The Ulster Unionists and the SDLP need to form a shadow Executive. Otherwise, they face oblivion

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

  • murdockp

    when stormont can announce £9m to United Airlines and £2m of money for derry airport scared resources that can put food in children’s bellies and not a murmur from the opposition, one starts to get worried for their future.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I hate to break it to you ….

    People in the UK don’t vote Labour or SNP just for the Shadow Cabinet formation.

    People in the Republic didn’t vote Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael on the basis of who was going to do what job in Opposition or Government.

    Most people in Northern Ireland probably don’t know who is Minister for the Economy or Infrastructure or DEARA or Justice.

    Ask them to name the Education minister in either Westminster or Dáil Éireann and they’d struggle too.

    Naming joint shadow ministers for Finance, or joint shadow ministers for Health or some sort of carve up division of the roles isn’t the magic bullet that’s going to win voters away from government parties, rival opposition parties or the couch.

    What people want from their politicians is policies they can grasp, not simply personalities in the debating chamber and committees.

    I’ve always said opposition and “oppositionism” is not a magic bullet,

    People think the only role of Parliament is to ensure rotating government seem to be oblivious about the fact that there are voters and elections and politicans inside their communities and constituency offices on the doorstep and they are not merely decided on the ratings given by viewers of Stormont Today.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    but holding government to account in an organised and methodical way is an important role in itself; and in doing so, prepares and sharpens the parties in opposition for one day taking up those ministries. It’s a valuable part of democracy and it’s been a great move for Northern Ireland that we are now moving to this system. Brian is surely right – we just need them to now start acting like an opposition.

  • Korhomme

    It would be good to think that the ‘opposition’ in Stormont would do the job of an opposition – holding the executive to account and presenting itself as an alternative executive. I won’t be holding my breath.

  • There has been an effective opposition for years: the Green Party and Traditional Unionist Voice. No need for the UUP or SDLP to get their fingers out.

  • Zig70

    So what the SDLP had in government is some media presence, now they have little. Opposition with the dastardly UUP offering to speak for them without changing the blinkers was/is always going to be a disaster.

  • mickfealty


    The truth is that PR STV protects small parties from oblivion. If it didn’t there might be more incentive for them to grow beyond the small comfort zones they currently subsist in.

    FPTP, with odd exceptions like the Liberals, tends to crush smaller groupings. Brexit for instance will destroy UKIP’s main democratic base in England (where most of its voters are) by doing away with the EP seats which are decided by PR.

    I look upon what’s coming up next as an experiment in loose cooperation in the first place. There’s no need to move to exact and formal arrangement, but there will need to be some co-ordination.

  • tmitch57

    This is true, Mick, but if they ever want to get back into government in the driver’s seat they will have to practice working like a coherent system. In two- or three-party systems the two main parties take turns in government. In multiparty systems the two leading blocs of parties take turns–with some remaining permanently in government. In the Republic FG and Labour have cooperated for decades as a ruling unit (even if Labour temporarily partnered with FF in 1993-94). If the two fading parties still want to be around a decade from now they must learn new tricks.

  • aquifer

    Smart idea. Give out the briefs, publish the programme, and take the picture of a new alternative executive dressed in suits all around any big shiny table. Not hard.

    Get a website to track which parts of the programme are nicked by the sectarian duopoly. Requires effective delegation by each party and a set decision mechanism.

    But can Alliance imagine a future where they are not just the piggy in the middle party, and have to decide who gets what? Can the UUP exist except by permission of the Orange Order? Are the SDLP smart enough to let another party look after the interests of the Catholic middle class? Can the Greens take a real decision?

    This is a job for effective spin doctors, no wonder SFDUP are hoovering them up.

  • chrisjones2

    Forming a shadow structure isnt good enough., The MLAs involved need to do some work – put the effort in and question question question attack attack attack. How many will?