#Soapbox: Northern Ireland has started its first steps into a brave new political world

Cllr Alexander Stafford is an Ealing councillor, representing the Ealing Broadway ward, and former advisor to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

It is said a week is a long time in politics, and this has definitely been true in Northern Ireland. Just over a week ago the UUP made the decision to reject taking a Ministry and have instead decided to form an Opposition. The SDLP has now also decided to pull away from government and join them on the opposite side of the chamber.

Elsewhere I’ve commented that the UUP had made a “brave and bold step – and should be lauded for this courageous decision” of launching what will become the Assembly’s first ever real Opposition.

It is both the right thing for their party, by giving them a platform and a raison d’être, as well the right thing for Northern Ireland by giving choice to voters over policy and outlook, rather than dividing them along traditional lines.

Therefore, it is pleasing to see that the SDLP has broken with its fellow nationalists and will join the UUP in Opposition. These voices will significantly strengthen the Opposition and allow for a more diverse, wide-ranging and cross-community representation, giving the Opposition credibility across the country.

Nevertheless, once again the SDLP has found itself playing catch-up with the rest of the mainstream parties. The UUP’s decision made waves, and all credit to the media-savvy Mike Nesbitt on being able to grab the momentum for these changes; however, the SDLP’s hand has been forced.

The UUP manoeuvre put the SDLP between a rock and a hard place.

By sticking with the status quo, when there is an Opposition they would struggle to make their voice heard in the Assembly, and their raison d’être would continue to be questioned; if they moved in with the UUP they would be seen as reacting to events, merely copying a group who has already made a brave decision.

Rather than creating a new movement and be seen to drive forward a new type of politics, the SDLP is running the risk of constantly chasing the latest fad, rather than displaying in-depth thought leadership.

The differing approaches, and timings, from the UUP and SDLP belie their different prospects. The SDLP continues to struggle to elucidate its relevance in an already crowded field, which is having an effect on its vote share. The UUP, however, is at last starting to turn the corner electorally.

Gaining two seats at the Westminster election and maintaining the number of seats at the Assembly, demonstrates that the worst is over for the UUP and it is possible for things to get better.

With the Opposition move, Mike Nesbitt has clearly seen a gap in the market, one that the previous UUP/Conservative deal aimed for, and is trying to use it as a springboard for the future of Northern Ireland politics.

These changes have caught off-guard the DUP and Sinn Fein. The SDLP decision to move should be of serious concern to Sinn Fein. The Shinners have recently been feeling the squeeze across several arenas in Northern Ireland and this pronouncement by the SDLP will only add to this pressure on an unexpected front.

Whilst it remains to be seen if any of the nationalist vote will now return to the SDLP, the Shinners will have to take the potential threat seriously, and no amount of bluster from them hides the fact that they have been wrong-footed and made to look weak.

Between the options of Opposition and joining the Executive, is it only right that the SDLP has moved in with the UUP. It will help to normalise politics in Northern Ireland, giving all members of the community a genuine choice of policies and ideas.

Whilst this move is not going to completely break down the traditional divides, it does start to fragment the lines, which eventually will aid the realignment and normalisation of politics.

Whether the SDLP and UUP stick to Opposition when the reality of losing power and prestige hits them is yet to be seen, but for now, Northern Ireland has started its first steps into a brave new political world.