UUP to consider paramilitary update before deciding to enter government

Tom Elliott MP
Tom Elliott MP

The UUP will only make a decision on whether to enter a new Stormont government after hearing a security update about the involvement of “mainstream republicans” in ongoing violence.

Asked if the party will take up an Executive role soon, having returned exactly the same number of seats as it did in 2011 , former leader Tom Elliott said he “wouldn’t rule it in or out”, indicating that it will depend on a wide-ranging assessment of the paramilitary situation.

Former Transport Minister Danny Kennedy

Former Transport Minister Danny Kennedy

In addition, the SDLP and Alliance are also beginning to mull over whether or not they will take up seats in government alongside the DUP and Sinn Fein, as the political landscape begins to settle following Thursday’s Assembly election.

They too have indicated that they are undecided as yet.

The UUP last year withdrew its sole minister Danny Kennedy from the Executive after police indicated PIRA members may have been involved in the killing of Kevin McGuigan iBelfast.

Mr Kennedy said that the party will now enter negotiations on drawing up a potential “programme for government” with the other main parties, and that this will form part of their decision-making.

It is thought this could take weeks.

He also said much hinges upon an upcoming meeting with police commanders, concerning the issues which led them to walk out of the Stormont government in the first place.

Speaking about the discussions the UUP will now have about re-entering the Executive, Mr Kennedy (who has just been re-elected MLA for Newry and Armagh) said: “We’ve a meeting and a briefing planned with the Chief Constable, and obviously we’re also waiting on the recommendations from the three-person panel that was set up in the aftermath [of the McGuigan killing], principally at our behest...

“I can’t predict what the Chief Constable is going to tell me.”

The three-person panel was established in late 2015 and is supposed to issue a report by the end of May on how to best eradicate what remains of paramilitary organisations.

Mr Elliott, the MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone who has long been an outspoken voice on victims’ issues, said the party needs to look at “the entire security assessment in the round”.

This includes whether mainstream republicans are aiding the dissident campaign, and whether any current political leaders are members of an IRA Army Council.

“I think the issue is all about who’s helping who,” he said.

“I have always maintained that there has been assistance to the dissidents from what we would term ‘mainstream republicans’.”

Asked if he could conceive of them going into government if the PSNI affirm his suspicions, he said: “I think it would be quite difficult to imagine that happening.”

Ultimately, he said it “would be foolish” to predict what will happen, and whether they will indeed end up in opposition.

“I wouldn’t rule it in or out at the moment,” he said.

At the weekend, the BBC quoted newly-elected SDLP MLA Nichola Mallon as saying that her party will make a decision only after negotiations have taken place around what the planned programme for government – setting out the aims and priorities of Northern Ireland’s government – will look like in the weeks ahead.

“If it’s right, we will be a part of government,” she was quote as saying.

“If it’s not, then we will be in opposition. More has to be achieved and we’re willing to be at the table to try and achieve that.”

Meanwhile the chief whip of the Alliance Party steadfastly refused to be drawn on what ministry – if any – his own party might take up.

It is looking highly uncertain whether Alliance, with eight seats, will be big enough to qualify to hold one of the Executive ministries.

Last month, David Ford, the party leader, had been quoted as that he believed around 11 seats would be needed to guarantee them a seat at the table of government.

Nonetheless, an Alliance source believes that they may still be invited by the other big parties to take the helm of the Ministry for Justice again.

The appointment of a justice minister requires a measure of cross-community support, unlike other ministers.

Mr Ford had already declared that he would not be making a bid to take up the role of justice minister again in the new Assembly, having been given the post in 2010.

After winning his seat in East Antrim, the Alliance Party’s chief whip Stewart Dickson was quizzed by the News Letter about what exactly their role is likely to be in a newly-formed Executive.

When asked who might take up the post of justice minister in Mr Ford’s absence (assuming Alliance is entitled to take it at all), Mr Dickson said: “That’ll be a matter not only for the Alliance Party, but for the other parties as well.

“And we will see how that works out under the next few days and weeks.”

Asked if they definitely aim to have some Alliance MLA as justice minister, he said: “That’s a matter for the party to decide over the next few days.”

Pressed on whether there were perhaps other ministries they may wish to take on instead, he said: “Those are all issues we’ll consider; whether we will even be in a government come next week.”

Asked, finally, if he was saying they might not take up seats in the Executive, he replied that this was a question for the party leader, adding that it will be part of “a discussion we will be having”.