Entitlement to participation in the ‘official opposition’

Interesting sidebar to the issue of an ‘official opposition’. The proposed scheme is set out in Appendix F4 on page 55 of the “A Fresh Start: The Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan” document (although it still requires some administrative mechanism to formalise it).

The first section clearly states that:

(i) “Those parties which would be entitled to ministerial positions in the Executive but choose not to take them up, to be recognised as an official opposition. Those parties which choose to go into opposition should elect to do so at the time they decline the offer of a ministerial position in the Executive when d’Hondt is run.”

The start of the descriptor: “Those parties which would be entitled to ministerial positions in the Executive…” means [literally] only those parties who would be ‘entitled’ under d’Hondt. Running d’Hondt even without UUP and SDLP only returns DUP and SF ministers, which would mean that Alliance is, technically, excluded from being designated as part of the ‘official opposition’. There doesn’t seem to be a facility for the ‘official opposition’ to then simply invite additional membership since the prerequisite is entitlement to ministerial positions (as a broad index of electoral support).

Presumably the original authors of this annexe in A Fresh Start intended to preclude other parties from appropriating the title ‘official opposition’, in the event that they accepted ministerial positions under d’Hondt, and inserted the d’Hondt ministerial entitlement threshold to exclude them. In that sense, the genesis of Appendix F4 would be worth knowing, particularly any role UUP, SDLP  or Alliance may have had in sculpting it.

Given that the ‘official opposition’ scheme currently exists as a proposal rather than a formalised instrument, there may be some road to travel before it gets substantiated (updated: as Brendan reminded me in the comments – it has now been passed, the threshold was expanded to holding 8% of MLAs, which still excludes Alliance). There may also be some irony (and probably political capital), too, in the parties that rejected A Fresh Start demanding its actual implementation where it suits them. A revision of Appendix F4 as proposed could be unlikely as it may dilute the soapbox which UUP and SDLP are seeking, which may mean that Alliance will find itself demoted outside of both the Executive and any putative ‘official opposition’.

That’s a space to watch when it comes to the doling out of the Justice ministry, particularly if Alliance suddenly acquire a rapid change of mind during this first half of this week.

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  • chrisjones2

    Personally I suspect that Marlene will move heaven and earth to stop any effective opposition forming

  • Zig70

    Is that a misreading? Alliance cannot create an official opposition but if one of the other executive parties do, then there is nothing to stop them or anyone else joining.

  • chrisjones2

    Yes there is…read the Act .

    Its all tied into Parties entitled to a Minister who dont take up the chance and who have more than 9 MLAs. So Alliance are excluded on both counts. They can oppose but they will not be recognised unless for example they merge with the SDLP or the UUP. Now that would be a real change

  • John Ó Néill

    No, it does specifically say ‘Those parties entitled etc…’, which would only (currently) be UUP, SDLP. It depends how literally that is taken – it may not be in UUP or SDLP’s interest to adopt a wider interpretation (as I mentioned) and that formula of words is not accidental.

  • mjh

    John you say: ” Running d’Hondt even without UUP and SDLP only returns DUP and SF ministers , which would mean that Alliance is, technically, excluded from being designated as part of the ‘official opposition’”.

    Well let’s try running it and see what happens. The party that takes Justice is deemed to have had their first pick under d’Hondt. So to minimise the chances of Alliance being eligible for a pick let’s assume that it has gone to Claire Sugden. This leaves 7 ministries to be allocated.

    Number 1 goes to DUP because it has 38 MLA’s.
    Number 2 goes to SF because it has 28 MLA’s.
    Because the DUP and SF now have a ministry each the number of their MLA’s which count in the next round have been halved.

    Number 3 goes to DUP because it has a score of 19 (half of 38)
    Number 4 goes to SF because it has a score of 14 (half of 28)
    Because the DUP and SF now have two ministries each the number of their MLA’s which count in the next round is halved again.

    Number 5 goes to DUP because it has a score of 9.5 (half of 19)
    Number 6 goes to Alliance because it has 8 MLA’s
    Number 7 goes to SF because it has a score of 7 (half of 14).

    So if both the UUP and SDLP decline to nominate for the Executive when d’Hondt is run Alliance gets the penultimate choice of department. Or it can opt to become part of the official Opposition.

    If I have got something wrong here please point it out.

  • John Ó Néill

    In d’Hondt it is the number of MLA’s is divided by the number of ministers + 1. So they start at DUP 38, SF 28, UUP 16, SDLP 12, Alliance 8.
    So it would be:
    1. DUP 38 (38 divided by 0 ministeries + 1, for next round 38 divided by 1 ministry + 1, i.e. 38/2=19),
    2. SF 28 (28/1, for next round 28/2=14),
    3. DUP 19 (38/2, for next round 38/3=12.67),
    4. UUP (who say they will refuse), so next is SF 14 (28/2, for next round 28/3=9.33)
    5. DUP 12.67 (38/3, for next round 38/4=9.5),
    6. SDLP (who say they will refuse), so next would be DUP again on 9.5 (38/4, for next round 38/5=7.6),
    7. SF 9.33 (28/3).
    Alliance never manages to get a pick as their seat total remains too low. Only opening here for Alliance is if the DUP or SF take Justice (which counts towards their d’Hondt co-efficient). In that case, Alliance would get the 7th pick as the d’Hondt order would be: 1 SF (28), 2 DUP (19), 3 SF (14), 4 DUP (12.67), 5 DUP (9.5), 6 SF (9.33), 7 Alliance (8 – DUP on 7.6 and SF on 7). So if Claire Sugden takes Justice it has a lot of implications for Alliance.

  • mjh

    Thanks for that John.

    So the full and formal position is Alliance does not have an automatic right to the Executive or official Opposition. Equally Alliance is not automatically debarred from the Executive or official Opposition.

    Whether or not is entirely dependent on who becomes Justice minister.
    We won’t have to wait long to know.

  • Schmitty

    Thanks to both – D’hondt is a bit of a melt and its nice to see walkthroughs.

    Fascinating r.e. alliance though….i wonder if their potential entry as part of official opposition (and therefore, arguably, stronger ) might influence SF/DUP justice decision.

  • Brendan Heading

    John,

    Given that the ‘official opposition’ scheme currently exists as a proposal rather than a formalised instrument

    I might be misunderstanding you John but I don’t think this is true. The “official opposition” exists in law as the Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Act (Northern Ireland) 2016, see here. The law basically requires the standing orders to be updated to reflect the status of the opposition parties and establish their speaking rights etc.

    In the other parts of your article you seem to be suggesting that the other parties had a role in the drafting of this section. They may or may not have, but none of them were signatories to Fresh Start; only SF and the DUP are. SF could quite easily have insisted that these provisions be excised from the deal. They chose not to.

    That’s a space to watch when it comes to the doling out of the Justice ministry, particularly if Alliance suddenly acquire a rapid change of mind during this first half of this week.

    There were two relevant things in the news today. The News Letter reported this evening that as of 5PM David Ford had received no contact from the Executive Office. Separately, Arlene Foster reiterated that a Justice Minister will be appointed as planned on Wednesday.

  • Brendan Heading

    It’s more accurate to say that the rights of parties to be on the Executive flow from the d’Hondt procedure, which under certain circumstances, such as the DUP or SF taking Justice, would entitle Alliance to a ministry as of right.

    On the Opposition end, that’s a little unclear but I’d say you’re more likely to be right than not.

  • John

    You’re reading the wrong document.

    It’s not the Fresh Start Agreement that you should be referencing. That was the one Sinn Féin and the DUP agreed, despite your suggestion otherwise.

    But it was superseded by John McCallister’s Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Bill [Royal Assent 23 March 2016] – as I pointed out here.

  • Skibo

    But was it not agreed that Justice was to be allocated on a cross community vote and not by d’hondt?