Featured Image Courtesy of The Ulster Fry
By Séamus O’Kane
The UUP were the first to jump from the sinking ship with Mike Nesbitt exclaiming across the Assembly chamber, “Let battle commence!” We can only hope that the terminology of war does not come to define the new opposition in later weeks. The SDLP have promised “constructive opposition” after having hung around for a few more days before realising what had been obvious all along: it would be the Sinn Féin/DUP way or the high way. Alliance have refused to take the Justice ministry (though with language which could suggest movement in future) which is unsurprising given that Ford’s stint in the role saw him announce closures of several courthouses while (most embarrassingly) Maghaberry was branded the most dangerous prison on these islands. As they do not qualify for the D’Hondt mechanism which selects ministers based on their electoral representation, they too must be opposition-bound, but with the unfortunate position of not being part of the “official” opposition.
The recent Assembly election saw these three parties fail to meet any of their electoral targets. The SDLP haemorrhaged votes, dropping from 14 to 12 and even losing a seat in their home constituency of Foyle, demonstrating that the legacy of John Hume will not carry weight forever. Alliance received no growth, returning with the same amount of seats and their percentage of the vote share dropping. The UUP’s skyward trajectory proved to be a myth as Mike Nesbitt returned with 16 seats, the same as the party had after the 2011 election before any defections. Clinging to power did none of them any favours and remaining would only lead to further electoral punishment.
Criticism from within the Executive evidently did not work. There was always something deeply incongruous in the SDLP being part of a coalition and yet voting against every budget it produced. In order for these parties to find their own identity and be taken seriously, they have no option but to form a Shadow Cabinet as currently exists in Westminster. With each minister having a member of the opposition specialising in his portfolio, the levels of scrutiny will necessarily be more focused and expert. However, the opposition is painfully under-resourced, eligible for a mere £60,000 a year in funding. This is a pittance for what is supposed to be the alternative government, faced with the Executive’s plethora of civil servants and the infamous Spads.
Sinn Féin and the DUP, despite allowing for opposition structures to be put in place, have proven to be quite hostile to the parties forsaking their Executive seats. Sinn Féin now have less cover for their austerity policies which cost them a seat in their traditional stronghold of West Belfast. The DUP are now more open to cries of “Lundy!” as they are themselves alone with the very people they warned their electorate could be the largest party. Indeed, the First and Deputy First Minister now have a new name, Marlene, which encapsulates the nature of the new government, now a two-headed beast, and exposes the two ministers as nothing more than half a minister each, inextricably tied to one another. The cosy relationship the two parties pretend to not enjoy will only be more egregious if they follow the conventional seating arrangement for parliaments which have an opposition. The government sits on one side and the opposition on the other. That sense of solidarity is something Martin and Arlene will want to avoid as they remain two parties who are best mates one day and sworn enemies the next.
Official opposition aside, the Assembly is now more diverse than ever in its spectrum of political opinion, a fact which can only be welcomed. Jim Allister can no longer lay claim to the post of one-man opposition. Two Greens and two People Before Profit MLAs will be loudly providing political voices which are normally not heard. Pro-life policies, welfare reform and the reduction of corporation tax will now have vocal opponents. Additionally, more independents may emerge over time as they did in the last Assembly term with John McAllister and Basil McCrea. Although John McAllister had his proposal to introduce technical groups torn to shreds (a feature which would have granted smaller parties more speaking rights), the introduction of bills last year demonstrated the usefulness of a single MLA. Aside from McCallister’s Opposition Bill, there was Steven Agnew’s Children’s Bill and Jim Allister brought attention to Stormont’s vast wastage. Gerry Carroll and Eamonn McCann in particular will be bringing a new element to the concept of opposition in their advocacy of people power. Stormont’s insular focus will now be forced to look outwards under additional pressure from the rallying cries of people on the streets.