Nesbitt’s gamble: at last the Ulster Unionists (and the SDLP) will have to decide what they stand for or face oblivion in the next Assembly

Since the election and even before it, commentators have been  casting around  desperately for anything that suggests that the old muscle- bound duopoly is starting to crumble.  Even the DUP  “victory”  is being  hyped as a harbinger of change alongside the Sinn Fein “ defeat”.  Something, anything that  might mean fresh movement or greater stability.  So the zeitgeist has  moved  in the direction of a more  “normal “ democracy that an opposition  signifies, and yet an opposition  that  doesn’t  threaten the basic structures of power sharing. The arguments were well rehearsed in the debates on what deserves to be called the  McCallister (Opposition) Act .  If the SDLP  finally join the UUs on opposition benches wherever located. D’ Hondt  will be exposed as unnecessary and the DUP/SF coalition will in effect be a “ voluntary “ one. And will the Alliance party get voted back into Justice by a formally divided Assembly?

Mike Nesbitt’s lunge into opposition falls into the category of novelty big time. It’s a poor verdict on the leading parties’ record that the dominance they enjoyed didn’t prevent them from bringing the Assembly to the brink of collapse last year. Yet this is a verdict the unionist electorate didn’t pass. Instead the deadlock was almost entirely forgotten.  The DUP (if not Sinn Fein) suffered no penalty. If it had been otherwise and unionist voters had penalised them , Nesbitt’s move might have made more obvious sense.

It’s a serious weakness that the UUP and if they follow suit, the SDLP, teased  the voters  but did not commit to opposition in the election campaign. We will never know how many votes would have been gained or lost if they’d done so. As the defeated sponsor of the  Opposition Bill  John McCallister  has said, the UUP might have secured more than 16 seats in last week’s poll had they campaigned on the basis that they would go into opposition if they did not get enough MLAs to secure either the first or deputy first minister’s position. To jump now when they failed to reach their target number of seats looks like weakness, perhaps even a last throw of the dice.

Nesbitt has yet to explain himself beyond the sound bite. But the theory seems to be is that the UUP can impose a greater check on DUP good behaviour in opposition than they could by remaining in the Executive.  But his move is fraught with all sorts of problems.

Declaring opposition even before the government programme is even discussed increases the pressure on them to spell out what the party stands for even more than before.

Remember Fresh Start? The UUP and SDLP stayed outside that agreement. But if the DUP and SF  keep to their pledges of good behaviour  including  reducing the role of the blocking instrument, the petition of concern, the case for an opposition is  weakened.

So what will be the basis of opposition? Constructive or destructive?  Will the UUs  try to outflank the DUP on the left or the right?  Nesbitt has variable  form here. An early test will come with the report due at the end of the month from the three person panel on deparamilitarisation. Other crunch issues ducked in Fresh Start but eventually unavoidable are parades regulation, flags and traditions. If the UUP play narrow unionist politics they will only make it more difficult to reach cross community agreement and they will risk widening  the sectarian divide.

So what’s to be said in favour of opposition? A more open approach to our democracy would  be  very welcome.  The development of a shadow Executive by the UUs and the SDLP would even better but seems a pipe dream today.

And the threat to the UUs?  In future elections will they continue to benefit from DUP transfers in a smaller Assembly of  ( correction) 85  members?  Or would oblivion be their fate? That is the measure  of Mike Nesbitt’s gamble.


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