THE SDLP’s deputy leader has dramatically called for the party to consider quitting the Stormont Executive as members gathered for its annual conference.
Dolores Kelly, pictured, who is rumoured to have had a strained relationship with leader Alasdair McDonnell for some time, said that the party must seriously consider going into Opposition.
Mrs Kelly is the most senior SDLP figure to call for Opposition and the timing of her comments will put unwelcome pressure on Dr McDonnell ahead of his conference speech this afternoon, an event which already came with pressure after last year’s performance where he repeatedly asked for lights to be turned off.
On Friday the comments also re-opened debate within the UUP about the issue, with Basil McCrea telling the News Letter that he believes a Stormont Opposition is “inevitable”.
Mrs Kelly said: “I know there is no formal provision for Opposition – but shouldn’t we be thinking about where this is going?
The veteran Upper Bann MLA said the SDLP would “lose a few jobs by leaving government but could lose its soul” if it stays at the Executive table, where, like the UUP, it now has just one minister.
She said the party should not “walk out of government next week or next month” but should be thinking about where all this is going.
She also questioned whether the party needed “more freedom to act”.
In an interview with the News Letter in August, Dr McDonnell claimed that the DUP and Sinn Fein “walk all over” SDLP minister Alex Attwood. But, when asked about Mr Attwood being forced to implement a policy with which he disagrees, Dr McDonnell said: “We had no choice – it was either opt out into the wilderness or suffer the dictat.”
UUP MLA Basil McCrea, who along with John McCallister has repeatedly argued for the UUP to enter Opposition, welcomed Mrs Kelly’s comments.
“I find it hard to disagree with anything that she’s said,” he told the News Letter.
“I definitely think this is a significant statement from Dolores Kelly. The key message is that there are those who think that Opposition is somehow negative. That’s not the case.
“We’re trying to provide an oversight and alternative but that is particularly confusing if you’re in government.
“I think that it is inevitable that in the future there will be an Opposition.”
There has been massive debate within the UUP over recent years about entering Opposition but leader Mike Nesbitt was elected earlier this year on a ticket of keeping his party at the Executive table.
However, while there has been some discussion with the SDLP about Opposition, it has been tempered by a long-standing nationalist fear that such a move would radically rewrite the Agreement which the party co-authored in 1998.
Some nationalists also fear that Opposition is unionist code for a return to a form of pre-1972 majority rule.
Both Mr Nesbitt and DUP leader Peter Robinson have made speeches in recent weeks about creating the structures at Stormont to allow for a formal Opposition and both have significantly sought to assure nationalism that, even if there is a Stormont Opposition, there will be no return to majority rule.
Meanwhile, the SDLP conference on Friday also decided to officially endorse gay marriage, meaning that it is now party policy.
The issue has divided the party internally and when it was discussed at Stormont last month veteran MLA Alban Maginness made a point of voting in both lobbies to abstain.
However, despite internal opposition, the motion yesterday passed by a clear majority.