It is being widely suggested that John McCallister is being castigated again by party colleagues for his latest apparent “solo-run” on the issue of Opposition. I doubt this – what he is doing is perfectly consistent with the Leader’s stated position. Either way, he is to be thanked and supported for being one of very few MLAs to do what MLAs are elected and paid to do – seek to introduce legislation! His initiative will not result in a majority/minority Government/Opposition (which is what many understand by “Opposition”), but it may result in improvements in how the Assembly operates and in how the public (and media) engage with it.
In particular, it should be appreciated that John is not a populist MLA, like most of them are. Rather than meekly “calling for” things, he goes ahead and seeks to do them. For this, he has earned widespread respect across the political spectrum, and within civic society too.
In terms of delivering an Assembly Opposition, at least in the sense most people understand it (i.e. the formation of a voluntary Executive commanding a majority while all other parties are forced to go into “Opposition”), his initiative is, of course, doomed, and he probably knows it. However, that is not to say that it is not valuable. It is, in fact, extremely valuable. For what it is worth, I would offer him my support, and I would hope the Alliance Party would offer its.
First, we need to define our terms. We do not, in fact, have a “mandatory coalition”. No party is forced into it. We have a “voluntary coalition”, it just so happens that all the parties entitled mathematically to a seat in it have volunteered someone.
What we do not have, that most other systems do have, is a “mandatory opposition”, at least not one of any size. Attempts at creating one are doomed because of a similar elephant in the room to that one that dooms attempts at “truth and reconciliation”, and let us just say straight out what that is: Sinn Fein is an absolutely necessary part of the Executive because of its connection to the IRA, and as such requires a permanent place in government for the foreseeable future. This is why, for example, Sinn Fein was integral to the process from the very start while each of three initially larger parties (UUP, SDLP and DUP) were on occasions happily omitted from it. Was it fair? No. Was it democratic? No. Did it work? Well, yes.
This is not quite as ludicrous as it sounds. Switzerland has had an all-party Coalition Government since 1959, with only one adjustment in 2003 (so much more rigid even than Northern Ireland’s), and for very similar reasons. If parties only had to rely on a majority for a place in Government, significant sections of Switzerland’s population (with its array of languages, religious denominations and local interests) may come to be commonly or even permanently excluded from it. For Switzerland, as a diverse society, all-party Government makes sense. (Switzerland’s Government is a lot more stable than Belgium’s where, due to its “normal” requirement merely to command a majority, increasingly right-leaning Dutch speakers and increasingly left-leaning French speakers engage in brinkmanship with each other after every election – brinkmanship which sometimes, literally, lasts years meaning there simply is no Government and the very existence of the State is put at risk.)
In other words, such institutions are designed the way they are for a reason. That reason in Northern Ireland is not just to guarantee power-sharing between what may broadly be described as Protestants and Catholics, but also to guarantee self-styled “Republicans” are part of that power-sharing. You cannot just tamper with a single aspect of those institutions without potentially unbalancing the whole thing.
I suspect John knows all this. So why on earth would he embark on this process, and why on earth would I support it? Ultimately it will not result in a formal “Opposition” as most may understand it, but it may result in an Assembly which provides a much improved “challenge” function to the Executive, and if it persuades some parties of the tactical merit of opting out of the Executive at some juncture even well into the future, that may be no bad thing. Before any sort of “Opposition”, however, I personally would like to see:
- Committees operating much more effectively to provide a constructive challenge to their Ministers;
- Whips co-operating much more efficiently to ensure sensible business is brought to the House;
- the Research aspect of the Assembly’s operations (central to John’s ideas) reformed to focus more on MLAs wishing to introduce legislation; and
- the involvement of civic society in Assembly reforms (so that we are not merely left with Committees dominated by the two largest parties pushing bits of paper around pretending to be serious about them).
Of course, John’s process may also result in a much-needed informal “Opposition”. By that, I do not mean a minority interest in the Assembly, but rather a combination of media and backbench MLAs combining to provide a much more constructive public challenge. No one has anything to fear from that – except those who have reason not to wish to be challenged…