UUP and SDLP leaders hint at a future together in Opposition

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt

The leaders of the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP have separately suggested that they could enter Opposition after May’s Assembly election – but have not committed to doing so.

Two weeks of cross-party talks after the May 5 poll will involve hammering out a draft Programme for Government for Executive ministers.

Addressing the UUP annual general meeting on Saturday, leader Mike Nesbitt said it should be capable of improving people’s lives and called for more devolution of powers from the Assembly.

“We will not automatically rejoin the Northern Ireland Executive after the fifth of May.

“We are not motivated by ministerial salaries, chauffeur-driven cars and the rest.

“This is not about getting our noses in the trough.”

He said the blueprint for government should be progressive and enjoy collective support.

The Strangford MLA said: “If the answer to either question is ‘No’ we will form the official opposition.”

The UUP resigned its ministerial seat during the political crisis over the killing of former IRA man Kevin McGuigan Snr by members of the Provisional IRA last year, with its regional development minister, Danny Kennedy, resigning from the Executive.

At the time, Mr Nesbitt labelled the Executive a “busted flush” and said Sinn Fein’s denial that the IRA existed made it impossible to do business with them.

Meanwhile, 70 miles away from where Mr Nesbitt was speaking on Saturday morning in Armagh, new SDLP leader Colum Eastwood significantly shifted his party’s position on the issue of Opposition.

Addressing the SDLP conference in Londonderry, Mr Eastwood said: “Here tonight, I want to give some concrete assurances.

“In any upcoming programme for government, we’ll make secured and deliverable funding for the A5 dual carriageway, A6 dual carriageway and an expanded university at Magee key priorities before we join any government.

“That doesn’t mean vague commitments like we have in the present budget, with a billion pounds worth of projects based on £100m worth of lending.

“But the SDLP will go further.

“In the past this party has stayed within the Executive without signing up to a Programme for Government. That ends now.

“We will only enter the Executive if we can agree to a Programme for Government which actually meets the need of people in the North.

“That Programme for Government needs to include a commitment to distribute investment in jobs, infrastructure and education across all of Northern Ireland, not just parts of Belfast and its suburbs.”

Family unit key to change: Nesbitt

The power to effect “real change” will come through families rather than through government bureaucracy, Mike Nesbitt told party members on Saturday.

He said that cutting the number of MLAs and the number of Executive departments made sense, but it was not the complete answer.

He said that surrendering power did not come naturally to the DUP and Sinn Fein but there was a need for “the power to deliver [to] be devolved from Stormont, through the councils, into communities and as near to the family unit as possible, because that is where you effect real change – in the family unit.”