IN the first concrete move to create a Stormont Opposition, John McCallister is preparing to introduce a bill in the Assembly in an attempt to force the issue.
The former UUP deputy leader, who in the last Assembly term became the first MLA since 1931 to successfully introduce a Private Member’s Bill and have it passed as law, said that he has begun work on legislation to allow for a formal Stormont Opposition.
Mr McCallister argued that the current “tame Assembly” without a meaningful Opposition replicates a key failing of the pre-1972 unionist-run Stormont Parliament and he urged talks between the UUP and SDLP in an attempt to present an alternative government to the DUP and Sinn Fein.
In a speech on Monday to the UUP’s Loughgall branch, the South Down MLA said: “I have initiated the process of a Private Member’s Bill in the Assembly to examine what legislative provisions might be required to facilitate the creation of an Opposition.
“If legislation is required, I will carry it forward through a Private Member’s Bill.
“This will allow MLAs from all political parties to express their support for a common democratic principle.”
At the moment the SDLP or UUP can walk out of the Executive but there is no provision for a Westminster or Dail-style Opposition with rights to scrutinise the government or to have funded researchers.
Until now, it was thought that only Westminster could legislate to allow for a formal Stormont Opposition. It is not clear whether Assembly legislation could produce an official Opposition but Mr McCallister is attempting to push the boundaries of the Assembly’s powers to give specific rights to those MLAs who are not in the Executive.
Although the SDLP has been more reticent than the UUP in calling for a Stormont Opposition, a series of senior figures spoke out at the party’s recent conference about the issue, something which has emboldened those in the UUP who have long argued for the change.
Without SDLP support, Sinn Fein would be unable to block a Private Member’s Bill introduced by Mr McCallister.
Mr McCallister said that SDLP deputy leader Dolores Kelly had “rightly called for the SDLP to consider Opposition as an alternative to being bit players in the DUP-Sinn Fein coalition”.
“As Dolores pointed out, being forced to support and implement the policies of the DUP-Sinn Fein coalition damages both the SDLP and Ulster Unionism,” he said.
“More importantly, it also deprives voters of authentic choice. It would be my hope that Ulster Unionism and the SDLP can have meaningful conversations about how we might work together to ensure the emergence of a cross-community Opposition to the DUP-Sinn Fein coalition.
“The DUP, of course, will tell us that they are long-term supporters of the Opposition principle.
“Recently, Peter Robinson admitted that what he termed ‘minor changes’ in how the Assembly functions would allow for the emergence of an Opposition.
“He has not, however, taken any steps to secure such ‘minor changes’ – probably because his Sinn Fein coalition partners have not given him permission.
“Ulster Unionism, however, is determined to build on this consensus for Opposition.”
Mr McCallister said that the UUP would attempt to build consensus about the issue in three ways: by making the case for Opposition, by examining the issue in detail with experts through a ‘constitutional committee’ set up by the party, and by a Private Member’s Bill.
He argued that “without an Opposition, normalisation of our politics is a fantasy” and added: “If we do not, then, see the emergence of provision for a formal Opposition at Stormont, Northern Ireland politics will remain locked in a sectarian headcount for the next generation.”
Mr McCallister, who was sacked as UUP deputy leader last month by Mr Nesbitt after warning that the party was in danger of “sleepwalking into unionist unity”, was careful to quote several of his leader’s pro-Opposition quotes.
However, Mr Nesbitt has until now made clear that while he wants to see a mechanism put in place to allow for an Opposition he does not want to avail of that mechanism by taking the UUP out of the Executive.
Mr McCallister quoted his leader’s conference speech in which he said: “We remain resolute in our view that the biggest single change to make Stormont a building that delivers rather than survives is the introduction of an official Opposition.”
Mr McCallister said that he understood the fears of many nationalists who believe that calls for Opposition are really calls for a return to majority unionist rule.
However, in recent weeks both the DUP and UUP leaders have said that there will be no return to majority rule, whether an Opposition is created or not.
Mr McCallister said: “Stability in Northern Ireland demands cross-community government. While other unionists viciously opposed power-sharing for decades, Ulster Unionism has for decades supported it, knowing that cross-community government delivers stability for the institutions and consent to the institutions.
“It is not in unionism’s interests to move away from circumstances in which nationalist political parties and nationalist voters fully participate in Stormont.
“Unionism knows that this was a key weakness of the old Stormont parliament.
“However, another key weakness of that parliament was the absence of a real, meaningful Opposition offering real, meaningful democratic choice to voters.
“It is precisely because we do not want to replicate the weaknesses of the old Stormont parliament, that Ulster Unionism is so insistent about the need for an Opposition in the Assembly.”