Let us move past the age of ‘Stormont Shambles’ and work for an Official Opposition…

From Andrew Wooster, Deputy Chair of QUB Conservative Future…

I recall reading the Stormont House Agreement on the 23 December 2014, and albeit a scepticism on Stormont’s ability to deliver, there was a feeling of genuine hope after the inclusion of a proposal for an Official Opposition.

Since I have become politically minded, I have supported the introduction of such a structure to enable Stormont to work as a truly democratic system. The proposal was found in Article 29 of the ‘Agreement’ and read as such:

“Arrangements will be put in place by the Assembly by March 2015 to enable those parties which would be entitled to ministerial positions in the Executive, but choose not to take them up, to be recognised as an official opposition and to facilitate their work. These measures will include:

a) Provision for financial and research assistance (from within existing Assembly budgets keeping these changes cost neutral);

and

b) Designated speaking rights including the opportunity to ask questions and table business sufficient to permit the parties to discharge their opposition duties.”

This proposal was not ideal, with a lack of clarity on the extent of the financial assistance and speaking rights for opposition parties. Without a substantial enough proposal, it is unlikely any minor Executive party would make the brave step from the ‘safety’ of the Government ranks to the uncertainty of Opposition.

Whilst they may be rewarded in the long term, with both the SDLP and UUP given the chance to set themselves apart from their larger counterparts, they fear irrelevance. Therefore, they fall back on the rhetoric that they can ‘make a difference’ from within the executive.

If there is any truth to this statement, it is minimalistic as is often commonly observed via the ‘DUP- Sinn Fein private meetings’ which sideline the minor parties.

So, why the commotion over an Official Opposition? Are the media not able to account for this role, whilst ensuring the ‘stability’ of the peace process?  In theory, this is a suitable arrangement, but in reality, it is far too easily abused.

Whilst the media is unable to force a Minister to attend a broadcast as they are ‘unavailable at this time’, an Official Opposition is provided with a specific amount of time per month to scrutinise the Government.

It would also, unlike the media, be able to represent the public in its role as an elected body within the Assembly.

Whilst the Media must ‘sell’ the story to the general public, an Oppositions main role is to ensure the Governing parties are held to account. If successful within their role, the optimal beneficiary of this action would be the electorate.

It is not a coincidence that the vast majority of parliamentary democracies have an opposition enshrined into their principles, but arguably a foundation stone for democracy itself. In our current state of affairs, we are only able to punish a Governing party, but this is usually achieved through rewarding another.

This results in a democratic society where it is nearly impossible to change the Executive, as there is no ‘Government in waiting’. This is a bankrupt system, protected by those who gain the most from it, the Executive.

Stormont has many hurdles to overcome, from the abuse of the petition of concern, caused by continual political deadlock, to the the lack of progress on issues such as integrated education, which all claim to ‘support’.

It is my belief that these political and economic failures, which have driven Stormont to the verge of collapse, to some extent link back to the lack of an Official Opposition.

Not that an Opposition will resolve every problem faced by Northern Ireland and its politicians, but it will help unite what is potentially the most divided Government that it has ever experienced. Instead of a Government which opposes itself, an Official Opposition would force the Executive Parties to embrace one position, or face criticism from those who wish to replace them.

This is how the ‘Liberal Democrats’ and ‘Conservatives’ could unite behind one vision with so few major hiccups, because they had to. An Opposition, as previously touched upon, would also hold the role of scrutinising the Government, hence shedding light on inefficiencies and broken promises, forcing Stormont to increase its effectiveness.

A Government with a poor record of achievement is an ideal Government to oppose. If an Opposition proves effective in its role, providing strong scrutiny where the Executive holds a weak record, it could be rewarded in a future election.

In effect, an Official Opposition would help normalise politics at Stormont, forming a punishment for the ‘Stormont Crisis’ effect which we have all grown cynically accustomed to.

Hence, this is why I was filled with such hope at its inclusion within the Stormont House Agreement. It was not a necessity for the agreement, but it implied a real desire from the part of the Executive to make Stormont work.

Yet, approximately four months since the arrangements were to have been put in place, we are still no closer to an Official Opposition than we were before the agreement.

With the ‘Stormont House Agreement’ left in disarray through recent events, we as the electorate should not allow politicians to break this promise entirely. It is possible that the Executive will still bring forward these arrangements, if the correct attention is drawn to them.

There was at one point in time agreement upon this issue, which hasn’t been publicly denounced since, so if tapped into an Opposition could be achieved via these means. However, with the current ‘Welfare Crisis’ and an impending election, it is unlikely politicians will turn their attention to an Opposition in the coming months.

Therefore, there should also be a drive to support Mr McCallister’s ‘Opposition’ bill when it reaches the Assembly. It is currently being ‘drafted’ and proposes an ideal reform of the Stormont institutions, branching beyond Opposition to areas such as the Petition of Concern and designation.

Its major flaw may be that it is too ambitious, but this is no reason not to place our voice behind the bill and support its sentiment. At least, even if it fails, the Stormont institutions shall come to understand the full weight behind the demand for an Official Opposition.

If achieved, an Official Opposition would not only strengthen the democratic system within Northern Ireland, but provide politicians with a much needed boost in public confidence.

It would enable them to prove their desire for an effective Stormont, not only a position for their own prestige and pockets, as is the dismal considerations of them at present.

Whilst unable to solve all our woes, it would help stabilise the system and move Northern Ireland towards ‘bread and butter’ politics, as the Opposition places down the microscope on Jobs, Education, Health etc.

If all else fails, let this article be a message to the SDLP, UUP and Alliance, Opposition should not be feared but embraced. Not only is there the potential to gain electorally, your parties may also provide a key function which Northern Ireland currently lacks, scrutiny.

These parties understand that their rhetoric of producing more good within Governance than is possible via the Opposition to be farcical, so should they not recall upon why they entered politics? If they did so with the aspiration to change society for the better, I would call upon them to take up their position in the Opposition benches, and make their voices heard so loudly that it shakes the very foundations of Stormont itself.

Let us move past the age of ‘Stormont Shambles’ and work for the betterment of Northern Ireland, for if we fail in this task, we shall all have to live with the consequences.

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  • murdockp

    These politicians are immune from criticism. They just circle the waggons and laugh at the electorate, Murphy and NI water, McCausland and the Housing Executive, Robinson and Muslims, Wilson and Thuggery, SDLP and Casement Park.
    An opposition will do nothing, Stormont is sick to the core and a corrupt institution.
    I for one would be happy to see it collapsed.

  • chrisjones2

    I think the time has come to recognize that Stormont as constituted is just an expensive shambles and abolish it. If the result is joint rule then fine. Anything is better than this sectarian shambles and pork barrel

  • Sergiogiorgio

    I couldn’t be arsed reading through the whole blog so apologies if the point was already raised. Surely an “official” opposition would act as a mechanism for UUP, SDLP, Alliance, Greens etc to lift themselves out of irrelevance. The voting public are crying out for something/anything to replace the wkanerks (countdown conundrum time) leading the charge down the Primrose path from Stormont Hill. SF and the DUP demonstrate again and again they cannot and will not budge an inch from their sectarian corners. ANYTHING IS BETTER THAN WHAT CURRENTLY PASSES FOR GOVERNMENT. For Gods sake someone put their head above the parapet and do the right thing. Time to grow up!

  • Turgon

    The lack of an opposition along with the lack of proper collective governmental responsibility are the two of most fundamental flaws in the system of government in NI.

    The real time to have fixed this was not the Stormont House agreement, however, but the St Andrews Agreement in 2006. Had the DUP held out for those things in 2006 it is possible that the current set of governmental / policy disasters would never have happened (though “what if” typed discussions are always very flawed and it is more than possible that the whole thing would have been a shambles no matter what).

    I know some felt that the 2006 agreement was necessary to begin moving forwards and after that changes could be made. I always doubted this logic as politicians are usually pretty risk adverse and do not like taking the risk of losing power even if their own power is limited and the outcome of taking a risk with opposition might be additional power later.

    So I agree entirely an opposition (and collective responsibility) are vital parts to try to move us towards a more efficient system of government. The critical missed opportunity was not, however, last year but almost a decade earlier.

  • Andrew Wooster

    I mentioned the ability of the UUP and SDLP to differentiate themselves on a few occasions, but I suppose this is likely the point you would be most interested in:
    ‘Whilst they may be rewarded in the long term, with both the SDLP and UUP given the chance to set themselves apart from their larger counterparts, they fear irrelevance’
    For Stormont to work, something within the culture of Northern Irish Governance needs to change. The most effective way of ensuring this is via an Opposition scrutinising the Governments every action. However, with the smaller parties not currently having the willpower to make the tough decision, it is likely a necessity for some noise of support to be made from the direction of the electorate.

  • Andrew Wooster

    I’m entirely in agreement that St Andrews missed many opportunities, including that of an Opposition. The reason I wrote of Stormont House is due to the fact my interest in politics only began after St. Andrews. This, for myself, was the first real chance at an Opposition, and the disappointment at its lack of progress is great. I suppose with Stormont’s history of broken promises I better get used to it…

  • Andrew Wooster

    As annoyed as I often get at Stormont, I’m not sure I can agree that it collapsing is positive for Northern Ireland. Potentially in the short term, to enable the parties to create new style for the institutions (hopefully including an Opposition), but the long term impact of no Stormont could be larger than we’d like to imagine, in terms of tensions etc.
    Although, at times I’m not sure myself how much good Stormont does at decreasing tension…

  • Turgon

    Fair enough.

    The lack of opposition and the lack of collective responsibility have in my view always been the critical flaws in the system.

    I know some in the DUP thought that to fix some of the problems of the original Belfast Agreement was a valid initial step.

    That position could be regarded cynically as an excuse when all they wanted was power but some may have genuinely held to the idea. Where they were mistaken, however, was in that once the system was back up and running it was always going to be difficult to engineer radical reform. The UUP and SDLP were not likely to go voluntarily into opposition.

    Furthermore collective responsibility is also vital but neither unionist nor nationalist parties seem willing to have this. Although collective responsibility is vital I fear that if it were instituted there might be even greater paralysis.

    The only system which might work would be weighted majorities so that one could not have one community rule. However, that would very likely be unacceptable to nationalists and almost certainly unacceptable to Sinn Fein.

    This is a circle which seems fairly unsquarable. That actually plays into SF’s narrative of a failed state but is really just a self fulfilling prophesy by them. It seems now that increasing numbers of the electorate are getting turned off by the process (possibly proportionally more of the nationalist / republican electorate) but whether that will produce any change I am doubtful.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    Thanks Andrew – can’t find much to disagree with there. Someone/anyone needs to be brave and put country before party. The electorate will welcome them with open arms.

  • NotNowJohnny

    I’m no fan of Jim Allister nor his party but I do think is is the most capable of leading an opposition in Stormont. I would encourage him to run on a ticket of Unofficial Opposition in the next Assembly election and encourage other parties such as the Greens, the PUP and NI21 to do the same. He doesn’t have to abandon the TUV, simply run as a TUV candidate under a banner of Unofficial Opposition. Each party running under the UO ticket would make a public commitment not to take their seats in the Executive if eligible. Once elected all those elected can then just behave as the opposition. Elect a leader and a deputy leader and opposition spokespersons (rather like shadow ministers) for each of the nine departments. Just do it. Those elected would still operate as party members but would also act as a unified opposition. In committees they could behave as the opposition and cooperate more closely with other opposition parties in undertaking this role. Obviously there would be party differences but they could surely act as one in their opposition role and certainly could operate much more effectively as a unit that the current cross party executive. If the Lib Demsand the Tories can mange five years in government together, the smaller parties here can surely act together as an opposition for five years. There is no need to await the SOS bringing forward legislation for a formal opposition, farcical or otherwise, with a mandate this group of MLAs could just go ahead and start behaving as the Unofficial Opposition and play the system as best they can. I’d certainly vote for the Unofficial Opposition candidate in my constituency of whatever party. Sinn Fein didn’t await legislation to form the first Dail. Just go and do it Jim.

  • Turgon

    That is an interesting and valuable idea. I am not attacking it per se but one of the basic problems is that an opposition is there to oppose but also to propose a valid alternative programme of government. Unfortunately the different parties have very different views and as such presenting a valid alternative is not really possible.

    Not that your idea lacks merit just that it cannot be as successful as having proper large united opposition parties.

  • aquifer

    All Alliance the UUP and the SDLP have to do to look like a real alternative government is to put on some suits and sit at a big long shiny table together.

    Will they do it? Probably not.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    This results in a democratic society where it is nearly impossible to change the Executive, as there is no ‘Government in waiting’. This is a bankrupt system, protected by those who gain the most from it, the Executive.

    The bankrupt system, as you call it, is a symptom, not the cause.

    So what’s the cause ? Local parties are incapable of governing in a consensual and inclusive manner which respects whoever the minority is. As such, the minority has no reason to trust them.

    The fear at the moment is mainly on the nationalist side – Unionists have as yet shown no sign that they are capable of governing in a way that respects the minority – but in future this role could be reversed.

    Unionists who want a return to a Westminster-style system for appointing the government should ask themselves what would happen if a government was appointed consisting of SF, Alliance, SDLP + Independents. Would they uphold its right to govern ? I can’t see this.

    We need to walk before we can run, and in this case, that means we need to find better ways to do politics. Otherwise efforts to reform government amount to little more than a casual rearranging of deckchairs.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    we’ve a lot of sucky politicians, but we can’t just say “let it collapse”. we’re supposed to vote for better ones. They are out there.

  • Barneyt

    Part of me would like to see the likes of Jim Allister, with his legal forensic hat on, tearing into those holding ministerial positions, and holding them to account…..but everything to do with the Assembly and in fact Northern Ireland is fabricated merely to contain.

    Its not like GB at all. We have a very different set of historical and current problems, and yes GB has played it part in creating this mess, however this is where we are.

    As others have alluded to, Unionism has not evolved democratically to govern Northern Ireland for all. Ok, the Tories in Britain don’t govern for all, however over here there are different areas to contend with, such as civil liberties, sectarianism, marches, the right to be Irish and the relevance of Irish culture in this part of the UK. Unionism in general can’t be trusted to protect all cultures and identities and create an inclusive Northern Ireland.

    Lets assume the an SDLPSF coalition could secure sufficient numbers to form a government. Could they cater for the British identity in this part of Ireland. I say this part of Ireland, as that would be the alternative view in such a coalition. Of course there would be a shift of emphasis towards “Ireland” rather than the UK. Therein lies the problem for Unionists.

    My own view is that a Unionist coalition would fail to cater for all, and a nationalist one, with the SDLP, would perhaps stand a better chance of achieving a compromised approach, but we cant be certain. Given the state of the UUP and their lurch towards the DUP, unionism would lack moderation now I feel to take full government responsibility.

    For this reason, and due to the historic manner in which unionism has governed and most likely would repeat given the chance, we cannot trust a normal governmentopposition structure. It would be a British Northern Ireland for the British people of Northern Ireland and that’s your lot.

  • Croiteir

    The Assembly is the result of the dysfunctional constitutional arrangement which has created a dysfunctional administration. Lets us get right to the root of the problem and get rid of the border. The north has failed and will continue to fail. All else is futile.

  • Chingford Man

    Or we could just laugh at you for shoe-horning the border into this.

  • Croiteir

    Or we could ignore the elephant in the room and pretend the union is the way to go and restrict all comment within that framing

  • Barneyt

    “SF, Alliance, SDLP + Independents. Would they uphold its right to govern ?”

    There is the problem. I agree with you that unionism has a path to tread yet before it can potentially lose power and form an opposition. However, the reality is that in such an alliance, I could see and more successful NI21 andor PUP coming on board. At some point in Northern Ireland’s future, there has to be a political alignment rather than once based on tribe. That’ll be a while yet however

  • asdfnjasdfnjk

    Why should any minority which has continually tried to subvert and use guerilla warfare against the government since prior to its first sitting expect respect at all? The same minority will never be happy for as long as Northern Ireland exists, so stop being dishonest in pretending otherwise.

  • onionist

    Those clamouring for an opposition can get one easily – re-unify Ireland and you’ll have one. Alternatively those who want one can go become one. But that’s not what this is about, this is about Unionism wanting a return to the bad old days of sectarian Stormont.

    Unionism cannot be trusted in government not to behave in a blatantly sectarian and apartheid manner. That’s why the British government prorogued Stormont, and that’s why there’s mandatory power sharing because everyone knows what would happen if Unionism were let run the place.

  • Andrew Wooster

    As a member of a party who would take up a position in Opposition if elected, we can’t do much more than campaign for it currently.
    From the perspective of ‘back to the bad old days’ I disagree. I called for UUP and SDLP to take a position in Opposition, not for shared Governance to be removed. As I said, the DUP and Sinn Fein are the current Government (excluding other parties in major decisions) in all but name, with SDLP and UUP trying to play half in/ half out. They should leave and scrutinise the Government as their full time role in Stormont.

  • raymonds back

    I am tired of this Jim Allister line of why can’t we have an opposition like a ‘normal’ democracy. The whole point of The Good Friday Agreement and the forced power-sharing is that Northern Ireland was never a ‘normal’ democracy – unionists proved through fifty years of mis-rule that they were incapable of running a ‘normal’ democracy. Hence the compulsory power-sharing. I say let the current arrangements run for fifty years and see how they get on. Then it might be time to talk about bringing in normal democracy and an official opposition to this Jurassic Park. Also has anyone any actual information on when the free seat for the Alliance Party as Justice Minister comes to an end? I am equally sick of a party having twice the number of executive seats the electorate decided to give it.

  • Roger

    “joint” rule…that sounds about as realistic as a united Ireland by 2116…

  • Roger

    this is about Unionism wanting a return to the bad old days of sectarian Stormont.

    …come off it, how can a government function well without an opposition!

  • Roger

    what party are you in Andrew?

  • Roger

    that was a really helpful contribution…i can see that growing legs….

  • Roger

    Would direct rule not be better….why waste all this money on the talking shop?

  • Barneyt

    Direct rule would be better than a native governmentopposition scenario, as they may prove to be less soiled by a sectarian tendency. However, as close as direct rule is…its the last thing that London would want I suspect.

    The Torys, having “saved” the Union are now intent of pushing Scotland further away (ironically), so welcome arms will be extended reluctantly towards us, should the institutions here collapse.

  • Andrew Wooster

    Conservative Party. Joined in September last year (admittedly with many doubts), and been thoroughly impressed by both membership and passion.
    Northern Ireland needs change, a discussion on ‘bread and butter’ politics. Unfortunately, not many parties offer that who are currently elected. Would be nice to see that change!

  • onionist

    How many seats do the convervatives have in the Stormont assembly?

  • onionist

    If you want an opposition, re-unification is the entry fee. That’s if you’re actually serious.

  • Andrew Wooster

    Currently we don’t have any. As I said if Conservative MLA’s are elected they would take up a position in the Opposition.
    Hopefully after the next Stormont election we will have that opportunity.

  • peepoday

    Or alternatively return to rule from Westminster and end the devolution experiment.

  • Croiteir

    I also cannot see London retaking power. It is a set back for their Ulsterisation policy.