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);
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.