One of the most significant developments in the political history of Northern Ireland happened yesterday.
Stormont achieved a proper Opposition.
Parliament Buildings has never seen anything like it before. In the half century of Stormont rule that followed partition, the ruling party was a unionist monolith.
A much smaller nationalist group was the principal opposition, assisted to varying degrees by candidates from minor groupings such as Labour or independent unionists.
The power sharing arrangements at Stormont post 1998 have been inherently unsatisfactory. Having all the largest parties in government at all times might have seemed logical in the context of preventing one side of the tribal divide getting an undue advantage over the other, but it was never sustainable.
Now something logical, but also strange, has happened. The smaller parties have formed an Opposition across the tribal divide to challenge the two biggest parties who have formed an Executive, also across the tribal divide.
Arlene Foster won a magnificent election victory two weeks ago. She has a clear mandate to lead Northern Ireland as leader of by far the largest party and we wish her every success in that role, amid the multiple challenges that she faces. But oppositions help to raise the level of governance by keeping administrations on their toes.
An end to the permanent rainbow coalition is good for democracy, and good for devolved government. A healthy devolved government is an important release valve for people’s frustrations, by making them feel that they have a say in how their society is run. This in turn is an important factor in ensuring that people are happy to remain in the UK, and so helps enshrine the Province’s place within it.
Some unionists might fear that the UUP move divides unionism. But having unionists criticise unionists or nationalists criticise nationalists is a sign of political normality and a sign that the constitutional question has moved to the back seat.