Martin McGuinness has publicly committed Sinn Fein to securing a Stormont Opposition, after years of firmly opposing such a move.
Until now, much of the comment on Sinn Fein’s concessions in the talks which led to the Stormont House Agreement has been on the party’s acceptance of welfare reform, which the party has accepted after claiming that it secured changes which mean that no individual will lose money under the new regime.
But Sinn Fein’s policy change on the issue of Opposition is just as dramatic.
The Sinn Fein leadership has long been utterly opposed to the creation of a formal opposition at Stormont and the Government has long said that it will not legislate for an Opposition in the absence of “consensus” for such a move.
Just over two years ago, First Minister Peter Robinson told this newspaper that unionists like him who support the principle of an Opposition needed to realise that “unless we can persuade and encourage people to accept it – and that means that you have to get support from effectively Sinn Fein because without Sinn Fein’s support it’s not going to happen – they can block it in the Assembly”.
Last night Mr McGuinness made clear that his party now accepts that there should be an Opposition at Stormont.
The Deputy First Minister made the comments on BBC Radio Ulster’s Inside Politics programme, in the wake of a significant split in the Stormont Executive on Thursday when ministers from the UUP, SDLP and Alliance voted against the budget.
Mr McGuinness said that those parties had the “luxury” of opposing something as fundamental as the budget because they knew that the DUP and Sinn Fein “will save the institutions” by voting it through.
When asked if he thought it would be better if the smaller parties simply left the Executive and went into Opposition under the new arrangements which are to be established in the coming months, Mr McGuinness said: “Well of course none of them will do so.
“But during the negotiations Sinn Fein signed up for the creation of an official Opposition, so we are going to give these parties the opportunity very shortly to effectively decide if they want to give up their ministerial positions and go into Opposition.”
Mr McGuinness said that Sinn Fein — which in past years simply dismissed any calls for an Opposition by claiming that such moves were back-door attempts to bring back unionist majority rule — had been “sensible” to accept the creation of an Opposition.