“It’s an example of fiddling while Rome burns” was Naomi Long’s rather direct and caustic response on The View last night (about 29.40) to the latest controversy to emerge between Sinn Fein and the DUP over, wait for it, the naming of a boat.
The more serious matter, however, concerns the current state of the Opposition. The Opposition day debate (one of only four in the whole parliamentary year allowed by the new DUP/SF administration) was pretty lacklustre.
The SDLP’s rural banking motion was spiked when government parties added an amendment calling (on themselves) to get on with rolling out Broadband: the sum of which, if it ever happens, would do away with the need for rural banking.
The semi detached polite bureau at Stormont Castle shows little appetite for allowing anyone to hold them to account. As Alex Kane noted yesterday, the Speaker seems concerned that too many Private Members Bills are coming through.
According to Alex, the whole idea of opposition was fine in theory, but no one in the DUP or Sinn Fein expected anyone to actually spurn the Ministerial (and Spad) wages and take the hard road instead:
My gut instinct is that the DUP/Sinn Fein supported it for two main reasons: they didn’t want to look like anti-democracy bullies and, more importantly, they reckoned that, even if there was an official Opposition, the UUP and SDLP would opt for the Executive, rather than potential isolation.
So, after the election, they assumed that Nesbitt, Eastwood and Ford (with Alliance coming in on the Justice by-ball) would green-light Executive participation.
It didn’t turn out like that, of course. And for all the talk of “strong government” versus a “weak and divided Opposition” it’s pretty clear that Foster and McGuinness are still a little bit spooked by Opposition.
That’s why they cut back on the number of Opposition days.
That’s why they’ve appointed David Gordon as their “minder”. That’s why the Speaker has intervened to prevent questions and discussion on Nama in the wake of the recent BBC NI Spotlight programme and on the appointment of Gordon.
And that’s why there’s to be a review (by a committee with a DUP/Sinn Fein majority) on the number of PMBs allowed.
It’s a highly flawed approach in the longer term. Opposition has the potential to bring a life to Stormont it has lacked for most of the existence of the state, lending legitimacy to good strong government.
In allowing itself to be seen to stymy even the possibility of a strong alternative voice to the DUP/SF coalition it makes them look weak, even when they aren’t.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty