Belfast Telegraph

Monday 28 July 2014

The big snag regarding an opposition in Northern Ireland Assembly

The Secretary of State would like to see the UUP, SDLP and Alliance in opposition after the next Assembly elections. But David Ford's justice ministry could yet prove to be the stumbling block, writes Henry McDonald

Last line: Policing and justice are under the control of David Ford but if Alliance were to go into opposition, the portfolio would fall to Sinn Fein or the DUP, which would spark huge row

As every parent knows, there comes a time when you need to ditch your kid's bike with the stabilisers at the side of either wheel and get a new one without them to turn your charge into a fully-fledged, confident cyclist. And so it goes with the power-sharing settlement at Stormont.

Even after devolution Mark II, post-St Andrews Agreement in 2006, there was a coherent argument that all of the parties elected to the Assembly needed to coalesce together to get the show back on the road.

The stabilisers of involuntary coalition was a necessary – if somewhat undemocratic – mechanism to get one-time bitter enemies used to taking power and sharing it out on behalf of the entire community.

While equipped with the stabilisers, the project did hit bumps on the road, the riders did fall off, but the devolution roadshow kept on going through some stormy times.

The McGuinness/Paisley tandem changed into the McGuinness/Robinson-led (right) relay team. In spite of an upsurge in dissident violence, marked by the murders in Antrim and Craigavon in 2009, the ongoing disorder of the marching season and, later, the flag dispute and the personal crises of the First Minister and his wife, the leaders of Team Power-sharing have yet to break apart.

Does anyone really believe that, after all that has happened between 2007 and now, the DUP and Sinn Fein see any advantage in fracturing their pragmatic arrangement as the dominant forces in the Executive?

For Sinn Fein it makes sense to be seen as responsible and statesmanlike in Government in Belfast, as the party tries to detoxify its image in the Republic – especially among middle-class/middle-Ireland voters – as it builds towards the next General Election in the South. In many ways this was why Martin McGuinness donned his dinner jacket for the Queen at Windsor Castle during the Irish President's State visit.

While some of his old comrades will paint the image of the former IRA chief-of-staff wining and dining in the Queen's presence as the final symbol of sell-out, his decision to attend will go down well with the mainstream, moderately conservative population in the Republic.

The DUP, meanwhile, has to portray itself, firstly, as the party that can hold Sinn Fein in check and prevent it from being top dog at Stormont and, secondly, as the unionist force more competent and robust in running Government departments, as well as upholding the Union itself.

Given the underlying stability of the settlement (whatever the doomsayers predict), the question of those stabilisers comes back into focus and, with it, the whole issue of democratic accountability.

The prospect of near-mandatory coalition was raised this week by the Secretary of State. Theresa Villiers (right) suggested that perhaps the time was right for other parties, following the next election, to form an official opposition that would hold the Sinn Fein-DUP axis to account.

Lord Empey (right), who once championed what turned out to be a disastrous temporary fusion with the Tories, was first to welcome the Northern Ireland Secretary's suggestion.

In a statement, the former Ulster Unionist Party leader said there were "some in Stormont who don't want to see official opposition, because it would open them up to proper scrutiny and transparency".

He might just be right about that, but you have to wonder if he also had his own party in mind when he issued his communiqué in the light of Ms Villiers' remarks.

At present, the UUP remains in the five-party coalition and controls one ministry. No one is forcing the Ulster Unionists to stay in the tent, nor is anyone insisting that the SDLP do likewise. Both parties could, at any time, decide they have had enough of DUP-SF domination and exit stage left.

Since devolution came back to life opposition voices have been few and far between in the Assembly. We are, however, better off than we have been since the start of this century in terms of oppositional forces: there are currently four, instead of two, MLAs who are not aligned to governing parties.

The one major party of the 'big five' currently sharing power that should be a natural for opposition is caught in a political paradox. Alliance joined the Government in order that David Ford could hold the justice portfolio.

It remains the case that the Alliance leader is the only acceptable minister that can run the Department of Justice.

For the unionist population, the idea of a Sinn Fein minister in charge of policing and the courts would be a bridge too far, while nationalists voters would recoil at the prospect of a DUP MLA running the justice ministry, given the history of the State and the use of political policing to suppress the civil rights movement.

Alliance is now fly-trapped in the amber of mandatory coalition Government, from which it is compelled not even to try to escape. Whatever happens to the other parties which might take up Ms Villiers's suggestion and join the tiny, disparate oppositional forces in Stormont, there will still be some stabilisers imposed on the power-sharing tour for some time to come.

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