Never Waste a Crisis (I) – Opposition

Tuesdays on this blog were taken up almost entirely by the EU Referendum and its consequences in 2016, but there is a more local crisis now in the form of the scandal over the removal of Cost Controls and failure to implement proper Reviews around the Renewable Heating Incentive Scheme from 2012.

Past guest blogger Richard Price will take us through five points over the next five Tuesdays on how he would use this crisis to reform the institutions and make them work more effectively.

In 1976, a medical doctor, M.F. Weiner, published an article in the journal Medical Economics titled “Don’t Waste a Crisis — Your Patient’s or Your Own.” In it, he encouraged his colleagues to consider how a medical crisis can be used to improve aspects of personality, mental health, or lifestyle.

In its still comparatively fledgling status, Stormont cannot afford to let the opportunities for improvement posed by a crisis, such as the Renewable Heating Incentive scandal, go to waste. There’s been quite enough waste already.

What opportunities for improvement are posed? I submit 5 suggestions for discussion. Readers will have more of their own. Please be sure to suggest those in the comments section below.

The first opportunity for improvement posed by the RHI scandal is to…

  • Coordinate the opposition in a formal and structured manner

The renewable heating incentive scandal was quite a test for the new opposition structures at Stormont. It was also a necessary test. Voters, and indeed some still-nervous party insiders, needed to see, smell and taste the strong public value of a well-functioning opposition system, doing its job of scrutiny.

It was a test that the opposition largely met.

On the first level, each opposition party delivered its own valuable forms of critique on the matter, conducted their own forms of investigation and provided important varying spokesmanship on the topic both in the Assembly chamber, and more widely. Each new line of attack, each new form of enquiry, helped to generate new heat, as well some light, upon the matter.

Secondly, there were clear signs of coordination and cooperation across party lines, from the jointly submitted motion to exclude the First Minister from office, to the shared (and justified) haranguing of the speaker and walkout from the chamber.

The need for such coordination cannot be over-emphasised. There are six parties represented in Stormont, but not participating in the Executive. There is an ever-present risk of the opposition allowing itself to appear divided, duplicating scrutiny efforts, avoidably stepping on each other’s toes, scrambling for limelight in an undignified manner, squabbling and falling into all manner of other bear-traps native to the party politics landscape.

Arguably the public outrage on #RHI helped to force cooperation. However, this context cannot be guaranteed in future.

The first opportunity for improvement posed by the Renewable Heating Incentive scandal is, while the soil is still fertile for it, put in place formal structures for coordinating all of the opposition in Stormont.

One vehicle for this could be a cross-party opposition coordination committee. This might meet once a week to coordinate opposition activity, assign remits across party lines, generally provide a forum for determining how to enhance the status of Stormont opposition, and establish trust between the opposition parties. This latter aspect is all the more important if the promise of “offering the voter a choice of an alternative” at Assembly Elections is to ever be offered. Seeing that parties can work together well in opposition will breed confidence they may be able to do so in Government.

From an opposition perspective, a potentially under-reported aspect of RHI is, why did no MLAs from other parties, bar perhaps Steven Agnew, pick up on the scheme’s failings earlier?

For now, some (admittedly poor) level of excuse can be provided in that the SDLP, UUP and Alliance were all in the Executive at the time of its introduction, and so were not working full time on opposition scrutiny as is the case today. Such failure to conduct scrutiny may be less forgiven in future. An opposition coordination committee/working group can ensure every line of every Executive regulation and proposed programme gets the intense glare of critical examination it merits, by sharing out the roles in an effective manner.

Or in short, the forensic talents of Jim Allister, Steven Agnew and People Before Profit, are too good for Mike Nesbitt and Colum Eastwood to waste. Work together folks, on a long term and structured basis. It doesn’t compromise the separate offers each party makes to the public in respect to policy priority, but does ensure the current wielders of power know all that they do is being watched.

Finally, there are still major deficiencies in the way Stormont opposition functions. Privileges and tools for opposition usually accorded in other legislatures, are still lacking. While the public will not have a great deal of patience for endless whining about process, all 6 parties should prioritise their joint demands for improvement, and ensure all avenues for enhancing how they can conduct their scrutiny role, are identified and pursued.

RHI showed that the opposition parties can work together. Now to ensure that is sustained.


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