What will make for a good opposition at Stormont?

The two main government parties seem to have convinced a large chunk of the media that in order to be effective as an opposition, the UUP and the SDLP must form a government-in-waiting. It suits the DUP and Sinn Fein to paint it that way in order to cover their many splits on policy.

Unfortunately, it is also complete nonsense. Opposition parties must show they’re fit for government, but they must also demonstrate why incumbents should be replaced. Under proportional representation, the electorate (not parties) decides the composition of future administrations.

This means that the UUP must prepare themselves as potential partners to SF (and/or others) in government. So an exclusive relationship with the SDLP is an unnecessarily self-limiting ordinance. It’s a burden which properly only belongs to the parties which choose to sit together in government.

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-12-09-59Which brings me to a second point. Last night’s The View may have been scrappy, but finally (and in marked contrast to the fictitious seating arrangments at Stormont) we got to see the two government parties in proper relationship to their political opponents.

The truth is that the working definition for the opposition should comprise the two largest parties and everyone else who is not in government. And they should not only oppose, but be seen to oppose.

The BBC’s graphic from last night demonstrates both the weakness of the current arrangements and the foolishness of treating the Official Opposition as some class of corporate thing. The two main parties sit apart, separated by yet more Opposition MLAs, that apparently don’t count, and all are shoved down the back of the room.

Yes, something needs to come through in the face of (to borrow from Deirdre Heenan) what is little more than government-by-non-aggression-pact. But as I noted on Twitter last night, they all have more pressing priorities in the short term…

And even more directly to the point, from one of our regular commenters…

The reintroduction of passion (however unfocused it was at times last night) is a start. Now we (the media) just need to remember that whilst we do need to bring both government and opposition to account, only one of them has the actual power to deliver.

Here’s the commentator’s corner segment from last night’s programme:

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  • Brian Walker

    Hold on Mick. It is perfectly possible to form an opposition pact and to carry it forward to the electorate. This is quite usual in PR systems. It need not be fixed forever and indeed the voters can blow it apart. Whether the UUP and the SDLP believe it is to their electoral advantage to do so is worth examining in a year or so’s time when we’ve got more of a track record to go on ; and whether the voters would be impressed is a different matter.

    The smaller parties can chose to oppose the government on separate grounds on details but they would be better co-ordinating when it comes to legislation like voting on the budget.

    To the aim of becoming top dog on each side is added the challenge of becoming an alternative government. One of the downsides of opposition they haven’t become used to is the withdrawal of information to plan the budget, which they enjoyed in the days of multiparty coalition. It would be constructive to allow access to this information but it isn’t scandalous for the present Executive to refuse. It’s their prerogative.

  • Before a pack would be remotely credible there are some fundamentals. At present Mick is correct.

    There are vulnerabilities that could be targeted and a twin approach could be taken in areas where there is most interest on each Party. As I noted in that tweet, the question is does either Party have what it takes and a willingness to co-operate. Actually, the willingness of co-operate at an opposition level shows a utility that would show how each could constructively work in Government; and if that failed in Government (should only one gain the advantage) it would show the electorate where the lack of goodwill lies and conversely assist the other. The bar to achieve this is of course much lower in opposition than in Government, which means it ought to be more possible to demonstrate. However, that means understanding mutuality not being contrary to having different priorities and interests with intelligent navigation around the pitfalls – something the DUP and SF seem to have worked out. Back to the tweet, and no evidence either UUP or SDLP leaderships have what it takes.

  • chrisjones2

    Stormont is different because the mandatory coalition.

    What we really need is an opposition to hold the Government to account and ask the awkward questions

    For example today we learn that the plan to get Boots and Specsavers and others to dispense hearing aids has been abandoned. Instead Trusts will have to draw up plans to do it. At the moment some in Belfast are waiting over a year. The service is incapable of delivering.

    Why this sudden change of direction? Is it financial or ideological? Who was lobbying for and against? Did any of them make contributions to political parties? And what does it say about the way that some of the most vulnerable in society are made pawns by Parties?

  • mickfealty


    I think TD makes my case well for me. When we’re on the run in to an election it’s fair to ask questions about what combinations are credible and whether they are shovel ready, so to speak.

    Even so, the custom in the Republic is for parties to fight off such speculation: although, de-crying any partnership with SF has up to now has been a pain free pre election pledge that may not always be the case.

    The poisonous version of that idea is that from Day one, the media should measure the effectiveness of the opposition as a model government in waiting. Bait and switch.

    As TD noted on Twitter, they all lack clear post GFA politics, are largely devoid of policy; and have little inherited instinct on where opportunities might present themselves a priori, or how to milk them when they arise.

  • mickfealty

    The divil is in the detail, and there’s plenty of scope for effective (and non sectarian) skirmishing around policy.

  • Skibo

    Mick the biggest problem in Stormont is that parties cannot be forced into opposition, they have to chose to enter it.
    Each party that achieves a high enough representation is entitled to a seat at the big table.
    Opposition requires no policies, no plans and no vision. They can sit back and snipe. Pull holes in agreed strategies where accommodation has had to be found on both sides to get agreement.
    Opposition is a much more simpler strategy and leaves each party capable of holding all their proposals without considering other parties outside the executive.
    For the Opposition to have to act as a government in waiting will require a watering down of promises given to their electorate.

  • chrisjones2

    Agree…and making it non sectarian will move the whole political model on. That of course doesnt mean it not be attacking a given party eg on NAMA or on hearing aids – or the lack of them

  • chrisjones2

    I dont think a pact is needed. These things are often best led by a motivated individual who specialises and probes with the general support of the rest of the opposition

  • Brian Walker

    “As TD noted on Twitter, they all lack clear post GFA politics, are largely devoid of policy; and have little inherited instinct on where opportunities might present themselves a priori, or how to milk them when they arise..”

    Mick my man, If they’re that hopeless then it’s goodnight Vienna.

    I was an opposition sceptic. Why give up access to official information and the chance to shine a little in a department? The point of going into opposition was to differentiate more clearly from the bloc leaders. They are the parties of the centre ground for an electorate who tell us they are longing for delivery.

    What have we got? The political churn is at neurotic levels due to Nama etc. The DUP and SF are on the defensive and innocent of planning for Brexit consequentials. The DUP is struck dumb. In nationalism – ( and the SDLP is worse), hysteria reigns. Fresh Start is stuttering so far. Too much floundering over positioning and far too little attention to policy, despite all that well being stuff..

    So the opportunities for creative opposition to set agendas are massive.. On domestic business the UU and SDLP leaders can exploit their committee chairmanships to hold the Executive to account in ways that don’t have to be in synch. They can build up a budget strategy with the help of civil society. A shared education awaits which Eastwood and Nesbitt both say they support and should go further. Try and build a common platform on that. They could even find a victims solution to cut through the legacy deadlock. There is expertise in that area.. But no. Easier to farm it out to an alphabet soup of arms length bodies to pore over yet again. Aaaghh!

    Mick, the goal is gaping wide. It’s very early days but they’d better shift. The vacuum may not last forever.( he said hopefully)

  • T.E.Lawrence

    (and non sectarian) Good Luck on that score Mick in the land war ongoing in Belfast City Centre. The Developers have played a Blinder by pitching local communities against each other ? Guess Who Won ?

  • mickfealty

    Don’t disagree with a single word of that Brian, especially the bit about farming policy out. That’s where the gold is buried. In their defence, and as I say above, none of them have many inherited instincts on this (which may be SF and the DUP’s salvation here).

    Long ago I used to compare the SDLP and SF to the country dog and the pampered townie pooch (after an experience of my own when we took our Holywood-raised Lab to my Uncle’s farm in Donegal).

    After dinner ours always used to let the scraps fall on the floor, then give it a sniff and eventually, if she fancied it, she might deign to eat it off the floor.

    What she realised very quickly in Donegal was that: one, she was in competition with three farm dogs; two, they caught the food as it was flying through the air; three, if she didn’t quickly learn the same trick, she was soon going to go very hungry.

  • Zig70

    For once Mick is completely right. The media and liberal unionists (same thing?) seem to have a blinker on a coherent opposition that means SDLP in cooperation with UUP. Absolute rubbish. The SDLP simply have to replace SF, that could be with DUP, UUP, Alliance or any other unionist party. I can’t see the difference between the DUP and UUP except that I apportion more blame for the troubles on the UUP and the DUP are more honest in their anti Irishness.

  • Zig70

    None of the parties need to hold hands in order to shine a light on Stormont, feck sake you only need a beer light.

  • Zig70

    Really if the SDLP want to replace SF, the best thing they can do is make absolute dix out of uup. Welcome to post GFA. As with Corbyn, the media are exposed as being in their own bubble.

  • eamoncorbett

    Brian , you are assuming that the Eastwood / Nesbitt relationship is more cordial than the Mallon /Trimble one which might not necessarily be the case.

  • Brian Walker

    Diissenter, No commentator has ever lost out by betting against failure. A number of points. First, the atmosphere of perpetual political crisis is easing. The system requires cross community government and has delivered it for a third time without a break. That has given space for the idea of opposition Second, the initiative lies with the coalition government who have yet to start delivering on a programme for government. Therefore third, it’s too early to judge the performance of the new Assembly. Fourth, there is a dynamic to opposition which is to force some cooperation between them as they react to government measures. Finally, as I argue, there are plenty of open goals to shoot at without the kind of over-calculation of narrow advantage that masks uncertainty. Start with ad hoc issues by all means and build up mutual confidence rather than try to draw up an interparty pact in a vacuum.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Forcing a government and an opposition does not mean that the quality of either improves or the rate of change in governments alters.

  • mickfealty

    That’s going in the scrap book!! 😉

  • Gopher

    The logistics of the matter are this, The SDLP require transfers from Alliance, Greens and the UUP in 5 seat assembly elections or else they are finished. A 57.5% turnout in West Belfast in the Brexit election and 8,000 voted leave which is twice the unionist combined assembly vote. Look across the Brexit vote and its obvious if your boys wont get out of bed for that they are not going to get out of bed for Colm Eastwood holding a LGBT flag, whilst stopping abortion rights, congratulating Jeremy Corbyn quoting John Hume.

    North Down assembly turnout 49%, Brexit turnout 67%. South Belfast 53% assembly turnout, 63.4 Brexit. I think its pretty obvious where any slack in the system lies and good luck trying replace SF without the above mentioned parties transferring to you.

    Hint: if you dont cooperate with them you wont get transfers

  • aquifer

    The opposition needs to look like an alternative government. People are still voting SF & DUP as if either of them can be in charge, but the Stormont system neutralises their incompatible British and Irish political ambitions. An opposition unified enough to go public on what they agree on should be able to be more credible than these two Ultras. And a UUP SDLP alignment could be smart, letting the UUP lead on policies for the middle classes, and letting the SDLP do the social democratic thing for the rest. They could even help the small parties expose SFDUP on sexual and environmental issues.

    Brexit should be a policy gift basket, but nobody seems to want to dip in first.

    An everyone except SFDUP party conference on Brexit would be a great start.

  • Gopher

    The SDLP present a United Ireland as their foremost policy, whether they actually believe that I dunno but that is how they present themselves. Whilst they present that as their foremost policy they are in a dogfight with SF, an unedifying dogfight that they can never hope to win. Alliance, Greens and now PBP offer an alternative and neither of the 3 can be described as Catholic Conservatives masquerading as socialists and I know this will come as a shock to the SDLP bright ideas division but all three can also hold a LGBT flag and all three actually have policy outside the border. Neither 3 however are going to make you carry your foetus around in a bag

    The SDLP need to start working with the UUP and Alliance and put the UI stuff into the background, the UUP and SDLP need to agree neither will partake in a POC and say “Hey dont blame us your in government with them”, “They are your mates”. They have to make government an Albatross for SF and DUP, they have to make SF and DUP choke on their own principles. They also have to point out Alliance, UUP and ourselves have got X Y Z policies that will be implemented.

  • murdockp

    they can never hope to win whilst the hard core sdlp faithful keep voting in the same policies and ideology year after year.

    at some point the views of non party faithful need to be woven into policy otherwise what’s the point.

  • Gopher

    That is the problem the SDLP have that is why they will become an irreverence. The Greens, PBP and even Alliance have a superior and more attractive image. Voting for the SDLP has become like taking your dad clubbing.

  • Lionel Hutz

    The SDLP and UUP can’t form an opposition program. When the government parties compromise, it’s because they have to govern. They can still claim not to have changed their fundamental policy positions. If the opposition parties compromise, it’s a change of policy. For theres no immediate need to compromise.

    The SDLP and UUP only need to show that they can work together. And I don’t think that the public will have a hard time believing that they can do so. And if the SDLP UUP fail to increase their vote share at the next election, it won’t be because the public didn’t believe that they could cooperate with each other.

    If I were advising either party id say they should look relaxed at the prospect of working together. And say it as simply as that. “Yes we have our differences but we have no doubts about being able to work together in government”. And then choose a policy area. Just one to start with. And come up with a joint policy proposal. A good one. With detail. Just to prove they can do it.

    There’s going to be a lot of inertia over the next five years. Remember that for the past 9 years the government parties have done very little and have only had the regular sham fights and high wires talks to distract from the fact that absolutely nothing is happening. If they are truly operating a non aggresion pact then there is a vacuum to be filled.

  • tmitch57

    I agree with the male presenter in The View segment: the mandatory power-sharing aspect of the GFA almost mandates cooperation among several parties in order to create a viable opposition and potential government. The SDLP and the UUP share a common dismal future if they do not make major changes in their political strategies; the outlook for Alliance is a bit brighter if only because they have a much smaller and more loyal electorate with which the floor and the ceiling on electoral share are not very far apart. All three parties share a common trait that they are largely middle class parties with the working class tending to gravitate more to the DUP and SF. This means the two parties should organize a common strategy built around attacking the ruling duopoly as being economically inefficient. The two parties would then have to design a common economic program that would take account of their differences over the border issue or basically ignore the border issue. The SDLP and the UUP would simply agree to disagree about the border if/when a referendum is ever held. If the SDLP and the UUP can cooperate in organizing a common economic program or at least approach, they have a good shot of eventually winning the support of Alliance as well.