John McCallister has accused the Ulster Unionists of a rapid U-turn after UUP leader Mike Nesbitt questioned the need to legislate for Stormont’s first formal Opposition since 1972.
In an interview with the News Letter last week, Mr Nesbitt suggested that the issue could be sorted out in talks between the main parties, rather than through legislation.
The bill would make numerous changes to how Stormont operates. Arguably the most significant change would be to force any party with less than 18 MLAs into Opposition.
On current party strengths, that would see the UUP, SDLP and Alliance Party in Opposition (although Alliance would still probably keep the Justice Department) and the DUP and Sinn Fein in government.
Mr Nesbitt said: “I don’t think there’s actually much in the bill that hasn’t been discussed in terms of the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement ... I would rather we agreed all those things with the parties who were party to the Stormont House negotiations and still are. You can legislate for things, but ultimately what you’re looking for is a change of mindset.”
Mr McCallister questioned whether the UUP is serious about reforming Stormont and creating proper Opposition structures.
Mr McCallister, who lost out on the UUP leadership to Mr Nesbitt three years ago, said: “Mike Nesbitt has done a complete U-turn on my bill and I fear this means the UUP is not really serious about reforming our institutions and likely sees potential electoral gain out of their continuing dysfunctionality.
“Mike would rather see the issues sorted out in negotiation and questions the need to legislate – this is in complete contradiction to his party’s position two weeks ago, when Danny Kennedy clearly set out his support for the legislative approach.
“During the Second Stage debate Mr Kennedy stated: ‘Our preferred option has also been to enshrine the right of the opposition in legislation because we believe that simply changing Standing Orders leaves the future existence of the opposition in the hands, potentially, of the largest parties in this or any future Assembly.’”
The South Down independent MLA added: “Mike also said that he does not think there’s actually much in the bill that hasn’t been discussed in terms of the Stormont House Agreement. I can only assume he has not actually read it.
“All political commentators that have looked at this have agreed that it goes much further than the Stormont House proposals and offers an opportunity to create an Opposition and considerably reform the Executive ... something Mike, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness purport to want.
“The bill also deals with designation, petitions of concern, reforms the role of the Office of the Speaker and would make the Executive a single legal entity.
“His criticism of technical groups is also wrong – I have specifically designed them so Opposition rights can only be given if the group consists of six MLAs or more.
“This sounds a lot like ‘if the Opposition is not the UUP, no one can have it’.”
He added: “I really hope that the UUP’s U-turn is not because I am bringing it forward. This is much more important than this type of politics.”