13 May 2006

SF anger at Unionist moves over assembly


13/05/2006 - 21:06:53

Sinn Féin tonight branded the Ulster Unionist Party as hypocrites for recruiting the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party to join its Assembly grouping at Stormont.

The move by PUP leader David Ervine gives the UUP group 25 Assembly members which means it will be able to claim three ministries in a future Stormont executive.

Sinn Féin still have 24 MLAs and will only be eligible for two ministries.

Sinn Féin general secretary Mitchel McLaughlin described the UUP’s recruitment of Mr Ervine as breathtaking hypocrisy because it had refused to engage with his party over its links to the IRA.

“The UUP repeatedly brought down the political institutions on the issue of IRA decommissioning. Yet, in an attempt to obtain an extra minister in a new Assembly, they are seeking to have the PUP leader join their Stormont group when the UVF has refused outright to decommission and continues to engage in sectarian, racist and internecine violence, ” he said.

“It is David Ervine’s democratic right to join any group he wishes. But the UUP attempts to recruit David Ervine underlined Unionist ambivalence towards loyalist violence in the starkest terms possible. The double standards of the UUP are breath taking.”

Prior to the decision of the PUP executive today, the Ulster Unionists would have only been entitled to two ministries as opposed to three for Sinn Féin.

The development came as Northern Ireland’s 108 Assembly members prepare to gather at Stormont on Monday for the first time since they were elected in November 2003.

The PUP’s decision was confirmed by the party’s chairperson Dawn Purvis.

“The PUP took this decision after wide consultation,” the Northern Ireland Policing Board member said.

“It was discussed at length and it was a collective decision.

“It is felt that by forming a group, that will give the unionist community a much-needed boost.”

Mr Ervine, who represents East Belfast in the Assembly, will become part of the Ulster Unionist Party Assembly Group but he will not become a UUP member.

As things currently stand in the Assembly, the Reverend Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists have 32 Assembly members and are the largest group at Stormont.

They will be entitled to the post of Stormont First Minister and to three ministries.

It had been thought last year that the DUP would have been able to claim four ministries but those plans were set back when their Newry and Armagh MLA Paul Berry was suspended following allegations about his private life.

Mr Berry will sit in the Assembly on Monday as an independent unionist.

Sinn Féin had hoped to have gained a ministry following Mr Berry’s suspension but will now, if things stand, be entitled to the Deputy First Minister’s post and two cabinet portfolios.

The nationalist SDLP will be entitled to two ministries in any future executive.

The Northern Ireland Assembly will gather on Monday without a power sharing executive or devolution in place.

The chamber last sat in October 2002 when a row over allegations that republicans operated a spy ring forced the British government to suspend devolution.

Since then, there have been three failed attempts to establish a multi-party government.

The Reverend Ian Paisley’s DUP has also in that time overtaken the Ulster Unionists and become Northern Ireland’s largest party.

But with the IRA last year announcing an end to its armed campaign and completing its disarmament programme, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern are hopeful that an executive can be formed this year.

In a roadmap for devolution unveiled last month, the two premiers announced that they would ask Assembly members to initially try and set up an executive six weeks from next Monday.

But with expectations low about the formation of an executive before the summer, both leaders have given the Assembly an ultimate deadline of November 24 to achieve power sharing.

If that deadline is not met, both governments have warned that they will have to enter into partnership arrangements in the absence of devolution, enhancing cross-border links in Ireland.

The DUP has insisted it will not simply go into a devolved government with Sinn Féin because of the November 24 deadline.

Deputy leader Peter Robinson has insisted that the party will only contemplate such a move if it is convinced that the IRA has ended paramilitary and criminal activity for good.

Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey said as a result of Mr Ervine’s decision unionists would be punching their full weight at the Assembly for the first time since it was established in 1998.

“Unionists will be taking positions back from Sinn Féin,” he said.

“None of this will matter, of course, unless the conditions are created that will lead to the restoration of devolution.

“That is why we have tabled a proposal for the creation of a restoration of devolution committee at Stormont so that we can establish if the conditions can be created for progress or not.”

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