The familiar cries of “Opposition Now” went up over the weekend in the light of the loss of two further Ulster Unionist MLAs from one of the nominally governing parties at Stormont.
However, much of the subsequent commentary was something of a train crash – largely because the issue is not well understood.
John McCallister, wisely in my view, stood for the Ulster Unionist leadership advocating an immediate move into “Opposition”. This was possible because the Ulster Unionists held only one seat in the Executive; withdrawal would not mean instability (in fact the seat would go to the DUP); and, strategically, the party would be able to re-define itself.
However, the same does not apply to the Alliance Party, nor to any new, small group in the Assembly. This is because the point is poorly defined.
We do not have a mandatory coalition. The key is this: what we do not have is a mandatory opposition. No party is obliged to go into government; what is different from the norm in Northern Ireland (though it is also true of some other countries, notably Switzerland), is that no party is obliged to go into opposition purely by virtue of not being part of a majority party or coalition.
The removal of majoritarianism, given the political heritage of Northern Ireland, is no bad thing. What is bad is the choice made by some parties who could make a difference by providing a scrutiny function and clear alternative in opposition not to do so.
To be clear, a small group of 2-3 MLAs (or even seven, in the case of Alliance from 2007) is obliged to go into opposition because it does not qualify under d’Hondt. Forming such a group will make no difference to the “opposition” debate whatsoever, as such a group is in opposition even under the current system. So are the Greens; TUV; UKIP.
Also, to be clear, the Alliance Party could not simply knee-jerk out of the Executive tomorrow, as it would leave it without a Justice Minister capable of cross-community consent, an absolute necessity to the institutions operating at all. By so doing, it would not enter opposition – as there would be no government left to oppose! That said, the option cannot simply be left on the shelf for ever – a point I shall return to tomorrow.
Ultimately, the case for “Opposition” (to be specific, the case for compelling parties not capable of entering a majority coalition to go into opposition) will be won by arguing for it politically, and by specifying an alternative. The Alliance Party’s Agenda for Democracy document from 2004, which advocates that the Executive require only 70% support (thus ensuring cross-community consent while compelling some parties into opposition), offers the obvious starting point. Those focused on opposition and considering their options may want to bear that in mind!