It wouldn’t do for a week to pass without someone once again suggesting Northern Ireland needs an “opposition”, with a debate breaking out about how that would happen.
Aside from the fact that they have one in Dublin and London, however, few people can answer why…
The essential point being missed here is that an “opposition” has to oppose something that the Executive is doing. Do the Ulster Unionists and SDLP, really?
Surely, the Ulster Unionists have decided suddenly they don’t like the Maze proposals and the closure of care homes (even though they were innately involved in the former and had the Minister who set the process in train for the latter), and the SDLP doesn’t like welfare reform much (but it has yet to explain which public services it would close to fund the 300 million shortfall to keep the current, itself plainly broken, system), but there is nothing they fundamentally disagree with the DUP and Sinn Fein on.
In theory, the Alliance Party does oppose the Executive fundamentally, as its vision for Northern Ireland is of a country where political choices, leisure preferences and school options are no longer determined along ethno-religious sectarian lines (as opposed to the DUP/SF/SDLP/UUP vision of meekly accepting this ad infinitum). However, in “opposition” it had no impact at all last time; opting for “opposition” now would bring down the institutions – not that that necessarily makes it the wrong choice at this juncture, but we should be clear what the consequences of such a choice would be.
Those who dream of some great UUP-Jasil-Alliance-Green-SDLP opposition forget that the two parts of that coalition (making up between them nearly three quarters of its Assembly seats) fundamentally agree with the DUP and Sinn Fein, not with Alliance. The UUP backs the DUP on flags 365 days, parades, gay marriage and so on; the SDLP backs Sinn Fein on Union Flag zero days, releasing convicted terrorists, and naming playparks after would-be murderers. Yes, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP will pick the odd fight with their fellow ethnic communalists in a desperate attempt to appear relevant, but fundamentally they agree that segregation should continue to reign (and that “themmuns” are getting preferential treatment). After the UUP’s U-turn on the Maze and the SDLP’s determination to maintain the Catholic teaching certificate, it isn’t even clear which is the more “hardline” party on each side (although it is clear which is the more competence – and it isn’t the UUP or the SDLP).
This Executive is fundamentally sectarian and incompetent. If any “opposition” is to be worthwhile, it will need to be demonstrably and fundamentally anti-sectarian and competent. Frankly, on those terms, you cannot create such an “opposition” (of any size) from within the current Assembly – and the electorate need to be quite clear about that.