“Opposition” actually has to oppose something

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.


10 thoughts on ““Opposition” actually has to oppose something

    • We tend to elect incumbents just because we’ve heard of them.

      We need to judge them on real performance – and unelect them where that performance is poor. Parties also need to de-select representatives who aren’t performing – but they are wary of doing that because they are rarely rewarded by the electorate for doing so, even though they should be.

      • Macca says:

        Personality and a ‘face’ for television is as big a plus as decent, ethical policies and a willing to work hard for their constituents.
        In some cases, the personality overshadows everything else, even to the point that political and personal misdemeanours are overlooked because ‘they’ are a ‘name.’
        The system doesn’t allow for de-selecting unless they end up in HMP and this knowledge and privilege is abused by politicians under a blanket of ‘political tenure.’

        You are correct, that until such times as we de-select as easily as we elect, then the status quo will ……… well you know


  1. Macca says:

    Absolutely agree with the thrust of this piece…. but…. here’s something that I haven’t said in …. about 4 minutes….. ‘never gonna happen’


  2. factual says:

    Oppositional parties in many democracies agree on 98% of things. Hotellings location theory explains why. It does not mean that the opposition is not worthwhile – the important thing is that where ministers make mistakes or are incompetent or are corrupt then there is an untainted alternative (i) who can expose it and (ii) for people to turn to.

    • Great response.

      I wouldn’t say the Republicans and Democrats in the States agree on 98%. That they agree on so little is a cause for concern – there, they have almost the reverse worry that they can’t find any common ground.

      In Europe, however, yes, elections are increasingly determined in my view not by ideology but by *competence*.

      However, that still leaves us with a problem. Are the Ulster Unionists and SDLP (or even Basil McCrea) likely to deliver *competence*? The very notion is laughable…

      • factual says:

        Fair points. In the UK at national level we sometimes do not regard the opposition as likely to deliver *competence* — and the same may be said of FG in Dublin in the recent election -when FF was turfed out — but there are times when its important to have the chance to turf out the greater of two evils, as it were.

      • My real concern is we wouldn’t use it.

        We tend to re-elect incumbents far too often – merely for the sake of doing so because we’ve heard of them. There are of course honourable exceptions to that.

        I’ve long thought it’s new politicians we need, not new parties.

      • factual says:

        That may be true but let me make the counter argument.

        A point that Nick Whyte used to make was that the protestant part of NI at least has shown willingness to move votes around. Tracking forward from the 1970s there have been quite significant swings. To the Tories in 1992, to UUP in 1997, to UKUP in 1998, to DUP in 2003, and so the prospects for parties do not seem so bad. And back in the 1970s new parties came to the fore (as Alex Kane points out) while in the 1960s Labour made a good challenge.

  3. The easy counter to that is that they rarely do so for long!

    The only truly major shift was UUP to DUP, and even that involved voting for the same politicians!

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