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Absurd for SDLP not to join a brave new world

Mike Nesbitt's decision to take the UUP into Opposition is a bold move. Now Colum Eastwood needs to do same if there are to be 'normal' politics, writes Alex Kane

Published 17/05/2016

Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt in the Assembly
Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt in the Assembly

Here are some questions I posed in the Belfast Telegraph last Tuesday: "What's the point of having talent if you can't display it? What's the point of having alternatives if they're swallowed up, stolen, or just ignored by the Big Two? What's the point of an Assembly that doesn't have an Opposition? What's the point of having people like Claire Hanna, Naomi Long, Doug Beattie, Stephen Farry, Mark Durkan, Robin Swann, Nichola Mallon, Sandra Overend and Justin McNulty if they can't make their case from the Opposition benches? What's the point of offering something different from the DUP and Sinn Fein if the public can't see and hear it every day?"

Two days later the UUP announced, albeit rather theatrically, that it would be forming the official Opposition. It was a bold move - but it was the right move.

Having returned with the same number of MLAs as in 2011, yet having lost votes in the process, it was going to be hard to sustain the argument that it had won a mandate for anything, let alone a mandate to return to the Executive.

But had it returned to the Executive it would have run the risk of looking desperate for relevance at any price, as well as running the further risk of being sidelined and attacked by the DUP and Sinn Fein in precisely the same way as it had been between May 2007 and August 2015.

Worse, it would not have been able to complain about it, and nor would it have been allowed to join the Opposition at a later stage. The absence of the UUP means that Sinn Fein get fourth pick for a ministry, but the final balance would be: four DUP, two Sinn Fein and one SDLP. If the SDLP pulls out, then it would be four DUP and three Sinn Fein.

With just 16 MLAs, it's going to be difficult to be the only party of Opposition. The DUP and Sinn Fein have 66, giving them a lot of choice when it comes to ministers, spokesmen and committee chairs. They also have the Civil Service machine and a team of Spads behind them, complete with departmental Press offices and their own party Press teams.

On top of that, the Big Two have access to an awful lot of other funding from the public purse. So, 16 versus 86 (assuming the SDLP and Alliance opt for the Executive route) means that the odds would be very heavily stacked against the UUP.

Yes, it would have access to around £60,000 being set aside for the Opposition, plus whatever it's entitled to under the existing financial assistance for political parties scheme, but it would still mean funds, particularly for specialist research, could be tight. That's why it would be preferable if the SDLP joined the UUP.

It raises the pool of available talent by 12 and puts more money into the overall pot - even though the £60,000 would remain the same for the moment.

More important, though, is the fact that a UUP/SDLP Opposition would be better placed to offer itself as a credible joint alternative to the DUP/Sinn Fein axis.

Alliance didn't cross the threshold for automatic entry to the Executive and, consequently, isn't entitled to entry to the official Opposition (reserved for those parties which won enough seats to qualify for the Executive, but who choose not to join it).

So, if Alliance refuses the offer of the Justice Ministry and stays out of the Executive, it will be treated much the same as the Greens and People Before Profit.

That makes its call a much more difficult one than that of the UUP and SDLP.

That said, if it chooses to enter an Executive for which it didn't win the necessary mandate - and it did have the mandate in the last Assembly - then it removes the party's right to complain about a dysfunctional Executive, to criticise its fellow ministers or to pretend, as it is prone to do, that it is somehow above the hurly-burly of DUP/Sinn Fein hostility.

At this stage it would strike me as absurd if the SDLP chose to remain in the Executive.

It lost 11,000 votes on May 5, along with two seats and just about crossed the threshold for automatic entry.

The electorate didn't reward it for its presence or work in the previous Executive.

It didn't reward it for replacing Alasdair McDonnell with Colum Eastwood. It didn't reward them for the contents of its manifesto.

In other words, its position is even worse than that of the UUP. And the logic of that position is that it should join the UUP in forming the Opposition.

So, 28 MLAs to 66 MLAs; 369,352 votes to 170,666 votes; 53% to 24%... whatever way you look at the figures, the UUP and SDLP are clearly the political/electoral minority.

If they are to make progress, both parties need to understand the nature and the scale of the message that the voters have sent them.

They need to face the reality that, when it comes down to it, they don't actually deserve to be in the Executive.

The UUP has read the runes and made the right call. The SDLP needs to do the same thing.

And while Alliance's position is slightly different, it too needs to face the fact that the 'Forward, Faster' campaign fell on (mostly) deaf ears.

Opposition won't be easy for Nesbitt and Eastwood, and it will be much harder for the UUP if it is on its own.

But it is the only way they can get the distance and the traction to develop their own profile and alternatives.

It will be just as hard for the DUP and Sinn Fein if the UUP and SDLP pull out, because they really will have to get their act together and deliver good government together. They will be under pressure from an Opposition leadership and shadow ministers - something they've never had to deal with before.

And it will also change the dynamics of media coverage and public attention. If the SDLP stays, the SDLP will be destroyed. If Alliance stays, it will look increasingly like a patsy, only there to save the DUP and Sinn Fein from making a difficult decision.

We talk about the need for "normal" politics. Well, "normal" politics means accepting electoral realities. "Normal" politics means a credible Opposition. "Normal" politics means realising that you're better in one role than another.

"Normal" politics means the smaller parties finding a way of increasing their appeal and offering better choices. "Normal" politics means parties doing what's normal in other governments. "Normal" politics means the end of dysfunctionality and the long-grassing of problems.

This is the fifth Assembly since 1998. Wouldn't it be good if it were the first one to end its mandate - in 2021 - with the debate about "normal" politics well and truly buried?

Belfast Telegraph

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