McGuiness brands UUP and SDLP 'problem parties'

The Ulster Unionists and SDLP have become problem parties at Stormont, Martin McGuinness insisted today.

The Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister was commenting after the UUP and SDLP backed an amendment in the Assembly from the Alliance Party last night criticising the programme for government and investment strategy.

His comments also came as Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey, who is the Employment and Learning Minister in the Stormont Executive, accused the two largest parties in government - Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionists - of excercising too much control.

"What I found to be the most interesting aspect of what happened yesterday wasn't so much that the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP voted against the draft investment strategy and draft programme for government," Mr McGuinness said.

"What I found most interesting was the three ministers who agreed a draft investment strategy and the draft programme for government didn't vote for it.

"I think that against the backdrop then of their parties voting against it that raises all sorts of questions about what is happening both in the Executive with these three ministers but also between these three ministers and their parties.

"I remember being part of an Executive at a time when both David Trimble was the First Minister and Seamus Mallon was the Deputy First Minister and at a time when Mark Durkan was also Deputy First Minister when it was said repeatedly during the course of those meetings that ministers in the Executive had a duty and a responsibility to deliver their parties.

"Quite clearly we are seeing a very different tune being sung in the aftermath of changed political fortunes and I think I have to say - and I say this with great regret - that it appears to me that the Ulster Unionist Party and SDLP are now becoming the problem parties in this Assembly."

Earlier, Empey accused the DUP and Sinn Féin of operating a two-party cabal and insisting only on collectivity in government when they wanted to be fireproofed from criticism.

"Ulster Unionist Party ministers have approached their portfolios in a genuine attempt to deliver the best possible service to the people of Northern Ireland and we believe strongly that the only way a coalition can work is by consensus between the parties," he said.

"This is not the way things are going.

"On the one hand, DUP and Sinn Féin ministers want to be fireproofed and blameless on sensitive and contentious issues such as health cuts and water charges by insisting on unanimity, while on the other they are getting into a two-party cabal and deciding what they want and how to do it.

"This is a fundamental inconsistency that needs to be addressed. The UUP are currently exploring options of how to address it."

Empey was responding to a warning from DUP Finance Minister Peter Robinson during last night's debate that the two smaller parties in the Executive should start acting like members of a coalition at Stormont.

"The basis upon which any coalition government can move forward is on the basis of a programme for government," the DUP deputy leader told them.

"And so that there is no doubt at a later stage, without an agreed programme for government, there cannot be government."

As the Assembly prepared for what many believed would be an equally bruising debate on Mr Robinson's draft budget, two amendments criticising it were withdrawn after Speaker William Hay ruled they could not be considered.

The Speaker told MLAs: "I have on advice, and taking into account procedures elsewhere and guidance in Erskine May (a law book), reconsidered my decision and at my request the two amendments have been withdrawn.

"I am grateful to the members concerned for their agreement to withdraw the amendments. I wish to rule that in future I will not select amendments to any 'take note' motions."

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