Nesbitt’s gamble: at last the Ulster Unionists (and the SDLP) will have to decide what they stand for or face oblivion in the next Assembly

Since the election and even before it, commentators have been  casting around  desperately for anything that suggests that the old muscle- bound duopoly is starting to crumble.  Even the DUP  “victory”  is being  hyped as a harbinger of change alongside the Sinn Fein “ defeat”.  Something, anything that  might mean fresh movement or greater stability.  So the zeitgeist has  moved  in the direction of a more  “normal “ democracy that an opposition  signifies, and yet an opposition  that  doesn’t  threaten the basic structures of power sharing. The arguments were well rehearsed in the debates on what deserves to be called the  McCallister (Opposition) Act .  If the SDLP  finally join the UUs on opposition benches wherever located. D’ Hondt  will be exposed as unnecessary and the DUP/SF coalition will in effect be a “ voluntary “ one. And will the Alliance party get voted back into Justice by a formally divided Assembly?

Mike Nesbitt’s lunge into opposition falls into the category of novelty big time. It’s a poor verdict on the leading parties’ record that the dominance they enjoyed didn’t prevent them from bringing the Assembly to the brink of collapse last year. Yet this is a verdict the unionist electorate didn’t pass. Instead the deadlock was almost entirely forgotten.  The DUP (if not Sinn Fein) suffered no penalty. If it had been otherwise and unionist voters had penalised them , Nesbitt’s move might have made more obvious sense.

It’s a serious weakness that the UUP and if they follow suit, the SDLP, teased  the voters  but did not commit to opposition in the election campaign. We will never know how many votes would have been gained or lost if they’d done so. As the defeated sponsor of the  Opposition Bill  John McCallister  has said, the UUP might have secured more than 16 seats in last week’s poll had they campaigned on the basis that they would go into opposition if they did not get enough MLAs to secure either the first or deputy first minister’s position. To jump now when they failed to reach their target number of seats looks like weakness, perhaps even a last throw of the dice.

Nesbitt has yet to explain himself beyond the sound bite. But the theory seems to be is that the UUP can impose a greater check on DUP good behaviour in opposition than they could by remaining in the Executive.  But his move is fraught with all sorts of problems.

Declaring opposition even before the government programme is even discussed increases the pressure on them to spell out what the party stands for even more than before.

Remember Fresh Start? The UUP and SDLP stayed outside that agreement. But if the DUP and SF  keep to their pledges of good behaviour  including  reducing the role of the blocking instrument, the petition of concern, the case for an opposition is  weakened.

So what will be the basis of opposition? Constructive or destructive?  Will the UUs  try to outflank the DUP on the left or the right?  Nesbitt has variable  form here. An early test will come with the report due at the end of the month from the three person panel on deparamilitarisation. Other crunch issues ducked in Fresh Start but eventually unavoidable are parades regulation, flags and traditions. If the UUP play narrow unionist politics they will only make it more difficult to reach cross community agreement and they will risk widening  the sectarian divide.

So what’s to be said in favour of opposition? A more open approach to our democracy would  be  very welcome.  The development of a shadow Executive by the UUs and the SDLP would even better but seems a pipe dream today.

And the threat to the UUs?  In future elections will they continue to benefit from DUP transfers in a smaller Assembly of  ( correction) 85  members?  Or would oblivion be their fate? That is the measure  of Mike Nesbitt’s gamble.


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

  • Robert ian Wiliams

    The UUP are just opportunists..they tried to pose as British conservatives..then they tried to be more progressive than Alliance..and now they want to lead the opposition! Never forget the DUP was partly founded to get away from the elitist gentleman’s conservative club, UUP.

  • chrisjones2

    Ok .. but of course we have to look ta the movement ….that’s the Political bit and the secret bit behind the scenes still cant be ignored

    So we have keeping the IRA when it was supposed to go away? Who are the people who control it?

    The Semtex that strangely didn’t get decommissioned?

    The guns imported from America…what for? Non-extreme reasons I assume?

    Play parks dedicated to murderers?

    Tacit support for front organisations ‘against drugs’ used to murder people who were alleged drug dealers when there is a supposed commitment to the rule of law. Naming another play park after a former leaders of this?

    Now I know some of these are actions not policies and you can hide behind the ‘it wasn’t’ SF but what the hell….in this mess how does one tell?

    PS you are aware that in the Republic it was pedalling itself as the real anti-austerity party

  • chrisjones2

    In my view NOTHING will de sectarianise the policies

  • Gingray

    I think its easy to make sweeping generalisations from behind the keyboard about the morals and intentions of the political class. I see little difference between them, the voters, and indeed politicians in GB or down South.

    Have you ever stood for election?

  • Gingray

    So, you have answered your own question.

    Its politics!

  • Nevin

    “commentators have been casting around desperately for anything that suggests that the old muscle-bound duopoly is starting to crumble. .. the DUP/SF coalition will in effect be a “voluntary“ one.”

    This commentator hasn’t! The muscle-bound duopoly remains even if SF muscle has lost some of its tone, the carve-up will continue and the enforced coalition will hobble along in the style of a three-legged race but the duo attempting to move in opposite directions.

  • Nevin

    Perhaps some will return under Colum’s leadership. In East Londonderry the SDLP vote dropped 1,924 from 5189 to 3265 yet SF gained only 175 votes. The SDLP lost 1000 or so votes since the 2015 Westminster election. Perhaps if Colum had taken over sooner and John Dallat had stepped aside sooner the SDLP might be in a better place.

  • Gopher

    They appear to be dying or moving to the suburbs and not voting

  • Vince

    There is no disputing that the Greens had a very good election. However, a large part of that gain is due to the simple fact that whereas in 2011 they had only a handful of candidates at most, in 2016 they fielded in every constituency.

  • Gopher

    The assembly election demonstrated the tactical nature of the SDLP vote compared to general elections.

  • Nevin

    Can you elaborate in the context of this East Londonderry constituency?

  • Toaster

    Martin McGuiness is quite right. This is an undemocratic insult to the peace process

  • Gopher

    In East Londonderry nope I dont think it is tactical more a symptom of the primacy Westminister still has in peoples eyes.

    . Where there is a sitting SDLP MP it is pretty obvious the vote is tactical ie to stop SF or DUP. South Belfast, Foyle and South Down all showed big declines.

    Newry and Armagh is the most interesting it seems 3500 SDLP voters in the general election were motivated to stop Brady or Kennedy but not to elect a SDLP MLA. The SF vote only declined slightly.

    To paraphrase there seems to be “a vote” that thinks Westminister is main event and does not want SF or the DUP to represent them.

  • Gopher

    Agnew doubled his vote in North Down, Brown quadrupled the Green vote in East Belfast as did Bailey likewise in South Belfast so it was a mixture of established and new areas.

  • Vince

    Agreed, a mixture. In 2011 they had 6 candidates (interestingly 3 of these have since defected) and this year 18.

  • Acrobat_747

    OK. Just let’s wait and see. It’s just a hypothesis. I already said it’s likely the constituencies will be reduced. I’m just saying it’s not as certain as you believe it to be. We’ll just have to disagree on this one.

  • Vince

    Democratically elected representatives supporting Ministers where it’s right to do so and proposing better alternatives where possible? Seriously?

  • Acrobat_747

    You’tr probably right. All I’m saying is there is a possibility. I would prefer less constituencies, but it’s a lot less money for the parties here. I don’t think they have fully grasped this change.

  • Robert ian Wiliams

    I don’t trust him..he’s about as genuinely pro life as Nicola Sturgeon is monarchist..just political expediency, and keeping the grandma’s on board..

  • chrisjones2

    So many hungry mouths and factions within parties and the need to make the count work so themuns dont get too many seats

  • chrisjones2

    No I havent. I agree re the comparisons with GB and Ireland but these ones are ours

  • chrisjones2

    Read the post …. where did I say all of them. I said for example

    “If they are seen to expose and bring to account the shambles in SF Departments and the cosy little crony deals of the DUP Fat Cats then the voters will reward them. This shouldn’t be a ‘get the Shinners’ approach – far from it – though a strong dose of accountability will do no harm..

    The real fresh meat and the big focus should be on the soft corrupt belly of the DUP, their donors and friends.”

  • chrisjones2

    Wait and see

  • Reader

    Right; like they punished the DUP after the GFA?

  • chrisjones2

    ..and very little of what is done in NI is important for generating anything other than hot air.

    The biggest issue is health and all they have done there is commission an expert report then ignore it because some hospitals will have to close as they are inefficient. So we let patients die to protect the vote base

  • chrisjones2

    Not for theft or corruption ….if voters elect that then there is no point

  • Gingray

    And? They are still only people, who have put themselves forward and been voted in by the electorate.

    I may not like some or most of them, but it is not a career many would want to do, so fair play to those that do.

    Its just a bit rich, folks who snipe at the intentions of politicians yet never put their own views forward to be tested.

  • Skibo

    Why does Wales require 60? Does London not work with about 25?
    If this place was normal, 54 would probably be enough i.e. 3 from each constituency but as there is an obvious problem of accountability, 6 per constituency was proposed.
    Due to constant criticism of the cost, the decision was made to reduce it to five.
    It is not a case of making sure themuns don’t get too many seats but rather to ensure zonal minorities within a majority get representation. The more fractious the community, the more seats you need to ensure democracy is seen to work.

  • chrisjones2

    Run away?

    No …I just have a real life too and am not obsessively waiting for your latest diatribe

    Perhaps you should get out more

  • Granni Trixie

    But you are unfair to politicans who work their butt off – which many do I’m sure.

  • chrisjones2

    What are SF most worried about:

    1 PBP
    2 The large drop in their vote in de Nurth
    3 The infighting in different areas
    4 A UUP / SDLP led opposition chal;lengiung the porky deals
    5 All of the above

    Answers on a postcard to ……

  • chrisjones2

    Its better seen in % terms eg

    DUP +2%
    SF – 7%
    UUP Level
    SDLP -12%
    AP – 5%
    TUV +44%
    GRN +210%
    PBP + 253%

  • Jollyraj

    I’d say Gerry dropping off the perch in the not-too-distant future keeps them up in the wee hours. Doesn’t seem to be much thought as to how they will go on without him.

    Only thing worse for them than actually having to publicly back the disgraceful old goat would be not having him around to back, it seems.

    After all, a party that still his no real idea nearly 20 years on from the GFA as to what the UI they’ve been demanding for decades would actually be like (even in the broadest strokes) is not a party conditioned to creative thought and problem solving.

  • Brendan Heading


    ..and very little of what is done in NI is important for generating anything other than hot air.

    Either way. It is simply false to say, as you did, that the big decisions are all taken in Westminster. They are made here.

    The House of Commons has had almost no role in NI since 1920. Even during direct rule, the country was effectively ruled by decree of the Secretary of State. The fact that Northern Ireland MLAs and ministers choose not to use their powers to the extent that they could does not mean that they do not exist.

    These lazy clichés are factually incorrect and contribute nothing. Anyone who actually understands what is going on here knows that, these days, to elect someone to Westminster is to put them out to pasture politically.

  • Ryan A

    Doubt it. Long will probably be leading before then and I doubt Alliance wants its leader in Westminster.

    The unknown is whether a 17 seat NI means a significant chunk of South Belfast comes in to East Belfast and Dundonald moves out in which case Gavin could be unseated even with a pact.

  • Lionel Hutz

    It seems that the media are all but taking it for granted that the SDLP would join the UUP in the opposition. Here’s the first big question for them. Would they accept the alliance party with them.

    Alliance don’t have a mandate to be in either the executive or opposition. And they will rely on either of those two extending the olive branch.

    I think UUP and possibly the SDLP would be mad to allow the alliance to join them in the official opposition. They are electoral competitors. Why give them the platform. And it will be more difficult to be a coherent opposition with 3 parties instead of 2. UUP and SDLP would difficult enough as it is.

  • Robert ian Wiliams

    I quite agree…..

  • Robert ian Wiliams

    I can’t understand your comment. the bishops issued a very clear voting guide, which would preclude voting for either SF or SDLP.

  • Ciaran O’Connor

    “Oh I can’t win that argument but here’s another one I might win”…

    SF are a political party with the largest democratic mandate on the Island, bar none.

    How are their policies extreme, which them “the extremes”?

    The rest of that guff, is just guff. Answer the question.

  • Nevin

    The detail is in the links, Robert. SDLP influence on political events has steadily declined from the 1980s.