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Memo to Mike and Colum: Take your lead from Arlene and Martin and talk to each other

Foster and McGuinness have played a blinder in showing a united front; UUP and SDLP must do the same, says Alex Kane

Published 16/09/2016

Colum Eastwood
Colum Eastwood
Private sector 'must be bolstered'...Exchequer Secretary David Gauke (left), with (left to right) First Minister Peter Robinson, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Arlene Foster, Enterprise Minister, Owen Patterson, Northern Ireland Secretary of State and Sammy Wilson Finance Minister, at the Stormont Hotel, Belfast. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday July 7, 2011. See PA story ULSTER Politics. Photo credit should read: Paul Faith/PA Wire...A
Mike Nesbitt

It has only existed for three months, but in that time the official Opposition hasn't really amounted to very much. That's partly because the Assembly began the summer recess within a few weeks of the Opposition being formed, but also because, so far, what the UUP and SDLP have said hasn't gone much beyond the serial mantra of, "The Executive is useless and needs to get its act together".

It's also worth bearing in mind that the SDLP seems to have disappeared for the last three months. Maybe they're working on some sort of grand plan, but they're certainly a long way from Colum Eastwood's statement, on May 20, that: "A new and refreshed SDLP team will now tirelessly hold this Government to account. We will offer constructive criticism and offer a progressive alternative to government."

The other aspect of Opposition that has struck me as odd is the fact that the UUP and SDLP don't seem to realise that they have to work together if they are to maximise the impact they can have on both the Executive and the media.

On May 19, Mike Nesbitt tweeted: "Congratulations SDLP! Looking forward to the first cross-community Opposition at Stormont." Yet, on Monday the UUP issued a document, A Vision for Northern Ireland outside the EU, which they described as the "initial thoughts of the official Opposition at the Northern Ireland Assembly." The party has also set up a Twitter account (@NIAOpposition) under the banner 'Stormont Opposition'.

So, are we to assume that the UUP and SDLP will not be working together? Bearing in mind that they think they could do a better job than the DUP and Sinn Fein and would like to replace them at the next election, it does seem strange that they haven't reached some sort of agreement to create the cross-community Opposition that Nesbitt mentioned four months ago.

Also, if they are both determined to offer an alternative to the Executive's Programme for Government, it surely makes sense for them to coordinate responses and launch joint attacks with jointly agreed alternatives?

The UUP's A Vision for Northern Ireland, launched on the first day of the new session, has some interesting stuff in it and was intended to attract public and media attention. But the document would have been much more interesting had it been jointly launched with the SDLP. It should also have been thoroughly costed and thought through, because it did read more like a wish list than a genuine alternative to the Executive's strategy.

Nesbitt has a valid point: the DUP and Sinn Fein are all over the place in terms of their response to the Brexit result and the other economic challenges facing Northern Ireland - challenges which would have existed even if the UK had voted Remain.

But Foster and McGuinness have played a blinder in terms of standing together on difficult issues (look at the bringing in of Claire Sugden to Justice, the joint letter to Theresa May, the DUP's underplaying of the McKay-Bryson story, Sinn Fein not allowing themselves to get overexcited by comments from Gregory Campbell or Sammy Wilson, their collective calm on the cross-border implications of Brexit and even the decision to recruit David Gordon as an Executive "minder").

They know they need each other. They know that any chink of disagreement, or difficulty, would be a godsend for the Opposition. They know that they swim together - or sink together. The UUP and SDLP need to work out how to discomfit the Executive, and they won't be able to do that unless they understand the role, relevance, purpose and direction of a cross-community Opposition.

Solo runs and one-party policy documents will not do the trick. So UUP demands for "infrastructure investment to be trebled", "a step-change in education and skills", "unfettered access to the EU's Single Market" and "financial guarantees for those losing EU funding" mean nothing - and will disappear off the radar - unless they are accompanied by substantive economics, a clear route map for delivery and support from their partner in Opposition.

I'm not sure it was a good idea to slip in the proposal for a peace centre at the Crumlin Road courthouse site - partly because it has nothing to do with Northern Ireland outside the EU, but also because I'm pretty sure that quite a few UUP members and supporters (some of whom I have spoken to since Monday) will not like the idea. Again, it might have been better to have discussed this with the SDLP.

Another reason the UUP and SDLP need to work together (and I do accept that, if the SDLP have been dragging their feet, then Nesbitt had to be seen to be doing something, or maybe they've just gone off the idea of working together) is that they face a rocky electoral road.

The proposed boundary changes will probably cost the SDLP one MP, while the UUP will probably lose one as well, maybe even the two they have. Brexit will also rob the UUP of an MEP.

The possible intervention of Fianna Fail in the 2019 local government elections could deprive the SDLP of seats.

And the reduction of MLAs from 108 to 90 in 2021 (maybe even to 85 if Northern Ireland's parliamentary seats are reduced to 17) could hit the UUP and SDLP particularly hard.

All of which means that these two parties could take very, very big hits on the funding front as well.

So, making a good job as the Opposition is crucially important. If they pull together and are seen to be effective and credible, then it's possible that the electorate will warm to them. Under the leadership of Nesbitt and Eastwood both parties had their worst-ever Assembly results in terms of votes and percentages in May, which is how they ended up in Opposition.

Escaping from that role in 2021, which they are both desperate to do, requires a considerable swing to them and a similarly considerable cock-up from the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Foster and McGuinness know what they need to do to survive: work together to minimise disagreements (of which they have many) and maximise consensus (which they will invent when necessary).

A divided, ineffective Opposition suits them very nicely, and they will turn their PR machinery against it every day.

But do Nesbitt and Eastwood know what they need to do to survive? They have 28 MLAs between them. The best thing they could do is begin to use them effectively and collectively, starting today.

Time and circumstance aren't on their side.

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