A new shape to power sharing for Northern Ireland’s government but no clear role for opposition

First, let’s salute the continuing generational change. Apart from the lone venerable figure of dFM himself, the old warriors have all but departed and the main members of the DUP awkward squad are safely ensconsed in Westminster. In the first flush of change, it’s being said that our politics are becoming more normal. What sort of new normality will it be?

What differences will emerge from the end inclusive power sharing and its replacement by a two party coalition with one independent and a new multiparty opposition?

First, power sharing becomes more straightforward, easier  among two than five. The balance of 4 DUP to 3 SF departmental ministers reflects the election results and the realities of power. Under the level headed Arlene Foster,  the DUP is unlikely to abuse its narrow lead by throwing down blocking moves  in petitions of concern which only the DUP can impose alone; nor is Sinn Fein likely to provoke them. That anyway must be the hope.

There will be no more messing smaller parties about.The need for greater government cohesion becomes harder to avoid. With an opposition, basic flaws and misbehaviour can be exposed more clearly on the floor of the Assembly.

In the Executive the distributions of portfolios is intriguing. Party ideology might have suggested Simon Hamilton of the DUP would have returned to Finance where the instinct is to save money and Máirtín Ó Muilleoir of Sinn Fein to go to Economy with the more agreeable job of  dispensing some of it . But no, it’s the other way round. Spending is governed by Treasury constraints. Will lowering corporation tax be reviewed and will the Executive bite the bullet of raising more revenue to pay for all the wonderful things in a fully funded  programme for government?  Both will test the Executive’s cohesion and resolve. With the Republic in mind we can assume that water charges are still ruled firmly out.

The DUP have taken Communities and Education where the aims of a Shared Future are deeply embedded and sectarian attitudes need careful handling, while SF are in charge of the more utilitarian departments of Infrastructure and Health. It might have been thought that SF with their rhetoric of reconciliation would have argued for Communities.

And so assuming that both parties are content with the other’s choices, the distribution suggests that they parties start with a resolve to work effectively together. But it won’t be easy for example to reconcile the DUP’s commitment to continuing academic selection with the SF’s commitment to its abolition; or the DUP’s commitment to law and order with SF’s cardinal aim of integrating former ( and actual) paramilitaries into society on equal terms with, say, former police officers..

A good deal is made of the pressurised decision to place the independent Unionist Claire Sugden in Justice. While it was quite a concession for SF to agree to a unionist of any sort, the imperative of forming the Executive in time took priority. Although Ms Sugden will have her say, the big decisions on justice and policing like parades regulations, flags and traditions and the Past which are all currently deferred, will eventually have to be taken by the main parties together. A good start would be to comply with the Lord Chief Justice’s request for more funding for inquests which the Executive refused before the election.

What role is there for opposition? I am an opposition sceptic. By itself multiparty power sharing recognises opposing interests and compels reconciliation between them or eventual collapse. It is a zero sum gamble. While the last Assembly played at brinkmanship, it drew back. However, an opposition – or oppositions – we now have, born of intense frustration at the bullying as they saw it, by the two leading parties. But an opposition does nothing to reduce competition within the designations. If anything it increases it. However it can also act as a safety valve. The challenge from opposition may help keep government respectable.

Looked at negatively the SDLP or the two PBP will be needed by SF to make up the  two seats  short for a petition of concern in the event of a serious clash with the DUP.

More positively, the UUs, the SDLP and Alliance now have the chance to develop an alternative choice of power sharing government beginning with case by case collaboration. But as is usual with opposition, the initiative rests firmly with government; the opposition’s success depends on the government’s failure.

To stand any chance of  overhauling the DUP and SF, the UUs and the SDLP will have to increase their appeal  among unionists and nationalists respectively while at the same time  gaining greater cohesion between themselves  to be an effective opposition and perhaps bid for new voters in the election for the next Assembly, with its 23 fewer seats.  To achieve both at once will be a tall order.

The prospects for detailed scrutiny have improved by the appointment of chairs of committees who are either the main opposition leaders or senior members of the other Executive party to that of the minister. These seem to be good appointments which will improve the overall effectiveness of the Assembly, as the main parties promised in Fresh Start. If the committees can be made to  function  with the help of greater expertise  and a more independent spirit less tied to party whips, they could become – as originally intended – the better forum for constructive opposition than the plenary.

As for Alliance, by surrendering to their frustrations, they may have made the worst mistake of their existence by abandoning their unique leverage. Will they ever get a chance of government again?

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