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Six of best no doubt, but it's time Big Two got proper caning in Northern Ireland Assembly chamber

Stormont's 'naughty corner' - two Greens, two People Before Profit, Jim Allister and Claire Sugden - will play a vital role holding the Executive to account. But they're no substitute for an official Opposition, writes Alex Kane.

Published 10/05/2016

Steven Agnew
Steven Agnew
Clare Bailey
Gerry Carroll
Eamonn McCann
Claire Sugden
Jim Allister

The last Assembly closed with just six of the 108 MLAs not members of the big five parties. The new one has its first official sitting on Thursday... with just six of the 108 MLAs not members of the big five parties. So, not much change it seems.

At the time of writing the UUP, SDLP and Alliance haven't reached a firm decision on whether or not they'll opt for the new structures of Opposition, so it's still possible that we'll be left with the so-called "naughty corner" to do the job - albeit in an informal, unfunded and often haphazard manner.

Some people have told me that they don't like the use of the term "naughty corner"; indeed, Eamonn McCann described its as "infantilism from lazy commentators".

But the term was first coined by David McNarry, and he used it in a deliberately joking sense, because five of the six MLAs (Jim Allister, John McCallister, Basil McCrea, the late David McClarty and himself) had fallen out with either the DUP or UUP and gravitated to the corner behind the Alliance Party. It was a throwaway line, yet it caught on with the media and with MLAs generally.

And that "naughty corner" also did some very important work, including three Private Member's Bills and the many occasions when their critique and analysis of Executive legislation was the only genuine attempt to deconstruct and question the purpose and value of the measures.

That corner will now be occupied by McCann, Gerry Carroll, Steven Agnew, Clare Bailey, Jim Allister and Claire Sugden. And while few in number, the very fact that they got elected at all is an indication of the passion and self-belief they bring to politics.

All of them had to take on the big party election machines - and some pretty big political beasts, too - in their own constituencies, and at least three of them defied the odds and the pundits to get where they are today.

You don't have to agree with them, but it is worth mentioning that, in terms of name recognition, the six members of the last "naughty corner" were much better-known than most of the backbenchers from the bigger parties.

Given the new composition - two Greens, two People Before Profit, Allister and Sugden (the only Independent to win anywhere) - we do need another name for them. Freedom Corner, or More Than You Bargained For Corner, perhaps? Feel free to tweet your suggestions.

Anyway, it will be a different corner, with different agendas. And having heard all of them speak before, I'm pretty sure it will be a corner that will continue to generate fresh thinking and challenging analysis.

The added presence of McCann, in particular, will force Allister to up his game and spread his analytical net wider, because he can't spend the next five years poking at the bars of the DUP cage.

Talented they may be, and worth listening to, but the fact remains that these six MLAs will not be recognised as the official Opposition. They won't have any special rights in the Assembly chamber. They won't have additional funding for research and they will still have to wait in a long queue before they get speaking in key debates.

So, even though the media and social media will be interested in what they have to say, it won't have a great impact on day-to-day business. One thing that an official Opposition offers any assembly or parliament is a nurturing ground for new talent.

One of the reasons the original "naughty corner" was so successful was that its members weren't constrained in what they could say.

I accept that Opposition parties also have a whipping system and expect their members to adhere to party policy, but since 102 of the 108 MLAs in the last Assembly were linked to the parties of Government it meant that - apart from internal sniping - they weren't offering genuine, credible alternatives to anything in the Programme for Government.

And offering alternatives and choice at elections is the key role of an Opposition. It also allows shadow ministers and spokesmen to cut their teeth in debates and to get used to the rough and tumble of deconstruction and costing of policies.

Let's face it, if they'd been doing that sort of thing in the last Assembly, then the SDLP, Alliance and UUP spokesmen would not have been ripped apart by Stephen Nolan when he was discussing their manifestos. Those three performed worst during those encounters and all paid the price on election day. Yet, all three of those parties have very able MLAs, who would probably shine in Opposition roles.

They weren't able to shine in the last two Executives because all of their criticisms - many of them fully justified - were devalued by their continuing presence in the Executive.

In hard electoral terms, all three have suffered since 2007, even though the DUP and Sinn Fein have continued to grow. So, if they choose to stay in the Executive, all - and I do mean all - of the evidence suggests that their decline will remain ongoing.

What's the point of having talent if you can't display it? What's the point of having alternatives if they're swallowed up, stolen, or just ignored by the Big Two?

What's the point of an Assembly that doesn't have an Opposition? What's the point of having people like Claire Hanna, Naomi Long, Doug Beattie, Stephen Farry, Mark Durkan, Robin Swann, Nichola Mallon, Sandra Overend and Justin McNulty if they can't make their case from the Opposition benches?

What's the point of offering something different from the DUP and Sinn Fein if the public can't see and hear it every day?

What's the point of saying you would do things differently if you are not allowing potential voters to see how you perform together and co-operate together in Opposition?

We need a generation of politicians who can speak without notes, think on their feet and stand up to scrutiny.

We need to hear genuine debates in the Assembly, with Government and Opposition putting their case.

We need to hear passion and fresh thinking from somewhere other than the corner behind Alliance.

Official Opposition is a training ground for new talent and for genuine accountability. It's a place to get people and policies noticed.

It also makes the governing parties up their own game, because there's nothing like popular policies and politicians on the Opposition benches to make governments listen, as well as spooking backbench members of that administration.

The "naughty corner" has its place and its part to play. But the "naughty corner" is not an Opposition and nor is it an alternative at elections.

UUP, SDLP and Alliance MLAs, who believe that they have what it takes to make a difference, should ensure that their voices - individually and collectively - are heard in this Assembly.

The best place to do that is in Opposition.

Belfast Telegraph

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