A new Stormont Assembly, operating without ministers, should be convened to operate as a “grand council for Northern Ireland” in the absence of the power-sharing Executive, Robin Swann has said.
Addressing the Ulster Unionist spring conference on Saturday, the party leader said progression towards a system of voluntary coalition could be another way to address the current political impasse.
In a wide-ranging speech, Mr Swann hit out at Sinn Fein and the DUP over the failure to break the deadlock, and championed renewed reconciliation, tolerance, partnership, respect and mutual trust ahead of the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
“We have put forward suggestions that the Assembly could be reformed without ministers and operate as a grand council for Northern Ireland, or that the government take the next step in devolution and legislate for a voluntary coalition,” Mr Swann said.
“And if Sinn Fein do not want to be part of it, then that is up to them. They choose not to take their seats in Westminster but it doesn’t stop the Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems, Scots Nats or any other MP from taking their seats – so why should Sinn Fein be allowed to block the restoration of the Assembly any longer? There are decisions that need to be taken by elected politicians, and while we have neither an Executive nor direct rule, we are in an unacceptable limbo.”
Commenting on the historic peace accord which was signed on April 10, 1998, Mr Swann said: “Sadly, the Belfast Agreement was not allowed to evolve and grow with society in the way it was envisaged because there were those who had much to fear from the normalisation of politics here.
If Sinn Fein do not want to be part of it, then that is up to them
“Twenty years on from 1998 there is little to celebrate when the DUP and Sinn Fein haven’t been able to form a government in the last 14 months, with one of them putting down a seemingly immovable red line of an Irish language act.”
The ministerial executive at Stormont collapsed when former Sinn Fein deputy first minister Martin McGuinness resigned in a dispute over the DUP’s handling of a botched green energy scheme. Endless rounds of negotiations led by the British and Irish governments have failed to produce a breakthrough.
Gathering at the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle, Co Down, the party delegates also heard how the absence of a functioning Executive continues to impact on public services, and how unelected civil servants were making important decisions.
He also called for an end to the “inhumane” treatment that survivors and victims of historical institutional abuse have suffered awaiting the compensation payments recommended shortly before power-sharing collapsed.
“We are a devolutionist party; we believe that the best delivery for the people of Northern Ireland is by the direction of locally elected Northern Ireland politicians.
“When the Assembly started to unravel, our party chairman, Lord Empey, warned others of how easy it was to walk down the steps, but not to underestimate how difficult it would be to get back up them.”
• The lack of an agreed ‘victims’ candidate in next month’s West Tyrone by-election is “hugely disappointing,” the UUP leader has said.
The election was called following the resignation of Sinn Fein MP Barry McElduff.
Mr Swann said: “We had hoped a non-partisan cross community candidate could emerge and parties could coalesce around them to demonstrate that the disrespect shown to victims of terrorism will not be tolerated.
“We have worked extensively with others who speak for and represent the victims sector in trying to find such a candidate. However, with nominations closing [on Tuesday] and candidates having already been announced for a number of other parties it seems that it is not to be”.
He added: “This is hugely disappointing – and equally disappointing was the lack of engagement by others”.