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Why Opposition are right to turn up the heat on DUP and Sinn Fein over cash for ash scandal

The UUP and SDLP are proving their worth as a counter-balance to the ruling parties, writes Alban Maginness

The Opposition in Stormont has been blooded and it has by all standards performed well over the past three weeks. Both the UUP and the SDLP have shown themselves individually and collectively to be a fighting force to be feared by the governing duopoly of DUP and Sinn Fein.

Their spokespersons in and out of the Assembly and in the media have been fluent, energetic and damaging. People like Nichola Mallon and Steve Aiken have been sure-footed and scorpion-like in their ability to sting their opponents.

Simon Hamilton's characteristic coolness is no longer reassuring and Conor Murphy's staid performances to camera are dull and ineffective. Martin McGuinness appears burnt-out and too old in contrast to Nesbitt and Eastwood. Arlene is under siege and will remain in that position for the foreseeable future.

The Opposition have not yet reached the stage where one could truthfully say that they threaten the hegemony of the governing parties. But, if you were either Arlene or Martin, you might be worried about the medium-term.

Colum Eastwood and Mike Nesbitt went into the recess satisfied Arlene was under siege for the rest of her term of office and Martin has little room for manoeuvre, save threatening to press the nuclear button by resigning and having fresh elections. An unlikely and self-defeating scenario.

The Opposition can - and will - make further serious trouble for Arlene and widen the wedge between her and Martin.

The dramatic political events around the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal would not have been nearly so dramatic and damaging to Arlene Foster and the DUP if there had not been an Opposition.

This says a lot in favour of the brave decision by Mike Nesbitt and then Colum Eastwood to forgo a place in the Executive and to form a cross-community Opposition to the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Anybody (including myself) who had been previously sceptical of an Opposition need only review the past three weeks of political debate and see the obvious added value of an Opposition in the middle of this crisis.

Apart from a vigilant Press - especially the BBC - it has been the pressure from both Opposition parties that has done much to hurt and punish Arlene.

Sinn Fein, by contrast with the Opposition, were at first reluctant to make life difficult for their Executive colleagues in the DUP and virtually ignored what was going on around them.

They accused Opposition parties of publicity stunts, seeking headlines and blatant political opportunism.

Since the crisis emerged three weeks ago, Sinn Fein has been playing catch-up with the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists on two fronts: first, on the substantive issue of the RHI, which has scandalised public opinion and created a huge well of public anger.

Foster's brazen attempt to ride out the storm was seen by the public as an arrogant exercise in political irresponsibility. Sinn Fein simply did not grasp the rising public anger at the apparent extravagant waste of £400m of public money due to governmental incompetence.

They were outmanoeuvred by the SDLP/UUP motion of no confidence in Arlene and the call for her exclusion from office for six months.

Sinn Fein could not support it without risking the break-up of the Executive. And their ham-fisted attempt at amending the exclusion motion and its rejection, ironically by the Speaker, left them with only one option and that was to abstain. In fact, they did not technically abstain, but simply absented themselves from the Assembly chamber for the vote.

They then scrambled about looking for an alternative course of action and decided to force Arlene by way of a new motion that she should step aside temporarily as First Minister. But their threat to Arlene remains idle, as it is a threat to themselves and the institutions.

Second, despite the hapless and institutionally damaging performance of the Speaker, Sinn Fein failed to call for his resignation. It was only after Mike Nesbitt and Colum Eastwood called on the Speaker to resign that Sinn Fein (after a two to three-day delay) decided that his position was untenable. Again, a case of catch-up by a previously sure-footed Sinn Fein. Again, a case of following the Opposition.

The fate of the likeable and genuinely decent (but procedurally overwhelmed) Robin Newton will be decided by the Opposition.

Unlike a minister, the Speaker's position, in a very practical sense, requires the support of the full Assembly, not just one large party in the Assembly. His fate is virtually sealed if the Opposition continue to express their lack of confidence in him.

In practical terms, he cannot survive if four parties in the Assembly do not support him in the daily running of Assembly business. He is a victim of circumstance.

Happy New Year, everybody.

Belfast Telegraph

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