After a ‘deal’ whither the UUP?

Alex Kane considers the options open to his own party, the UUP, in wake of a future deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein. Whilst acknowledging the risks of refusing to take their allotted seats on the Exective, he sketches the potential for setting up an vigourous opposition freed enough from the inclusive d’Hondt mechanism to scrutinise the work of ministers to a degree that the precludes.By Alex Kane

Let us assume – and, at the time of writing, there is still room for doubt and a last minute collapse – that the DUP and Sinn Fein reach agreement and kickstart a process which leads to the Assembly back in action by early Spring. What should the UUP do?

There has been a great deal of speculation that it could choose to refuse ministerial office and, instead, recast itself (along with the SDLP, perhaps) as the official opposition. There are, of course, a number of problems with such a course of action. Office brings power, profile and photo-opportunity, and not to accept positions could, in the eyes of some UUP members and MLAs, diminish it further as a party. It could also be interpreted as nothing more than a sour grapes reaction to an election result which saw the DUP leapfrog to the top of the pile.

Again, it would be a mistake to believe that the DUP would be aghast at the prospect of being alone in an Executive Committee with Sinn Fein. If those parties do a deal which both believe they can sell to their respective electorates, then they will be quite happy to take every ministerial seat going. Worse, it is possible that their ministers might actually do a good job, leaving the UUP further marginalised.

Some UUP members also worry that a failure to take office would mean extra seats for Sinn Fein, a consequence which could be politically and psychologically damaging for the Ulster Unionists.

Yet having a four-party Executive Committee, with 99 of the 108 MLAs members of those four parties, doesn’t exactly encourage a climate of close scrutiny or potential revolt. We really do need to make the Assembly more like a “normal” legislature, with a viable and available opposition in waiting. There is nothing like the risk of defeat at the hands of an opposition – followed by the wider electorate—to keep a government on its toes.

Indeed, in Frank Millar’s new biography of David Trimble, Mr. Trimble speaks of his original idea for the UUP and SDLP to operate as a sort of “voluntary coalition” within the “enforced coalition” that is the Executive. It wouldn’t take much imagination to create a “voluntary opposition” to act as a counterbalance to the “enforced coalition” of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness.

The strongest and most effective form of accountability is a substantive and substantial body of MLAs who are “free” to question and challenge proposed legislation. The previous Executive produced a Programme for Government, which amounted to little more than an anodyne set of options, proposals, targets and gameplans. It was never subjected to detailed scrutiny and large elements of it were simply cobbled together to keep the Executive parties happy.

The problem with the existing Agreement is that it doesn’t really make provision for a formal opposition, and I have seen no evidence which indicates that either Sinn Fein or the DUP have included such provision within their current negotiations. Indeed, I suspect that the DUP views the issue of accountability as nothing more than a means of stopping individual Sinn Fein ministers from pursuing their own particular agenda. I’m not even sure that the DUP would support a machinery for opposition which would cut across any plans they have for pursuing an entirely self-interested policy agenda.

Be that as it may, it strikes me as essential that the next Assembly has a formal, funded and effective voice of opposition. Much of what passed for government between 1999 and October 2002 was, in many ways, as unaccountable as the Direct Rule it was supposed to replace. Stability means more than an absence of terrorism. It means a form of government which is fully democratic and entirely accountable. The UUP and the SDLP should not be afraid to rise to that challenge.

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday 4th December 2004