Why the Assembly parties continue continue to oppose Opposition
The DUP and Sinn Fein proposing an official Opposition would be like turkeys voting for Christmas. Which is why the electorate must take over, says Alex Kane
An Opposition has two very specific responsibilities: holding the government to account (by way of debate, scrutiny, procedural mechanics, external lobbying and media coverage) and offering the electorate choice and alternatives at elections (ideally being able to either form by itself, or be the anchor party of, a new government).
The Assembly does not have, let alone 'recognise' a formal, funded Opposition, which means that holding the Executive to account is, in essence, impossible.
It also means that there is no real choice/alternatives at elections, which probably explains why turnout continues to tumble (there really is no other word for it) and why poll after poll indicates such high levels of disinterest in and disengagement from the Assembly and local politics.
For a brief period, the Alliance Party (with Dawn Purvis and Kieran Deeney in tow) described itself as the 'Opposition,' but when the opportunity arose to join the Executive, they jumped at it: probably reckoning that they could do more inside than remaining outside in a role which existed in name only.
Jim Allister's supporters like to describe him as a 'one-man Opposition'. Fine, he may be an effective and articulate performer, but one man does not an Opposition make.
Similarly, Basil McCrea and John McCallister – when they get around to setting up their new party – will probably describe themselves as the Opposition: but they, too, will be very hard pushed to be taken seriously in the role.
Any new party emerging in time for the 2015 Assembly election will start with one very specific problem: even if they win seats (maybe even joining forces with other smaller parties who win seats), there will be very little for them to do in the continuing absence of that formal, funded Opposition.
In other words, how do they manage to persuade people (many of whom have already opted out, or never acquired the habit in the first place) to vote for them if they can't point to the role they will play and the position they will occupy?
So it's really no surprise that Sinn Fein and the DUP (along with the UUP, SDLP and Alliance) have no electoral interest in encouraging Opposition.
Why would they make it easier for new parties to emerge? Why would they want greater scrutiny of their collective and individual agenda? Why would they want anything which could upset the mixture of cabals and cartels which underpin the existing institutional structures? If turkeys won't vote for Christmas, then you can hardly expect the politically macho to vote for emasculation.
It is worth pointing out that 'there is no recognition of an official Opposition in the Scottish Parliament, or the National Assembly for Wales, although there is provision for non-Government parties in relation to parliamentary time; there is provision for a vote of no confidence in the Scottish government; and both the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly have provisions for dissolution, as distinct from passing a motion of no confidence'.
The Assembly has none of these provisions, or safeguards, although legal advice to the Assembly and Executive review committee (in December 2012) concluded: 'The creation of an Opposition could involve some amendments to the standing orders of the Assembly. If the Assembly wished to make particular provision for an Opposition in the standing orders of the Assembly, then this would require a cross-community vote in accordance with section 41 of the 1998 Act.'
Which means that an Opposition could be created fairly quickly – if the DUP and Sinn Fein jointly agreed.
But how likely is that? Not likely at all, I would have thought.
Sinn Fein has a smokescreen argument that it would be the 'back door' to excluding them from the Executive, while the DUP, fairly confident that Sinn Fein won't budge on the issue, is happy to say that it would 'facilitate opposition, if that's what others want'.
Meanwhile, the UUP and SDLP, neither of whom has talent to spare, seem understandably reluctant to leave the Executive and offer any alternatives.
Given the very peculiar nature of the make-up of the Executive here, it strikes me as imperative that we introduce robust and reliable forms of accountability and ensure that government by stalemate, veto, petition-of-concern and consultation is, if not immediately ended, then, at the very least, subjected to constant, critical challenge.
Northern Ireland needs new parties. It needs parties which are focused on the need to deliver a form of government which embraces and reaches out, rather than a form of government which seems content with lockdown and sectarian headcounts.
It needs parties which are prepared to get elected and then force their way into the role of Opposition. Because if they occupy that role, then people will come: lobby groups, the media, voters, issue groups, specialists and civic society. They will take an interest.
Opposition and accountability cannot be left to the existing parties. They do not want it. It is up to a new generation of voters and politicians to turn the Assembly into what we need it to be: good government, relevant government, shared government.