“The debate is gaining momentum due to the shut-out tactics of the two main parties which betray the ethics of an Agreement which was meant to unify.”

Last week, the News Letter had a feature article by former UUP Vice-Chairman Terry Wright, calling for the UUP to enter “virtual opposition”, a more structured stance of performance review for the executive and Assembly, if not full withdrawal from the executive. This may be seen as another attempt to try to square a particularly difficult circle for the party (and indeed the SDLP), as the intention behind the Agreement may be giving way to the practical logic of politics:

“A guaranteed place in government coupled with the ability of the bigger party ministers to take advantage of and trade on their main partner’s desire to sustain power and lack of effective scrutiny is flawed. It is rule without any quality control or moral compass. ….The democracy envisioned and implied within the process begun as a result of post-conflict agreements has become degenerative”.

The executive does operate via majority rule in many respects; it is just that it requires a cross-community majority. The difficulty for the smaller parties in the executive is that they have no levers with which to influence debate, without addressing the fact that the problem is largely structural, rather than merely the result of the attitudes of others to power-sharing. The large parties know that their junior partners are boxed in by their commitment to the principles of 1998 and have no recourse other than increasing public criticism, itself dismissed meekly as “sour grapes” .

Mike Nesbitt and John McCallister battled out the UUP leadership campaign on the basis of the merits of immediate withdrawal, but even Nesbitt’s more cautious view was firm on the need for an engine of change. Some voices in the SDLP have signalled their recognition of the relationship between institutional change and party fortunes.

The difficulty is that the two senior coalition partners have no appetite for change in a system largely working to their advantage; whether it is the ‘shock therapy’ of withdrawal or the construction of public momentum for legislative change, the junior partners must show that the agency is in their grasp….. Whether virtual opposition is the beginnings, remains to be seen….

Centre-Right Conservative and Unionist.