#Soapbox: Northern Ireland has started its first steps into a brave new political world

Cllr Alexander Stafford is an Ealing councillor, representing the Ealing Broadway ward, and former advisor to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

It is said a week is a long time in politics, and this has definitely been true in Northern Ireland. Just over a week ago the UUP made the decision to reject taking a Ministry and have instead decided to form an Opposition. The SDLP has now also decided to pull away from government and join them on the opposite side of the chamber.

Elsewhere I’ve commented that the UUP had made a “brave and bold step – and should be lauded for this courageous decision” of launching what will become the Assembly’s first ever real Opposition.

It is both the right thing for their party, by giving them a platform and a raison d’être, as well the right thing for Northern Ireland by giving choice to voters over policy and outlook, rather than dividing them along traditional lines.

Therefore, it is pleasing to see that the SDLP has broken with its fellow nationalists and will join the UUP in Opposition. These voices will significantly strengthen the Opposition and allow for a more diverse, wide-ranging and cross-community representation, giving the Opposition credibility across the country.

Nevertheless, once again the SDLP has found itself playing catch-up with the rest of the mainstream parties. The UUP’s decision made waves, and all credit to the media-savvy Mike Nesbitt on being able to grab the momentum for these changes; however, the SDLP’s hand has been forced.

The UUP manoeuvre put the SDLP between a rock and a hard place.

By sticking with the status quo, when there is an Opposition they would struggle to make their voice heard in the Assembly, and their raison d’être would continue to be questioned; if they moved in with the UUP they would be seen as reacting to events, merely copying a group who has already made a brave decision.

Rather than creating a new movement and be seen to drive forward a new type of politics, the SDLP is running the risk of constantly chasing the latest fad, rather than displaying in-depth thought leadership.

The differing approaches, and timings, from the UUP and SDLP belie their different prospects. The SDLP continues to struggle to elucidate its relevance in an already crowded field, which is having an effect on its vote share. The UUP, however, is at last starting to turn the corner electorally.

Gaining two seats at the Westminster election and maintaining the number of seats at the Assembly, demonstrates that the worst is over for the UUP and it is possible for things to get better.

With the Opposition move, Mike Nesbitt has clearly seen a gap in the market, one that the previous UUP/Conservative deal aimed for, and is trying to use it as a springboard for the future of Northern Ireland politics.

These changes have caught off-guard the DUP and Sinn Fein. The SDLP decision to move should be of serious concern to Sinn Fein. The Shinners have recently been feeling the squeeze across several arenas in Northern Ireland and this pronouncement by the SDLP will only add to this pressure on an unexpected front.

Whilst it remains to be seen if any of the nationalist vote will now return to the SDLP, the Shinners will have to take the potential threat seriously, and no amount of bluster from them hides the fact that they have been wrong-footed and made to look weak.

Between the options of Opposition and joining the Executive, is it only right that the SDLP has moved in with the UUP. It will help to normalise politics in Northern Ireland, giving all members of the community a genuine choice of policies and ideas.

Whilst this move is not going to completely break down the traditional divides, it does start to fragment the lines, which eventually will aid the realignment and normalisation of politics.

Whether the SDLP and UUP stick to Opposition when the reality of losing power and prestige hits them is yet to be seen, but for now, Northern Ireland has started its first steps into a brave new political world.

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  • aquifer

    “the SDLP has moved in with the UUP” Mmmm. Lately the UUP have been playing Paisley’s game of deep orange outbidding the other PUL party, which on the face of it might make them less viable as a centre coalition party. Maybe a growth of Alliance and others can move things along, if the prospect of actual change and visible political competition and conflict will bring new voters to the polls. Can nice Alliance do insults?

  • Korhomme

    An ‘opposition’ has two main roles; opposing the actions of the government for the sake of opposing is not one of them.

    Rather, an opposition holds, or tries to hold, the government to account; to make the government explain its actions.

    Secondly, an opposition – a ‘loyal opposition’ – presents itself as an alternative government, waiting for the next election.

    This second function is easy to understand in a political system with two main players. But how will this work in the multi-party politics of N Ireland? How can the UUP and SDLP present themselves as a real alternative to the DUP and SF (‘Marlene’)?

  • Granni Trixie

    I imagine APNI will endeavour to continue to play a constructive role and not the sectarian game. But then maybe by “insult” you do not mean name calling etc . or do you?

  • Msiegnaro

    Where is the evidence that the UUP are attempting to “out Orange” the DUP?

  • Lionel Hutz

    There will come a time in the coming weeks when there will be a policy produced by say the education department that the SDLP strenuously object to. This policy is regressive they will say.

    And if the SDLP had jumped at the first opportunity as Mike Nesbitt had done, then the response to them in the coming weeks would be “but you had the chance to be a part of government, and you walked away”.

    If Nesbitt’s way of leaving the executive appeals to Unionist voters, then fair enough. I am certain that SDLP voters would not have wanted to see SDLP walk away. They don’t necessarily want an opposition. The SDLP vote need’s to see this as the appropriate and dignified course of action not an action designed to make waves.

    If the SDLP had jumped with Nesbitt at the start, they would have been haunted by that decision for the next five years

  • Declan Doyle

    Alliance has no problem putting the main parties under pressure and while their electoral awards are slow it is clear from transfer patterns that they have established themselves as a true cross community/no community/ aternative community force. Naomi is no shrinking violet, she out performs almost every other politician with her considerable articulation and accuracy. The fact she does not stoop to insults is a mark of her integrity and not in anyway a sign of weekends. With her at the helm it would be no surprise if both the UUP and the SDLP shed support to Alliance as opposed to squeezing the main government parties.

    Note. The UUP may not be the progressive force that Unionism needs, however they are certainly shifting away from deep Orange rather than towards it

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    It looks to me like all 4 parties may have to re-invent themselves to varying degrees while looking like they’re not. The greatest pressure is on the SDLP to pull off this trick. Nonetheless, they’re probably the party with the least identifiable personality so it needn’t be too hard for them.

  • Bugger barry

    So a thatcherite is cheering on the SDLP. That says it all

  • Korhomme

    Quite so. And at present, DUP/SF have an absolute majority of MLAs. If this doesn’t change, what hope is there for SDLP/UUP? Or, can we expect significant shifts at the next election, when there will be fewer MLAs?

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    I take heart from Enoch Powell’s ‘all political careers end in failure’ and the other truism (whoever said it) that parties lose elections not win them. Of course this refers to losing majorities and being ousted from govt and there’s an inevitability to this. Marlene’s or DUP/SF isolation in govt exposes them to objective criticism and expressions of discontent from the electorate. It is up to other parties to present a viable alternative in order for vote share to increase sufficiently to topple the DUP/SF establishment but the incumbents need to be seen to have messed up in their turn.
    I can’t see UUP & SDLP messing up the new opportunity they’ve provided themselves with (at least not initially). How effectively they communicate their viable alternative to the electorate remains to be seen. Reduced numbers of MLAs in the next AE might not provide an overall majority for govt so we might see the introduction of horse trading for the Exec as in the Dail.

  • aquifer

    One example their opposition to agreed developments on the Maze site.

  • aquifer

    Not name calling, but how much respect should you accord a party that allows paramilitary intimidation to add weight to their campaigning in East Belfast, or that has acted as an apologist for fuel smuggling gangs. If Alliance can always be relied upon to play a constructive role maybe they need lessons in negotiation.

  • eamoncorbett

    If somehow the DUP manage to push through some legislation in favour of Orange marches ,does that mean that the UUP will will automatically oppose, of course it doesn’t and therein lies the crux of the matter. There won’t be too much to oppose when in fact you agree with most of the legislation passed , different parties same policies.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    You’ve hit on an observation that I share if I understand you correctly. To me, there is undeniable embedded nastiness to our politics that surpasses that found in other less divided polities. APNI have maintained a dignity above the tireless fray of pervasive deep enmity (despite anecdotal rumours of some underhand manoeuvring) yet this doesn’t win them as many votes as it could in fact they are often looked on as weak fence sitters. It’s perhaps an imponderable how they could change their platform without losing their central identity as unifiers.

  • aquifer

    I think it was Bill Clinton’s crew who emphasised the need for political triangulation, moving with issues that were off the tug of war rope axis of two big movements. Alliance are just the white flag in the middle of the rope unless they can distinguish themselves in some way, but they are divided amongst one another on economic issues as some of them were Northern Ireland Labour Party. It is worse than that though. The way they used to pick up plum appointments makes them look like a happy to be piggy in the middle party.