DUP/SF solidarity facing a formal opposition marks a new Assembly era

Yesterday’s Assembly debate on the programme for government framework showed that a new era of some sort has begun. The new government v opposition format of debate worked well, better than it might have. Even more remarkably MLAs stuck closely to the fairly dry topic under discussion.. Nobody made allegations of DUP triumphalism or complained about Sinn Fein passivity towards it.

Most notable of all was DUP-Sinn Fein solidarity against Ulster Unionist/SDLP opposition .

To describe her “collective approach,” Arlene Foster was in her new element, revelling in the jargon of government.

“Outcomes-focused means being citizens-focused and evidence-based. It requires a collective approach, looking to draw in all the contributions in Government and, importantly, beyond Government, to make the biggest and best difference possible. It makes a real statement of shared purpose at political, administrative and societal level.”

Mike Nesbitt as leader of the largest opposition party replied, as opposition leaders do, raking over old coals and sceptical about future good intentions.

I hear First Minister Foster say that this mandate has to be about delivery. Through you, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker, I remind First Minister Foster and First Minister McGuinness that that is exactly what First Minister Peter Robinson said about the 2011 mandate. In his words, 2007 to 2011 was about survival and about going full term as an Assembly and an Executive, but 2011 through to 2016 had to be about delivery. It is clear from what these two First Ministers are saying that the Executive did not deliver between 2011 and 2016. So, while I can welcome a focus on delivery, I have to say this: we have heard it before; we will not be fooled again.

For Sinn Fein it was  Conor Murphy as the principal speaker, first as chair of the Committee on the Economy, then as an individual MLA. Although he is not a minister, he affirmed Sinn Fein solidarity with the DUP in approaching the Executive’s programme, strongly influenced by the concept of “wellbeing”

We have an important new way of doing business. I look forward to hearing those who do not agree provide alternatives. Make no mistake about it: there is a programme to be done over the next five years. Others have left the responsibility for doing that largely to my party and the DUP, and we must go forward because the people who elected us to the positions that we are in expect us to deliver for them, for their interests and for the communities that we represent.

After a DUP maiden speech Alex Attwood spoke for the SDLP, then Naomi Long for Alliance . Priority was later given to committee chairs and  maiden speakers of any party, including PBP’s Gerry Carroll.  All sides got a look-in, from the Greens’ Claire Bailey  to the solo veteran Jim Allister of TUV.

Martin McGuinness wound up for the Executive. predictably tilting at the UUs and the SDLP  for not joining the Executive and defending the Fresh Start agreement made between the two leading parties. Observing it will be the new Executive’s acid test.

If the (Ulster Unionist) party had been returned with enough MLAs to have three, or even two, Members in the Executive as Ministers, it would have gone through the door and into the Executive like a rocket..

The reality is, no matter how you dress it up, if there had been no Fresh Start Agreement … direct rule Ministers would have been in here the following week… If we had followed the SDLP position, there would have been no Assembly, there would have been no Executive, and the British Government would have had their fingers on the tiller here in the North. That is the reality.”

Although the government programme has yet to be developed, this formal debate was the nearest equivalent to a debate on the Queens Speech at the beginning of the session. As such, nothing was at stake for the Executive. The opposition as a whole enjoys “ enhanced” speaking rights greater than it would be entitled to by party strength, plus 10 opposition days a year and the first two questions to the First and deputy First Minister. It remains to be seen whether their speaking rights will work out so generously when it comes to debating votes on government business. They will have to work out how to share them between themselves.  

Standing Orders give considerable latitude to the Speaker, according to the balance of opinion on the subject discussed. The opposition parties are still entitled to places on the Business Committee according to party strength, and committee chairs are in effect guaranteed for the UU and SDLP leaders. That will give them extra speaking opportunities.

The description of the day from the BBC’s Mark Devenport hedges at a clear verdict but “reasonable start” seems fair.

With the Green Party, PBPA and the TUV all coming at the executive from their own distinct angles, the voices of opposition will make themselves heard, but they will not always sing off the same hymn sheet.

In comparison, the DUP and Sinn Féin have sought to portray a cohesive image.

Martin McGuinness’s trip to the Somme, Peter Weir’s visit to an Irish language school and the consensus over Mrs O’Neill’s decision to lift the ban on blood donations from gay men constitute a reasonable start.

So, will a cohesive government run rings around a divided opposition? Maybe, but all governments, power sharing or not, are vulnerable to the passage of events.

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