The benefits of an official Opposition and the rush to claim the title.

Following the 2016 Assembly Election, there is now an opposition in Stormont (or sorts). But why should a party take it, as the UUP have stepped forward to do.

For the last number of years, the opposition to the executive, such as it is, has been unofficial, disparate and unruly. The naughty corner at Stormont, with John McCallister, Steven Agnew, Basil McCrea, Jim Allister, David McNarry & Claire Sugden (interestingly, 3 of those were elected to that last Assembly as UUP members in the first place, and their seats are now back in the hands of the UUP… who are now an actual opposition).

Winston Churchill said, “The duty of an Opposition is to oppose,” so one could most certainly argue that a prominent aspect of the existing opposition has been the public and the media; as it should be. I’ve heard it said that the leader of the opposition in Northern Ireland is Stephen Nolan…

The UUP, SDLP & Alliance Party all shirked the question of if they would go into opposition following the election, and rightly so. Telling your voters that you expect not to get a majority of seats and being able to form a government is a foolhardy consideration… even if 2 of those parties had no such current ambition as being elected to the post of First Minister (Alliance had 23 candidates, SDLP had 24).

The decision would presumably be made based on a Programme for Government (or lack thereof); all parties avoided sharing their so-called red lines. I note this article from Alliance’s Chris Lyttle on their legislative priorities for the new term; an electorate could see these 3 priorities as red lines and an absence of them in a programme for government might preclude a moral imperative to not enter the Executive.

Here in Northern Ireland, media coverage (by quantity) of parties seems relatively balanced. Might this change somewhat with an Official Opposition?

When there is a public discussion on the BBC on say, Department for Communities, Health or Finance, it is reasonable to assume that when presenting it to the public, a representative of the Opposition is best placed to provide scrutiny and public opposition to the department’s Minister.

Other than the main party’s Ministers, personal media exposure going along the benches isn’t exactly widespread; the average person on the street would probably know who Simon Hamilton, John O’Dowd or David Ford are, but name-recognition of Alex Easton, Sue Ramsey & Kieran McCarthy are perhaps much more less recognisable.

With the advent of an official Opposition is the opportunity for shadow ministers, media appearances for Ministers is spread among multiple parties; if an official Opposition exists, they have the potential to have equal representation as a public face equivalent to that of the whole Executive combined.

Nobody wanted to say, “Yes, we’ll be the official Opposition following the election,” but when the chips fell, Mike Nesbitt wasted no time in getting it done.

The UUP has been putting out policy papers for a number of months prior to the election; the media has made much of how Sinn Fein & DUP appear to have agreed their proposed Program for Government prior to the election even taking place… it seems to me that perhaps the UUP had put their proposed Program for Opposition out into the public realm even before that…

“When I first came into Parliament, Mr. Tierney, a great Whig authority, used always to say that the duty of an Opposition was very simple – it was to oppose everything and propose nothing.”             – Lord Stanley

A cynic might suggest that by that definition, the Executive has been its own opposition…


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  • Skibo

    If, sorry when the full extent of the opposition is declared, what is the point of the committees? Were they not there to hold the Minister to account. Is that not the job of the Opposition?

  • Nevin

    Skibo, the DUP and SF held a majority of seats on committees ie six out of eleven.

  • Skibo

    Yes I understand that but if we end up with a government of two/three parties and an opposition of three/two parties and the rest, what do we need the committees for?
    Can you be in government with a party and sit on a committee and condemn the minister of your partners party?

  • Nevin

    We need committees for scrutiny and to achieve that we need the DUP and SF combined to be in a minority. I can’t think of any specific examples but I’d have thought DUP and SF members criticised ministers from the other party – seeing that it’s an enforced coalition.

  • NotNowJohnny

    The committees have statutory role in scrutinising, advising and consulting in relation to their respective department’s policy. They also have powers to call for papers and witnesses etc. This is all laid down in strand one of the agreement. You can be a member of a committee and condemn even your own party’s minister. Indeed you have a duty to scrutinise the policy of the departmental minister irrespective of which party they are a member of. Your first duty is to the assembly rather than your party. That’s the theory anyway.

  • NotNowJohnny
  • chrisjones2

    …doh and they can work in the Committees by asking difficult questions …unlike the current carve up

  • chrisjones2

    and under the plans the opposition chair some key committees

  • Nevin

    Thanks, NNJ, I later thought of the context where, say, a SF chair could give free rein to an MLA from a smaller party to get stuck into someone from the DUP stable.

  • Sliothar

    In Westminster, the Leader of the Opposition, his/her Chief Whip, Shadow Cabinet Ministers and Shadow Ministers all receive an extra ‘allowance/salary’ on foot of their ‘official’ and recognised postions.
    Mike Nesbitt and his UUP lemmings are neither ‘official’ nor recognised ‘officially’, so far. They have indeed set themselves up as a self-declared opposition for which, afaik, there is no official or legal basis in the GFA.
    Will they, I wonder, apply for extra funding, notwithstanding their rather ‘iffy’ (or non-existent!) statutory basis?

  • NotNowJohnny

    NI Assembly Standing Orders

    45A. The Official Opposition
    (1) Subject to paragraph (2), where a party is entitled to nominate a person to hold Ministerial office under section 18(2) to (6) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998; and declines to do so, that party may choose to be recognised as part of the official opposition.
    (2) A party is not to be recognised as part of the official opposition if any member of that party holds a Ministerial of- fice, or held a Ministerial office and ceased to hold that office otherwise than at a time when all Northern Ireland Ministers ceased to hold office.
    (3) Where only one party chooses to be recognised in accordance with paragraph (1) that party is to be regarded as the official opposition.

  • eireanne3

    On Feb 29th 2016 John Mc Callister’s (UUP, then Independent Unionist, now not re-elected) Assembly and Executive Reform Bill had its final reading and was passed by the Assembly. Now there is a place in the Assembly for an official Opposition.

    According to the BelTel : As an official opposition, the UUP will have additional speaking rights in the chamber, be able to table opposition day debates, will fill some key scrutiny committee roles and have access to funded research services.

  • Sliothar

    Oops! Thanks for the correction, NNJ.
    So the implication is that it is possible for the UUP to appoint Shadows and claim allowances. Given their number in the chamber, it looks as if they could be ALL be quids up!
    Beats working!

  • Teddybear

    Perhaps committees should comprise only MLAs from non executive parties

    The GFA should be amended so that the executive comprises at least one unionist, one nationalist and one non aligned party

    Each should be given a ministry each before DHonndt is run. This would safeguard against one party or two dominating proceedings

  • Brendan Heading

    I had that idea too, about committees. It’s not the practice in Westminster, though, and there’d be a danger that committees would degenerate into platforms to attack the government with very little in the way of real scrutiny actually being done.

  • John Collins

    Your right. In most parliaments members of the opposition sit on parliamentary committees. In the ROI the chairman of the influential PAC is always a member of the opposition. I suppose similar arrangements work in most democracies

  • Thomas Barber

    Eireanne thats not what the majority of people in Ireland voted for, any fundemental changes to the GFA should be put to the people.

  • NotNowJohnny

    It is likely that the new Executive will be comprised of at least one unionist, one nationalist and one non aligned party just like the previous one. It is also likely that each will be given a ministerial position before dhonte is run (FM, DFM’ Justice). Despite this, it is likely that two parties will still dominate proceedings just as happened previously.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    “It seems to me that perhaps the UUP had put their proposed Program for Opposition out into the public realm even before that” Correct and the Media and Commentators did not see it !

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    Some folks did 😉

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    Not sure this can be counted as a fundamental change tbh..

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Agree Barman – I seen it coming too especially once it was critised by the media for being too big and a complicated manifesto ! It was the Opposition for Government Plan.

  • Skibo

    But for Government parties to sit on committees and condemn government Ministers, is that not what SF were condemning SDLP for? In government and opposition at the same time!