The SDLP has quit the devolved administration in the Six Counties in the latest development to hit the formation of a new Executive in the North.
SDLP leader Eastwood said his party had entered the post-election negotiations with the determination to find a “credible and progressive” programme for government they could sign up to, but added: “It is clear that we are not able to achieve that and we now have to go and speak to our party.”
The move follows that of the Ulster Unionist Party last week. Both parties had suffered electorally as a result of the strict rules of power-sharing -- although still entitled to a Ministerial post each under the formula for distributing posts on the Executive, they had become largely irrelevant to the political theatre of Stormont.
The move is a big change for the SDLP, whose mission under former leader John Hume was to deliver power-sharing as a vehicle for reconciliation. Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt was among the first to hail the SDLP decision to follow his party’s own move to bail out of the Executive.
“We have been heartened by the extraordinary level of support which we received since we made our decision last Thursday and I am sure the SDLP will receive similar praise and encouragement,” he said.
The two parties were instrumental in the negotiation of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, but were largely sidelined by the 2006 St Andrews Agreement.
“We are determined that this will be a constructive and positive opposition - not opposition for opposition’s sake,” said Mr Eastwood.
Although the move came as no surprise, Sinn Fein reacted with unusual fury at the SDLP decision, with senior members accusing their nationalist rivals of ‘acting irresponsibly’ and ‘going dissident’.
A carefully stage-managed election campaign again returned Sinn Fein and the DUP to power, but now their plans are being put to the test without the usual political cover. In a joint statement with DUP leader Arlene Foster, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness accused Eastwood of playing to the media.
“For the SDLP to now claim they do not agree with the Programme for Government process is dishonest given that they were part of developing it,” he said.
“Either the SDLP had no intention of joining the new Executive and are playing to the gallery and the media. Or, they failed to grasp the new approach to government and are not up for the challenges ahead.
“Or, in an act of desperation inspired by their poor election result, they are now preparing to slavishly follow the Ulster Unionist Party out of government.”
NO JUSTICE MINISTER
Meanwhile the Alliance Party still has to confirm whether it will again take on the controversial Justice Ministry after walking out of a meeting at Stormont Castle after just a few minutes. For six years party leader David Ford, who describes himself as a “Guardian-reading liberal”, has presided over police harassment and brutality against nationalists, the continuing internment of republicans and one of Europe’s most violent prison regimes.
Ford’s disinclination to accept the Sinn Fein/DUP offer to resume the post has now put other ‘cross-community’ politicians into the frame.
Stephen Agnew, the leader of the North’s tiny Green Party, described his discussion with the First and Deputy First Ministers as “worthwhile and constructive” but said more progress was needed. Independent unionist Claire Sugden also held talks on the post, although another alternative, veteran civil rights activist Eamonn McCann of People before Profit, was apparently ruled out without discussion.
With Arlene Foster refusing to support a Sinn Fein justice minister, Martin McGuinness is now reportedly under pressure to support a DUP justice minister. Speaking in west Belfast, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams declined to comment on those reports.
“We have to have a full executive elected on Wednesday,” he said. “If we don’t we are into another election. So, we are looking at a series of options to make sure that the full executive is elected. But I am not going to discuss that on the airwaves at this time.”
Mr McGuinness also insisted that the executive seats would be allocated next Wednesday, the deadline set by British Direct Ruler Theresa Villiers.
“We are in control”, he said. “Whatever (other parties) decide, we are absolutely confident that we can put together an administration, an executive, which will include a justice minister by next Wednesday and that Executive will meet on Thursday.”