The Stormont Opposition – how will it work practically?

For the first time since 1972, Stormont has a formal Opposition. Author and journalist, Dr John Coulter, outlines how this will work practically and not deteriorate into a primary school playground shouting match.
The Stormont Opposition will only work if it is established as a working Shadow Cabinet with Nesbitt become Shadow First Minister, not Leader of the Opposition.
At best, Nesbitt’s Opposition can count on his 16 UUP MLAs, 12 from the moderate nationalist SDLP, eight from the centrist Alliance, two-apiece from the hard Left People Before Profit Alliance and Greens, as well as a single Independent MLA and the leader of the Right-wing Traditional Unionist Voice party.
Nesbitt – in the eyes of the Ulster voters – must present himself as almost being equal with the current First Minister, Arlene Foster of the DUP, and the Deputy First Minister – Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness.
Just as Foster and McGuinness run the Executive, Nesbitt must make a Shadow Cabinet a political force to be reckoned with. For each Minister the Executive appoints, Nesbitt needs a Shadow Minister.
While this can be a political cosmetic exercise the former TV news anchor-man can win, his real battle will be to ensure a steady flow of information about what happens behind the Executive’s closed doors.
Practically, Nesbitt will need to ensure he establishes a network of whistle-blowers who can leak him tips or evidence of forthcoming legislation.
His reason for pulling the UUP’s sole minister out of the last Executive was the shortness of time the UUP was being given to consider important documentation. There were suggestions the consideration time was being measured in minutes rather than weeks and months.
Presumably, the tactic of the DUP/Sinn Fein coalition was to give opponents as little time as possible to make amendments so that legislation would be ‘done and dusted’ by the time it reached the Assembly Chamber.
One of the reasons against going into official Opposition at Stormont was that it would take those parties ‘out of the loop’ completely in terms of gaining even limited access to potential legislation.
Opponents of the Opposition move point to the lack of influence which the DUP had in 1998 in shaping the initial content and final outcome of the Good Friday Agreement, which ultimately and ironically led to the power-sharing Executive which the DUP now enjoys.
If the opponents of the DUP/Sinn Fein coalition are to avoid becoming little more than screaming political choristers at an out-of-tune musical festival, then the UUP must set up his comprehensive network of informants, leaks and whistle-blowers so that the Executive parties can be challenged at every turn.
This, in turn, poses serious ethical questions on how the UUP and other Opposition partners gain their information from sources. How can these sources be protected? How can the UUP guarantee that the flow of information coming to the party is genuine and accurate and not dis-information or mis-information?
What role, if any, can the media have in holding the DUP/Sinn Fein coalition to account over its actions, especially through the use of Freedom of Information legislation?
Nesbitt has got to convince potential Opposition partners – and the electorate – that a formal Opposition is much more than merely a well-paid shouting shop of political pupils yelling at a school sports day.
His Opposition could face the same fate as previous attempts to replace the original parliament, such as Sunningdale, the Convention, 1982 Assembly and Northern Ireland Forum – all well-meaning talking shops.
And his Opposition gamble with come further under the spotlight as the EU referendum looms as he has nailed his party’s colours firmly to the Remain camp (as are the SDLP and Sinn Fein), while Foster’s DUP is staunchly Leave.
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter at @JohnAHCoulter


  • Ernekid

    Why exactly must Nesbitt become ‘Shadow First Minister’? Surely the opposition in the Assembly will run on similar lines as the opposition in the Dáil where party leaders such as Gerry Adams and Michéal Martin have designated speaking rights and teams of spokesmen/women but there is no such thing as a ‘shadow cabinet’. Adopting the terminology of Westminster for a multiparty system like the Assembly isn’t very useful at all.

    The focus solely being on the UUP is rather odd considering that the SDLP and very likely Alliance will also be opposition parties.

  • Gopher

    Because in opposition you have to prove that you can do better than the DUP and SF do in government, so falling out with Mike because he has 16 seats and you have 12 is not a great start. Add to that the Assembly has absolutely no similairity to the Irish parliament in that they dont have two parties handcuffed together and call it a government.

  • Zig70

    Where the Opposition is formed by two or more qualifying parties, then the largest party must nominate a Leader of the Largest Non-Executive Party and the second largest party must nominate a Leader of the Second largest Non-Executive Party. These names may be changed by standing orders.

  • Zig70

    You’d almost think this piece was written by the DUP/SF to make sure the opposition is fractious.

  • Declan Doyle

    Trying to compare the machinations of the ‘new’ Stomonts with ‘normal’ parliamentary procedures is futile. The SDLP and the UUP have done nothing more than ensure that the next assembly elections will be a tribal race to the top (or bottom) between SF and DUP. The opposition experiment inadvertently accepts those two parties as respective masters of their respective houses, therefore the electorate will in all likely hood rise to the challenge. It is exciting to have an opposition, but when the government has little power as it is, the competition will always be between the tribal chiefs at the top with the alternatives ignored because they simply cannot sharpen the teeth of power.

  • Gopher

    Its up to the UUP, SDLP and Alliance if they decide to come on board to prove otherwise. Personally Im not confident they can put their differences aside to mount a serious opposition but if they cant we still have Jim Allister

  • Dominic Hendron

    Opposition puts the ball firmly in the court of the electorate in spite of the machinery of govt. Policies like integrated education v shared education for one, the latter favoured by SDLP/UUP/ALL. the former by SF/DUP. I’m sure other differences will emerge. Then it will be up to the people to decide.

  • Neil

    At best, Nesbitt’s Opposition can count on his 16 UUP MLAs, 12 from the moderate nationalist SDLP, eight from the centrist Alliance, two-apiece from the hard Left People Before Profit Alliance and Greens, as well as a single Independent MLA and the leader of the Right-wing Traditional Unionist Voice party.

    At worst they’ll be like cats in a sack. Obviously it would have to work on an issue by issue basis, and on most conceivable issues that group won’t have much consensus. The SDLP are well and truly tethered to a lot of SFs policy positions anyway, and pretty much everything the UUP does looks like political opportunism because there’s not enough distance between policy positions in the UUP and DUP to justify much outrage.

  • robertianwilliams

    I still maintain Sinn Fein are the de facto they are unequal “partners”, with an effective veto against all their legislation held by the largest party. So the other groups are just playing games fighting for relevance.

  • mjh

    Seven steps to starting an Opposition. My back-of-an-envelope guide for the UUP, SDLP and Alliance.

    1) Decide what kind of Opposition you want to be. Co-ordinated or competitive? If you decide to maximise your independence from each other and compete for attention and advantage then don’t bother your heads with the next six steps – your climbing into the dustbin of history already.

    2) Decide whose in and whose out. Each extra party or independent makes co-ordination more difficult. You don’t want to waste most of your time and energy just keeping yourselves together. TUV and PBPA would probably want to maintain totally distinctive positions anyway. Maybe the Greens too.

    3) Decide what to call yourselves. Standing orders may dictate cumbersome titles like “Leader of the Second Largest Opposition Party” but the media and public will never get their heads round that. Always refer to yourselves and each other as “Leader of the Opposition”, “Deputy Leader”, “Shadow Minister of Finance” etc

    4) Agree on a set of key Opposition points. These will be the handful of issues that you are going to hammer the government on at every opportunity, each one beginning with “The government is not doing enough to…..” Examples might be: “…tackle the paramilitaries”; “…provide mental health services; “…ensure that there is a place in an integrated school for every parent who choses one”; “…improve education for inner-city children”; “….attract well paying jobs to deprived and rural areas”.

    5) Identify areas of serious disagreement – such as marching – and agree a) a damage limitation strategy; and b) (if at all possible) how they might develop some common ground.

    6) Agree a procedure for co-ordinating shadow minister responses; an outline code of conduct for shadow ministers including sticking to agreed opposition lines and avoidance of criticism of opposition colleagues; co-ordination of press-offices.

    7) Appoint Shadow Ministers.

  • Dan

    Opposition will be a complete flop.
    As will the Executive.
    One shambles after another, nothing resolved, nothing delivered.
    Then we’ll have another set of elections and same again.
    Still, if it keeps Sinn Fein from going back to terrorism full time, that’ll keep the show on the road.

  • chrisjones2

    No ..SF and the DUP blocked this to try and neuter it and avoid impertinent questions

  • chrisjones2

    I agree…the last thing Marlene wants is someone asking questions or even worse – putting forward progressive ideas that might expose the intellectual depth of Ministers

  • Gopher

    The Shadow ministers should be easy enough 4-3-1. Or if the the UUP want to make a big gesture 3-3-2

  • chrisjones2

    He doesn’t have to but he and Eastwood should agree that they become coequals and Shadow FM/DFM – MIco to combat Marlene

  • Lionel Hutz

    The first thing he should do is call him and Colum Eastwood joint leader of the opposition. Prove it’s a joint office as he argues OFMDFM is

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    This de facto opposition within Gov’t might be the only route to survival that’s left open to them.

  • chrisjones2

    Co equal as in two people cast adrift in a lifeboat …. in the end they may fight over who is in charge but they both eventually end up sitting watching for who will die first and get eaten that the other may survive

    At the moment Arlene looks younger and plumper

  • mjh

    Not convinced it will be all that easy. One of the reasons I put that as the last step is so that the parties could have developed some trust and a greater understanding of the benefits they might gain by making this work. People are also likely to be a little more creative by that stage.

    If you run d’Hondt you get:
    Leader: UUP
    Deputy Leader: SDLP
    Shadow Ministers: 3 UUP, 3 SDLP, 2 Alliance – no matter which one of them is allocated Justice.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Do you mean more appetising and further down the food chain? Remember they are co-equal in terms of man-eating ferocity but they’re not really adrift in a lifeboat as you suggest. They still have a strong voter base each and it’s how each party can play to their respective electorates whilst building on the required partnership that will bring about float, sink or mutual cooperation to survive. It’s the mutual cooperation that might prove lethal to them with the electorate.

  • John Ó Néill

    “Those parties which would be entitled to ministerial positions in the Executive but choose not to take them up, to be recognised as an official opposition. Those parties which choose to go into opposition should elect to do so at the time they decline the offer of a ministerial position in the Executive when d’Hondt is run.”

    Only parties that were entitled to ministerial positions under d’Hondt and refuse them qualify to be part of ‘an opposition’.

  • mjh

    Correct. That would be UUP, SDLP and Alliance.

    UUP and SDLP because they would have been entitled to a ministerial position even if DUP,SF,UUP and SDLP had all chosen to exercise their rights to a ministerial position.

    Alliance because once the UUP and/or SDLP chose not to nominate a minister their MLA’s no longer count in the d’Hondt calculations and Alliance’s 8 MLA’s are then sufficient to qualify.

    In reality I can see no bar to the three parties admitting another, such as the Greens, into their group if they wish to. The restriction would be that neither of the Green members would be eligible for the Opposition’s speaking rights and therefore effectively could not perform the job of Shadow Minister.

  • Ryan A

    Agreed. Would be a brilliant and symbolic way of wrong footing the coalition on day 1.

  • jporter

    One of the best reasons for opposition rather than the ‘concentrate on better governance’ status quo option bandied about is that it will force the parties and their voters into a different perspective.
    As a few on here pointed out, this is potentially vital to the survival of the UUP and SDLP, but more importantly, will expose the illusion that the SF and DUP present of being ‘opposition within government.’
    Up until now (and indeed in the election just passed) they could sell their hard line voters the idea that the assembly was really SF vs DUP, otherwise known as ‘vote for us to keep themmuns out’. The establishment of an official opposition exposes this as the lie that it always was and forces everyone, including the parties themselves, to face the uncomfortable truth that they need to work together rather than defaulting to their sectarian comfort zones. Should also see the end of nonsense joint candidate electioneering (for now). It will be a make or break for all concerned – fair play to Mike for making the right move (for once).

  • jporter

    SF and the DUP would love their voters to continue seeing SF as the de facto opposition, rather than the uncomfortable truth of partners in government. The more that truth is exposed, the more likely we will get focus on real, everyday, issues.

  • mickfealty

    “The Stormont Opposition will only work if it is established as a working Shadow Cabinet with Nesbitt become Shadow First Minister, not Leader of the Opposition.”

    It won’t work like this John. It doesn’t work like this in Leinster House, Cardiff Bay, or Holyrood. In any case as mandatory coalition still applies this arrangement would be self harming since that shadow cabinet would fall apart after the next election.

  • Reader

    mjh: Always refer to yourselves and each other as “Leader of the Opposition”, “Deputy Leader”, “Shadow Minister of Finance” etc
    Shadow First minister? Shadow Deputy?
    However, it may be that Marty already regards himself as Shadow First Minister, though he must be losing hope now.