DUP attacks Nesbitt over role in schools closure row

Portora Royal.
Portora Royal.

The DUP has attacked the Ulster Unionist leader for his role in the row about the closure of two Enniskillen grammar schools, accusing Mike Nesbitt of “sitting on the fence” over the issue.

However, the UUP has dismissed the accusation, claiming that Stormont’s biggest unionist party is “attempting to divert blame away from themselves”.

Many unionists in Fermanagh have been strongly opposed to Sinn Fein Education Minister John O’Dowd’s decision to close Portora Royal and Enniskillen Collegiate and create a new school for the area.

Members of the public, former pupils and unionist politicians have been campaigning against the move.

But on Tuesday, the Assembly’s new Sinn Fein Speaker Mitchel McLaughlin stopped a DUP attempt to veto the move.

All 38 DUP MLAs had signed a petition asking for the issue to be referred to the Executive — where the DUP could block it.

However, the Speaker ruled that the petition did not relate to a matter of “public importance”, and therefore should not go to the Executive.

Prior to making that ruling, Mr McLaughlin had consulted with the party leaders and yesterday it emerged that while Peter Robinson, Jim Allister and David McNarry had responded firmly in support of the petition, Mr Nesbitt had responded by suggesting that the Speaker should take legal advice.

Mr Nesbitt wrote: “The Collegiate/Portora issue is a significant issue of importance to the people of Co Fermanagh. Whether it is a matter of public importance in a wider Northern Ireland context is a more open question.

“We suggest that Speakers’ office should ask for the Assembly’s legal service to give an opinion on what constitutes a ‘matter of public importance’ in law.

“We have no objection to the Executive re-examining the decision, subject to legal advice.”

Fermanagh and South Tyrone DUP MLA Arlene Foster accused the UUP of letting down the campaign against the amalgamation.

She said: “This should have been a straightforward process where the Speaker referred the matter to the Executive.

“However, having asked the Speaker to review his decision it has now transpired that the UUP gave the Speaker a confused and equivocal answer.

“I was very disappointed by the Speaker’s initial statement on the matter but to then establish that the UUP was complicit in undermining this mechanism is a further disappointment.”

Mrs Foster said she knew that at least two UUP councillors support the merger and accused the UUP of either supporting the decision or not being able to make a decision.

A UUP spokesman said that party leader Mike Nesbitt had made clear that the party had no objection to the Executive re-examining the decision “subject of course to legal advice, which we would not see as a hindrance”.

He added: “It is not unusual that the DUP are attempting to divert blame on the matter away from themselves.

“We must remember that it was that party who was responsible just the day prior to this controversial decision for putting that Sinn Fein representative into the powerful position of Speaker.

“If there is any blame to be attributable to this decision it is the DUP who, including Arlene Foster, proudly filed through the Assembly voting lobby to support Sinn Fein’s Mitchel McLaughlin as the Speaker.”