UUP and SDLP cannot afford to get opposition wrong over next five years

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Simon Hamilton nailed it the other day: “For parties unable to provide a positive and constructive role inside government it remains to be seen whether they can play that role as part of the opposition.”

If the UUP and SDLP – neither of whom got anything resembling an enthusiastic endorsement from the electorate – don’t manage to present themselves as a joint credible alternative to the DUP and Sinn Fein at the 2021 Assembly election (let alone the next Euro/local/general elections in 2019/20), then they are going to be properly screwed. And bearing in mind that by 2021 there will be only 90 MLAs – or maybe just 85 if the parliamentary boundary changes reduce NI from 18 to 17 constituencies – it means that the opposition parties can’t afford to get much wrong over the next five years.

The new dispensation also presents huge challenges for the DUP and Sinn Fein; which probably explains why they have been so tetchy with Mike Nesbitt and Colum Eastwood. They now have nowhere to hide and no one else to take the flak. This is their Executive and if things go wrong they end up with the joint blame. Mind you, if they do rise to the challenge and get the delivery right, then it’s quite possible that they will inflict further electoral damage on their rivals and confirm that NI has become a two-party state.

So, what will the new ‘official’ opposition look like? The Act (which I think should be christened the McCallister Act) doesn’t use terms like leader of the Opposition, or ‘shadow’ minister, yet I suspect it won’t be long until the public and the media use them. But the UUP and SDLP cannot begin from the premise that they are somehow going to provide separate oppositions: for a start, the SDLP has barely enough MLAs to ‘shadow’ each of the Executive departments. They need to work together on this and pool their numbers and resources.

I accept the argument that the parties differ on key issues and that a joint approach may be difficult. But that applies to the DUP and Sinn Fein as well, and they will have to find a way around it if they are avoid the problems of dysfunctionalism and ‘silo mentality’. Put bluntly: the UUP and SDLP need to prove that they can work together in opposition if they are to have a realistic prospect of eclipsing a DUP/SF axis which turns sour or continues to put all difficult decisions out to pasture.

The other problem, of course, is that the opposition faces a government that has a huge civil service machine, nine departmental press offices (and all the staff, including weekend cover), special advisers, an army of professional researchers, huge funding, two well-staffed party press offices and 66 MLAs behind it.

At the moment the opposition has £60,000 for research purposes, whatever they have under the Financial Assistance for Political Parties scheme, two small press offices, a small pool of researchers and 28 MLAs.

While clearly not even close to being on an equal footing, the opposition still has two things in its favour. First, there are a lot of charity/voluntary/business etc groups who will be keen to brief and provide costed research to a genuine opposition. It’s something they haven’t been able to do before and it will be better if they can do it jointly for both parties.

Second, if the opposition can provide a team of articulate, well-briefed ‘shadow’ ministers and general spokespersons then it allows the media to present a genuine debate on the airwaves and newspapers. It changes the dynamic of debate and coverage and should, if the opposition gets it right, rekindle interest in the Assembly from people who have just switched off over the last decade or so.

It also means that neither side – the Executive or the opposition – can simply coast and niggle. For the opposition it means being different, offering alternatives and discomfiting ministers and their departments. And for the Executive it means sounding coherent, acting cohesively and proving that the Programme for Government isn’t just a momma-and-apple-pie wish list. In five years time the electorate deserve to have a very clear choice between an outgoing government and a potential replacement.

There is another challenge, too, this time for the media. Given the nature of what has passed for politics here since 1998 we have tended to focus on the argy-bargy and crisis, albeit because that’s mostly what the parties have presented us with. But we – and yes, I do mean columnist/commentators like me, too – need to focus on government policy versus opposition policy and try and make sense of what is on offer.

It doesn’t, in my case, mean that I’ll be any kinder or let go of my hobbyhorses (although I won’t have to write about the need for an opposition anymore – something I first wrote about in late 1998), but it does mean that I can focus on issues rather than pointless spats.

This is an exciting moment for Northern Ireland: the first real ‘parliamentary’ opposition in our history. There will certainly be bumps and teething troubles in the first year or so and some remarkably stupid things will be said and done by the opposing forces. That’s the nature of political evolution.

But I hope, I really do hope, that everyone – politicians, political parties, journalists and the general public – will rise to the challenge. We all deserve better than what we’ve had.