With UUP out of Executive, eyes now turn to the SDLP

The Assembly chamber on Thursday as MLAs met for the first time since the election

The Assembly chamber on Thursday as MLAs met for the first time since the election

Within moments of Mike Nesbitt’s announcement that the UUP is to enter Opposition, attention turned to the SDLP and the Alliance which also have internal voices who yearn to be out of the Executive.

The SDLP in particular, as the party which led the initial post-1998 Executives alongside the UUP, and as the party which lost the most seats in last week’s election, is the focus of considerable debate as to its future.

New leader Colum Eastwood has only until the end of next week – at the latest – to decide whether to stay at the Executive table or follow Mr Nesbitt’s lead.

Responding to the UUP’s move in the chamber, Mr Eastwood – who spoke immediately after Mr Nesbitt sat down – said that it was too soon for such a decision.

He said: “We want to see a Programme for Government that we can sign up to. If we cannot do that, we will be in Opposition; if we can, we will be in government.”

Martin 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 former SDLP deputy leader Dolores Kelly – who lost her seat last week – blasted Mr McGuinness’s claim that entering Opposition was evidence of departing from the principles of the Good Friday Agreement.

Mrs Kelly said that the “laughable” comments indicated “fake concern” for the Agreement, given that, in her view, Sinn Fein “hasn’t been true to it for quite some time”.

In a statement on Thursday night Mr Eastwood said that he was making “the first of many submissions to the Programme for Government negotiations”.

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.”

In a later statement which perhaps gives an indication of likely relations between the two parties over coming years, the DUP’s Paul Givan tore into the UUP for walking away from the Executive.

He said: “The UUP lost the election with its worst ever Assembly result. With Mike under internal pressure he is now running into Opposition having lost the election.

“During the last mandate, the UUP had a minister in the Executive but behaved as a party outside the Executive and six months before the election walked away.

“Throughout the course of the election, Mr Nesbitt could not give a straight answer as to whether people voting UUP were voting for that party to be in government.

“The people of Northern Ireland gave them the clear answer by delivering a resounding defeat in every constituency compared to DUP candidates.”