A day after Martin McGuinness claimed that the UUP move into Opposition was a rejection of David Trimble’s legacy, Lord Trimble himself has praised the move as “courageous” and said that Mr McGuinness is being “silly”.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt shocked the Stormont Assembly chamber on Thursday afternoon when he stood up and said that his party will not be taking up the Executive place to which it is entitled.
In response, Mr McGuinness savaged the UUP for quitting the Executive and denounced it as an abandonment of the principles behind the 1998 Agreement – even though just months ago Sinn Fein signed up to provisions for an Opposition when it signed the Fresh Start Agreement.
The Sinn Fein veteran described the move as “deeply disappointing” and accused the UUP of having rejected the legacy of David Trimble, who first led them into power-sharing with republicans following the 1998 Belfast Agreement.
He said it was a “very serious repudiation of the principles of the Good Friday Agreement to which the Ulster Unionist Party signed up in 1998”.
But, Mr McGuinness’s attempt to invoke Lord Trimble’s name in support of his attack on the UUP yesterday was dismissed as “a bit silly” by the former UUP leader.
Yesterday Mr Nesbitt called for the Assembly seating arrangements to be changed so that rather than the DUP and Sinn Fein facing each other across the chamber they should now sit side by side in public as well as at the Executive table.
DUP First Minister Arlene Foster dismissed the call yesterday, saying that she would continue to sit opposite Martin McGuinness in the chamber and adding pointedly: “I won the election”.
And Sinn Fein also came out against having to sit beside the DUP in the chamber.
In a statement last night, Mid Ulster MLA Michelle O’Neill said: “As far as Sinn Féin is concerned there will be no change in the seating arrangements in the Assembly chamber.”
Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster programme, Lord Trimble said: “It is a bold move, but it’s a move which I think reflects what was always going to be the case because one never thought that the particular arrangements that were put in place in 1998 in order to get the necessary agreement across the whole community...were going to be totally set in stone [but] they were going to evolve.
“And that is precisely what he’s doing.
“The coalition was never actually compulsory [although] people said that because there was always the option of not taking up office.”
The former First Minister, who is now a Conservative peer, said that “in the initial stages we wanted to get everybody in there working together but there is actually in the long run a need for an Opposition and that need could never be met simply by individuals or by very small parties; it needed a more substantial party and actually when I think about it if you’re going to do it, it’s better to do it at the beginning of an Assembly term rather than do it towards the middle or, even worse, towards the end.
“By doing it now and by committing himself to opposition throughout this term, that is giving the electorate the opportunity of evaluating it.
“The arrangements to facilitate the creation of an Official Opposition were made in recent arrangements to which Mr McGuinness and Sinn Fein were party to.
“So, having put in place arrangements to enable an Opposition to be formed, it’s a bit silly to then turn round and complain that it’s happened.”
Praising Mr Nesbitt’s decision to give up the UUP’s seat at the Executive table – something which means that the DUP will now get an extra ministry – Lord Trimble added: “It’s a bold move and I think bold moves have to happen every now and again; people have to offer leadership. If you want to talk about my legacy, that is part of it and I recognise that in what Mike is doing and I salute him for it.”
Lord Trimble also denied that the UUP had a bad election result – even though senior UUP figures, included Mr Nesbitt have admitted that they were disappointed by the outcome.
When asked if the SDLP should now follow the UUP into Opposition, Lord Trimble said: “Each party has to take its own decisions. I’m not going to say to the SDLP what they should do.”
SDLP would help opposition: peer
Opposition to the Executive would be more effective if it involved the SDLP, a former Ulster Unionist deputy leader has said.
Lord Kilclooney said: “Two years ago I suggested that the UUP should consider a role in opposition at Stormont. “So I welcome Thursday’s decision. However, the basis if the Belfast Agreement was ‘cross-community’. Just as we have a cross-community Executive, it would be preferable to have a cross-community opposition.
“But that will depend upon the SDLP having the courage to go into opposition.”