No Government can be long secure without a formidable Opposition

And Tom Elliott MLA, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, has become Disraelian regarding this particular thought on oppositional politics.

Tom has outlined his concerns that the current political system at Stormont does not bode well for Northern Ireland's future. Whilst proud of the UUP’s role in delivering a more peaceful Northern Ireland he recognises that the institutions are far from perfect.

He explains that the institution's weaknesses “have been accentuated by the tribalism of Sinn Fein and the DUP, as they carve up power and ensure a silo mentality at the heart of Government. This situation was manageable in a time of plenty; however, as we head into a difficult period that will be defined by fiscal constraint, we require responsive Government.”

He goes on to say that "It is a long standing position of the Ulster Unionist Party that Northern Ireland needs a more normalised form of Government with a voluntary 'cross-community' coalition and an official opposition that is better able to hold the Executive to account. As we head towards the Assembly election, with issues surrounding the selection of First Minister and the danger of a tribal campaign, the Ulster Unionist Party is determined about the need for such reform. It is clear from the workings of the current Executive that it is no functioning like a proper democratic government. With five different parties, who have different agendas and policies, this type of government is not productive for the long term future of Northern Ireland. In the long run change by legislation is what is needed, in the short-term the principled following of democratic parliamentary principles by political parties may be what is required to improve governance in Northern Ireland."

Tom’s mention of heading “towards the Assembly election, with issues surrounding the selection of First Minister and the danger of a tribal campaign, the Ulster Unionist Party is determined about the need for such reform.” I would say this particular piece reflects the worry that the DUP run another 2007 type election which saw the UUP reduced from 27 elected in 2003 to only 18 elected in 2007. This is widely recognised as an upshot of the St Andrews Agreement and the changes made in it meant electioneering was driven on narrow lines of a Vote for the UUP is a wasted vote. As can be seen it worked, up to a point. The UUP is still strong enough to keep going and the DUP were not able to deliver that knock out blow. The boogeyman for Unionism this time is a Sinn Fein First Minister, which the DUP will capitalise upon (and I would expect them to do nothing less in order to increase their vote even more).

For nationalism the galvanising issue is less negative, as ever. Here Sinn Fein can really squeeze the SDLP by going to the polls saying they have a real chance to outshine intransigent Unionism by becoming the symbolic First Minister. Something to work for rather than against.

Alliance has always styled itself as the unofficial opposition, but that is now difficult as it is also a member of the NI Executive. That now means that out of 108 MLAs, 103 are ‘in government’.

So where would oppositional politics fit in? How would it fit in? How could it even get to that point?

It helps when the now Secretary of State, Owen Patterson, as the Shadow Secretary of State, 
promised to review the way in which the post of First Minister is awarded.  He did say that “There is no timetable on this and there is no hurry, but it has always been my party’s intention to negotiate the review mechanisms with all parties in Northern Ireland. This could be a long time coming but it would be done in close contact with all the existing parties and I think if it happens it would lead to a better Northern Ireland." He also clarified that “We would like to move towards voluntary coalition.”

So the UUP can say it still has some ideological links to the Conservative party, is this a sign of things to come?

In an opinion piece Jim Allister, TUV Leader, said, “Yet, at the core of mandatory coalition at Stormont is the denial of that basic right, compounded by the prohibition on having an opposition. Because it so defies the basic tenets of democracy, mandatory coalition can never be the basis for good and durable government. Its removal is a prerequisite. Likewise, at the top of government, workable authority is indispensable. The office of joint first ministers is an unworkable farce so it too must go. TUV is certainly opposed to terrorists in government but we are not opposed to shared government. The proper route to shared government, with every party in Northern Ireland being a minority party is voluntary coalition. By the practice of normal politics and negotiation after every election a government and opposition would evolve.”

Turgon over on Slugger O’Toole talks about the prospects of Voluntary coalition and has thoughts on voluntary coalition. There re also similar debates over on Open Unionism.  

The DUP have also set out their stall that they want voluntary coalition and have taken a very interesting step by consulting on it too.  Can't have a better way to crowd source ideas and make sure you have you electorate going in your direction. Read the questions on the page, I have and think they are very much of the moment.  One of the questions is "Would you prefer to see a voluntary coalition model of Government appointed?". 

So is it a goer? 

Well I believe the SDLP would be very, very cautious about such an issue and Sinn Fein will not go for it at all. This means that unless the voluntary coalition government of the UK forces it through, then voluntary coalition will remain an aspiration. That would also leave any party going into opposition going in as an unoffical opposition.

Is it a realistic option for the UUP? Perhaps putting it into the May election manifesto as a real option?  This may get round the issue that plagued the Party in 2007 over the question of  'to go into opposition or not' whilst working towards a credible electoral strength for 2015.  Opposition is a double edged sword and needs to be thought about carefully, especially in a democratic system that does not recognise an official opposition but does recognise institutional sectarian head counts.  It may also allow the UUP to be unconnected to the issue of who the First Minister will be.  If the DUP can not credibly reduce the UUP numbers even more it may leave them in a vulnerable position and possibly isolate their electorate with more strongly held views.  Could this strengthen the hand of the TUV any more? At the minute it does not look likely, but if they were to even get one or two seats that could cause problems in the longer term.

I love the way Unionism is so straight forward.


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