The leader of the unionist DUP, Arlene Foster, and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness have been formally returned as the Six County First Minister and Deputy First Minister respectively ahead of formulating a ‘Programme for Government’ for the Stormont Executive.
A new reduced executive means there are only seven Ministerial posts to be allocated under the D’Hondt system, plus the justice portfolio -- but the Ulster Unionist Party will not be among them.
UUP Leader Mike Nesbitt said the party would not be taking up the Ministerial post on offer under power-sharing, and attacked his unionist rivals and Sinn Fein for seeking to monopolise power.
“On Tuesday, it became clear the Programme for Government will not be finalised until the end of the year, seven months away. On that basis, our primary test of whether it is a progressive Programme for Government, has failed,” he said.
“Our second test was whether we sensed a will to collectively deliver the Programme and that has also failed, as it is clear the DUP and Sinn Fein will retain joint ownership of the Programme for Government.”
Mr Nesbitt said that as the party felt that “little is about to change,” establishing an official opposition was the “right thing to do for the country.” He said it was up to other parties to “make their minds up” on whether they wanted to join the UUP in opposition.
Mr McGuinness accused the UUP leader of a lack of leadership, claiming he had “repudiated” the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
“I find that deeply disappointing,” he said. “I do think rather than being seen as leadership it will be seen as a lack of leadership, it will be seen as a lack of the Ulster Unionist Party’s ability to accept the democratically expressed wishes of the people who have charged both the DUP and Sinn Fein with responsibility to lead this administration forward.”
DUP Assembly member Paul Givan said the Ulster Unionists had been rejected by the electorate.
“With Mike under internal pressure he is now running into opposition having lost the election,” he said. “Whilst others have run away, the DUP, as the leaders of unionism will get on with the business of government.”
Alliance leader David Ford accused Nesbitt of “grandstanding”. “Whether in opposition or not, today’s move by the UUP shows Mr Nesbitt clearly makes decisions based on where he can best be seen, as opposed to what can best help the people of Northern Ireland,” he said.
It is presumed David Ford will again take charge of the Department of Justice, while the SDLP has said that they will wait for the outcome of the talks before deciding whether to join the executive or join the UUP in opposition.
JIBES AND JOKES
Meanwhile, tensions have been simmering between the DUP and Sinn Fein. One DUP MP has refused to apologise for describing Sinn Fein’s Raymond McCartney as a ‘failed hunger striker’. Sinn Fein had called on him to withdraw the comments he first made on the internet.
Mr McCartney, who took part in a hunger strike in 1980 for 53 days, was elected to represent Derry’s Foyle constituency last weekend.
Speaking to BBC Radio on Monday, Mr Campbell said it was nothing he had not already said before and insisted it was factually accurate.
Sinn Fein’s Pat Sheehan has called the remarks “vile and disgusting”. However, DUP MLA Christopher Stalford said the comments were a “throwaway, jokish remark”.
Mr Campbell first made the remarks on Facebook, writing that he was “breaking the habit of a lifetime to send best wishes to Raymond McCartney. Because he’s a bit more successful at electioneering than he was at hunger striking”.
Mr Sheehan, who was also a hunger striker, said the East Derry MP should “withdraw his remarks immediately”. That call was echoed on BBC’s Sunday Politics programme by Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd, who called Mr Campbell “a fool”.
“I think in this era they should be withdrawn,” he said. “We’re talking, ourselves and the DUP, about going into discuss a programme of government and having mutual respect, mutual trust and mutual understanding within that.
“But Gregory Campbell is a fool, and he’s away to Westminster to retire.”
It was one of a number of sectarian actions by unionists during and after last weekend’s election count.
Sinn Fein’s spokesperson on reconciliation, Declan Kearney, was loudly booed by DUP members in the South Antrim results hall as he made his acceptance speech. There was also a snub from unionist hardliner Jim Allister, who pointedly refused to shake the hand of Sinn Fein’s Daithi McKay following his election in north Antrim.
However, the first meeting of the Stormont Assembly was low key, with the only significant change following the election being the presence of Eamonn McCann and Gerry Carroll from the left-wing People Before Profit.
In an early concession to the two socialists, outgoing Stormont speaker Mitchel McLaughlin offered a special ‘clarification’ to allow the pair to attend without wearing ties, something he had denied to his own party colleague, Phil Flanagan.
Commenting later, Mr Carroll noted that when they were asked to designate as ‘unionist, nationalist or other’, he and Mr McCann wrote ‘socialist’ “We will be put in the ‘other’ camp, but we are clear where we stand,” he said. “This isn’t the Alliance Party. This is the new socialist alternative.”