Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Being political realists we take the long view on an opposition in the Assembly

If you were to pay serious attention to the semi-hysterical reporting of Norn Iron politics you would think that 'our wee country' was on its knees politically and culturally.

From the DUP's current travails over a recent television documentary, through to the so called crises in A&E and hearing loss pay outs to serving and former police officers; from the Haass talks fall-out through to proposals to set up an opposition there may be a feeling that political life here lurches along.

However, it might seem strange, but these rumblings may actually be a sign that ‘normality’ is breaking out...

Let’s take the crisis in A&E. You might feel, as you wait for hours to have the gash on your knee looked at, that the system is on the brink of collapse. But, transport yourself to an A&E department in a similar sized area in England and you might expect yourself to be waiting equally long to be treated. Browse through local newspapers in East Anglia and you might read reports about emergency departments on the verge of collapse.

Hearing loss claims from ex-RUC and PSNI officers provoked the ire of Sinn Féin MLA Pat Sheehan, yet several years back there was a similar action by members of Ireland’s defence forces.

In terms of the wind storm – well there is an ongoing row in England over wind farms and a similar one gathering here...

As to the Haass talks, well scan across Eastern Europe as far as Ukraine and turn your gaze upon the Middle East and it all seems like a contretemps in a tea cup. That’s not to say that the 'players' in the “flags, parades and the past” don’t feel as passionately about their issue; it’s just not that big a deal that it causes needless casualities and mass disruption to the rest of the population…

But what really caught my eye last week was the proposal to amend the Northern Ireland Bill to allow provision for an opposition in the Assembly. Casual watchers may think this isn’t something really needed as the parties always seem to oppose each other all of the time.

However, being political realists we take the long view. At times it seems like a really, really long view, but needs must!

The ‘arrangement’ that created the power sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland forces the parties in the Assembly to sit down together in a mandatory coalition government. They may not always ‘play nice’ with each other, but they do sit round the same table.

At times over the past three or four years, the SDLP and UUP have painted the DUP and Sinn Féin as bullies who push them around in the political playground.

All of which seems a reasonable price to pay for stable government, albeit enforced. So what difference would there be if a party or parties wanted no longer to sit around the executive table and instead form an ‘opposition’.

First of all their ministers, having vacated their seats, would each be out of pocket to the tune of almost £40,000. Next there is an argument that their influence in checking the ambitions of the two largest parties would disappear.

The advantage would be that any opposition party could shout and scream and perhaps even get some extra cash for research. Furthermore, Lord Empey, the Ulster Unionist peer behind the amendment to the Westminster bill , believes that an opposition group could gain the chair and vice-chair of the public accounts committee – a powerful tool in Assembly battles.

But, in a get-out-of-jail-free clause, Lord Empey also suggests that it would be an option parties would not be obliged to take. Having that option means that the weight of any decision would come down to how many seats could be gained by a party in the 2016 Assembly election.

And, if you think that it might be a little early to be thinking that far ahead, remember that with European and council elections this coming May and a Westminster election the following year, there is a chance for parties to decide if it is worth it.