Sam McBride: Limp Stormont Opposition risks being outshone by political minnows

The creation of a Stormont Opposition always had the potential to either blow the Executive apart '“ or drive the DUP and Sinn Fein closer together than ever before.
Opposition leader Mike NesbittOpposition leader Mike Nesbitt
Opposition leader Mike Nesbitt

Given the lack of alternative options for the two big parties, the likelihood was always that the latter option would materialise.

Despite both the DUP’s ‘keep McGuinness out’ election campaign just four months ago and Sinn Fein’s summer breast-beating in opposition to the DUP stance on Brexit, both parties have settled down in what is fast becoming a far more coherent coalition arrangement than at any time since they entered Stormont Castle in 2007.

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That necessarily close relationship will create tensions within each party.

Grassroots Sinn Fein members may be puzzled as to why yesterday the party appeared to be watering down the Opposition Nama motion to the extent that it attracted DUP support; likewise, some DUP members will have been discomfited by last month’s joint Foster-McGuinness letter which gloomily warned about negative outcomes for Northern Ireland as a result of Brexit.

But the parties’ leaderships know that they are now likely to stand or fall together. Facing an opposition, they will struggle to explain away another five year term of deadlock and intra-Executive vitriol.

Although an opposition has made the DUP and Sinn Fein reassess their strategy, the Opposition doesn’t seem to have been slower to adapt to the new dispensation. Thus far, the UUP and SDLP have been largely limp in taking on an Executive whose faults they ought to know forensically.

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Yesterday’s UUP motion on Nama was well-chosen, forcing onto the floor of the Assembly an issue of public interest which neither Executive party seemed keen to have discussed. But the UUP speakers largely rehearsed positions and facts already well known – a far cry from the buccaneering opposition of Mick Wallace on this issue, or even the theatrics of Ian Paisley or the forensic detail of Peter Robinson in years gone by.

The SDLP, by contrast, chose a baffling subject for their first debate, focussing on the closure of rural banks.

It was the sort of unobjectionable motion which could have been tabled by any MLA and it was unclear what, if any, responsibility the Executive has for the issue. Their failure to pick up on an issue such as the crisis in hospital waiting lists was baffling.

Last week, the UUP was similarly lacklustre in Assembly question time when probing the process behind David Gordon’s appointment as Executive press secretary.

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One question from Steve Aiken included the line “what further advice can be expected from Kim Jong-un on message management” – the sort of jibe which was easily rebuffed by Martin McGuinness because it didn’t press him for detail which he wanted to conceal.

The danger for both the UUP and the SDLP is that either Jim Allister, Eamonn McCann or BBC Spotlight look more effective than them at scrutinising the Executive.

A really successful opposition will be one which forces the Assembly to be relevant as the forum for holding the Executive to account. As in Westminster, where the speaker hauls ministers – right up to the Prime Minister – into the chamber to answer urgent questions, there is the potential for the Assembly to be a place of public accountability.

But that will require Opposition parties which are far sharper and more strategic than at present.

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It will means rows with the speaker and probably being thrown out of what has been a fairly genteel chamber.

Not being in government means that the opposition parties have far fewer responsibilities and – as journalists know – asking good questions is far easier than giving good answers.

But just because opposition is easier than government doesn’t mean that it is easy.