The benefits of an official Opposition and the rush to claim the title.

Following the 2016 Assembly Election, there is now an opposition in Stormont (or sorts). But why should a party take it, as the UUP have stepped forward to do.

For the last number of years, the opposition to the executive, such as it is, has been unofficial, disparate and unruly. The naughty corner at Stormont, with John McCallister, Steven Agnew, Basil McCrea, Jim Allister, David McNarry & Claire Sugden (interestingly, 3 of those were elected to that last Assembly as UUP members in the first place, and their seats are now back in the hands of the UUP… who are now an actual opposition).

Winston Churchill said, “The duty of an Opposition is to oppose,” so one could most certainly argue that a prominent aspect of the existing opposition has been the public and the media; as it should be. I’ve heard it said that the leader of the opposition in Northern Ireland is Stephen Nolan…

The UUP, SDLP & Alliance Party all shirked the question of if they would go into opposition following the election, and rightly so. Telling your voters that you expect not to get a majority of seats and being able to form a government is a foolhardy consideration… even if 2 of those parties had no such current ambition as being elected to the post of First Minister (Alliance had 23 candidates, SDLP had 24).

The decision would presumably be made based on a Programme for Government (or lack thereof); all parties avoided sharing their so-called red lines. I note this article from Alliance’s Chris Lyttle on their legislative priorities for the new term; an electorate could see these 3 priorities as red lines and an absence of them in a programme for government might preclude a moral imperative to not enter the Executive.

Here in Northern Ireland, media coverage (by quantity) of parties seems relatively balanced. Might this change somewhat with an Official Opposition?

When there is a public discussion on the BBC on say, Department for Communities, Health or Finance, it is reasonable to assume that when presenting it to the public, a representative of the Opposition is best placed to provide scrutiny and public opposition to the department’s Minister.

Other than the main party’s Ministers, personal media exposure going along the benches isn’t exactly widespread; the average person on the street would probably know who Simon Hamilton, John O’Dowd or David Ford are, but name-recognition of Alex Easton, Sue Ramsey & Kieran McCarthy are perhaps much more less recognisable.

With the advent of an official Opposition is the opportunity for shadow ministers, media appearances for Ministers is spread among multiple parties; if an official Opposition exists, they have the potential to have equal representation as a public face equivalent to that of the whole Executive combined.

Nobody wanted to say, “Yes, we’ll be the official Opposition following the election,” but when the chips fell, Mike Nesbitt wasted no time in getting it done.

The UUP has been putting out policy papers for a number of months prior to the election; the media has made much of how Sinn Fein & DUP appear to have agreed their proposed Program for Government prior to the election even taking place… it seems to me that perhaps the UUP had put their proposed Program for Opposition out into the public realm even before that…

“When I first came into Parliament, Mr. Tierney, a great Whig authority, used always to say that the duty of an Opposition was very simple – it was to oppose everything and propose nothing.”             – Lord Stanley

A cynic might suggest that by that definition, the Executive has been its own opposition…