Without an Opposition it’s likely to be ‘just the same’, ‘status quo forever’ or ‘nowhere fast’

One of the hot topics at the weekend was: should the three mid-size parties go into Opposition? So let’s kick off which some usefully provocative thoughts from Roger McGinty, who argued that in terms of the current status quo of ’embedded sectarianism’…

…things could change if the mid-sized parties were brave enough. There are few signs that they possess this bravery. The leaderships of these parties range from the conservative to very conservative in terms of vision, charisma and ability to think critically.

But – and let’s suspend belief for a few moments – if the SDLP, UUP and Alliance were prepared to give up the possibility of a seat or two in the Assembly Executive then they would be able to stand outside and try to hold the Executive to account. Joined together they would be the second largest party in the Assembly – more than Sinn Fein.

At the moment, the three mid-sized trade in their ability to truly scrutinise the Assembly’s operations by accepting a few ministerships. They effectively prop up the dysfunctional Assembly because they want ministerial crumbs (basically, they have positions like Minister for Lettuce or Minister for Bouncy Castles). The DUP and Sinn Fein hold the main ministries and are the driving force behind the Assembly – and the direction of Northern Ireland politics.

The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland fought the Assembly with a series of slogans like ‘Forward faster’ and ‘Better sooner’. More accurate slogans would have been ‘Just the same’, ‘status quo forever’ or ‘nowhere fast’. They, along with the SDLP and UUP, truly lack the vision to take brave steps and recognise that their current strategies amount to a continuation of their own marginalisation.

They are the authors of their own stasis. If they had leadership (and I am operating in the realms of fantasy here) they would consider being brave and stop propping up the weird edifice of the Assembly. The Alliance Party, in particular, is culpable for the continuation of a dysfunctional polity.

It claims to want a different sort of politics for Northern Ireland, one that is post-nationalist and post-unionist and is aimed at uniting people. Essentially, by taking ministerial positions (that the other parties usually don’t want) they have been bought off.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    I stand happy to be corrected, but Alliance can’t join opposition.

    I had been hoping that they would but after some late night reading of John McCallister’s Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Act; it states the following:

    “Formation of the Opposition

    2—(1) Standing orders must make provision for the formation of an Opposition in accordance with this section.

    (2) The Opposition may be formed by one or more qualifying parties.

    (3) In this Act “qualifying party” means a political party which does not have a member who is a Minister, but which was entitled to nominate a person to Ministerial office under section 18(2) to (6) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, at the time when those nominations were made; or whose members comprise 8% or more of the total number of members of the Assembly, and which does not contain a member who is a Minister.”

    Also, an opposition has until June 30th to form itself so, as with most things in Northern Irish politics, things, either good or bad, will come to those who wait.

  • OneNI

    Alliance cant be The Opposition – only UUP or SDLP can claim that title but Alliance can still go into oppostion.
    If they do however the carefully crafted fudge on Justice could collapse and bring the whole edifice down.
    Suspect they are ‘locked in’ to Govt – and if left there be UUP and SDLP would pay a heavy price at the next Election.
    Similarly if UUP and SDLP do not go into opposition the reduction in seats will crucify them next time

  • Msiegnaro

    Completely agree, Alliance have to do their own thing this time or they will face real danger with the electorate next time around.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    “the crafted fudge on Justice could collapse and bring the whole edifice down” No chance ! The DUP/SF Cartel will ensure the Gravey Train Chunks on quite merrily. As a matter of fact who is not to say the Cartel are already up in the great hall sorting out the new seating arrangements for the opposition. UUP/SDLP/Alliance have not much Poker Chips to play with and the Cartel know it !

  • Slater

    The Alliance Party won’t be in the executive for starters and it would be impossible to work with them in opposition because they are competing for the same voters while unbelievably sanctimonious and now objectively anti-unionist.

  • Brian Walker

    Mick, It’s easy to say but I think commentators should also look for signs of genuine cooperation between the main parties and encourage them. Let’s hope we get some material to work with over the next couple of weeks and that there is some transparency in the process of agreeing a programme for government. It would be wrong to dismiss Fresh Start. They can at least be held to account by it.

    I still can’t get beyond the thought that UUs and the SDLP can have the best of both worlds of they join the Executive. With collective responsibility so weak they can still shine in their department and have access to civil service briefing ( a considerable asset); and protest if they’re blocked.

    In opposition you deliver nothing except scrutiny. The committees designed to provide the sort of scrutiny needed have mainly failed. Why should an opposition do any better? Of course it would be a different matter if the UUs and the SDLP were to start to cooperate and eventually produce a joint approach and programme. Is there any reason to believe that going into opposition would encourage such a major development? I see no alternative to Alliance being awarded the Justice department where they are in a excellent position to promote legal reform if only they would grasp it .

  • chrisjones2

    and what can you really deliver in a Ministry other than blocking gay blood donations or development projects where there’s a local commercial lobby against them?

  • chrisjones2

    As I understand McAllister’s bill there’s no provision for a technical group. If 2 parties go into opposition there’s a largest opposition an a second opposition but no cash

    Its carefully crafted to make sure no-one takes the option

  • chrisjones2

    …but they are 1 short of number needed to be an opposition as defined in the Act

  • Msiegnaro

    Yes there is clear dismay within their ranks that they did not perform better. I know Naomi Long posted on FB surprise that the numbers involved in gay right parades etc didn’t materialise into more votes for her party. I think perhaps Alliance to some degree in peacetime politics have ran their course with the Greens a much more likely successor to their mantle.

  • Barneyt

    Lets say the Alliance do go into opposition (and somehow can satisfy the terms of the bill) with the SDLP and UUP and perhaps others.SF and DUP would go into government. There is no way SF and the DUP can provide ministers for each and every department i.e. The Department of Justice. Surely the Alliance are the only party that both SF and the DUP can stomach in that role?

  • Granni Trixie

    I don’t know how often I have to make this point: people make choices to support a party and are a resource for it to draw on because they believe in it and not other parties. I imagine stalwards in other parties feel the same. You can bang on disrespectfully all you like but I think if one gives ones time voluntarily one is entitled to state clearly where they stand on the issue being discussed.
    You all seem to be assuming that someone who supports a cross community party would still support APNI if it merged with the UUP and SDLP. Would Alliance gain more support than it loses? And whilst it is desirable for parties to cooperate for common good (as often happens) the very thought of the mountain to climb for 3 distinctly different parties to get on together as one party gives me a headache.

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    You’ve basically just described the executive…

  • Gingray

    I am sure it never gets boring having people tell you Alliance are anti Nationalist or anti Unionist depending on their own views 🙂

  • Gingray

    Cheers! That brings a good deal of clarity. SDLP would be foolish not to go into opposition, UUP too.

  • kensei

    Opposition: generally a good thing.

    “Joined together”: Nonsense. Can someone explain to be how the UUP and SDLP (and the Alliance, if needed) could agree on a common platform?

  • Granni Trixie

    Certainly SF and DUP are operating like powerful gatekeepers not like people striving to make PS to work – which is what many expected after GFA.

    But there is a difference in those two working together (even in self interest rather than the country’s interest), retaining their individual party identity, and asking other smaller parties to amalgamate “bravely” ( or stupidly ).

  • mjh

    I’m no lawyer – but I think that is only partially right.

    If both the UUP and the SDLP join the DUP and SF in the Executive Alliance does not have sufficient seats to be a “qualifying party”. Therefore it could not form the official Opposition.

    However if either the UUP or SDLP declined to join the Executive then, as I read section 18(3) of the Northern Ireland Act 1988, 8 MLA’s would become sufficient to make Alliance a “qualifying party” – eligible for an Executive Department in its own right even if it did not take Justice. It would then be possible for it to be a full member of an Opposition formed jointly by it and one or both of the UUP and SDLP.

    Technically it could then form the Opposition on its own if neither the UUP or the SDLP wanted that role – but that would not happen.

    Section 18 of the Act can be found here http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1998/47/section/18

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Chris, you’ve twigged my interest; what commercial groups?

  • scepticacademic

    What, as opposed to DUP and SF in the executive you mean (PfG)? A common platform would not have to include joint positions on every issue, just some key points of mutual interest/overlap on which they could oppose the SD-DUP stitch-up. I’m sure it can’t be beyond the collective wit of Nesbitt, Eastwood and Long (deliberate Freudian slip) to negotiate something – their parties have more in common that SF-DUP, after all.

  • jporter

    The electorate have just chosen continuing joint rule by the DUP and SF, either by voting for those parties, or not voting. They are the parties of power, so let them rule and we should all take responsibility for the consequences.
    There is no significant danger to SF/DUP from any of the remaining parties, that has just been made clear. So without radical change, it is hard to see any future or relevance for at least the larger remaining parties without going into opposition in some form.
    The real split in the assembly should not be left vs right, nor unionist vs nationalist, but normal, grown-up politics vs the same old sectarian squabbling.

  • Brendan Heading

    I’m a bit lost as to how Roger arrives at the conclusion that he does.

    I disagree that Alliance’s manifesto represented the status quo. It is obvious to anyone reading it, or anyone who has taken the time to understand Alliance policy, that the party proposes radical change. It may not be radical enough for some – granted – but please tell me whose programme was more radical, or what radical positions were absent from it.

    (“let’s go into opposition” is a tactic, not a policy).

    Of course interpreting Alliance policy is a matter of opinion. Interpreting the election result, on the other hand, is not. Why, exactly, Roger believes that an electorate which re-elected parties opposed to reform and who support the status quo voted against Alliance because it wasn’t radical enough is something I’m having trouble getting my head around.

    I also don’t understand his criticism that being members of the executive was a factor given that the Executive were re-elected and the party which walked out of it just under a year ago remained static in the same way that Alliance did.

    Perhaps he could drop in and explain. Or Mick, maybe you have theories ?

  • Brendan Heading

    I know Naomi Long posted on FB surprise that the numbers involved in gay right parades etc didn’t materialise into more votes for her party.

    I find this very difficult to believe, I’ve never heard Naomi expressing anything like an entitlement to votes from the gay community. Have you got evidence ?

  • Brendan Heading

    There is no way SF and the DUP can provide ministers for each and every department i.e. The Department of Justice.

    why not ? This precise scenario is fully provided for in law.

  • eamoncorbett

    The Mallon /Trimble marriage wasn’t exactly harmonious.

  • eamoncorbett

    Eamonn McCann , minister for justice , I can see it now.

  • eamoncorbett

    On your first paragraph about being held to account , the electorate held the big two to account for the last five years by re-electing them. Need anyone say anymore.

  • Msiegnaro

    I don’t think she expressed an entitlement to votes (incidentally I’m a fan of Naomis), it was in response to a gay right’s activist who expressed dismay that many who took part in the parade in Belfast didn’t vote. I do not have a link t the post alas.

  • Granni Trixie


  • Kevin Breslin

    I think it’s very wrong to assume someone’s ability to think critically and speak charismatically depends on whether they are in the Stormont Opposition or Not.
    Perhaps it would be better to think critically about the issues if you researched them, if you had personal experience of events, if you had engaged with people who mattered, rather than focused on what side of the house you were sitting in.
    There is a huge capacity for MLA’s to put forward well informed Private Member’s Bills, there is a huge capacity for MLA’s to try and tailor their discussions to achieve a broad consensus of legislators to back a particular bill when they didn’t before. There is a huge capacity for MLAs to come together and force an emergency debate if necessary.
    You don’t need to walk through the opposition door to do these things.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Erm The Good Friday Agreement … The Trimble-Mallon tenure of office?
    If there’s a will in these parties to find a common platform it will happen.
    Frankly, I don’t see why not given Sinn Féin and the DUP working together, even when they want “tribal unity” pacts in Westminster to unseat one another.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Neither was Robinson/McGuinness.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Well effectively the UUP made three regains, one gain (Palmer) and one loss (McCune from McGimpsey), a net nothing from where they were before, and a damper on the fact that Opposition was a radical policy/tactic in and of itself.

    They effectively won three seats from the opposition if anything, though that opposition forfeited two and the other had a lacklustre campaign.
    You could probably argue that even this is down to personality politics, more than political tactics. The candidates who got in and were kicked out didn’t cement any deep connection with the electorate in the way McClarty and Sugden did.
    Maybe Alliance and the other can be more radical, but ultimately that is going to come through the people within that party pushing for change, and pushing radical ideas and bringing that radicalism so that it is engaging to the voter.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I don’t think the UUP and the SDLP thought they could have the best of both worlds. Both the DUP and SF were guilty of dissenting from collective responsibility.

    I don’t believe parliamentary democracy is ever about pure black and white polarities.

    I also disagree that the opposition only delivers scrutiny, oppositions should deliver alternatives, but they are not compelled to do so. Private Members Bills are one matter. Producing Alternative budgets may be another. Even direct civic intervention may be another.

    Oppositions can pass legislation with defecting voices in Government. The SPAD bill is one example of this.

    As for Alliance pushing through legal reform. At the end of the day Alliance have too few allies on many matters to push through all the legislation they may want to change. They need to build a majority consensus.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I don’t believe politics is normally grown up, at least not all the time.
    Indeed sometime the immaturity that can be found in Leinster House and the House of Commons makes our lot seem moderate and dignified.

  • kensei

    These are all examples of forced coalition. This is opposition. the UUP and SDLP are on completely parts of the ideological spectrum. They will want to oppose for completely different reasons. the Lib Dems and labour or FF and SF don’t band together.

    “Moderate” isn’t actually a thing.

  • Kevin Breslin

    And was Sunningdale forced? It was that historic compromise between those three parties to bring a positive way forward.

    The Lib Dems and Labour don’t merge. Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin don’t merge. However the idea that they don’t have common grounds and don’t work together to challenge the Conservatives and Fine Gael respectively is ridiculous.

    I’m not saying that these parties don’t represent different things or have competing rivalries with one another. Diversity and Competition are not bad things in politics. That doesn’t mean there can’t be common ground.

    The SDLP and Alliance canvassed for the Alternative Vote, as did UKIP. The SDLP and Alliance will canvass for Remaining in the EU along with (half of)the most right wing British government since Thatcher’s. The UUP are a lot easier to find areas of commonality than either of those two, particularly given they share a locality for their political common sphere of influence.

    There are policy areas you can find in common with any group

  • kensei

    separate parties can find common ground on specific issues. But people seem to be suggesting a formal opposition containing both parties with a common platform. The makes much less sense, not least because one or t’other might need to work with a government party depending on results.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I don’t even know if a formal opposition is allowed as yet. You kind of hit my point, yes they may have to play the numbers game with one or both government parties in order to get something passed. That does happen with a formal opposition too of course.

    Even informally working together can be mutually beneficial.

    In the South the Social Democrats say they have enough Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, People before Profit, Anti-Austerity Alliance TD etc. To get an Irish water bill passed. They may find themselves on the opposite side of these parties wrath on other issues.

  • kensei

    Dunno. The Scottish Parliament has no official opposition but the out parties manage to oppose effectively enough.

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    I THINK, but I’m in wonderland here when it comes to the nuances of legislation… if the SDLP AND UUP decline to join the executive, they might become eligible for a pick under d’Hondt and therefore form an opposition, but it’s reasonable to assume that if the SDLP & UUP both decline to join the executive, it is with the intention of forming an opposition, I haven’t seen many predictions of SDLP/UUP declining both executive AND opposition.
    So yeah, if that happens perhaps Alliance can join an opposition. This would perhaps also rely on SDLP & UUP wishing APNI to join the opposition… 3 parties could make for a crowded house when it comes to holding the executive to account.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I’m sure the “in” Greens will on some issues with the SNP too.

  • mjh

    According to my calculations, although I could have something wrong, if EITHER the UUP or SDLP decline to join the Executive Alliance would be entitled to a pick under d’Hondt (provided it had not already been elected to Justice).

    I agree that there is no realistic chance that either the UUP or SDLP would decline both the Executive and Opposition.

    I think you are making an assumption about a three party opposition (that it would be a free for all between the parties). I see no strategic advantage for any of the three in such an arrangement. Frankly both the SDLP and the UUP would probably be better off taking their rather dismal chances as members of the Executive.

    The only good strategic reason for the SDLP or the UUP to go into Opposition is to attempt to change the rules of the game. The roles of mini-me to their respective big brothers have not worked for them. It is impossible that the next Executive could be any more shambolic than the last, and yet even that backdrop did not give them an environment to stem their long-standing and accelerating declines. An agreed, co-operative Opposition coalition is the only form of Opposition which might, just might, give them the context to recover.

    Instead of individually asking the electorate to chose between big brother and mini-me as their representatives in a dysfunctional Executive they could try asking the electorate to chose a better Executive.

    The alternative is the long-slide down to the next Assembly election where they each drop another two or three percent of vote share and a handful of seats, sheding seats in the Council and Westminster elections along the way.

  • Barneyt

    Mostly because they will not cooperate. SF wont let the DUPs have it and the DUP could not possibly let SFIRA as they call them, take repsonsibility for such a ministry. I do go along with the view that it would stink of administering British Justice and SFs republican and nationalist opponents may make capital out of it…perhaps for that reason the DUP might be happy to offer it to SF?