Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

An Opposition is required if democracy is to flourish

Mandatory coalition at Stormont doesn't challenge sectarianism - it institutionalises it, says Fred Cobain

It is a basic principle of democracy that there should be a Government and an Opposition and that citizens must have the opportunity both to elect their leaders and to change those who govern them by voting them out of office, if they so choose.

Opposition breathes life into the body politic, it stimulates debate within and between parties and encourages change.

When the Ulster Unionist Party talks about the need for a properly-funded Opposition, we are simply seeking to establish the same system of Government and Opposition which exists in any other Parliamentary system in the British Isles.

Both Sinn Fein and the DUP are quite happy to avail of what is known as 'short money' at Westminster.

Sinn Fein are also happy to collect funding in Dublin which is made available to Opposition parties in the Dail.

It is crucially important that people understand the Ulster Unionist Party is not seeking money for itself, nor are we saying that we would necessarily be in Opposition.

We are seeking to agree the architecture of Government and Opposition in advance of such a system being set up, rather than risk trying to amend a hastily-agreed system.

The notion expounded by Martin McGuinness that the Ulster Unionists are somehow seeking money to walk away from the Executive and take up Opposition is, therefore, nonsense and indeed hypocritical, bearing in mind the amount of money which Sinn Fein has taken from Westminster and the Dail.

First, because we are not seeking anything for ourselves that would not be available to any party which would be in Opposition - even Sinn Fein.

Second, the Ulster Unionist Party - like all other parties in the Executive - derives no financial benefit from having Executive ministers, because special advisers are not allowed to work on party-political matters. An Executive has access to support and advice from the Civil Service and, in order to hold an Executive to account, it is only right and proper that an Opposition has access to adequate research and advice.

The Ulster Unionist Party wants to ensure that proper structures are in place to benefit any party which wishes to participate, so that no matter which party or parties are in Opposition, they are able to properly hold the Executive to account and to provide an effective Opposition.

What we are proposing is a new way of doing politics in Northern Ireland; moving to a full-scale democratic system that would be recognised by people from democracies in any part of the world whereby alternative ideas and manifestoes inform debate and shape and change policy.

More importantly, from an Ulster Unionist viewpoint, the move to a genuine system of Opposition would provide an opportunity to smash the sectarian system and focus debate on real issues of concern to the entire community, such as housing, education, employment and health. The existing system of mandatory coalition doesn't challenge or tackle sectarianism - it institutionalises it.

The system of government established in 1998 had its shortcomings - how could it not have? Northern Ireland was beginning to emerge from almost 30 years of terrorist violence, so the imperative was to re-establish a system of local devolution. We should be aiming to reach the stage where political debate can take place on a Left-v-Right divide, as in most other democracies.

This lack of dynamism is reflected in policies which owe more to self-preservation than to the pursuit of policies to improve the lives of the people.

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