Parliamentary dogfights: A new tactic for the small parties?

Over the course of the last few weeks, the SDLP have used parliamentary mechanisms in order to attempt to embarrass their political opponents in Sinn Fein.  Their motion to exclude Nelson McCausland, although doomed to failure, forced Sinn Fein into open confrontation with their close colleagues in the executive, the DUP. The gap between principle and pragmatism has the potential to be exploited with such tactics, as the Assembly’s vote on welfare reform demonstrated.

Sinn Fein were attempting to maintain a pretense of fighting “tory cuts” whilst acquiescing to economic realities on the other, or as Robin Wilson puts it, I believe paraphrasing the late Lord Fitt, “Brits out- but leave your chequebook”. The SDLP asked them to put their money where their mouth was: to sign a petition of concern and to invoke the nationalist veto. They refused, demonstrating that, on this occasion, pragmatism and their relationship with their executive partners made empty rhetoric the best option.

These tactics hold risks as well as opportunities. Choose the wrong issue(s), and you’re obstructing Assembly business in order to score political points. Choose the right issues, however and you have the opportunity to expose holes in your opponent’s armour and to place them in uncomfortable positions, as has been ably performed at times by the Assembly’s apparent ‘one-man opposition’, in Jim Allister.

In essence, this is a limited replacement for the more substantial function of opposition speaking rights and a re-think of the Assembly’s parliamentary procedures; however, utilised both sparingly and effectively, it has the opportunity to be a midwife for that emergence. It offers high-visibility relevance not possible in the closed-shop of the executive.

Problems remain. Brian Feeney asked in Wednesday’s Irish News why there are no left-wing unionists (aside from ‘mavericks’ such as Dawn Purvis, Fred Cobain, Michael Copeland), or at least no left-wing unionist party since the pre-1970s demise of the NILP. He doesn’t identify, however, why there are no right-of-centre nationalist parties, an equally pressing question; the answer seems to be that past divisions matter more than a left-right axis, and simply that radicalism and conservatism on the constitution has been allowed to define our political compass.

The parliamentary priorities of the respective parties might hold the key to them re-shaping their identities and moving to a new space. Could there be an Assembly motion on the establishment of an opposition with power-sharing principles? Clear motions on the economic policy of the parties, moving beyond broad language and into greater detail?

This has the potential to stretch our legislators and to provoke more ‘bread and butter’ political divisions. It may also offer the smaller parties a chance to re-insert themselves into the debate, notable by their absence on Tuesday’s Spotlight Special.

Green shoots of more stimulating political battles?

  • Mc Slaggart

    “why there are no right-of-centre nationalist parties”

    Their is hardly any in Scotland. I don’t think the culture of “nationalists” in this part of the Island is right of center.

  • Again I declare my SDLP membership.
    And certainly the Nelson McCausland and Welfare issues were “victories” although I actually think SF learned a bit from their mishandling of the McCausland issue. They did get their cake and eat it on Welfare.
    I didnt watch the Spotlight programme so cannot directly comment. But I did note that a radio phone in yesterday tended to ignore the substance of the Welfare Debate and concentrated on the fact that the debate went on for so long.
    A MLA (I think it was Michael Copeland)was singled out for speaking for 55 minutes or whatever.
    Thats really the wrong narrative.

  • On the subject of “right wing” nationalists.
    Nationalists are not just “nationalists”….they are usually republican which is of course a left wing philosophy.
    Unionists are usually “monarchists” which is of course usually right wing.

    Now of course it could be argued that Catholicism is historically “right wing” or that Protestantism is historically “left wing”.
    And it seems a forlorn hope to find significant numbers of “conservative” Catholics or “Labour” Protestants.

  • Scáth Shéamais

    He doesn’t identify, however, why there are no right-of-centre nationalist parties

    Fianna Fáil?

  • Scáth Shéamais

    Fitz, the matter of historical catholic conservatism and protestant radicalism was addressed by James Connolly 100 years ago.

  • son of sam

    It does seem that DU P and Sinn Fein dominate panels on the B B C presently.Spotlight and the Nolan show this week illustrate this.One wonders whether B B C producers have ditched any concept of equal representation from the S D L P and the Ulster Unionist parties.It was interesting to note that a representative from the People before Profit party(Goretti Horgan) was on the Spotlight programme on Tuesday night.As far as I am aware ,this party holds no seats either in the Assembly or at council level.But perhaps the invitation to the panel came because of her academic research .

  • son of sam
    It is also noticable that there seems to be a disproportionate representation on these programmes for Alliance as if they are a kind of “balance” which, of course, they are not

  • Actually BangorDub, thats a very good point.
    And youre the second person I have heard say this in less than 24 hours.

  • Charlie Sheens PR guru

    I’ll make it three.

    That’s not the parties’ fault though, the local media has adopted the CNN approach to have balance with little accountability. SF says its raining, DUP says its sunny and alliance says there’s a combination of both. The intrepid reporter might stick his head outside and find out that its actually snowing.

    Seems like SF are being put in awkward positions by the SDLP that they’re not used to. SDLP seemed until recently to have to use alliance language and that any nationalist rhetoric, no matter have reasonable was impolite to the ulster unionists. Glad to see them actually behaving like a political party with their own supporters and values.

  • keano10

    I think it would be stretching credulity to a whole new level to try and insinuate that Sinn Fein have lost even a moment’s sleep over the ridiculous sham-fight induced by the SDLP in relation to Minister McCausland.

    From the outset, it looked like a stunt and that is exactly what it was. It it only serves to expose the complete lack of policy direction within the SDLP which has been exacerbated by the arrival of McDonnell as party leader.

    With the latest Opinion Poll showing the SDLP on a staggeringly low standing of only 9%, surely these pointless stunts are nothing more than the shambolic stutterings of a party who have yet again elected the wrong leader?

  • Better Together

    Scáth Shéamais

    FF do not currently stand candidates in Northern Ireland and do not feature in the political debate here, so they can’t be counted.


    You may have point RE leader, but you can’t make policy count if you don’t have the mechanisms to give your views some prominence in the public sphere. Parliamentary speaking rights often serve that function and I do think that the creative use of the existing powers open to the smaller parties may open up interesting things. It would be a start.

  • keano10…theres not a lot of faith in that poll. I am either remarkably relaxed about it. Or outrageously complacent.
    Charlie hits the nail on the head..that accuracy is actually trumped by “balance”.
    I am of course (at least now) no great fan of “Opposition” but its a simple fact of political life here that if the SDLP had seven seats rather than fourteen seats and went into Opposition they would actually get more air time than they do now.
    Likewise the UUP.
    Is it all perhaps a cunning plan to get the UUP and SDLP into Opposition?

  • Better Together


    A MLA (I think it was Michael Copeland)was singled out for speaking for 55 minutes or whatever.
    Thats really the wrong narrative.

    I actually think that is a very perceptive comment. The media aren’t used to impassioned speeches in the chamber, unless it’s on something decidedly tribally divisive. If there is meat in legislative proposals and it takes all night, then so be it- there has be an increase in levels of expectation.

  • Charlie,
    Agreed, perhaps the SDLP are developing some welcome “Backbone”. Badly needed, in my opinion, and they seem to be doing it without sacking or demoting anyone 😉

  • Well the Media cant have it both ways…..MLAs are (1)lazy with long holidays………or(2) they make speeches lasting 55 minutes on an issue of some import.
    But surely it is just a case of the Media following the narrative spelt out for them by the Government (effectively DUP & Sinn Féin).
    The Media…….and I would argue….particuarly the BBC are as much part of THIS regime at Stormont as they were in the 1960s…..or indeed when they were under the spell of the NIO in the 1970s and 1980s or the Peace Process narrative in the 1990s.
    What we get is a diet of good news stories from MTV Awards and Titanic…….but no real critique…..except ironically Tinternet.
    And frankly whatever regime was at Stormont…including one of which Id approve…..the Media would fall into line.
    Presumably this is why localTV stations have Twitter and Facebook. Its not to TELL us the News. Its to FIND out the News

  • Drumlins Rock

    It is an Issue Michael Copeland is extremely passionate about, and I think his speech was highly praised by the SDLP, he is certainly on the left wing of Unionist opinion, yet I have have to say I was struck by how left of centre much of the UUP policy was at the recent conference, at least in Northern their is a left right divide even if it is tied in with the big issue, in the Republic everyone tries to be more left leaning thaan the others on paper but just end up all over the place. Maybe the Left & right lables need ditched too? far to much baggage with them as well.

  • BangorDub,
    Readers of Slugger will be aware of my long held belief that SDLP (and there are honourable precedents in the late 1980s early 1990s) spent far too much energy listening to the perspectives of other people.
    Indeed its almost a default position in SDLP.
    Its not so much a question of finding a “backbone” ……its a question of finding their own voice or more precisely listening to their own members, voters and wannabe voters and giving a voice.

  • FJH,
    If the Bel Tel were cut off from Twitter and “Bake”book, They’d lose half their content. The other half is, of course, opinion pieces and celebrity fluff.
    It is scary, how soft a ride is given by the msm to certain prominent politicians here

  • A reasonable point Drumlins Rock and I raise my hat to Mr Copeland. Sammy Douglas gets a lot of coverage for being an authentic voice in East Belfast but ultimately he failed as of course did Chris Lyttle and Judith Cochrane.
    It will certainly do Mr Copeland no harm next time round.

  • BangorDub,
    I think this was addressed by a Bel Tel journalist at a Slugger seminar at NICVA almost two years ago.

    There are more journalists employed by Stormont than are employed in the Media.It cant be much fun trying to be a real journalist in Belfast these days. Veteran journos must be extremely sisenchanted.

  • “The SDLP asked them to put their money where their mouth was”

    This cuts two ways. The Planning Minister has just been invited to put his money where his mouth is. It shouldn’t take too long to get an answer – though I doubt if the Belfast-centric media will pay much attention.

  • Charlie Sheens PR guru

    I think corporation tax is a good example.

    Politicians produced the lowering of corporation tax as an idea and the media have since run with the narrative that it will be a silver bullet. Very few seem to focus on the fact that the only certainty is the removal of £200 million or whatever it is from the block grant.

    Lesser still on the fact that building corporation tax up into some sort of holy grail, has distracted them from asking why real pragmatic decisions have not been taken to stop our best and brightest from leaving but how they will grow local IT and tech firms.

    At the risk of repeating myself from a thread last month, isn’t it time to lobby external media to do an expose on this place?

  • Charlie, I posted earlier on a similar subject

  • OneNI

    The ‘sham fight’ over welfare reform didnt ‘work’ for any party it just exposed them all as a bunch of opprtunist losers that couldnt make a tough decision if their lives depended on it.

    Depressingly there was no Real debate about the detail of the issues involved.

    One of the alleged problems with IDS’ reforms is that childcare provision is no where as comprehensive as in GB
    Does anyone know who has been responsible for childcare for the last decade? Yep the Assembly yet no reporter turns run and asks why did you fail? Most of the period there was increasing public expenditure but the local parties failed to deliver.

    The other issue is the nature of our social housing. We have far too many single unemployed people living in 2 and 3 bedroom houses. Reason? The Exec/Assembly and local housing Assocs thought they were being clever by drawing down the maximium amount of capital from the Treasury – sure it was a scandalous waste of money to build the wrong type of houses but it was GB money so it didnt matter. Now this outrageous behavoiur has come back and bitten them.
    Again not one journo asks any NI Minister the simple question ‘Why did you waste money building the wrong type of housing’

    Sadly the reason the questions about the failure and errors of childcare and social housing are not asked because the media is afraid of DUP/SF

  • Charlie raises a good point.
    Some fifty years ago I recall a TV crew from either Panorama (BBC) or “This Week” (ITV) in West Belfast. The reporter was John Morgan a Welsh guy.
    In those days of course local BBC or the fledgling UTV would never do anything to upset Stormont.
    If we are now in the same syndrome, then perhaps Newsnight (BBC) or Prime Time (RTE) should be sending in some film crews.

  • GavBelfast

    “Nationalists are not just “nationalists”….they are usually republican which is of course a left wing philosophy.”

    Only in the sense that they don’t like BRITISH royalty, and don’t favour Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.

    They are not republican – they are, in general, plainly just nationalists.

  • “are not asked because the media is afraid of DUP/SF”

    Well, a word to an editor or an owner that advertising revenue might be better allocated to a different newspaper is likely to have the desired effect.

  • IJP


    You make an entirely fair point.

    NI is not unique in having mandatory coalition. It is unique, however, in not having a “Fourth Estate” to challenge it effectively.