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Assembly Budget wrangle looks like normal politicsThe devolved government seems to be evolving towards having an opposition, argues Owen Polley

There were acrimonious exchanges at Stormont last week as the Assembly passed the Budget. During debates on Wednesday and the previous Friday, Finance Minister Sammy Wilson received strong support from DUP and Sinn Fein MLAs, while the Alliance Party offered qualified backing.

In contrast the UUP and SDLP queried Mr Wilson's figures vigorously, scrambling to grasp fresh detail in a document which their Executive ministers had limited time to digest.

The smaller parties deplore this way of doing business. They claim their voices aren't heard in a five-party 'coalition' which scarcely deserves the name.

The UUP and SDLP eventually voted against the Budget and flirted with pulling their ministers out of the Executive.

That was the principal reason why the debates were so ferocious, but a controversial Budget, applying deep spending cuts, is always likely to provoke robust discussion. The truth is that in a democratic Assembly it ought to.

The exchanges which flew across the chamber, tattered and fractious though they were, had a familiar look about them.

In fact they were a lot like the debate which followed George Osborne's Budget statement at Westminster back in June last year.

Sinn Fein and DUP MLAs talked up the Budget as best they could. Meanwhile the SDLP and UUP rained criticism on the minister, but without a firm grasp of the detail - few telling blows were landed. In a mandatory five-party Executive that looks like dysfunction. In a voluntary system it could look like normal politics.

The contours of an opposition to the de facto coalition between Sinn Fein and the DUP are already taking shape.

Outside Stormont the two larger parties pose as the bitterest of enemies, but in the Assembly chamber and around the Executive table they often act as one.

During the Budget debate MLA after MLA rose to chastise the SDLP or accuse the UUP of complicity in "Tory cuts". The only way to tell Sinn Fein from DUP was the "cúpla focal" of Irish deployed by the Shinners.

Across the Assembly the smaller parties looked embattled, huddling together against a tongue-lashing from Wilson and his supporters. It was raw, angry politics, but it was democracy in action nonetheless.

With the UUP and the SDLP still considering their positions in the Executive, there is an intriguing possibility that the system at Stormont may change by default.

It appears the Assembly is evolving opposition politics, whether there is consensus on tinkering with the institutions or not. Sinn Fein and the DUP represent a majority of voters in Northern Ireland and they're entitled to force through decisions on that basis. It's up to other parties to point out where their policies are flawed and advocate credible alternatives.

It's become increasingly apparent during the Budget wrangle that the UUP and SDLP are already acting like an opposition. The structures should be put in place to let them do that job properly.

Two parties are now thoroughly marginalised within an Executive effectively operating as a coalition between Sinn Fein and the DUP, with Alliance a willing junior partner. Whether they pull their ministers out now, or encourage them to hang on until the election, the UUP and SDLP must still present an alternative to DUP/Sinn Fein-led government. The debate about an opposition at Stormont rages on, but things are already moving in that direction. Sooner or later the formalities will be put in place and our politics will be the healthier for it.

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