To oppose or not oppose? Good government is the real priority

I hope wrangling over whether there should be an opposition or not doesn’t overshadow the important business of agreeing an outline programme for government.  Now is exactly the right time for all parties to pitch in on more or less equal terms with their ideas free of immediate electoral constraints. The election is over, Mike Nesbitt. Of course Alliance should be in on the talks unless you think the UUP is going to be awarded Justice.

The good news is that the headline programme will go out for six months of consultation. It’s up to everyone therefore  –  the sectors of civic society, commentators, community groups, not just the parties – to make it a  meaningful exercise and not sit back and sneer or moan.

Meanwhile, comment on the UUP and SDLP going into formal opposition opinion is divided. I’m with Brian Feeney.

 In 2021 when there are only five seats per constituency they’ll both lose a rake of seats because in many cases, like Alex Attwood or Richie McPhillips, they scraped in to the sixth seat. In 2021 there won’t be any sixth seat...

First, however, UUP and SDLP must accept their executive places. They’ve no alternative.

Why do people go into politics? To turn down the chance to exercise political power? Really? For parties in terminal decline to consign themselves to howling at the moon for five years will guarantee beyond peradventure that when the next election comes round people will be truly fed up listening to the noise. Will they be able to howl louder than the professional radicals beside them? Of course not.

I’ll return to “the professional radicals” later. The ubiquitous and ever thoughtful Alex Kane differs sharply  from Feeney

What’s the point of an Assembly that doesn’t have an Opposition? What’s the point of having people like Claire Hanna, Naomi Long, Doug Beattie, Stephen Farry, Mark Durkan, Robin Swann, Nichola Mallon, Sandra Overend and Justin McNulty if they can’t make their case from the Opposition benches?

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 Assembly committees which were 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 .

Like thousands of others across the community Kane welcomes the emergence of the new batch of independents who are about more than seepage from a leaky  UUP or otherwise disgruntled.

The (“ naughty corner” of opposition) will now be occupied by McCann, Gerry Carroll, Steven Agnew, Clare Bailey, Jim Allister and Claire Sugden. And while few in number, the very fact that they got elected at all is an indication of the passion and self-belief they bring to politics.

All of them had to take on the big party election machines – and some pretty big political beasts, too – in their own constituencies, and at least three of them defied the odds and the pundits to get where they are today.

You don’t have to agree with them, but it is worth mentioning that, in terms of name recognition, the six members of the last “naughty corner” were much better-known than most of the backbenchers from the bigger parties.

Well, true enough. Across the political board  hopes are  high for Eamonn McCann and assorted others to improve the range and  quality of debate, particularly on identity issues, sexual freedom and other aspects of social  change . But there are problems here: one is the limited restricted speaking rights for disparate independents. Can  they qualify for enhanced speaking rights under  the new Opposition Act passed as a result of Fresh Start? The answer would seem to be no. The Act is  really a vehicle for the UUs and SDLP

The other problem is about  what sort of economic policy  if any of independents have to offer. The very term “People Before Profit” is an old slogan of protest  whose conclusion is  more, more money  from the Brits. Or else I look forward to Eamonn and Gerry bringing  forward their plans for higher local taxation and seeing how Sinn Fein  responds.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London