Sam McBride: UUP decision could benefit them – but also DUP and Sinn Fein

Mike Nesbitt addresses the Assembly to announce the UUP's decision to go into Opposition
Mike Nesbitt addresses the Assembly to announce the UUP's decision to go into Opposition

Mike Nesbitt was elected as a cautious leader by a party which baulked at John McCallister for several reasons, one of which was that he would immediately take the party into Opposition.

Largely, Mr Nesbitt has delivered on UUP members’ expectations of him as a character who is not prone to bold or rash decisions.

Yet twice in the space of less than a year, Mr Nesbitt has managed to shock the political establishment with risky gambles more characteristic of the man he comprehensively defeated for the UUP leadership, John McCallister.

Yesterday’s move is probably a canny one, given that the initial decision to quit last year appeared to unite and energise the UUP, and that the party has long struggled to make itself relevant as a smaller player in the Executive.

But it is also a deeply confusing move, given that Mr Nesbitt had given every indication during the election campaign that he was preparing to lead the UUP back into government, with just two woolly ‘tests’ – whether the programme for government was “progressive” and whether he trusted the other parties – standing in the way of the UUP heading back to the Executive table.

Yesterday those ambiguous tests were used to justify walking away. But if the party had so decided, they could easily have been used to justify an entirely different course of action.

Nevertheless, the UUP now has significant tools at its disposal as an Opposition, with the chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee, speaking time in the Assembly and days in which to put forward their views.

And as Stormont often struggles to fill its order paper, so the Opposition has ample opportunity to legislate, as well as scrutinise, so long as it can choose issues on which public opinion is sufficiently strong to deter the DUP and Sinn Fein from blocking the legislation.

Before the election, it appeared that despite the provisions for Opposition being in place, no one was likely to take them. Now, despite the recriminations from the DUP and Sinn Fein at the news that the provisions would be used after all, there is a chance that this could actually help not only the smaller parties, but the bigger ones too.

Since 2007 there has been vocal opposition from within the Executive which has irked the DUP and Sinn Fein, while the smaller parties have felt abused by the big two, who cut their own deals on key issues.

Both sides’ complaints have some legitimacy, yet are almost irresolvable, due to the huge power imbalance between the big parties and the others.

If the Executive becomes just the DUP and Sinn Fein (and possibly Alliance), it forces those parties to work closer together in the face of an Opposition,

In five years’ time, the Opposition and the Executive cannot both win. But either could – for the first time there will be a real choice between parties which have governed and a party – or parties – which have offered alternative proposals.