Mike Nesbitt has questioned the need for John McCallister’s bill to legislate for a Stormont Opposition and suggested that the issue could be sorted out in talks between the main parties.
The bill by the man who Mr Nesbitt comfortably defeated for the leadership of the UUP three years ago was debated in the Assembly for the first time last month and UUP MLA Danny Kennedy appeared to support the principles of the bill, although he queried some of its proposals.
The bill would set a minimum threshold in terms of speaking time for the Opposition in the Assembly and would force parties with fewer than 18 seats into Opposition. It would also make the Speaker more independent from his political party, would stop Executive departments suing each other, and would allow independent and smaller parties to form a ‘technical group’, as happens in the Dail, allowing them representation on the committee which sets Assembly business.
But in an interview with the News Letter ahead of his party’s annual conference today, Mr Nesbitt reacted coolly to the proposed legislation.
“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 and the paragraphs that relate to the creation of an official Opposition, with the exception of the creation of the technical group that he’s proposing,” the UUP leader — who under the bill would become the leader of the Opposition — said.
“But is that a mechanism to try and allow say a single member, an independent, to become leader of the Opposition? He did, I think in the speech make some reference to ‘you could be leader and I could be deputy leader, just like old times’. I think it’s just a fantastic sense of irony that the man possesses.”
He admitted that Stormont has not got “anywhere near where I think we should be in terms of delivering it”, given that the mechanism for an Opposition should have been in place by March but that deadline is now long gone.
“To me, it is about speaking rights, it’s about supply days and it’s not about money. Anything that we do should be cost-neutral in terms of the current costs of running the Assembly.”
When asked if he plans to bring forward amendments to the bill to change how Stormont works, Mr Nesbitt said: “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.”
On another legislative change which Mr Nesbitt has himself championed — reversing the DUP veto of UK-wide libel reforms to strengthen the protections for free speech — Mr Nesbitt said that he will be speaking to Finance Minister Arlene Foster to press her on the issue. When Mr Nesbitt attempted to introduce a private member’s bill on the issue two years ago, Mrs Foster’s predecessor, Simon Hamilton, said that he was considering legislation to change the libel law, something which effectively blocked Mr Nesbitt’s bill.
When asked if he’d been outmanoeuvred by the DUP on the issue, he said: “I said at the time that the motivation that informed Simon Hamilton’s decision...was either benign in that he was looking for evidence to overturn Sammy Wilson’s previous decision or it was malignant in that he was kicking the can down the road.”
He admitted that the issue has now “gone in this mandate” but said that it will be part of the UUP’s manifesto for next May’s Assembly election.
Mr Nesbitt was reluctant to comment on the SDLP leadership contest, but made clear that he believes that a strong SDLP is to the benefit of unionism. He said: “If I look back three years, maybe they are where we were and these things can be turned around.”