Why Alliance must pass on the Department of Justice

The election is over, the results are in, and the signal being sent by the electorate in Northern Ireland is clear and unambiguous. The DUP’s position as the dominant party within a socially and economically conservative administration has been comprehensively re-endorsed, alongside their coalition partner, Sinn Féin. There has, fundamentally, been no change at all in the balance of power in Northern Ireland.

No reasonable person could deny that the DUP victory is a remarkable accomplishment on many levels, the work of a dedicated and highly professional election team. It would be normal for the electorate to give a sitting government a bit of a kicking on the way into a third term, and the DUP would have likely settled for a loss of two or three seats. But Arlene “played a blinder”, to use the common vernacular, much the same as her predecessor did. In the face of an extremely challenging assembly term, which saw the flag protests (along with the fall, rise, and fall of various loyalist protest groups), parading problems especially in Ardoyne, the NAMA scandal, welfare reform, challenges from the TUV, UKIP, countless right-wing unionist independents and a supposedly resurgent PUP, the resignation of the UUP and the reorganising of that party under Mike Nesbitt, the party was safely and securely re-elected.

Had the DUP reacted to the matter involving Jenny Palmer with a little more care, they would have had a net seat gain, and the UUP a net seat loss, but they have little to complain about. Anti-agreement unionism is dead. The UUP’s best leader since Trimble hasn’t made an impact, and have been all but eliminated in Belfast.

While Sinn Féin took a minor beating, they’re still very much secure in position as an essentially co-equal coalition partner with the DUP. Their electorate endorses their ongoing work in government with the DUP, just as the DUP’s electorate has endorsed power-sharing with SF. Nationalism is in trouble, but those troubles will have nothing to do with how the country is going to be governed in the coming years.

Even though the outcome of the election is essentially one of no overall change at the Executive, the fact that this re-endorsement comes after two full terms changes the political parameters that the government and the assembly operate within. The smaller parties cannot cling to the possibility, as they might have done in 2007 or 2011, that the DUP/SF are somehow temporary, that their votes are borrowed, or that their own votes are on an upward trajectory – the small Executive parties all either held their position or lost seats. The DUP and SF are now the natural parties of government.

This is something that many of us did not expect, a warning, perhaps, of the consequences that come from putting too much store in the social media, traditional media, or real-world social or family echo chambers that many of us occupy. As such, it falls to those of us who have been shown to have been wrong to critically re-evaluate where we are.

Alliance’s justification for taking up the Justice post in 2010, and retaining it in 2011 along with the DEL post, was, and remains, entirely sound for the scenario that existed at the time. The principal concern was to ensure that the devolution of justice could be delivered and the institutions kept stable, but there were other important justifications. Alliance members, and voters, are pragmatists; participationists. They like to get their hands dirty and get down to what can realistically be accomplished now, rather than standing on ideological purity. They support their representatives taking difficult decisions and bringing competency, fairness, and a steady hand to the government. Ford’s election to the role as Justice Minister shows that on some level, even the DUP and SF recognise this. The party’s two ministers threw themselves into their roles. While others turned out the streetlights, Alliance worked the difficult budgets, pressing through reform, securing agreement and solving problems. They performed admirably.

But the outcome of this election changes all of these calculations. The powersharing institutions are very secure and do not need to be saved. The public have moved beyond giving the DUP and SF a chance, or giving them time to make it work – they’ve seen their record in government and have decided that they like it. At the same time, the expansion of the centre, mostly at the expense of nationalism, has benefited parties which have no plans to enter government, and pointedly did not benefit Alliance. During the leadership debate, Martin McGuinness talked of how well he works with successive DUP leaders. If this is true, then Martin should have no problem negotiating a DUP or SF Justice Minister.

The nature of the DUP/SF mandate means that the parties have less incentive to court Alliance than they did before. They have less reason to make deals and stick to them, and more reason to “use” the Justice Minister to force through difficult and popular decisions, much as they did when they forced Stephen Farry to implement higher education cuts.

But the decision not to enter the government is not a straightforward one. If Alliance do choose to pass on Justice, the party will never be asked to take it on again as long as the DUP/SF coalition remains in power, as those parties will agree a deal to appoint their own. If the party advances a case for non-participation, it will need to construct a case to enable re-entry to the government if or when the day comes when it earns the right to a ministerial post under d’Hondt. The SDLP and UUP both struggled with this question during the election.

But more than these party political considerations are questions around the structures in the Assembly. The opposition provisions include funding for parties who turn down a seat they would otherwise have been allocated under d’Hondt. They do not provide opposition funding for parties who turn down the chance to be appointed by the Assembly to the Department of Justice.  If the other parties choose to enter opposition, it will be a case of constantly vying for attention between the funded SDLP and UUP figures, Alliance, and the small parties including the extremely able Jim Allister. There will be no Leader of the Opposition, and no agreed opposition programme.

However, it has become clear to me now, as a longtime supporter of participation and staying in government, a huge admirer of the Alliance leader and everything he and his team have accomplished, and as someone who has little hope that any of the middle-sized parties could reach agreement on how to oppose the government or land punches upon it, that we have reached the point where the country faces permanent DUP/SF control unless something relatively dramatic happens to persuade people to change how they vote. Opposition might not work, but I see no other way of landing punches on the government while making the case to be the alternative government that those of us on the relative centre must aspire to be.

A couple of years back, Alliance started a party political broadcast with the old saying “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”. I know that the party will be considering this carefully internally, and whatever conclusion they arrive at will be defensible – and since I’m an unreconstructed Alliance bigot, it will have my support, either way. But I think the time may have come to make the leap.

The author is a lifelong Alliance supporter, but holds no position within Alliance, made no contact with Alliance officials when writing this article, and writes for Slugger in an entirely personal capacity.

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  • Two (simplistic) options for Alliance … and when was politics ever simplistic?

    (1) Construct a list of commitments they want carried into Programme for Government – and not just tied to Justice, but other key shared future/Alliance manifesto commitments – and take Justice only if those are bought into by Sinn Féin and DUP. Make clear they’ll walk as soon as one is welched on.

    (2) Accept that there’s no political capital in taking a ministry. Voters don’t care one jot or tittle. In fact, while it could rock the power-sharing boat for a while, far more would be achieved in terms of long term letsgetalongerism by forcing DUP and Sinn Féin to find a way to cooperate over appointing a (revolving?) Justice Minister among themselves than making their life easy and taking the ministry. (Steven Agnew should avoid being talked into taking the ministry too … not even if they’d support a Green New Deal building programme should he sell Green growth in exchange for power.)

  • chrisjones2

    So if they dont take it who will?

    A unionist?

    SF or SDLP?

    Jim Allister?

    and who will agree

  • Ryan A

    Well written Brendan. I couldn’t disagree with a word of it! IMHO the continuation of a ‘shared education’ strategy as opposed to integrated is as valid a reason as any to not enter the next executive.

  • Brendan Heading


    The DUP and Sinn Féin have just received a mandate to form a government. If they choose not to form a government, in other words, if they cannot for whatever reason appoint ministers to ministerial posts, then clearly they must account for their inability to deliver devolved government to those who voted for them.

  • Teddybear

    Excellent article

    Going slightly away from the topic but a lot has been discussed about how and why UUP//SDLP have not prospered in this election.

    If we look at the times when a minor party of orange/green has over taken the major party each, it hasn’t happened that often but it only happens during times of extreme crisis.

    The DUP started from zero to a significant thorn in the side of the UUP at the start of the troubles including prorogation of the old Stormont. In fact there were several elections where the DUP outpolled the UUP such as Euro elections since 1979

    It only overtook the UUP during a time of existential crisis of the GFA when it became clear that the UUP completely failed to ensure IRA disarming and SF support for the police.

    SF eclipsed the SDLP when the nationalist electorate decided that the only way SF/nationalism could further itself was by putting SF in centre court during the exact same time/election of the decommissioning crisis

    Both communities decided at the same time that stability and progress could only work by pitching the sharper swords against one another … And it worked.

    In 2011/2016, things are steady as she goes. No crisis, no dark clouds etc. While this lasts there is simply not a snowballs chance in hell of the UUP/SDLP overtaking DUP/SF

    In fact there will come a point around the late 2020s when both UUP/SDLP will have a real existential crisis. The SDLP can only afford to lose 1-2 MLAs per election only for 2-3 more Stormont elections until they are down to low single figures.

    This will be accelerated by the nxt election only returning 5 MLA’s per constituency and even one less constituency.

    Parties who had at least 1.5 quotas in a 6 seater will retain a seat in 2021. Those with less will not. The SDLP got too many MLAs elected on the final count for comfort

    Interestingly enough, the Alliance and Greens and PBP will have little to fear at the next 5 seater election as their MLAs were elected comfortably. Their voices will be louder in 2021 onwards.

    Alex Attwood won’t win a west Belfast seat the next time around in a 5 seater if he barely squeaked through in a 6 seater.

  • Lee

    You’re spot on. ‘Shared’ education is a misnomer and a euphemism. It is a constructed vehicle by which SF and DUP can cynically try to maintain tribal blocks and their core votes base, while appearing to the outside world as intergrationalists, which they are not. And the creating the shared education illusion costs millions.
    I hope the opposition provide adequate scrutiny on this.

  • Brendan Heading

    Extremely salient points as ever, Alan.

    On (1) I concede it would be remiss if the party did not at least explore the option of negotiating with the government and hearing their terms, and I am sure that this is what they will do. With their solid mandate, the DUP and SF have plenty of legroom to grant gifts to the party – of course by “gift” I mean something that speaks to Alliance’s agenda and which the party can go back and tell their supporters that they accomplished.

    A solid deal on integrated education is the kind of thing I’d expect to see. By being able to push the DUP and SF to deliver on this, Alliance could claim the credit for actually delivering something which Alliance’s electoral competitors promised to do but could not. Alliance’s voters need to be rewarded and encouraged to vote in greater numbers for the party.

    But, paradoxically, in order to have a negotiating position the DUP and SF would have to be persuaded that the party is serious about not taking up the role, which in turn would require them to be serious about offering the party the role.

    On (2) I think at this point it’s clear that minor coalition parties get punished, because they’re keeping in power people that their voters dislike. Labour voters do not like Fine Gael. Progressive Democrat and Green voters, clearly, do not like Fianna Fáil. And Liberal Democrat voters do not like the Tories. The “we helped keep them on a leash” thing is not, enough, by itself to build support.

    The thing is that the DUP and SF have a certain amount of political capital to grant all kinds of things – marriage equality, some sort of move on abortion, etc etc. If someone like Agnew could go back in 2021 and say “we got this done” it would be a powerful message and a tempting position to be in. On the other hand, people tend to have short memories and tend not to thank you for stuff you did in the first 100 days.

  • Gopher

    If Alliance don’t take it then it will be like welfare and be returned to the secretary of state because it is impossible for SF and DUP to agree on it.

  • Lee

    Can SF and DUP run it jointly/ (should be fun to watch).
    And if they can’t agree to this does it go back to London to run? Shinners in the habit of handing powers back to the UK government but doing so here would cause super sensitive problems for them from dissidents, which in turn causes problems for everyone in NI.

  • Brendan Heading

    That’s possible, in which case :

    – Sinn Féin, as a republican party, would have to explain to its voters why it is returning control over the justice system to the British

    – The DUP, as an avowed pro-life party, would have to explain why they returned justice powers to the British, who would be justified in responding to recent court decisions and human rights law etc. by liberalising the abortion laws

    There are significant hazards for both parties here – not all of them immediately obvious.

  • Gopher

    It is impossible to offer it to small party like the Greens as with only two seats the pressure of political leverage would be too great. I also believe as Agnew voted with SF on the advisors with a criminal past the DUP would not support him.

  • Teddybear

    Justice will be a Pyrrhic victory for whoever takes it. The toll it took on David Forde was heavy and may have precipitated his anticipated resignation as APNI leader.

    The other parties are not that stupid and know this. If anyone takes it it will be out off sheer vanity or duress.

    Or stupidity.

    Eamonn McCann for Justice Minister anyone?

  • Gopher

    The DUP would love someone to take social legislation off their hands, SF returned welfare to Westminister. Without Alliance there is no other alternative

  • Brendan Heading

    I do not agree with these remarks, as I think David did a fine job as minister, and the alternative proposals at the time (which included bringing the department in under the control of OFMDFM) would have been disastrous in comparison. I thought it was extremely important to have a minister dedicated to the rule of law there to condemn with the full authority of the government, and accompanied by the Chief Constable, the murders that were carried out of police officers, soldiers and prison officers during his term of office. David is held in very high esteem by groups that are involved in the justice system (with the possible exception of criminal legal aid lawyers!), civil servants and, begrudgingly, other MLAs in the Assembly.

    Nonetheless, we’re into a different phase now. The DUP and SF received a mandate to govern. Let them govern.

  • Brendan Heading

    There’s a perfectly good alternative. They can appoint one of their number.

    They managed to agree on appointing an alternative Speaker.

    Furthermore, outside of symbolism, Justice is important but not as important as, say, Finance.

  • notimetoshine

    Oh I smell another manufactured crisis on the way. SF want justice DUP say no and there are loyalist grassroots protests, some whinging to London, six months of inertia and then agreement. Probably with a few pounds thrown in.

    There is far too much to do (especially considering the lack of work in the previous assembly term) for this to dominate political business they way it inevitably will.

  • Teddybear

    I happen to agree. David Ford did an excellent job. He’s a v able and dignified politician. But the job took its toll on him. One can do a great job but if it’s stressful and difficult it can grind the best of us down.

    Despite him doing a marvellous job, it didn’t exactly translate into winning a quota in the first 3’stages for him.

    People vote on social and cultural matters. Competency running a Justice dept matters not a jot to the electorate. Unfortunately.

  • Brendan Heading

    Now that the loyalist grassroots groups have been squished in the election, and the DUP comprehensively reaffirmed, and with three years to go until the next poll, now is the perfect time to do risky things.

  • Ryan A

    I’m not so sure he did in the end, I recall it being called out that on this occasion he would not vote with SF. He may have voted on it but fundamentally he did not sign the PoC.

  • Ryan A

    PS, and after some of the abuse given to Alliance by Green activists, Alliance should be maintaining a good eye on the Green’s voting record going forward!!

  • notimetoshine

    Grassroots campagins don’t need elections to make an impact. But more important there are too many really critical issues that weren’t dealt with or terribly mismanaged during the last assembly, overshadowed by all manner of post conflict, constitutional and cultural issues for yet another one to be added to the mix. It is potentially far too messy and frankly, 3 years or not until the next poll something like this would eat up far too much time and political capital. Though I suppose politically it could be a way of our ruling coalition avoiding the really important and difficult issues.

  • Old Mortality

    I can imagine there is a strong lobby among the legal-aid parasites for SF to take on justice with the expectation that their fees will at least be maintained, if not increased and not to mention the possibility of a few public inquiries. Generous donations might well follow.

  • Brendan Heading

    fair enough. If I had to guess, though, I’d have said that Ford taking a progressive attitude on marriage equality and limited liberalisation of abortion might have been the thing that made it tougher for him than before.

    But this is one of the reason why he has my respect; he took the decisions that he took knowing that it would do this kind of harm. Wish we had a few more folks like that.

  • Teddybear

    I agree 100% but perhaps in a more mature democracy where the states existence is not in question consciously or unconsciously in the mind of the electorate would such qualities matter.

  • Gopher

    Let us see how they agree with the speaker this time. When you have Allister plus two hot heads coupled with the possibility of parties in opposition who ever controls debates is an important piece in the game. The Speaker becomes a powerful office.

    If Alliance turn it down (justice) the DUP play will go something like this. They will put forward three names. A Girvan type a Pengelly type and a UUP name and ask SF to pick one. SF will refuse and all the parties will be asked to vote on it and the if it is petitioned of concerned nationalists get the blame of returning Justice to Westminister. You think the DUP won that election to roll over?

  • Gopher

    He may not have signed the POC but he did enough to rule himself out of a justice ministry

  • Lee

    Enjoyable article. My worry though is that, although anti-agreement unionism is virtually dead, anti-agreement republicanism is not. Many aligned to SF will be unable to stand the ‘operating British rule’ taunts and of dissident republicanism. Dissidents have never gone away, they have been brewing and growing, sometimes with lethal force. SF playing a part in a Justice ministry in any form gives the dissidents ammunition (pardon the pun) to feed their own self-delusion and that of young people. Justice handed back to London does the same.
    I do think SF-dup have to sort out Justice themselves, but as exercise of containment maybe Alliance aint so bad at it.

  • Lee

    elections don’t stop the loyalist grass roots from acting.

  • How about if Clare Bailey gets the Justice ministry with a DUP and Sinn Fein commitment to support equal rights for women, including bringing NI legislation up to English standards on abortion, domestic abuse and equal marriage?

  • Cavehill

    In terms of the question about when you can return if you leave, for Alliance it is an easier argument than for others: ‘when we qualify to be in the Executive’. SDLP and UUP currently do qualify, so they have to explain why they shouldn’t be in there right now whereas Alliance don’t qualify.

  • Backbencher

    ‘Alex Attwood won’t win a west Belfast seat the next time around in a 5 seater if he barely squeaked through in a 6 seater’

    It is a little more complex than that – you need to consider, not just who got the sixth seat but also who just missed out i.e. who finished seventh. In the case of W Belfast the Unionists finished seventh hence they would be eliminated and their vote redistributed -it is quite possible that a large portion of this would go to Attwood pushing him into fifth or even higher.

  • We’d have fresh elections before that would happen!

  • Backbencher

    Have you not been watching the election results? The UUP vote almost collapsed because of its liberal leanings, the DUP view on abortion and same sex marriage was comprehensively endorsed by the electorate

  • David Crookes

    Brilliant, Brendan. Thanks.

  • jporter

    I agree with much of the article, but wouldn’t give anywhere near as much credit to the DUP for their current position.
    The electorate decided a while ago that they are now the unionist party of choice to take on SF and as a more casual (and jaded) observer of NI politics than many on this site I never believed there was ever any risk of that changing, nor, depressingly, any risk of the core unionist electorate punishing the DUP for the multiple crises in the last term. Indeed it is hard to know what the DUP would have to do that would not be faithfully ignored by the voters.
    It says much about our politics here when we reward Arlene’s comparatively reasonable and moderate behaviour during and after the elections with platitudes and congratulations and claims of political nous (and I don’t just mean this article).
    Yes, SF and the DUP are the parties of power for the foreseeable future, the standard bearers for those whose primary concern when casting their vote is unionism or nationalism (even though the border question is settled in the short to medium term).
    This leaves the landscape in an interesting position for the remaining parties fighting over the remaining 60+% of the potential voters – the UUP now look irrelevant – want to vote for a unionist party, vote for the DUP – want to vote for a centre right party – maybe Mike’s forays into electoral pacts and courting loyalism leave a bad taste.
    The SDLP are in a similar position, suffering from overlap with SF, who they simply aren’t going to replace.
    Alliance in their current form don’t look like broadening their appeal, although when Naomi Long inevitably becomes leader that may change a bit.
    So it’s no change for DUP and SF for the moment but beyond that, the message seems to be that other parties need to start looking away from the executive and toward opposition and the substantial bloc of non-voters.
    Actually potentially exciting times if brave decisions can be made.

  • Teddybear

    Ah but by that would be moot as the fifth seat and final seat would have been already filled. The SDLP only had one candidate. Instead of the quota being 16.7% it would be 20%.

    One interesting statistic from this election is Philip Smith (UUP) MLA in Strangford. He has the distinction of being the MLA elected despite getting the lowest % of first pref constituency votes (5.2% in his case)

    So if we take this as the lowest % someone can be elected on (let’s
    divide 5.2 by the 6 seater % quota of 16.67% we get a ratio of 0.31

    If we then devide Alex Attwoods % of first prefs by the 5 seater % quota of 20% (assuming voting numbers remain the same) we have 7.3% divided by 20% giving 0.36.

    0.36 is higher than 0.31 so yes, you maybe right but he’s still looking at another nail biter

    Is this really how the SDLP, once the winner of West Belfast at Westminster in 1992, wants to win a single seat in a multi seat constituency?

    The unionist electorate of West Belfast will be emboldened and heartened to know they nearly got a unionist in by a whisker. Their turnout will be higher and may push DUP over the line the nxt election

    Considering how the DUP are in the ascendancy and how the SDLP is in decline, I suspect the DUP will take the 5th seat in West Belfast.

    Also, SF could not win 4/5 as easily as 4/6. Who will they drop from the ticket?

  • aquifer

    SFDUP rule is itself destabilising in the long run, so Alliance and the other centrist parties should call time on it.

    Lets have a crisis where the centre ground has to be bought off.

    Tightening when a petition for concern can be used will be a start.

  • chrisjones2

    It would be naiive to assume it was rigged (sorry decided) on the sidelines of Fresh Start

  • chrisjones2

    …and just how do they do that when SF / DUP have a majority?

  • chrisjones2

    Yeah but they had a side agreement on Justice

  • chrisjones2

    …or several court judgements and compo bills

    By the way has anyone heard from NIHRC recently. Has it died or is it just sleeping?

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Option 1 “Construct a list of commitments they want carried into Programme for Government” and in the famous words off the Yogart Man “Toilet Paper”.
    It’s Option 2 along with UUP and SDLP. The sooner they all realize this the better it will be for us all !

  • Brendan Heading

    Not quite. The election results show, basically, no change within unionism. The message is that the DUP position on these matters did not hurt them, but there’s no specific evidence that it actually helped them.

  • Brendan Heading

    With due respect to Claire’s energy and dynamism, giving a major ministry to any newly-minted MLA would be a fairly serious mistake at this stage.

  • Brendan Heading

    Alliance, at the moment, probably do qualify to be in the Executive via the mechanism which appoints the Justice Minister.

  • Brendan Heading

    grassroots loyalist groups claimed, following the flag protests, that there had been a sea change in unionism and that unionists were disillusioned with power sharing. Last Thursday they all either abstained or trooped right back into the polling stations to vote for the DUP.

  • Blue Meanie

    All of which assumes there will BE a west Belfast seat to contest.

  • barnshee

    “A solid deal on integrated education is the kind of thing I’d expect to see. By being able to push the DUP and SF to deliver on this”

    I do wish this noise about “integrated education” would cease -it can`t happen.

    Its part of the “separate development strategy” used by particularly but not exclusively the Roman Catholic Community.
    Separate Education, Ring fenced employment for Teachers Separate games etc. – Effectually creates a society within a society.

    Could SF activists promote and stage a 1916 commemoration in an integrated school?

  • scepticacademic

    Hell will freeze over before the DUP sign-up to that. Sadly.

  • scepticacademic

    A timely and considered article. Personally, I can’t see the point Alliance giving implicit support to a DUP-SF exec by taking Justice. The Big 2 have marginalised all other parties from the PFG. There is no ‘grand coalition’ in practice. DUP and SF can rightly claim to have ‘won’ the election and the right to lead the Exec. In the interests of democracy (and their own future prospects) it’s time for the UUP, SDLP and Alliance to go into opposition, to hold DUP-SF to account and to develop the basis for a credible future alternative government.

  • Jollyraj

    Jim Allister would, I daresay, have done a fine job of it.

  • Jollyraj

    Allister the best of a bad bunch for the job.

  • Barneyt

    The only way we can get change on abortion and such matters is via a referendum.

  • Well, she hasn’t had time to be corrupted by the Stormont system yet. If you look at UK politics, there are many examples of big changes introduced by inexperienced newcomers suddenly given power.

  • mjh

    Spot on, Brendan.

    But, and it’s a very big but, Alliance must also consider what kind of Opposition it might be entering. I see four main alternatives:

    1) UUP and SDLP stay in the Executive. With only 8 MLA’s, on its own Alliance does not qualify for the financial assistance provided to an official Opposition. Without resources or recognition it would struggle to make itself heard – as it did before it first joined the Executive. Could the damage from virtual invisibility be greater than that from association with the Executive?

    2) Either the UUP or the SDLP remains in the Executive, while the other forms the official Opposition on its own. This would put Alliance in an even worse position -an occasional afterthought to the principal Executive v Opposition debate.

    3) Both the UUP and SDLP go into opposition, but without any agreement to co-operate with each other. In this scenario the Opposition could look even more dysfunctional than the Executive. There would be no political benefit for the parties involved (maybe even damage) and Alliance could be even more invisible than in the first option.

    4) The UUP, SDLP and Alliance form a co-ordinated Opposition, with a Leader, Deputy and Shadow Ministers. While the main focus would be on holding the Executive to account (ie criticising its nearly every move) it would be founded on a basis of agreed core policy objectives. The aim would be to present itself as “The Alternative Coalition” – a better alternative to the DUP-SF coalition.

    I believe that the last is the best option for all three parties. Indeed it is probably the last chance for the SDLP, and the only way that the UUP might avoid following further down the same path.

  • Granni Trixie

    Agree with you re No4 were it not that I am convinced the policy positions,analysis and perspectives are incompatible for this kind of close relationship. Which is not to say that they cannot cooperate effectively on an ad hoc basis which is not the same as opposition I know.

  • Brendan Heading

    There won’t be a referendum Barney as long as we keep electing politicians who oppose reform.

  • Brendan Heading


    Hindsight is always 20/20. There are a few good reasons that many of us expected that the DUP and Sinn Féin could each lose a small number of seats. Satisfaction in the government is very low; something like 16% of voters think the government is doing a good job. Also a party which has been in government for two full terms can generally expect that it will have annoyed at least a part of its voter base. The UUP has smartened up, to some extent, and after a good result in 2015 could have been expected to pose more of a threat.

    I don’t respect the DUP’s campaign message or their policy position, for the most part. But having some minor insight into the craft of running an election, I have respect for people who are good at it. Apart from anything else, it’s just good manners and sportsmanship.

  • Brendan Heading

    mjh: thank you. And yes, these are all serious issues, and are all the reasons why I would have dismissed the idea of opposition up until now. They are no less valid than they were; my point of view is that what is currently happening is not working, and a last ditch attempt to shake up the status quo can now be justified.

    On (1) and (2) I don’t think it matters whether the other parties are in opposition or not. Alliance will struggle to be heard, either as the smallest out of three opposition parties, or as the sole major opposition party.

    I’m holding out for some sort of co-ordination. As you say it would not be a co-ordinated alternative government, but a co-ordinated beating up of the incumbent government. The Greens and the PbP have shown that beating up the government works ..

  • jporter

    I’ve plenty of respect for the folks doing the hard work and organising on the ground, including the MLAs at elections, indeed they undoubtedly deliver votes in spite of the overall political performance of their own parties the rest of the time, but can’t agree that the party’s overall strategy deserves any respect.
    The points about government satisfaction being low and expecting a message from the supporters after two terms may apply to a normal political landscape….DUP/SF are voted for by about 25 or so % of the total electorate. Add this to the fact that many of their voters vote ‘by standing order’ or wouldn’t risk a protest vote for fear of conceding to the ‘other side’ (the DUP’s political nous basically amounts to recognising and exploiting this) and I’m not sure if the same rules apply here.
    West and East Belfast voters have both delivered messages to their respective majority parties recently and in the past but in both cases there was very little risk of letting the ‘others’ in.
    In the case of the UUP, electoral pacts and the fact that it was a Westminster election allowed the leak of votes to them without any real risk and probably gave a false impression of resurgence which proved to be so when the ‘crunch’ of the assembly elections arrived.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Oh Brendan, I’m not a life long Alliance supporter, but we both know if Alliance don’t take the role the two parties will create a crisis and that crisis will end up having little damage to either the DUP or SF regardless of whether policing and justice goes back to the NIO or if everything does or if there is some long drawn out fudge to find an alternative. Ford’s tenure as justice minister didn’t do the party too much harm. It saw Alliance gain an East Belfast seat with their high profile work at constituency level with Naomi Long.

    Party supporters who aren’t activists tend to be more pessimistic than the necessary optimism you find in canvassers. Bradshaw said she was winning DUP votes in South Belfast, that may be true, but perhaps the DUP broke even getting UUP ones. It’s not 108 MLAs or say 700 odd candidates, it’s over a million potential voters, where nearly half don’t bother. There is a school of thought that Voters hate grouches. Parties need to stand on what they are doing. Alliance could point to government as a doing thing, especially in Justice given no one was to have the role.

    I would like to see the Justice minister lose party designation and be forced to declare as Other for the sake of neutrality and seperation of powers, if they have to pick from the non-Others pile. In Westminster wasn’t the “Justice minister” a Lord effectively to ensure separation of powers.

  • Backbencher

    The quota for six seaters is 14.28% and 16.67% for five seaters, not 16.67% and 20% as you suggest.

  • Teddybear

    I need to do my PR homework!

  • Brendan Heading

    If you look at UK politics, there are many examples of big changes introduced by inexperienced newcomers suddenly given power.

    Any examples off the top of your head ?

  • FWIW IMHO there will be no coordinated Opposition any scenario above, whether a grand UUP-Alliance-SDLP-Green-PBP or any other combination. The least impossible coordination may be between UUP-SDLP (to the purposeful exclusion of Alliance), but I have work experience of how well that (did not) work when they were both in OFMdFM.

    Rather, each party in Opposition will likely plough their own furrow. Expect the DUP-Sinn Fein Government to laugh off attacks of non joined up working, from a disjointed Opposition.

    But for the record, I agree completely with Brendan. In this recent election, no Executive party was rewarded for Ministerial competence. Alliance needs to think of how it’s going to increase its share of the vote in 2021. Demonstrating that it can run the Justice Department sufficiently well, again, may not light up voters’ imaginations.

  • Cavehill

    I was not aware of that. I thought that Justice had been moved into the D’Hondt shuffle.