Let’s wait for a clear outcome before proclaiming a new dynamic at Stormont

Am I right in thinking that the small avalanche started by Mike Nesbitt has taken the DUP and Sinn Fein entirely by surprise? Not to mention the distinguished local commentariat who failed to clock that the smaller parties were as serious as  this about the opposition option?

So what do we know?   First, very little detail over precise sticking points.  This has not been an open negotiation – until perhaps today.

It seems that the smaller parties were even more frustrated by the experience of DUP-SF  carve up and deadlock in the previous Executive  than was generally thought. The pledges of good behaviour in Fresh Start  were either not strong enough or were not believed , even though they were  steered and commended by the British and Irish governments.

Fresh Start requires that the Programme for Government be agreed over a fortnight  before departmental  ministers are appointed. This increased the leverage of the minor parties. Despite being trumpeted in advance to be all about outcomes, the draft Programme plainly has not satisfied Alliance or the SDLP.

Messrs Eastwood and Ford  are at one in claiming that  FM and DFM insisted  that  things would be  done their way or not at all, ( “their process or no process)” Whether this is entirely true or not, the current outcome  suggests Foster and McGuinness  were over confident and miscalculated the response, buoyed up by their comfortable majority .

Eastwood dismissed the PfG last night as “ bluer skies and greener grass.”This is denied by FM  and DFM. Martin McGuinness accused the SDLP of dishonesty as the SDLP  were part of developing it in “four workshops from December to February.”Eastwood faces a plausible charge of opportunism.

The Alliance party have not left the field.  They should disclose the five points Ford says Foster and McGuinness rejected in ten minutes. If these are anything like the five point summary of their manifesto, they include ending the designations, making  real progress on  integrated education  “division proofing “ all policies  to put an end to  sectarian carve-up and progress on ending paramilitarism and dealing with the legacy. These topics are subject to all too familiar stalling mechanisms and are either pending, awaiting reports, farmed out to yet more committees  and eventually negotiable – but hardly over a fortnight.  FM and DFM could give satisfactory replies to the Alliance position if they wanted to, but they may decline to be squeezed.

How much leverage does Alliance have over Justice?  Quite a lot.  (It would be fantastic though to offer to it to Eamonn McCann – how well he would do it for at least a month before giving up in terminal frustration.).  A DUP- SF job share would concentrate minds over a hierarchy of victims, funding new inquests , endorsing a new historical investigations unit and  taking over parades regulation, to name but a few. All these have to be agreed anyway – or not as the case may be. Why not get down and dirty on the detail jointly in the Justice department?  Yet it seems unlikely, particularly if the DUP and  SF were acting under pressure from the minor parties.

How powerful will be the cross community opposition?  Together the UUs and SDLP are just short of the 30 seat blocking mechanism of a petition of concern. Pressing for an end to the unionist, nationalist and other designations  and replacing them with a weighted majority would  modestly strengthen the collective hand of the combined opposition and  introduce significant flexibility to case by case voting.

Support for  a “voluntary coalition” with a weighted majority of  “around 65% “  was repeated in the DUP manifesto.  Presumably this aim will be dropped, now that the UUs have gone into opposition and the DUP  and Sinn Fein have a cross community majority of only 61% in this the last 108 seat Assembly. Sinn Fein’s opposition in any case.seems implacable. And so this structural change requiring amending legislation at Westminster would be likely to be vetoed by the DUP and SF’s comfortable  majority.

A new dynamic will be created only if the UUs and SDLP can develop an alternative Executive out of case by case cooperation between themselves and “others.”  Otherwise trying to outflank the bloc leaders on identity and legacy issues risks deepening sectarian divisions and doing more damage than the inclusive Executive ever did.   The obvious temptation to bang a louder drum is at the heart of reservations over forming an opposition in the first place.

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

  • chrisjones2

    Such is the fear that the DUP and SF will do everything possible to undermine the McAllister act and prevent an official opposition being effective

    If Sugden takes the Justice role its very short sighted – she will end up a helpless puppet there to take the blows and the blame

  • mjh

    Couldn’t agree more with your final paragraph. As far as the journey towards opposition is concerned we are only an inch over the starting line. We really do not know the first thing about how those parties will take it forward over the next five days, let alone the next five years.

    But at least all five main parties are now outside their comfort zones – and arguably that is a precondition for escaping the paralysis and sheer bad government of the last five years.

  • Gopher

    Not if she delivers tangible and attributable jobs and investment to the Northwest. That to me is job done if your an independent. Now if the Greens or Alliance took justice and did not reform the system that would be different. Imagine a girl prosecuted for abortion on Agnews ministry not to mention all the problems around environmental protesters.

    Alliance in government would face erosion from the UUP, SDLP and Greens without delivering

  • chrisjones2

    No its not – is the worst form of US pork barrel politics – political prostitution that means investment is skewed for personal and political reasons and not where it will best serve all the community

  • Gopher

    That’s why you elect an indepentent to get the best for your constituency.

  • WindowLean

    If I were Ms Sugden I’d be very wary of taking on the Justice Ministry on the promise of shed load of jobs for Limavady. Now I know you could apply this test to most Ministers in our abnormal society, but does she have any particular qualifications or experience that lend themselves to the Justice Dept??

  • Gopher

    Yes she is just about the only acceptable candidate that does not have an issue with her electorate with regards the Justice Department. Pretty much over qualified if you ask me.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Brilliant analysis. IMO Nesbitt chose opposition (not a mechanism of his own making) to outDUP the DUP and try to win back long lost votes and to put a mirage of clear blue water between him and the one party he opposes. Whether he had gambled that this move would precipitate further party defections from Govt is only speculation. However, my sense is that Nesbitt knows that he’s not well equipped for an isolationist stance i.e. he’s no Jim Allister.
    Eastwood and the SDLP are probably cannier (constructive opposition) and have assessed that there’s a good vote harvest here. ‘Case by case cooperation’ might well be how things run in the short term. While I can imagine an immediate wholehearted coalition being formed it’s more likely that this will be explored tentatively. After all it’s new unexplored and under-resourced terrain. What is also new is that opposition provides a stronger platform to expose and attack lack of progress on Govt’s performance than being in Govt itself and it’s this that the 2 opposition parties (whether disparate or unified) would be really dumb to underexploit. Have both the SDLP & UUP assessed from canvassing on the doorsteps that people are fed up with stalemate and that there’s an appetite to break deadlock? Their independent decisions had to be inspired by a number of things not least feedback from the electorate.
    I can’t help but think that Marlene (vere haff all ze lilies gone?) have been caught off guard and are running pretty scared. Standing on your own 2 feet may be frightening when you move out of your mum’s for the first time but only when you know you’re not great at relying on yourself.

  • Declan Doyle

    LOL, he doesn’t even vote !

  • Gopher

    If you don’t vote you can’t complain when others use theirs to their advantage.

  • Peter Doran

    Undoubtedly the UUs and SDLP will be tempted to use opposition to refight the election i.e. to retake votes within their own constituencies. And the dilemma for those in the administration [we do not have a Government in any meaningful sense] is that – for the first time – they will be forced to defend a devolution settlement that can only blunt party profiles and policy trajectories. Such is the dilemma of responsibility without power. In a somewhat paradoxical fashion, the two main parties facing a free fire zone of opposition will have to begin radically moderating and managing expectations of devolution. If you’d been tasked with absorbing political energy and diverting troublesome parties you’d have come up with our half-baked devolution settlement, where real power has always remained with HM Treasury and the permanent state.

  • mac tire

    Don’t fall for that nonsense. Chris votes alright. He’s merely ashamed of the party he votes for.
    He once boasted on here that he voted for Corbyn to wreck Labour. Work it out, lads. Work it out.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    But Gopher, at least I can tell myself that you have not authorised any of the rotten folly that will be the hallmark of our local politics up on the hill whether I vote or not. So at least I’ve not implicated myself by “encouraging” them in the threadbare claim that they have been authorised speak with the voice of an entire community.

    Now the EU vote, that offers us a direct voice, unmediated, and while those entering the booths will be driven by the fears both camps engender in order to shepherd the voters, a few of us will be assessing the actual issues, and not simply authorising a self styled professional to assess them on our behalf.

  • Declan Doyle

    Sorry man but Gopher is correct. We are a politically organised society and for as long as we do not have an alternative to give structure to how we live and a framework for how we grow, all citizens who benefit fro our advanced society have a moral responsibility to do one of two things. Vote, or present themselves as an alternative at the polls.

  • ted hagan

    This may well be a daft question. Could Alliance and smaller parties like the Greens and the PfP unit to form an official alliance that would allow it representation in the Executive when their seats are totted up?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Declan, the true “moral responsibility” of any citizen is to avoid implication with those actions of any governmenmt that they would not actually carry out themselves. When one elects “tony Blair” and he bombs Iraqi civilians, then he has been authorised to kill innocents by that vote. That’s a clear case, but I apply the same rule to everything done in my name. I simply cannot bring myself to give anyone a free hand to besmirch my good name with actions I could never approve of, just as I’d not give someone I hardly know power of attorney with my bank account. I know “society is organised in this way”, but that is simply customary usage, it does not make it in any sense morally correct, and its certainly not my moral responsibility to let others carry out immoral or even foolish actions using my political authorisation to do so.

    As Plato pointed out, the one advantage of a dictatorship over a “democracy” is that the immorality is limited to those who are acting without public approval.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    So ted, “a lamb discussing dinner with five wolves” then…………

  • Declan Doyle

    Then simply vote for someone whose oral judgement you respect. Or indeed stand yourself.

  • ted hagan

    I don’t know about that. Alliance have honed their survival skills over the years… more a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

  • ted hagan

    I would fear more defections to the DUP and SF if the SDLP and Ulster Unionists cosy up to each other. That”s the way the political seesaw works here, with the system designed for the extremes and to squeeze the middle ground.Sorry to be a gloom merchant.

  • Granni Trixie

    Not sure as to the significance of this but seems to me that when leaving the Executive a difference between SDLP and APNI is that the former focused on dissatisfaction with PfG whereas the latter put pressure on reforms on the use of POCs (and progressing integrated education etc – the “demands”).

  • Brendan Heading

    There is no need for, or likelihood of, for an alliance between the smaller parties. Opposition parties in the UK or Ireland seldom form formal opposition agreements.

    Since the Greens are directly challenging Alliance for the progressive mantle, it is unlikely these two parties will work together (more’s the pity). And People before Profit have already made clear they’ll be entering into no agreements.

    What they can do is get together and mount a co-ordinated challenge to the government, on an ad hoc basis, over the many areas where they have common cause.

  • chrisjones2

    I dont vote …I spoil the ballot

    Dont applly your own standards to everyone else

    And Corbyn was the best £3 I ever spent

  • chrisjones2

    “to avoid implication with those actions of any governmenmt that they would not actually carry out themselves”

    You mean to be two faced?.

  • mjh

    Actually, ted, I think that cosying up to each other, without blurring their principles and identities, is just about the last hope those two parties have of breaking out of the spiral of uninterrupted decline that has afflicted the SDLP for the last 20 years and the UUP for the last 30. Might not work of course – but what other shot do they have left in their lockers?

    As for defections. SDLP to FF (if they actually turn up) very possibly some councillors and local party officials – wouldn’t rule out an MLA but would be surprised. To SF? Can’t see it at all.

    UUP to DUP? Again not impossible the odd councillor would jump – but almost equally there could be councillor movement the other way over time. I wouldn’t expect an MLA to go – both for reasons of principle and because their careers would almost certainly be over. Unlike Donaldson and Arlene they would not bring big chunks of their voters with them – and there will be quite enough competition between current DUP MLA’s for the reduced number of seats in 2021 to prevent any Johnny-come-latelies getting much of a look in.

  • mac tire

    “…I spoil the ballot…”
    We know, you vote Tory, which, in Ireland, is essentially a spoiled ballot.

    “Dont applly your own standards to everyone else.”

    I’ve made no bones about who I vote for at the moment. Hardly ashamed.

    “And Corbyn was the best £3 I ever spent”

    Now, why would someone who spoils their ballot go to the trouble of paying £3 just to have a go at a person and a party that is irrelevant to you?

    Even if you spoiled your ballot you are still voting – for none of the above.
    You’re a voter, Chris, who heads to the pens every few years like many of us sheep, eh?

  • Lionel Hutz

    It would seem to me that this reflects the positions of both parties prior to the election. The SDLP were more opposed to OFMDFM in the last number of years and criticial of their dominance. In contrast, I heard a number of alliance representatives talk in more glowing terms about SF/DUP at least going as far as being neutral on the effect they have on smaller parties. Long and Ford both said they allowed Ford to get on with it at justice by and large. So they can’t really make the same argument that Eastwood has made about the lack of collaborative working with the PFG. Seems to me that alliance need something else to hang their hat on if they are going to say no. Just my thought.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Participating in the system at any level implicates me with the actions of those who control the system morally. What is it with this “replacement religion” of “representational democracy” at the very moment when new technologies have made actual “direct democracy” an actual possibility?

    And, hey, I’ve met simply too many representatives both here, at Westminster, at the Dáil and over the pond on Capitol Hill during my lifetime to wish to mix with them any more than I really have to.

    Have you encountered Herbert Marcuse? From his 1964 book ‘One-Dimensional Man’:

    “…liberty can be made into a powerful instrument of domination..… Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves…”

    If you want to change attitides and society you really need to start local and at the grass-roots, rather than simply change the personnel at Stormont.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I’d used the lamb for the Greens before (the party I’d support) when suggesting this. But I’ll give you that Alliance may be able to impersonate a chihuahua at top table………

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Chris, are you so besotted by the romance and allure of Stormont that you need this explained to you? When you cast a vote you authorise someone to represent you politically for a number of years. While you may have voted as you did on just one or two issues, you are putting the person elected in your place, even those who you may not have voted for but who were elected in an election where your vote affirmed your acceptence of the contest, and are therein implicated morally in everything they may decide to do. It’s similar to a situation where you authorise someone through power of attorney to access your bank account and spend your money. By not voting you are refusing to authorise another to act in your name!!! How is this in any way “two faced”……?

    I am powerless to stop those elected from doing things I may disapprove of, but I can at least refuse to let them claim that they have been given authority to act by my act of voting.

  • Gopher

    You can tell yourself what you want but if I vote for an independent Im not trying to change the world I’m trying to get the best deal possible for my constituency. I am well aware of the rotten folly but if Sugden can get some Jobs or investment in return for her becoming justice minister fair play to her and the people that voted for her

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Indeed, Gopher, and when the few crusts have been distributed, the inexorable machine of “Totalitarian Democracy” simply continues to absorb all of those freedoms that make live worth living, and negates any even short term advantage of trying to “get the best deal possible for my constituency”. The inevitably myopic vote for short term interest sustains the bigger game plan in its homogenising course on a global scale:


    Sometimes actually knowing that a bigger picture is unfolding out there utterly qualifies our apparent day to day interests. If you knew where the Titanic was actually heading, those secure jobs in the galley that were secured by compliance with the current system might not appear so attractive a deal.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Hi mac tire, few years back I remember a Gary Larson cartoon of a line of cattle queueing to enter a big building marked “Abattoir”. A cow wandering about close to the front of the queue is told “Hey you, there’s a line…….”

    “So stay at home and drink your beer
    And let your neighbours vote
    Said the man in the Golden Breastplate
    Under the old Stone Cross”

    wonder who Yeats voted for………..

  • Gopher

    There are a million and one things that can kill us, you never know the moment. In the mean time if my elected representatives can put a train station actually at our airports get rid of passenger duty and build the odd dual carriageway in the right freaking place I’ll support their attempt for world domination with my vote. If on the other hand they do none of those things I will vote for someone else to rule the world.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    And on the morality of doing this we will respectfully agree to differ, I’d hope. But at least when something as foul as the Iraq war unsettles another country I can feel morally clear of having in some indirect manner actually authorised what went on, and clear of having directly sustained a system that continues to protect those responsible for permitting what happened at Kincora “in the interests of national security.” I’ll stick with Plato on all this, and I’ll try and avoid the short-term benefits of a job on the Titanic.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I think it was a bit too late, a new dynamic at Stormont was proclaimed, and it was proclaimed so often by the media that an Opposition was the only way that new dynamic was going to arise.

    It is a hope, a rather mad hope. Alex Kane’s rather grounded and calculated commentary warning that the “opposition” is largely dependent on what the opposition parties actually do with it, shows the focus needs to turn away from procedures changing Stormont, and back to agency of our politicians.

    As it has always been.