John McCallister buoyed by SDLP opposition calls

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SDLP calls to consider a Stormont Opposition show that pro-Opposition unionists are convincing nationalism that it does not need to fear such a change, John McCallister has said.

The former Ulster Unionist deputy leader said that while the UUP has had a very public debate about Opposition, he believed that the weekend flurry of comments from senior SDLP figures showed the party has been battling with the issue internally for some time.

Mr McCallister added if pro-Opposition unionists can persuade the SDLP of the need for reform, it increases the chance of the Secretary of State legislating to allow for a formal Stormont Opposition.

At the weekend, deputy leader Dolores Kelly told the SDLP conference that the party had to consider whether it “could lose our soul if we go on in this Executive indefinitely” and asked: “Shouldn’t we be thinking about going into some form of Opposition?”

The party’s former leader, Margaret Ritchie, and her successor as the party’s Executive minister, Alex Attwood, both publicly endorsed the need to consider Opposition, though both emphasised that such a discussion did not necessarily mean immediately quitting the Executive.

Mr McCallister, the UUP’s most senior backer of Opposition, heavily lost his party’s leadership contest in the spring when he advocated that the UUP walk out of the Stormont administration immediately.

Echoing comments by UUP leader Mike Nesbitt and MLA Basil McCrea, Mr McCallister said that he believed an Opposition at Stormont was “an inevitability”.

He told the News Letter: “What was said at the weekend is a healthy development which shows that we’ve won the argument that Opposition is not about breaking power-sharing. Opposition is a fundamental part of a normal democracy; it holds the government to account and provides an alternative.”

Both Mr Nesbitt and DUP leader Peter Robinson have used recent speeches to stress that if a mechanism is created to allow for a Stormont Opposition, it will not be an attempt by unionism to exclude nationalists from power.

Mr McCallister said: “It never was about a return to majority rule. To my mind, the UUP crossed the line on power-sharing at some time in late 1972 and no one has ever suggested going back to what we had prior to that.

“I think it’s important that those from a pro-Union perspective say that this is not about a return to majority rule, because it never was.”

He added: “The SDLP has been struggling with this debate for quite a while.

“They’ve kept it behind the scenes in the leadership election... if the SDLP were to row in behind us, it would create pressure in that it would show us all starting to get behind the idea that Opposition is a good and healthy thing in any democracy.”