Belfast Telegraph

Opposition can put an end to complacency

The time for dithering is over: the UUP must leave the Executive and go into Opposition, says leadership candidate John McCallister

Elections should be about offering people a real choice between contrasting visions. And the leadership election of the UUP is no different.

In my view, those who aspire to leadership have a duty to supply a clear vision and a clear policy direction to ensure genuine choice is being offered.

A lack of clarity in policy and strategy lie at the heart of our present predicament. The Ulster Unionist Party has drifted for too long.

This party has many gifts - but time is not among them. It is incumbent on candidates to challenge the party, to be bold and to clearly articulate what it can offer the public.

The next two weeks should not be about coronations, nor a beauty parade between competing personalities.

Enough time has been spent fixating on image and presentation. The next two weeks must be an authentic contest about future strategy.

This leadership election must offer real choice to our party members. That choice comes down to what the UUP does about Opposition.

As a party, we have been talking about the need for Opposition at Stormont for years. We have said that Opposition is a 'game-changer'.

We went to the electorate in May last year with this policy under our belt and we were elected on it.

It's long past time to stop talking about a game-changer - it's time to deliver the game-changer.

Staying in the Executive is neither in the best interests of our party nor of Northern Ireland.

As a recent opinion poll devastatingly proved, the electorate knew we had minimal influence in the Executive with two ministers. Now we have one.

By remaining in the Executive we allow Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness to taunt our party any time we challenge an Executive policy; we provide cover to the DUP and Sinn Fein to continue with policies they agree between themselves.

It would be entirely self-defeating for the UUP to defer going into Opposition until agreed structures are put in place - with or without a referendum.

This gives Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness a veto over UUP policy. It elevates the DUP and Sinn Fein as decision-makers within Ulster Unionism.

Should we meekly remain captive to the generosity of Peter and Martin? Is that how we change the game?

Rather than seeking the permission of Peter Robinson, I believe the UUP is capable of acting decisively to change Northern Ireland politics for the better.

That is why I have said that my first act as party leader would be to take the UUP into Opposition. We don't need the approval of electoral opponents to deliver real change.

By creating an Opposition at Stormont, the UUP would radicalise Northern Ireland politics.

The complacent culture of Stormont - with all parties in the Executive and no real scrutiny of Executive policies - would end.

At election time, voters would be offered a real choice between supporting Executive parties and their policies, or voting for the Opposition.

Such a move would reflect the best traditions of our party. From signing the Covenant, to the move to embrace power-sharing in the 1980s and 1990s, to negotiating the Agreement, Ulster Unionism is at its best when it leaps forward and boldly uses its influence to shape a better Northern Ireland.

It is my firm belief that the Ulster Unionist Party now again has the opportunity to take decisive action and change Northern Ireland for the better.

Dithering about this hurts the party and hurts Northern Ireland. To pass by on this opportunity and to remain complacently in the Executive betrays Ulster Unionism's best traditions and best instincts.

With increasing numbers of voters disenchanted by the performance of the Executive and the Assembly, with no real choice given to voters but to support Executive parties, a dangerous gap has opened up between our political system and the public.

Voter apathy is hardly surprising when voters are not given an authentic choice. The long-term stability of our devolved institutions requires voter engagement.

The creation of an Opposition offers a means of encouraging that engagement and fostering a real sense of ownership by voters of the devolved institutions. It places the voters - not the Executive - in charge of the Assembly.

I want the Ulster Unionist Party to act now and deliver the change that Northern Ireland politics needs.

Now is the time for this party to be daring and to have the self-confidence to stand up for the people of Northern Ireland. Dithering is no longer an option.

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