For all the media like to talk about “Opposition”, it should long since have been clear that a formalised structure is impossible (because Sinn Fein must always be in government, in practice) and an informal arrangement can only be on a cross-community basis. It is this need for cross-community basis which dooms it – a seemingly populist and hard-line, SDLP would simply be an impossible Opposition partner for the Ulster Unionists (or even Alliance, for that matter).
The SDLP seems to continue to write its own electoral epitaph by its Councillors attempting to be ‘Sinn Fein-Lite’ across the country – without realising that, by doing so, they remove any need whatsoever for anyone to vote for them. The latest apparent rollover – agreement to retain the name of a children’s playground in Newry after an IRA terrorist – merely served to add fuel to the view that the fundamental dividing line between the SDLP and Sinn Fein (the question of the legitimacy of the “armed struggle”) no longer exists. The SDLP seems to many observers to have utterly bought into Sinn Fein’s view that the conflict was legitimate. Where does that leave “Constitutional Nationalists”, who recognise fundamentally that it wasn’t?
Throw in the rampant populism, and what kind of “Opposition” partner have you got? When it is not trying to have our 200 million Social Fund removed, it is succeeding in costing us 260 million in pension payments for our best paid workers out of the NI pot, all while suggesting another few hundred million be taken out for corporation tax reductions – and this, incredibly, while having the nerve to talk about protecting every single public sector job!
Yet all is not totally lost. Most in the SDLP genuinely feel frustrated by what happened in Newry & Mourne Council. Some recognise financial realities. Additionally, the party continues to be quick off the mark to condemn, in clear and consistent terms, attacks on Orange Halls and such like.
In any case, the Ulster Unionists could still opt to go it alone. If they were to withdraw from the Executive unilaterally, the DUP would in fact pick up their Ministry, and so they would not even be crucified for “costing Unionism a seat”. Nevertheless, such a move would now be seen as an “electoral tactic” rather than a serious attempt at an “Opposition” on anything like the same terms as the (cross-community) “Government” – the time for it was actually when John McCallister advocated it during the Leadership election campaign.
My own view is that, collectively, the Ulster Unionists and SDLP (and perhaps Alliance) need a win somewhere to show their teeth – perhaps, for example, on the seriously flawed local government reform currently being pushed through. Such a success would be to the very detriment of both UUP and SDLP hardliners who continue to want to build their party in the image of their larger opponents rather than as a clear alternative to them. But the time to act, and win, is now.