Parliamentary dogfights: A new tactic for the small parties?

Over the course of the last few weeks, the SDLP have used parliamentary mechanisms in order to attempt to embarrass their political opponents in Sinn Fein.  Their motion to exclude Nelson McCausland, although doomed to failure, forced Sinn Fein into open confrontation with their close colleagues in the executive, the DUP. The gap between principle and pragmatism has the potential to be exploited with such tactics, as the Assembly’s vote on welfare reform demonstrated.

Sinn Fein were attempting to maintain a pretense of fighting “tory cuts” whilst acquiescing to economic realities on the other, or as Robin Wilson puts it, I believe paraphrasing the late Lord Fitt, “Brits out- but leave your chequebook”. The SDLP asked them to put their money where their mouth was: to sign a petition of concern and to invoke the nationalist veto. They refused, demonstrating that, on this occasion, pragmatism and their relationship with their executive partners made empty rhetoric the best option.

These tactics hold risks as well as opportunities. Choose the wrong issue(s), and you’re obstructing Assembly business in order to score political points. Choose the right issues, however and you have the opportunity to expose holes in your opponent’s armour and to place them in uncomfortable positions, as has been ably performed at times by the Assembly’s apparent ‘one-man opposition’, in Jim Allister.

In essence, this is a limited replacement for the more substantial function of opposition speaking rights and a re-think of the Assembly’s parliamentary procedures; however, utilised both sparingly and effectively, it has the opportunity to be a midwife for that emergence. It offers high-visibility relevance not possible in the closed-shop of the executive.

Problems remain. Brian Feeney asked in Wednesday’s Irish News why there are no left-wing unionists (aside from ‘mavericks’ such as Dawn Purvis, Fred Cobain, Michael Copeland), or at least no left-wing unionist party since the pre-1970s demise of the NILP. He doesn’t identify, however, why there are no right-of-centre nationalist parties, an equally pressing question; the answer seems to be that past divisions matter more than a left-right axis, and simply that radicalism and conservatism on the constitution has been allowed to define our political compass.

The parliamentary priorities of the respective parties might hold the key to them re-shaping their identities and moving to a new space. Could there be an Assembly motion on the establishment of an opposition with power-sharing principles? Clear motions on the economic policy of the parties, moving beyond broad language and into greater detail?

This has the potential to stretch our legislators and to provoke more ‘bread and butter’ political divisions. It may also offer the smaller parties a chance to re-insert themselves into the debate, notable by their absence on Tuesday’s Spotlight Special.

Green shoots of more stimulating political battles?