Matthew O’Toole’s announcement as SDLP leader of the opposition at Stormont is confusing, but also significant
It says much about Northern Ireland’s changed political landscape that the last time a nationalist agreed to serve as leader of the opposition in Stormont, it was in response to a reformist unionist leader whose gestures included meeting nuns and inviting the Taoiseach to Stormont.
The SDLP’s announcement that it is forming the official opposition at Stormont is both confusing and significant for the future of devolution.
The confusion arises from the somewhat grandiose nature of the announcement made on Sunday – having lost its right to an Executive minister in May’s election, there was no significant choice being made here by the party; the decision was taken by voters who deserted the SDLP, leave it with insufficient MLAs to qualify for a ministry.
The party has waited two and a half months before writing to Assembly Speaker Alex Maskey to designate as the official opposition. One SDLP source suggested that was linked to the unexpectedly rapid passage of the NI Protocol Bill at Westminster, with the initial plan being to wait until the autumn conference season before announcing the party’s acceptance of the formal opposition title.
However, that plan was accelerated by a desire to pressure the DUP to allow the Assembly to function after the bill passed third reading in the Commons, something which gave the SDLP a chance to clarify its own stance on opposition.
The electorate forced the SDLP out of the Executive; the only decision here was whether the party would avail of money and enhanced mechanisms for scrutinising its rivals’ use of power – a ‘choice’ which is not really a choice to any rational person.
The most significant portion of the SDLP statement was that its Stormont leader is now Matthew O’Toole. Although the young South Belfast MLA had spoken on behalf of the party during the two Assembly sittings since the election, until now there had been no confirmation of who would succeed Nichola Mallon as the party’s leader in Stormont after she lost her seat in May’s election. However, Mr O’Toole has not succeeded her as deputy leader of the party.
The South Belfast MLA is respected by many of the SDLP’s rivals. He not only brings an unusually high intellect to the Assembly’s blue benches, but has rare high-level experience of government from the perspective of the civil service. As a civil service spokesman for the Government, Mr O’Toole worked in Downing Street and the Treasury.
His communications skills are clear in how this statement – announcing something which for the most part is old news – has led to major coverage across most of the Northern Irish media. Mr O’Toole will need those skills because the money available to the opposition at Stormont to employ support staff is derisory. The opposition currently has access to only a fraction of the salaries of one of the special advisers employed by the Executive parties.
However, under recent changes to the Northern Ireland Act and the Assembly’s Standing orders the SDLP will now have significant political clout in the Assembly chamber if it can be re-established with the election of a speaker.
The opposition will have ten days in each Assembly session for opposition business – a significant chance to set the agenda and put scrutiny on the Executive. When Executive ministers give statements, the opposition will get to put the first question to them.
In the weekly topical questions to ministers, the opposition will get the first question. The SDLP will also get “as far as practicable” at least one seat on each departmental scrutiny committee.
Highly significantly, the opposition will also get the chairmanship of the powerful Public Accounts Committee which scrutinises public spending but which in recent years has seen Executive parties scrutinising themselves. But getting power is one thing; using it shrewdly is more difficult.
One of the major downsides of being in opposition in most legislatures is the inability to legislate. However, in Stormont the ability to legislate can actually be easier for backbenchers than ministers.
Executive legislation has to be approved by the entire Executive – which gives the DUP or Sinn Féin a veto behind closed doors at the Executive. By contrast, any MLA can table legislation and challenge those parties to publicly block it, something which may be politically difficult to do.
That is demonstrated by how Jim Allister – a solitary MLA whose politics are loathed by many of the other MLAs – has managed to steer two bills into law.
What the SDLP will no longer has is the power of ministerial patronage, executive decision-making or access to Executive papers. However, the party hardly benefited from those aspects of power; having been in the Executive for years, its vote has dwindled and the fact that Ms Mallon personally lost her seat – even though she was regarded as a competent minister – demonstrated that the public do not necessarily reward parties for being at the Executive table.
There is no hint yet from the Ulster Unionists or Alliance as to whether they will choose to forego their right Executive ministries to instead join the SDLP in opposition. If they did so, it would be unsettling for the DUP in particular, but also for Sinn Féin.
When in 2016 the UUP and SDLP formed the first official opposition since 1972, the DUP and Sinn Féin were unnerved. A report in 2019 by the Institute for Government, informed by conversations with senior Stormont civil servants, said: “The decision of the UUP and SDLP not to join the last administration created [an opposition] for the first time – exposing the executive to a degree of accountability that officials told us ministers found uncomfortable.”
If the Ulster Unionists stay in the Executive, this will be the first nationalist-led opposition in more than half a century. But the context is dramatically different to the situation from which the civil rights movement sprang. This is about nationalists both leading the government (albeit symbolically in a joint office), and leading the opposition to that government.