Why an Opposition (if we ever get one) should sit opposite the First Minister

So, in case you missed it. And whilst we’re waiting for this ‘new’ programme for government, here is the case I made on Radio Ulster’s Election Special with Karen Patterson and Seamus McKee for changing the seating arrangments in the case an ‘opposition’ is ever established.

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

  • Teddybear

    But who would act as Leader of the Opposition? The biggest party in Oppostion or should we have a First and Deputy Leader of the Opposition drawn from unionist and nationalist ranks?

  • Msiegnaro

    Then we could have a Situation at the next election whereby Mike Nesbitt is shouting from the rooftops that the electorate should vote for him or run the risk of getting an SDLP First Leader of the opposition.

  • Teddybear

    It sounds bizarre but it’s perfectly possible!

  • Declan Doyle

    So Fianna Fail should join the benches right next to FG then, per your assesment.

  • mickfealty

    Eh? No Declan. Funny boy!

  • mickfealty

    Since its purely a voluntary role, I doubt it will be formalised in that way. But the formality of the arrangements would ensure they’d be read as that over time.

  • Skibo

    If there is a proper opposition, the parties of government should sit together and the parties of opposition should sit together. simples

  • Skibo

    Should it not be formal with shadow ministers allowing the government ministers to be challenged directly. Surely we will not need the committees if there is an opposition.

  • Declan Doyle

    So lets get this straight then lest there be any confusion. In Northern Ireland, two opposing parties that are forced to support each other through a mandatory coalition in government should share benches. But, in the Republic of Ireland, two opposing parties who willingly opt to support each other shouldn’t? Hmm, Slugger logic ?

  • Zig70

    Your point leads me to why I think opposition is plain stupid. The idea the media have is that the UUP and SDLP work together. That would require them to drop tribal politics and die. Conversely, it would be completely moronic of the SDLP to mirror SF in a powerless tribal lite. If they go into opposition it will have to be on their own and not supporting Nesbit as leader of anything.

  • Msiegnaro

    Opposition could work on par to power-sharing?

  • mickfealty

    Even Gerry today accepted he would have to work with FF in opposition in the south. I don’t imagine he had rank capitulation in mind. If you sit in opposition there’s no cross party whip.

  • mickfealty

    I see. That’s what you’re concerned about? Government parties share cabinet responsibility, so why should they be allowed to dominate on both sides of the house?

    It would be of considerable aid to the coherence of government to be able focus on where your opponents are and your government colleagues. Given the through other mess it’s been up to now, how is that not a good thing?

  • Teddybear

    Stormont is such that the government needs to be cross community. The coalition then forms a programme for government.

    The logical extension of this is that the UUP/SDLP create an oppositional PFG and campaign on a joint manifesto at the next election.

    This is not odd. SF/DUP did just that in this years elections but didnt publicly acknowledge it during the campaign.

    Some say here that it would be a join-and-die scenario for UUP/SDLP but it wouldn’t be anymore than it is for SF/DUP at present.

    It makes no sense for UUP & SDLP to campaign on separate manifestos as there is zero chance on either of them having a chance to govern alone.

    My suggestion above will give the electorate an honest choice where we know what to expect from a UUP/SDLP dominated executive during the next campaign. It may even force SF/DUP to do the same but being out in the open about it

  • Declan Doyle

    What motivates my concern is immaterial. You are trying to be slippery maybe or you typed in a hurry so apologies if I misread you.

    ‘That’s’ not my concern, but your apparent double standards are. SF and DUP are forced to work together so their separation on the floor is justified to reflect that fact. FF and FG are not forced to coalesce, they have chosen to. Therefore by your logic again, they should sit on the same benches in order to draw a clear line between the Government (FG and Independents supported by FF) and the opposition (everybody else).

  • Kevin Breslin

    Well that was a waste of time.

    What started off as a discussion about having the first minsters and opposition leaders standing opposite one another because it veers off topic onto somehow this gesture changing the nature of political party structure, elections, political discussions and the running of government.

    Sinn Féin and the DUP already sit at one end of the room, and the SDLP, UUP and all the other parties at the other end.

    If Stormont mimics the Parliaments of Dublin, Holyhead, and Westminster then you would be in the situation where the largest parties in Opposition and Government are moved to the front row next to the Speaker.

    There is a natural problem with this in Northern Ireland Politics. What that would do is ensure you have a situation where the biggest governing and opposition parities DUP and UUP are in the front row.

    So basically Unionists (with the exception of 2) at the front Nationalists and everyone else at the back.

    It’s a wet dream for loyalist supremacists and republican mopes.

    The idea that somehow trying to recreate the magic of Dáil Éireann or Westminster in Stormont is going to be a de-peace processing agent to it is nothing more than a delusional fantasy.

    With the exception of Newton Emerton, a Generation Y breathe of Realpolitik journalism in our otherwise Generation X media obsessed with fantasies of Stormont’s role as a “de-peace processing” machine and nothing else.

    We’ve had nearly 20 years of our media wanting “de-peace processing” up in Stormont. The problem is we haven’t seen any “de-peace processing” in our media either.

  • Kevin Breslin

    As a social democrat, realpolitik comes from the bottom up, in terms of the voters and the party membership, realpolitik comes from people in our society who have the talents that can make a difference in our world.

    People who are not attached to the Patriarchy of Stormont, and slaves to the concept of “Father Northern Ireland Political Establishment” being the Cause of and Solution to all our Problems and look to the people around them for the answers to our problems.

    Stormont isn’t even a Parliament, it is severely limited in what it can do.
    It’s not a Parliament, it’s an Assembly. It’s not a Country, it’s an Assembly. It gives a very limited form of self-determination, and the whole aspirations of “Orange and Green” politics so to speak is to want to share that self-determination with their “kin” in other regions. That’s even before factoring Europe into the debate.

    If people want consequential independence politics and the issues you see in Dublin and London, with huge fiscal responsibilities, to be replicated up in Belfast, do what the SNP are doing and start a Northern Irish Independence movement, not the panacea of a Northern Irish identity.

    Nationalists and Unionists share an “Ulster” identity anyway.

    What good has that identity really accomplished?

    We need to be asking severe questions about our personal autonomy more than the autonomy that Stormont has, because Stormont serves us only in so far as we are able to serve the people we voted for in our roles in society.

    If we all went on Strike tomorrow, Stormont would be useless. And this is proven.

    As Stephen Donnelly of the Social Democrats in Ireland once said in his debate

    “Well isn’t that a radical idea to ask the people who actually know about these matters for once? Rather than having politicians who think they know the answer to everything”

    He’s right. We don’t ask the experts. We don’t ask people in the know, we expect politicians to be in the know.

    If Deirde Hennan, Cathy Gormelly Hennan and Rick Wilford where put into the Stormont Chamber there wouldn’t be good optics either. A Professor in Stormont isn’t likely to get treated any better than Dr Stephen Farry.

    However if we can be inspired and or informed by these outside experts we can make a lot of the changes ourselves.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Look at Stormont in more than one dimension, the DUP and Sinn Féin are on the one side of the house already. The front end.

    Why would having the DUP and the UUP in the front end change and Nationalists and Others at the back change anything instead?

    Would the focus really be “of considerable aid to the coherence of government to be able focus on where your opponents are and your government colleagues.” in that situation?

    Why are politicians, who are individual human beings with free will going to follow that rule book? Politicians in the real world pick their battles with colleague and opponent alike.

    Your internal logic is nothing more than sophistry and idealism.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I sat down with the DUP in Queen’s University Belfast Student Union by mistake.

    Somehow it didn’t force me to become a Democratic Unionist, nor they to become a Kevin Breslin.

    I will It’s kind of fun voting against and arguing against people you are sitting next too via a Speaker or Chairperson.

    So for me, the whole plan for our local political versions of Tian Tian and Yang Guang having Tiochfaidh Ar La No Surrender Panda Cubs simply from being in mere proximity to one another … well it’s kind of unrealistic and embarrassing, isn’t it?

  • Kevin Breslin

    Big Woop. They’ve been doing that in Donegal County Council. It’s called politics.

  • mickfealty

    Sorry, I didn’t deal with that point because it’s not actually the case that they are in government, simply that they have set some pretty tight parameters for government action.

    Martin is still leader of the Opposition, but he would not be allowed to sit there in the Dail chamber if he were actually in government, which is the point I’m trying to make. Welcome to the politics of the hung Dail.

    (PS, I’ll have a piece on this situation later).

  • mickfealty

    Kevin, you apparently don’t believe form dictates content, which is not sophistry, it’s just nonsense.

    Even a two year old can figure that if everyone is in government they are going to be cautious about questioning a government colleague too strongly in case their own spokesman gets hammered. [Well, maybe not two, but it’s not rocket science either.]

    If there’s an opposition you are effectively changing the form of government and you are opening the possibility of better reporting on what the actual government is doing. John Kay calls it disciplined pluralism in the context of markets but applies to reporting in govt too.

    All I am arguing is that this should be reflected in the seating arrangement (ie, the form) in which the deliberations take place to reflect the actual power relations in the room.

    Continuing the Congress of Tribes model is at best misleading about this shift in form, and sending the opposition to the back of the bus (to use a loaded metaphor) should not be accepted as an irrelevant detail.

    But the implications of shifting form having a large delegation of deputies who are free of the interests of protecting the government interest will have a profound effect on the content flowing out of the institution.

    Now quit the air punching and kick a few holes in that Kev?

  • kensei

    Holyrood doesn’t have an official opposition, and it doesn’t have an “opposite”. Their politics seems combative enough. Are you sure you’re not just applying a Westminster model where it doesn’t belong?

  • Kevin Breslin

    I don’t think you can find any holes in hot air, and largely that’s my opinion what the Opposition debate is, a lot of hot air.

    Form doesn’t dictate Content, if you have an application Form the Content of that Form can change from candidate to candidate.

    Yes, that was a sarcastic reaction, but pretty mush having an opposition, is just like having a form. It’s the politicians that ultimately determine the content, not the seating arrangements.

    There was never any psychological barrier preventing government parties disagreeing, questioning, challenging one another when they were in government with one another, and there’s no reason to believe that having carte blanc up in Stormont to an Opposition is going to stop the Stalemate, or benefit the content.

    I look at this in terms of Stormont being a Legislature not merely a Debating Chamber or a Forum, or a Large size version of the Nolan Show.

    You have absolutely no evidence what so ever to show me that having an Opposition is going to mean less Stalemates and better Legislation.

    You can’t even prove that “having a large delegation of deputies who are free of the interests of protecting the government interest will have a profound effect on the content flowing out of the institution.”

    There’s no evidence it does, no evidence it will, and no reason in my mind to think that we should enjoy that luxury.

    It’s easy to think that having an opposition will improve the form and the content of government and opposition, but there is no “law of physics” that says that politicians will get better or even not get worse simply because they have the licence to be in opposition.

    Having an opposition to play against doesn’t make you a better footballer, if footballers don’t train to be better footballers themselves.

    My opinion, and you’re not going to like this, is that politicians need to do a lot outside the chamber to improve their content, and not simply rely on their form inside the chamber.

    Politics needs to be done outside Stormont and outside the Local Government institutions, and outside all the other elected bodies. Opposition isn’t going to fix this deficiency we see.

    A clear example of this is John McCallister, one of the best legislators in Stormont. His “bad form” in the election is clearly not reflective of the amount of content he produced inside Stormont.

    That’s because in my opinion there is NO relationship between Form and Content.

  • mickfealty

    Try writing a Shakespearean sonnet in your next job application, and see what happens?

  • Kevin Breslin

    You actually highlight my point.

    There’s noting preventing me from doing such a thing.

    It’s not illegal.

    It’s not the form that prevents me from doing that, it’s the hard work and desire I have to get that job.

    Frustrated job-seekers, complaining about being overlooked, or feeling that a company isn’t going to give them a fair chance often sabotage their applications.

    Irrational thinking like that can and should be factored into the Opposition debate as well.

    Look at what happened with Sunningdale, the main opposition parties and group brought it down from the outside.

    They gave Northern Ireland Street Theater instead of a Political Alternative. The political equivalent of putting a Sonnet on your job application form.

    Every Flag Protest, Every Parade Protest, Every Illegal Parade, Every Act of Violence … they are all symptoms of the “Opposition Without”

    Opposition is no guarantee of getting politicians with more desire, more ability, or more content.

    It doesn’t ensure any attempt to have the right questions are asked, or any attempt to ensure any answer or action is attempted.