Ireland Eye – John Coulter

Written By: John Coulter
Published: May 27, 2016 Last modified: May 24, 2016

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

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 official 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 party meaningful political clout, or will condemn the UUP to the wilderness for the next five years.

The UUP’s decision to become the opposition was based on the dominance of the executive by the Democratic Unionists 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 question: what’s the point in being on the Executive?

However, if opposition is to work practically rather than become nothing more than 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 the Greens, as well as a single Independent MLA and the leader of the right-wing Traditional Unionist Voice.

Nesbitt  must present himself as being on almost equal terms with  First Minister Arlene Foster of the DUP and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinnes of Sinn Fein.

Just as Foster and McGuinness run the Executive, so Nesbitt must make a shadow cabinet a political force to be reckoned with. For each minister the Executive appoints, Nesbitt needs a shadow minster.

While this can be a cosmetic exercise the former TV news anchor man can win, his real battle must be to ensure a steady flow of information about what happens behind the Executive’s closed doors. He need to o establish a network of whistle-blowers who can leak him tips or evidence of forthcoming legislation.

This poses serious ethical questions on how the UUP and other opposition partners can gain their information. How can these sources be protected? How can the UUP guarantee that the flow of information coming to it is genuine 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’s reason for pulling the UUP’s sole minister out of the last Executive was the shortness of time the UUP was being given to scrutinise 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 argument against the UUP going into official opposition was that it would take party out of the loop completely in terms of gaining even limited access to prospective 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 leads.

Nesbitt has got to convince potential opposition partners – and the electorate – that a formal opposition is much more than merely a well-meaning, well-paid talking shop.

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

Across the border, the shaky Fine Gael government may not last long. If the Republic of Ireland is destabilised politically as a result of a UK decision to quit the EU, one consequence may be a snap general election.

This article appeared in Tribune in 27th May




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