Ulster Unionists form first Official Opposition since 1972

Mike Nesbitt pictured voting last week. Picture Mark Marlow/pacemaker press
Mike Nesbitt pictured voting last week. Picture Mark Marlow/pacemaker press

The Ulster Unionist Party is to form the first Official Opposition at Stormont since 1972, Mike Nesbitt has announced.

Ironically, Mr Nesbitt is making use of the provisions for an Official Opposition which were introduced by John McCallister, the man who wanted to take the UUP into Opposition four years ago.

At the time, Mr Nesbitt argued that there was “no such place”, as the role would have been unofficial.

But earlier this year Mr McCallister – who lost his seat in last week’s election – secured the passage of a bill which allows for an Official Opposition to the Executive, including the right to speaking time in the chamber to challenge the Executive.

Mr McCallister tonight called for the SDLP to follow the UUP into Opposition.

Mr Nesbitt’s unexpected announcement stole the thunder of Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness – who had just been formally re-appointed as First Minister and Deputy First Minister – and also that of the DUP’s Robin Newton, who had been elected unopposed to the position of Speaker.

Responding to the UUP’s move, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood – who faces some pressure from within his own party to go into Opposition – said that it was too soon for such a decision.

And Alliance leader David Ford, who similarly is facing internal debate about whether his party should remain within the Executive, dismissed Mr Nesbitt’s words as the “sound-bite of the day”.

DUP chairman Lord Morrow also dismissed the move, accusing the UUP leader of having been “neither in nor out” about the Executive during the election campaign.

The DUP veteran added: ”It’s obvious that [Mr Nesbitt] lost the battle within his own party”.

And Sinn Fein similarly objected to the decision, with Martin McGuinness describing the move as “deeply disappointing” and accusing 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 independent MLA Claire Sugden welcomed the move, saying “fair play to the Ulster Unionist Party”.

In a statement after his brief announcement in the Assembly chamber, Mr Nesbitt said: “We asked for a mandate to enter the talks on the next Programme for Government, promising that if either of our two tests were not met, we would form an Official Opposition.

“Those tests were whether it was a progressive Programme and secondly, whether we sensed a will from the DUP and Sinn Féin to lead collective delivery.

“On Tuesday, it became clear the Programme for Government will not be finalised until the end of the year, seven months away. On that basis, our primary test of whether it is a progressive Programme for Government, has failed.

“Our second test was whether we sensed a will to collectively deliver the Programme and that has also failed, as it is clear the DUP and Sinn Féin will retain joint ownership of the Programme for Government.”

The UUP leader went on: “Given the evidence that little is about to change, and we face another five years of DUP / Sinn Féin carve up and mutual veto, we are convinced the right thing to do for the country is to forego our entitlements in government and establish an Official Opposition, to both scrutinise the work of the next Executive and offer the electorate something different next time around.

“The decision to go into Opposition was taken unanimously by the Ulster Unionist Assembly Group earlier today.

“This heralds a new era for devolved politics at Stormont, and a big, bold step forward to normal democracy for Northern Ireland.”