In the tradition of political comment for decades without a government, Alex Kane’s analysis of the state of opposition at Stormont concentrates on political positioning rather than the politics of policy. He exaggerates somewhat the achievements of the two- party Executive.
Foster and McGuinness have played a blinder in terms of standing together on difficult issues (look at the bringing in of Claire Sugden to Justice, the joint letter to Theresa May, the DUP’s underplaying of the McKay-Bryson story, Sinn Fein not allowing themselves to get overexcited by comments from Gregory Campbell or Sammy Wilson, their collective calm on the cross-border implications of Brexit and even the decision to recruit David Gordon as an Executive “minder”).
These are essentially the elements of a survival strategy with accompanying optics. We await the more testing implementation of Fresh Start and the spending decisions that have to follow the agreeable Wellbeing pledges of the programme for government ( remember them?). Not to mention (and they were barely mentioned) the urgent need to explore the consequentials of Brexit for NI raised yesterday. An all-Ireland forum – but one ostentatiously divorced from a united Ireland agenda – would certainly be helpful and might be better convened by civil society north and south to deter political manoeuvring. It would complement rather than rival whatever formal mechanism is devised to consult on triggering Article 50 – assuming there will be more to it than officials to-ing and fro-ing between Whitehall and Stormont, Holyrood and Cardiff Bay. That’s a theme for another day.
But fair play. The Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, freed from the burdens of government can concentrate on developing their opposition strategy. But what strategy is that pray?
The parties which quit the Executive don’t seem to realise that they are in a different position from the old days of multi-party power sharing,. That is the bed they have chosen to lie in.
How much right therefore have they got to complain. together with Alliance, about the lack of transparency in the budget process? That is one of the main traditional downsides of opposition. But hey! It also gives them freedom to offer alternatives, like Mike Nesbitt’s effort. For guidance, it would be great if Northern Ireland had the equivalent of the UK Office of Budgetary Responsibility but it hasn’t – not yet anyway.
An opposition dilutes its impact if it stays fragmented. What is required from the UUP and the SDLP, with perhaps Alliance and others in tow, is the formation of a well- co-ordinated shadow Executive.
Nothing less will do. Otherwise, oblivion threatens.
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