The Opposition era at Stormont is still in its infancy stage, but the Executive parties certainly can’t be accused of adopting a defensive strategy in anticipation of the UUP and SDLP-led Opposition getting their acts together.
The surprising appointment of David Gordon as the NI Executive’s Press Secretary marked a statement of intent by the leading parties of unionism and nationalism to ensure that their Fresh Start Executive would withstand the efforts of a dedicated Opposition to discredit the administration.
There is much that separates Sinn Fein and the DUP in policy terms, from moral issues of same sex marriage & abortion (in the cases of fatal foetal abnormalities), to academic selection in Education, levels of rates for the wealthiest and devolution of regeneration and community development powers to local government institutions.
But there has been no sign, to date, that the Opposition parties have managed to present either a unified and coherent vision which can both attract support and act as a critique of the current administration’s agenda, or that either party, standing alone, has managed to significantly dent the reputations nor support levels of their respective political opponents.
This failure was noted in an Executive briefing paper Suzanne Breen reported on in today’s Belfast Telegraph, in which the Opposition party leaders are labelled “The Father Dougal and Father Ted of Parliament Buildings,” joint heads of “The Craggy Island Opposition.”
From the article:
Headlined ‘The Craggy Island Opposition’, the leaked paper states: “The SDLP and UUP are good at being negative, at running down not just the Executive but public services. Mike and Colum have been likened to Steptoe and Son.
“But when it comes to policy issues, they are Father Dougal and Father Ted – any proposal, any initiative, any budget choice is met with either ‘Down with this Sort of Thing’ or occasionally ‘Careful Now’. That’s the sum total of their combined platform.”
During Mike Nesbitt’s Party Conference speech in October, he pointedly used the phrase “Vote Mike, Get Colum” in a significant declaration of an intention to work collaboratively with the SDLP to forge a unified approach to Opposition.
Yet the Executive memo notes how this has not, as of yet, led to any real sense of a unity of purpose:
“Sadly for Mike, he faced an almost immediate revolt in the ranks.
“UUP MP and former leader, Tom Elliott, popped up in the media to say he didn’t know where ‘Vote Mike, Get Colum’ had come from. He also said the idea of a joint opposition should be knocked ‘on the head’.
“It would seem Tom’s view is winning.
“There hasn’t been a single concrete proposal from the ‘Vote Mike, Get Colum’ coalition – let alone an agreed policy platform. It can’t be due to inexperience or time.
“Both parties had ministers side-by-side in the Executive from the restoration of devolution nine years ago. The business of governing – the choices and priorities before us all – shouldn’t be a mystery to them.
“It almost seems Mike is really in the Tom Elliott refusenik camp, despite his words.”
The briefing note states that Mr Nesbitt had “self-identified as leader of the Opposition, despite Colum telling anyone who will listen that he’s nobody’s deputy”.
It continues: “The UUP has established a ‘Stormont Opposition’ Twitter account complete with its own party logo. Does the party think it’s an Opposition and alternative Government all by itself? Does it secretly hanker back to the days pre-1972 when it ruled the roost on its own?”
Of course, the leaked memo is primarily useful in providing an insight into the thinking of DUP-SF strategists on the hill. What it reveals about their current levels of self-confidence suggests the Opposition parties have work to do in 2017.