Either Or - Wisdom or Wilderness

For the first time since 1972, Stormont has a formal Opposition. Author and journalist, Dr John Coulter, outlines how this will work practically and not deteriorate into a primary school playground shouting match. Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter at @JohnAHCoulter.

Words of wisdom, or the way out to the wilderness – that’s how Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt’s sudden unveiling that his party will go into official opposition in the Stormont Assembly will be judged.

And the same can also be said for Colum Eastwood’s SDLP given that the last nationalist movement to be part of an official Stormont Opposition eventually went defunct.

Unlike the Dail in Dublin, which after weeks of wrangling, has finally agreed a minority Fine Gael government, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein will dominate the Stormont power-sharing Executive with 66 seats between them out of 108 in the Assembly.

Nesbitt’s high-wire decision to become the first Leader of the Opposition since the original Stormont parliament was axed in 1972, will either be seen as a brilliant tactical move which will give his and the other parties added political clout, or will be doomed to condemn the UUP to the wilderness for the next five-year mandate.

The UUP’s decision to become the Opposition was based on the dominance of the Executive by the Big Two – the DUP and Sinn Fein. There have been suggestions the DUP/SF coalition decided all the legislation between them and presented the outcome as a fait accompli to the other parties – prompting the view: what’s the point in being in an Executive? At this point we should note the DUP/Sinn Fein spin about still remaining in control.

The DUP and Sinn Fein are working well together. Perhaps the Executive would best be renamed the Alliance of Provisional Sinn Fein and Protestant Sinn Fein?

However, if Opposition is to work practically rather than become nothing more than the other 42 MLAs shouting from the sidelines, Nesbitt needs to rebrand himself not as Leader of the Opposition, but as Shadow First Minister.

At best, Nesbitt’s Opposition can count on his 16 UUP MLAs, 12 from the moderate nationalist SDLP, eight from the centrist Alliance, two-apiece from the hard Left People Before Profit Alliance and Greens, as well as a single Independent MLA and the leader of the Right-wing Traditional Unionist Voice party.

Nesbitt – in the eyes of the Ulster voters – must present himself as almost being equal with the current First Minister, Arlene Foster of the DUP, and the Deputy First Minister – Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness.

Just as Foster and McGuinness run the Executive, Nesbitt must make a Shadow Cabinet a political force to be reckoned with. For each Minister the Executive appoints, Nesbitt needs a Shadow Minister.

While this can be a political cosmetic exercise the former TV news anchor-man can win, his real battle will be to ensure a steady flow of information about what happens behind the Executive’s closed doors.

Practically, Nesbitt will need to ensure he establishes a network of whistle-blowers who can leak him tips or evidence of forthcoming legislation.

His reason for pulling the UUP’s sole minister out of the last Executive was the shortness of time the UUP was being given to consider important documentation. There were suggestions the consideration time was being measured in minutes rather than weeks and months.

Presumably, the tactic of the DUP/Sinn Fein coalition was to give opponents as little time as possible to make amendments so that legislation would be ‘done and dusted’ by the time it reached the Assembly Chamber.

One of the reasons against going into official Opposition at Stormont was that it would take those parties ‘out of the loop’ completely in terms of gaining even limited access to potential legislation.

Opponents of the Opposition move point to the lack of influence which the DUP had in 1998 in shaping the initial content and final outcome of the Good Friday Agreement, which ultimately and ironically led to the power-sharing Executive which the DUP now enjoys.

If the opponents of the DUP/Sinn Fein coalition are to avoid becoming little more than screaming political choristers at an out-of-tune musical festival, then the UUP must set up his comprehensive network of informants, leaks and whistle-blowers so that the Executive parties can be challenged at every turn.

This, in turn, poses serious ethical questions on how the UUP and other Opposition partners gain their information from sources. How can these sources be protected? How can the UUP guarantee that the flow of information coming to the party is genuine and accurate and not dis-information or mis-information?

What role, if any, can the media have in holding the DUP/Sinn Fein coalition to account over its actions, especially through the use of Freedom of Information legislation?

Nesbitt has got to convince potential Opposition partners – and the electorate – that a formal Opposition is much more than merely a well-paid shouting shop of political pupils yelling at a school sports day.

His Opposition could face the same fate as previous attempts to replace the original parliament, such as Sunningdale, the Convention, 1982 Assembly and Northern Ireland Forum – all well-meaning talking shops.

And his Opposition gamble with come further under the spotlight as the EU referendum looms as he has nailed his party’s colours firmly to the Remain camp (as are the SDLP and Sinn Fein), while Foster’s DUP is staunchly Leave.

Across the border, the Dail has at long last agreed a shaky Fine Gael government – but it’s a move which has all the ingredients to cause a snap general election, especially if the South is destabilised politically as a result of a UK-wide Leave victory.

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