The assumption among many people I speak to about Stormont’s new “opposition” is that it will be relatively coherent. In practice, this is an assumption that there will be an Executive Minister and a lead Opposition Spokesperson (or even a “Shadow”) for each department.
This would indeed be sensible – it would mean the Ulster Unionists and SDLP were being quite clear about their intention to present themselves as an alternative power-sharing Executive to the DUP/SF one effectively now in office. That is, after all, the only sort of grouping which can replace the current incumbents (in effect).
The idea would surely be that each party (and perhaps even Alliance if they really wanted numbers) would provide the main “Shadow” for each department, noting that the two Opposition party leaders already have additional formal designations and rights (these designations are rather long-winded in the legislation, but will no doubt come to be referred to as “Leader of the Opposition” and “deputy Leader of the Opposition”). The media would naturally go to these particular MLAs for comment. On top of that, there could be cooperation on motions, questions, and even private member’s bills. Some have even suggested the parties coalesce behind a single proposed alternative Programme for Government, Budget and Legislative Programme (though in practice, having once done that myself for what was then the largest “non-Executive” party, they would no doubt find it easier to do this by providing a formal joint consultation response to each and publicising it).
However, it is far from clear that the SDLP in particular see it that way. That may be a critical mistake. If the voters are presented with an “opposition” which is incoherent, they will inevitably be unwilling to vote for it, even if they dislike the Executive. In the same way that “divided parties don’t win elections”, it is unlikely that a “divided potential alternative power-sharing Executive” will either.
It would do no harm for the SDLP to recognise just how far it has now fallen behind. Even jointly with the Ulster Unionists, it forms a group in the Assembly only the same size as Sinn Fein, the smaller Executive party. Both the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP are, individually, electorally absent from large parts of Northern Ireland. The Ulster Unionists have been almost wiped out in Belfast and Derry, and the SDLP does not have a single seat outside Belfast anywhere in County Antrim, northern Down or northern Armagh. In one constituency, the SDLP actually had the lowest vote total ever polled by any Executive party in Northern Ireland.
Interestingly, however, one or other of the two parties is represented in every single constituency. If they were to decide to cooperate, therefore, there would be a significant information flow from across Northern Ireland, a much larger group in the Assembly from which to draw expertise, and a much more coherent offering to the electorate. There is in fact a case for inviting Alliance to join the “Opposition coalition”, thus meaning it would collectively represent even more of the electorate, by first preference vote share, than either Executive party. Either way, for either the Ulster Unionists or SDLP to attempt merely to “plough [their] own furrow” (as an SDLP MP seems already to have suggested) is strategically suicidal.
Frankly, if there is a failure of the two official opposition parties at least to cooperate with each other, there can be no reason for it other than outright sectarianism. That, in itself, would render “Opposition” to a sectarian Executive all but pointless. But it would tell us something very useful ahead of the next Assembly election…