Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 13 July 2014

Opposition is a vital role for some other political party

In the first of a new series, Mike Nesbitt says an official Opposition at Stormont is a good idea, but politicians still contest elections to win

Opposition? Interesting. Or, to quote Barry Davies: "Very interesting." (Davies was a BBC football commentator, in case that's bugging you).

I have always believed there was no Opposition built into the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement because the point was to make politics appealing to all.

That was then; this is now. And now seems like a good time to accept that everyone who is getting on board the political path is signed up and we can review how things are going.

First off, it seems to me the merit of a mandatory coalition is that you don't have to pretend you have exclusive hold of all the good ideas.

Indeed, on the enterprise committee, when the social economy is up for debate, I find myself in tune with Sue Ramsey, a Sinn Fein MLA. But I do not see much sign of that collaborative working. Then there is the important question of who exercises the key functions of scrutiny and challenge. It has to be more than the media and while every minister is shadowed by a committee, it's hardly what Barry Davies would have called "man-marking".

I suppose the next steps depend on whether you see the Agreement as product or process. There was a period when my own party seemed nervous to admit it was process, for fear that would be misinterpreted as a step on the path to a united Ireland. But that was then; this is now. And it is clearly part of a process, which took another large step at St Andrews and again at Hillsborough. Frankly, 13 years on, I think we are about ready for the next step, forming an Opposition.

There is a very big difference between saying the Ulster Unionist Party thinks having an Opposition is a good idea in principle and wanting to be the party to form it.

So this is not about a party-political stance; it is about recognising that we are on a political journey and the next big stride should be to accept the transitional arrangements of 1998 have delivered a relatively stable set of devolved political institutions, but that those institutions will deliver more if we are confident enough to do government the way it is done around the world - with a Government and an Opposition. I would envisage the coalition Government becoming voluntary, rather than mandatory, but still cross-community. I would see the need to legislate for an official and loyal Opposition; loyal to the institution of the Assembly and practising its loyalty by ensuring the long-term health of the institution by continuously challenging the way those in power operate its powers and privileges.

So should the Ulster Unionists and SDLP go into official Opposition?

Only if we think the current system is being operated so badly, so unfairly, so detrimentally to the electorate that we have no choice.

The better option is to persuade people that Opposition is good in principle, that it should follow the next Assembly elections - and that we would prefer someone else to form it.

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