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Arlene Foster, the UUP's Robin Swan and Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill and Conor Murphy give a press conference in Stormont.
Arlene Foster, the UUP's Robin Swan and Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill and Conor Murphy give a press conference in Stormont.
Image: Liam McBurney/PA Wire/PA Images

The strangest thing about Northern Irish politics? There's a government, but no opposition

Some credit the short-lived opposition for helping to expose the ‘cash for ash’ scandal.
Jan 18th 2020, 10:01 PM 20,729 43

THE RETURN OF power-sharing in Northern Ireland has highlighted one of the strangest quirks of the North’s politics – the fact there is no official opposition to the elected government. 

The decision of five parties in the North – Sinn Féin, the DUP, the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Alliance – to all enter the Executive means that there are only five MLAs in the Assembly who aren’t part of a governing party. 

To put it another way, imagine that a party the approximate size of People Before-Profit was the only opposition voice in the Dáil.

TheJournal.ie spoke to some of the handful of MLAs who will now face the uphill struggle of scrutinising the Executive ministers charged with restoring public confidence in Stormont. 

Claire Sugden, the only Independent MLA in the Assembly and a former justice minister, acknowledged that it will prove difficult to hold the Northern Irish government to account. 

“I can’t provide the fulsome role that an opposition can,” she says. An opposition, she said, should in theory be there to improve policy. 

“It should be about providing an alternative,” she said. “But what alternative do the people of Northern Ireland have?” 

Sugden, who was co-opted into the Assembly in 2014, admitted that she was still working out the exact dynamics of how to act as an opposition MLA with limited resources and a need to prioritise constituent concerns.

“It’s about trying to find other ways of having a voice – not necessarily in the parliamentary chamber,” she said.

This isn’t the first time the absence of opposition in Stormont has triggered concerns.

The lack of a formal opposition was a long-standing gripe for critics of the power-sharing arrangement negotiated under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement – an arrangement that has been tweaked and changed but never fundamentally reformed since then. 

Specifically, the D’Hondt system for apportioning ministries – which shares out portfolios based on vote share – has been blamed for precluding the formation of an Official Opposition. 

In 2013, then Northern Ireland Secretary of State Owen Patterson said that there were “obvious flaws in a system where there is no opposition, in the traditionally understood sense”. 

Yet there are reasons for the strange absence of power-sharing. John McGarry and Brendan O’Leary, two academics who have written widely on the so-called consociationalism at the heart of the North’s power-sharing institutions, argue that the best approach to governance is to reduce the need for unnecessary conflict. 

“Northern Ireland is governed differently from the rest of the UK partly because it is different,” they write in a co-authored paper from 2014. 

“It would be perverse in a deeply divided polity if the Assembly sought to reward parties for opposing rather than cooperating when they can currently do both,” they state.

Put simply, supporters of the current arrangements have a simple message – don’t be too hasty with change for the sake of change. 

It would also be wrong to paint it as a government totally devoid of opposition. While things were certainly dysfunctional both in the Assembly and behind the scenes before Stormont collapsed, committees were starting to hold some kind of accountability role in the North’s unique political system. 

“We’re still in our infancy in terms of our governance. The first 20 years were about trying to stabilise the politics,” Sugden agrees. 

abortion-survey Green Party MLA Clare Bailey will be one of the voices of opposition. Source: Liam McBurney/PA Archive/PA Images

“Moving forward, it has to be about governance. Which is why I’m saddened we don’t have an official opposition.”

On Twitter this week, former SDLP leader Mark Durkan, who was the Deputy First Minister between 2001 and 2002, argued for more scrutiny. “Assembly questions have ended up with more plants than a garden centre,” he wrote

“MLAs of all parties have to be legislators, challengers, scrutineers, proposers of other ideas, proofers of plans,” he added. 

That idea of transparency -  and how transparent the Executive needs to be now without an opposition – filters through conversations with all the MLAs. 

“The current arrangement isn’t healthy,” Gerry Carroll, the MLA of People Before Profit, said. 

“I am sceptical that they will be as transparent as they say they will be,” he said. 

He acknowledged that he was, by himself, only able to offer a limited form of scrutiny. 

“I am one MLA, but I will ask as many questions as I can.”

‘Political maturity’

Things began to change in the Northern Ireland Assembly back in 2016. After several years of relative stability, two parties – the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party – announced that they would enter opposition, an unprecedented evolution for governance in the North. 

Since then, the presence or otherwise of an official opposition has been treated as a signal of political maturity – a sign that some of the old safeguards of power-sharing were no longer needed in the North. 

As the then-UUP leader, Mike Nesbitt, said at the time, the move into opposition was a “big, bold step forward to normal democracy”.

Less than nine months later, Stormont had collapsed – it wouldn’t sit again until January 2020. 

The lack of an opposition was always a bugbear to John McCallister, a somewhat maverick UUP MLA (he later resigned to become deputy leader of the short-lived NI21 party) who became one of the chief architects of the current arrangements for an Official Opposition in Stormont. 

Under his stewardship, a bill he authored became the cornerstone for a new system that would provide funding and procedural recognition to any large parties that decided to enter opposition. 

“At that time, politics was remarkably stable,” McCallister says. “Normalising politics was one of my key things.”

When McCallister, a keen farmer, looked across the border at politics in the Dáil, where things were a lot more normal – he said he was amazed that political parties could all gather together at events like the National Ploughing Championships. 

McCallister has now left politics, but he says he was glad to see an opposition develop in Stormont – he thinks there might never have been a public inquiry into the notorious RHI – or ‘cash for ash’ scandal in the North without one. 

“For the brief time it existed, it provided a vital public service,” he says. More importantly, he thinks that given more time it could have provided a challenge to the dominance of Sinn Féin and the DUP – in effect, offering voters an alternative government. 

But after three years of stagnation in the North, McCallister is less optimistic about seeing an Official Opposition developing anytime soon.

In fact, he argues that it’s something of a necessary evil that five parties are now in government together. 

Northern Ireland, he says, is “effectively back to where we were in 2007″. 

It’s back to building up some level of trust and indeed competence in getting the Executive and the Assembly going again.

“At the minute after three years of hiatus and break,” McCallister says, “it’s hard to underestimate the damage that has been done to the political relationships over the last three years.”

What does that mean in practice? Well, the anti-democratic sounding arrangement might be the only thing keeping parliamentary democracy afloat in Northern Ireland. 

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Dominic McGrath

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