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Stormont Opposition damp squib that has failed to fire public's imagination

Six months on, a thoroughly underwhelming UUP/SDLP alliance has done nothing to hold Executive to account

By Alex Kane

When Mike Nesbitt and Colum Eastwood opted for Opposition rather than the Executive, both the DUP and Sinn Fein were rather snappy with them, accusing them of taking the easy route rather than shouldering the burden and doing the hard work of governing Northern Ireland. In a joint article for the Belfast Telegraph a few weeks ago, Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness accused them of still indulging in grandstanding and gimmicks, while they were getting on with the business of good, cost-saving government.

In fairness, they have a point. The Opposition hasn't really got its act together yet. It certainly hasn't landed a damaging blow on the DUP and Sinn Fein, seeming to prefer a tidal wave of complaints about particular decisions and policies rather than a sustained assault on and deconstruction of Executive policy. And nor have they, individually or collectively, published their own costed, thought-through Programme for Government. So, at this stage, over six months into the new mandate, it's hard to know what to make of the Opposition. Or, putting that more bluntly, is there any evidence, let alone straws in the wind, that Nesbitt and Eastwood (and let's not forget Alliance, TUV and PBP either) are viewed as potential alternatives to Foster and McGuinness?

The immediate problem for the Opposition is that it is massively underfunded. Other than the existing staffers in their Press and policy offices they don't have the sort of manpower and resources available to Sinn Fein and the DUP. And with only 28 MLAS between them (compared to DUP/SF 66) they would be hard pushed to come up with a 'shadow' ministerial team even if they could agree to create a joint one. They have very few what could be described as "big hitters" either, the sort of people who ministers are wary of and who know how to discomfit DUP/SF backbenchers. The reason why Jim Allister still attracts so much media attention is because he knows how and where to land a blow.

That's not to say that the UUP/SDLP lack talent - they have very able performers like Beattie, Aiken, Kennedy, Hanna, Mallon and McCrossan among the ranks. But they tend to be far too polite and seem utterly unwilling to land the type of blow that attracts media attention, while knocking their opponents back into their corner. And, with all due respect to all 28 of them, there isn't one of them who possesses the sort of charisma and eloquence which makes the media and public sit up and take notice. That may explain why both parties did so badly at the Assembly election in May and why there's a continuing lack of buzz or political excitement about them.

There was a moment at the UUP conference in October - after Eastwood was invited along as guest speaker - when it looked as if the two leaders were moving closer together. And even though Nesbitt did a lot of damage by subsequently refusing to rule out another electoral deal with the DUP, Foster was still spooked enough by the possibility of a UUP/SDLP deal to devote a considerable part of her own conference speech to knocking the 'Steptoe and Son' relationship. Since then both the UUP and SDLP seemed to have gone cool on their relationship, even though they have worked together on motions for Opposition Day debates.

The other problem for the 'official' Opposition is that the real Opposition still comes from the media. So, while Nesbitt and Eastwood are able to launch attacks on the Executive parties, they cannot escape the public perception that they are merely reacting to work that has already been done by the media. Which means that they are also open to questions like "what would you have done differently?" and "how come you didn't know anything about this in the first place. Isn't this your job in the Assembly chamber and committees?" Or, as someone asked me a few days ago: "Why do leaks and whistleblowers always end up with the media rather than the Opposition parties?"

That, of course, is the key question. The Opposition cannot expect to survive on the work of the print and broadcast media. It has to come to terms with the fact that the best blows - the sort of blows which can result in seats and votes - are the ones you set up and land yourself. And they are best delivered on the Assembly floor or during committee questioning. All that UUP and SDLP spokespeople are doing is following up on what BBC and newspaper journalists have already uncovered or asked about. There are no votes to be had by doing that.

So, here's the real challenge for Nesbitt, Eastwood and everybody else who isn't in the Executive: how can they ensure that it's them, rather than a journalist, who holds the Executive to account? How can they ensure that Foster and McGuinness - and every other minister - is more afraid of them than they are of a call from a journalist? How can they ensure that the media and public take an interest in how they hold the Executive to account and how they promote themselves as a genuine, credible, vote-attracting alternative to the status quo? In other words, how do they make Opposition 'sexy'?

My own view is that they have to do it together - even if that means Nesbitt ruling out any future pact with the DUP. If their joint ambition is to eclipse the DUP and Sinn Fein as the lead parties of unionism and republicanism (even though such an outcome could still leave those parties in the Executive), then they have to present overwhelming evidence that they would make a better pairing as First and Deputy First Ministers (even using the term joint First Ministers would help) than the present pair. And they have to present evidence that they sing from the same sheet on key socio/economic issues. If they think they could do a better job then they need to prove it - and without the help of Stephen Nolan.

The Executive will survive the present mess, as it will survive other messes over paramilitarism, legacy issues, financial bungling etc. But each mess is logged in the minds of voters and does alter their perception. And it's that perception and how it can shift votes their way that the Opposition needs to work on.

It won't be a crisis that unseats the DUP/SF duopoly. It will be a decision by tens of thousands of voters that the UUP/SDLP could do a better job and are worth taking a chance on.

If Nesbitt and Eastwood don't realise that, then their parties are screwed.

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