Government ‘will not be matched by the document currently constructed by the DUP and Sinn Féin.’

He noted that the party fears ‘that its inherent vagueness will fall far short of what is required.’

The SDLP’s decision was swiftly condemned by DUP Leader and First Minister, Arelene Foster, who launched a scathing attack on Twitter.

The difficulty of constructing a Government has been compounded still further by the decision of the Alliance Party not to take up the position of Justice Minister held in the previous Assembly by its leader, David Ford.

Ford yesterday cited  the DUP and Sinn Féin’s refusal to properly engage on the Alliance’s priorities as the reason for his decision.

Where does all this leave Stormont? As things stand the Executive will be made up solely of DUP and Sinn Féin MLAs, but given the sensitives of the role, filling the position of Justice Minister will not be easy since the nominee has to command cross community support.

Reports suggest that the Greens could be a potential partner to fill the post, but this is unlikely. That leaves all eyes focussed on the independent unionist Claire Sugden.

Anger at the mess, and at the DUP and Sinn Féin’s approach to other parties is palpable.

Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers, has warned that fresh elections will have to be held if a new Justice Minister is not agreed by next Wednesday. Now wouldn’t that be fun?

Ed Jacobs is a contributing editor at Left Foot Forward

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