Entitlement to participation in the ‘official opposition’

Interesting sidebar to the issue of an ‘official opposition’. The proposed scheme is set out in Appendix F4 on page 55 of the “A Fresh Start: The Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan” document (although it still requires some administrative mechanism to formalise it).

The first section clearly states that:

(i) “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.”

The start of the descriptor: “Those parties which would be entitled to ministerial positions in the Executive…” means [literally] only those parties who would be ‘entitled’ under d’Hondt. Running d’Hondt even without UUP and SDLP only returns DUP and SF ministers, which would mean that Alliance is, technically, excluded from being designated as part of the ‘official opposition’. There doesn’t seem to be a facility for the ‘official opposition’ to then simply invite additional membership since the prerequisite is entitlement to ministerial positions (as a broad index of electoral support).

Presumably the original authors of this annexe in A Fresh Start intended to preclude other parties from appropriating the title ‘official opposition’, in the event that they accepted ministerial positions under d’Hondt, and inserted the d’Hondt ministerial entitlement threshold to exclude them. In that sense, the genesis of Appendix F4 would be worth knowing, particularly any role UUP, SDLP  or Alliance may have had in sculpting it.

Given that the ‘official opposition’ scheme currently exists as a proposal rather than a formalised instrument, there may be some road to travel before it gets substantiated (updated: as Brendan reminded me in the comments – it has now been passed, the threshold was expanded to holding 8% of MLAs, which still excludes Alliance). There may also be some irony (and probably political capital), too, in the parties that rejected A Fresh Start demanding its actual implementation where it suits them. A revision of Appendix F4 as proposed could be unlikely as it may dilute the soapbox which UUP and SDLP are seeking, which may mean that Alliance will find itself demoted outside of both the Executive and any putative ‘official opposition’.

That’s a space to watch when it comes to the doling out of the Justice ministry, particularly if Alliance suddenly acquire a rapid change of mind during this first half of this week.

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