Less than 48 hours before the deadline for appointing a Stormont Justice Minister, both of the two compromise candidates for the post say that they have not had any discussions with the DUP or Sinn Fein since last week.
The Assembly will meet at noon on Wednesday to allocate Executive ministries under the D’Hondt power-sharing formula after the Minister for Justice has first been voted on by the Assembly in a cross-community vote – meaning that he or she needs to have the support of the DUP and Sinn Fein.
The Alliance Party has held the post since the devolution of policing and justice powers in 2010 as the DUP – which was loathe to even devolve justice powers to a Stormont Executive including Sinn Fein – has refused to allow a Sinn Fein minister to control the department.
But Alliance’s preconditions – in particular, its demand for a new protocol on using the petition of concern veto system – for getting the ministry were last week rejected by the DUP and Sinn Fein.
The big parties then had a brief meeting with independent unionist MLA Claire Sugden, fuelling speculation that the 29-year-old politics graduate could get the post.
When asked by the News Letter if there had been any contact with the DUP or Sinn Fein since last Thursday, Alliance leader David Ford said: “There hasn’t been any contact.”
Similarly, when a spokeswoman for East Londonderry MLA Ms Sugden was asked whether there had been any contact with Stormont’s two major parties since last week, she said: “No, there hasn’t been at all.”
However, that does not necessarily mean that the DUP and Sinn Fein have agreed that the DUP (the only likely option as Arlene Foster has ruled out a Sinn Fein minister) will take the post.
On paper, the Alliance Party’s demand for reform of the petition of concern system does not appear to be so far beyond what the DUP and Sinn Fein agreed in last year’s Fresh Start deal as to rule out a compromise, meaning that a renewed and slightly enhanced offer could still be made at the eleventh hour.
A DUP spokesman pointed to the First Minister’s statement last week where she said that the Assembly would meet this Wednesday to appoint ministers. He said: “That continues to be the position.”