The last time Stormont had an Official Opposition in 1972, the Ulster Unionist Party was still dominant to the extent that it would have been unthinkable for the party of government to find out of power at Stormont.
But at 3.09pm yesterday UUP leader Mike Nesbitt took his political opponents by surprise by hijacking what had hitherto been the routine re-appointment of the First and Deputy First Ministers to announce that the UUP will not enter the new Executive.
Mr Nesbitt had led the UUP out of the Executive last year, but there was no structure for an official Opposition at that point and the UUP had been widely expected to return to the Executive, having removed all of its ‘red lines’ for doing so in the first place after allegations of IRA involvement in murder.
Making the announcement on the floor of the chamber – itself unusual these days for a major announcement – Mr Nesbitt concluded a brief speech about Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness’s re-appointment to their roles by saying: “I repeat my good wishes to Mrs Foster and to Mr McGuinness.
“Like any Executive Minister or any other Member of this legislative Assembly, they will have my support and the support of the Ulster Unionist Party when the time is right.
“This is a big and bold move to bring a better and more normal democracy to the people of Northern Ireland. Let battle commence.
“Where they will not have our support is at the Executive table, because the Ulster Unionist MLA group has decided unanimously to form the first official opposition of the Northern Ireland Assembly.”
Ironically, Mr Nesbitt is making use of the provisions for an Official Opposition which were introduced by John McCallister, the man who wanted to take the UUP into Opposition four years ago. At the time, Mr Nesbitt argued that there was “no such place”, as the role would have been unofficial.
But earlier this year Mr McCallister – who lost his seat in last week’s election – secured the passage of a bill which allows for an Official Opposition to the Executive, including the right to speaking time in the chamber to challenge the Executive.
Mr Nesbitt’s unexpected announcement stole the thunder of Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness – who had just been formally re-appointed as First Minister and Deputy First Minister – and also that of the DUP’s Robin Newton, who had been elected unopposed to the position of Speaker.
In a statement after the announcement, Mr Nesbitt said that it had tests over whether the Programme for Government of the new Executive was “progressive” and whether “we sensed a will from the DUP and Sinn Féin to lead collective delivery”.
He said that both tests had been failed.