It is no secret that I think it would be good for democracy in Northern Ireland if the UUP and SDLP were able to cooperate and provide a genuine alternative. There has been some willingness to pursue joint platforms to this end.
The problem is, however, that the two parties are themselves internally inconsistent. A leaked briefing note equated them to Father Ted, noting they were attacking not just the Executive but also public services. The incoherence and unreality are plain to see. There is an obvious New Year’s Resolution there!
The Ulster Unionists are particularly afflicted. They have MLAs who are too quick to dash on to social media with their views as to what the Executive should be doing, only to find they are contradicting each other and that, in any case, what they propose is ridiculous in the real world.
An obvious example came after the Autumn Statement. This allocated £250 million extra capital spending to the Executive, which one new Ulster Unionist MLA suggesting it should be spent on housing and digital as in England. This would have been fine, except almost at the same time another new Ulster Unionist MLA was suggesting 80% should be spent on two specific road projects (one of which could not possibly proceed to construction this decade as it has not even gone to route planning stage but just happened to be in his own constituency) and the rest on universities – an utterly different proposition. So which is it? If I vote for the UUP alternative, what am I getting precisely? The only thing I’m sure of is that some of it isn’t deliverable in the reality.
The DUP has not been slow to point out that even individual UUP MLAs have taken different positions from themselves (!) on issues such a short Corporation Tax and Brexit. The purpose of an Opposition is to provide a coherent alternative offer to the electorate, but if even individuals are changing stance every few months this becomes neither coherent nor even really an alternative.
What underlies all of this is, seemingly, a view that all the UUP needs is for the electorate suddenly to realise the error of its ways and simply “come home” to the natural party of government. In fact, what is required for the UUP proactively is a consistent view of exactly what it is that is wrong with the current Executive (and that matters to the public) and then a coherent view of exactly what they and the SDLP would do differently given the chance.
What is perhaps most interesting about this is that the Opposition seems to think the new Executive v Opposition framework will turn the microscope on the Executive. Actually, as much as anything, it turns the microscope on the Opposition. Exactly what would they do differently? How would they resource it? Why would it matter?
They’ll need some coherent answers in 2017, for all our sakes.