A couple of weeks ago a few of us put on a fringe event at the Ulster Unionist Party conference, where the prospect of going into opposition was discussed. On the same day, the coverage of Tom Elliot’s speech mostly focused on the same issue. Since then the matter has gained traction and comment, with Alex Kane producing a set of thoughts not dissimilar to my own contribution at the fringe. While Alasdair McDonnell (apparently) ruled out SDLP involvement in such a venture this morning, Mick’s post earlier does highlight that by his own reasoning, McDonnell has little choice but to seriously examine the idea in the coming months.
What should be becoming increasingly clear to both the UUP and SDLP, is that some of their prevailing attitudes do not fit with their futures. It is welcome that McDonnell is making noises about moving the SDLP away from such a rigid and uptight interpretation of the Belfast Agreement and holding it’s letter up as an immovable rock upon which all else is constructed. For Elliot’s part, he is making all the right noises about opposition, and rowing back somewhat from his previously short sighted rhetoric about the link with the Conservative Party. Both men have to this point however talked a good game, and we still await solid proposals and action.
A quick glance at recent comments reveal comfort blankets that both parties need to spurn for their new narratives. For the SDLP a constant desire to hold the hand of Christmas past perpetuates the image of a party so obsessed with the past that it has no future. The UUP has recently seen an unwelcome return to 1980’s style contradictory rhetoric , giving a nod and a wink to a concept of “unionist unity” at a time when everybody else thought the spectre had been laid to rest.
But the fact remains, there are encouraging noises coming from the right directions. The UUP and SDLP need to urgently work on their professionalism and image, but as Alex Kane rightly points out, having a properly defined role and mission at Stormont will probably help them to have a hook on which to make those changes. To take the leap out of the Executive will take a level of courage that has not been forthcoming since 2001, particularly by the SDLP, but the rewards are potentially massive, not just for the two parties, but for the entire political discourse of Northern Ireland.