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.

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  • Nicholas Whyte

    I agree, Stephen. It baffles me that politicians think it makes sense to ask for people’s votes to put them in opposition, rather than in government, and it’s not surprising that the two parties who seemed unable to make their minds up on this were the two who had the worst electoral results in their respective histories (the UUP and the SDLP).

    I also agree that the committee system has not delivered the scrutiny that it was intended to do. The radical solution, of course, is to decouple executive office from Assembly membership, but alas this goes against the fossilised British/Irish tradition of making minister work at two jobs simultaneously. I wonder whether there are other short-term fixes possible, such as extending civil service briefings to committee chairs and vice-chairs?

  • Dominic Hendron

    Before the anoracks take over with their own language that no one else gets, what’s wrong with building an alternative to SF/DUP logjam. I can tell you now what the next spat will be: the DUP taking education and reinstating the 11+,

  • mickfealty

    Thanks Brian. I don’t think it’s straightforward, but I struggle to find a genuine justification for the current model in circumstances other than where the only alternative is bloodshed.

    Where I think you are spot on is that the point should be how do we improve government. At the moment there’s no incentive for that. People pass Go, and collect their £200 whether the Executive hits their target or not.

    In the meantime the UUP and the SDLP are semi permanent mudguards who take all the damage, get little resource or patronage and none of the credit.

  • Brian Walker

    Brian actually, John. Stephen was described as my son by someone I met who congratulated us both. He is almost as grey haired as I am. We take the complements but are not related..Obsessing over the party battle as it it was all that mattered is an old Troubles numbers game. As a heavily qualified fan of Nolan he exposed alarming poverty of ideas.. Attention needed plus a bit of political courage courage

  • mickfealty

    With the best will in the world Nicholas the head of the civil service tends to control what goes to the committee clerks. Not sure what benefits a longer report brings. Ministers may be fragmented: the permanent secretaries are not.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Next spat is going to be the flag up in Stormont unfortunately. Apparently Jim Allister’s using the fact that the UUP regained the “NI21 seats” they lost as an excuse to put the Union Flag up permanently.

  • Dominic Hendron


  • chrisjones2

    I have to say that it doesn’t baffle me.

    We have a failing system that has been rent by duplication, sectarianism, cronyism, corruption and waste in terms of policy and operational decision by Ministers. If you dont want to support the big two because of their political approaches what do you do? Vote for someone who will ask the awkward questions, probe and expose – especially where there is mutual backscratching going on and noone wants to rock the boat

    Good governance needs that

  • Kevin Breslin

    Well Mick just in case you missed the election, and “the Government” won. Ultimately improving the government comes from the electorate holding them to account.

    We saw Mike Nesbitt leave office on the back of being in Opposition, and it produced only two real changes in the Unionist vote. A swapping of seats that saw Jenny Palmer and Christopher Stalford get in at the expense of rival parties. The DUP consolidated, they actually raised their vote after the commentariat suggested that they’d lose seats.

    Stormont isn’t the be all and end all of politics here, indeed the greatest evidence of this is that the big winners of the Election Campaign were People Before Profit a Party a party that had no representation up in Stormont.

    Holding the Government to account begins in civic society, not in Stormont, not from the so-called Naughty Corner, not even from the Nolan Show, which is largely why putting all the Eggs in the Opposition basket is not going to help us.

    Let’s forget the Mudguard analogy, UUP and SDLP had gained some seats at the expense of the government parties but they were losing them elsewhere. The Mudguard effect was negligible.

    I don’t think you can simply say that the SDLP would be gaining seats like a third seat in Foyle, a second in South Belfast, a second in Newry and Armagh, Upper Bann, Strangford, Lagan Valley, maybe North and South Antrim simply if they went into Opposition.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Opposition prevents Sectarianism? … so why in the days of the Northern Ireland Parliament, were the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association campaigning against gerrymandering and discrimination, when the Northern Ireland Labour Party was elected up in Stormont?

  • Kevin Breslin

    I think good legislature is the priority.

    It’s the job of every MLA to legislate and scrutinize.

    It’s the job of every politician to hold other politicians to account.

    If we ignore these fundamentals of the MLA job, we won’t begin to have politicians who can improve any flaws in our legislature.

  • Lionel Hutz

    OK here’s the problem. For the last 5 years, the SDLP and UUP were in government without agreeing to the government programme or the budget. It is more principled to be in opposition if you are in fact opposed to the executive’s proposed course.

    Sinn Fein and the DUP have treated the other parties with disdain again. They just handed them the PfG. And they can do that. They won the election. The Sdlp and UUP lost. The alliance lost too but the DUP and SF don’t want to be seen to be agreeing so alliance will support the sham.

    Our system of government isn’t supposed to be this way. The bigger parties are not supposed ride roughshod over the others who have a mandate to govern with them. They are supposed to have more power than the minor parties but that’s the extent of it. They should also respect the mandate of the minor parties. But they don’t.

    The SDLP in particular should oppose this. They cannot oppose it from within the executive effectively anymore precisely because there exists an opposition. So if it is the case that the SDLP don’t believe they can support the PfG or the budgets that will follow, they should leave for the opposition. It was unprincipled from 2011 to 2016 but will look much worse for the next 5 years because not only is lacking in principle but it is no longer pragmatic to stay in government.

  • mjh

    Can we drop the assumption that the change from 6 seats to 5 will be primarily at the expense of the UUP and SDLP, and that more or less equally.

    If the election were re-run changing only the seat numbers from 6 to 5 the most likely outcome is:
    DUP 33 (down 5 from actual)
    SF 22 or 23 (down 5 or 6 – see my note below on Foyle)
    UUP 11 (down 5)
    SDLP 11 (down 1 – but see my note below about Upper Bann)
    Alliance 8 (no change)
    Green 2 (no change)
    PBPA 1 or 2 ( down 1 or no change – see Foyle again)
    TUV 1 (no change)
    Ind Sugden 1 (no change)

    Foyle is impossible to call because we do not know how McCloskey’s votes would have transferred – but McCann would be around 900 behind SF at that point.

    In Upper Bann my calculations suggest that there would almost certainly be insufficient transfers from the UUP to permit Kelly to overtake O’Dowd. But I would want to see the Electoral Office full results sheet and check that UUP transfer patterns had not changed since recent elections before confirming that judgement.

    Incidentally although we do not have the new 17 constituency boundaries it is already possible to estimate the extent to which each current constituency is under or over represented as a result of its total electorate’s deviation from the average. Eliminating these deviations perfectly would reduce the DUP by 2, and the UUP, SF and Alliance by 1 each versus the figures I gave for the five-seater constituencies.

    Of course many things will be different in 2021 which could well produce different results.

  • mac tire

    “If you dont want to support the big two because of their political
    approaches what do you do? Vote for someone who will ask the awkward
    questions, probe and expose…”

    Then why do you claim to be non-voter?

  • Msiegnaro

    Unionism is in real trouble then with the loss of 10 seats, extremely worrying indeed.

  • mjh

    Actually no. The reduction to 5 seats would have given unionism 18% fewer seats and nationalism between 15% and 19% fewer seats. So the balance would not have been unaltered.

    Unionism would possibly drop 3 seats to the nationalists one in the reduction to 17 constituencies – leaving it with 51% of all seats versus 38% for nationalists; a bigger advantage than it had in the last Assembly when unionism held 52% of the seats to the nationalists 40%.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I largely agree with (and impressed by) that analysis, assuming extreme conservation of voting behaviour and transfer behaviour, and voting tallies holding up.

  • Kevin Breslin

    They are merely being removed from the chamber.

  • Nicholas Whyte

    Sorry, Brian – obviously I am still in recovery fro the weekend!

  • Nicholas Whyte

    With respect, Chris, it’s pretty clear that more than half of those who voted actually do support the big two, and may not necessarily share your perception that the system is failing.

    In any case, your response doesn’t actually answer my questions, which I’ll rephrase to make them clearer:

    1) why should you ask for someone’s votes other than to put you in government?
    2) if you can’t make your mind up whether or not you want to be in government, why would anyone vote for you?

  • Korhomme

    it’s pretty clear that more than half of those who voted actually do support the big two

    That’s correct; but rather more than half of the 55% of the electorate who voted is only around 30% of the total electorate. Hardly a ringing endorsement.

  • mjh

    Don’t agree Korhomme. Those who don’t vote automatically endorse the results of those who do. It doesn’t matter how much they may protest to the contrary – whether it is fair or not, that is the practical outcome of their abstention.

  • mjh

    If you dig down to the fundamental is it really true that people vote for politicians just to put them into government? Rather do people vote for politicians in order to achieve specific outcomes? In most other governing systems, of course, getting into government is the means to achieving the outcomes your voters desire.

    But here the question is, could the UUP, SDLP and Alliance make more progress towards some at least of their voters’ desired outcomes through exploiting the opportunities of Opposition, rather than by being effectively neutered playing the roles of afterthoughts in the Executive?

  • Korhomme

    Certainly, the effect of not voting can be seen as an endorsement. But is it? Do people not vote actively or passively; actively, thinking that their vote won’t count, or passively because ‘all politicians are [choice of adjectives]’.

    For myself, I actively voted for 3 parties in FST that were rapidly eliminated, as I expected. Was this a ‘waste’?

  • Brendan Heading

    requiring committees to be chaired by non-executive parties might be a good start.

    No changes to the structures will happen, of course, unless the two big parties decide that it’s in their interest somehow.

  • mjh

    No it definitely was not a waste. You got to have your say. Since not enough other people voted the same way as you, you did not get the result you wanted, but that was not your responsibility. At least you entered a contrary opinion – and in no matter how small a way that colours how the overall result is interpreted by those who will have to put themselves forward for re-election in five years time.

    As for abstaining actively or abstaining passively, what’s the difference? No one else will ever know.

  • mickfealty

    It hadn’t, nor did it last time: Are you bored Kev?

  • Kevin Breslin

    There is a clear indication that “Oppositionism” by itself changes nothing. The DUP and UUP had a few bursts of Oppositionism and their vote share went down.
    I think deeper questions need to be asked and not all eggs put into the opposition basket.

    If I am bored, I believe that it is something that I may share with a large section of the electorate. People moan and complain about Opposition, but that doesn’t indicate that the presence of an opposition is going to inspire people to vote or encourage those who vote for the big two parties to swing their support.