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Cosy Stormont carve-up calls for real opposition

Culling the number of politicians, parliamentary chambers and even ministries seems all the rage in the age of austerity.

South of the border Enda Kenny has promised to abolish the Republic's second chamber, the Seanad, even though they just had elections to it.

The new Taoiseach has also vowed to slash the number of TDs which currently stands at 166.

In Northern Ireland there are proposals from the DUP to reduce the number of devolved government departments from 11 to eight in a bid to save money. Sinn Fein will oppose this as it sees the measure as a shift away from the parliamentary architecture agreed under the Good Friday Agreement 13 years ago.

Under the DUP's plan they would get three ministers instead of four whereas Sinn Fein would end up running two departments rather than three.

Ironically, the smaller parties such as the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP would be as-you-were with a ministry each but with more voting clout on a smaller executive than before. Alliance, still buoyed up over their success in last week's election, would retain Justice but would not get charge of a second ministry.

The DUP's motivation seems to be twofold: firstly, and obviously, to cut out government waste and save money at a time when public finances are under severe pressure; secondly, to combat cynicism among the people about politicians "pigging out" in an over-populated and bloated government system.

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Yet even if the DUP were to convince Sinn Fein as to the merits of reforming that system the jury is still out on whether the main Stormont parties can bolster faith in devolution. Granted the majority of people here through their consistent voting patterns and various opinion polls clearly want devolution and indeed power sharing to work. However, one of the main stories of the Assembly election was the dramatic decline in voting numbers, particularly east of the Bann and specifically in unionist areas.

One of the biggest complaints, apart from the perception that Stormont is over represented and top heavy with ministries, is that there is a distinct lack of opposition in the regional parliament. One of the outcomes of last week's vote was that the size of the opposition in the Assembly was also as-you-were - just three MLAs.

Only the personalities have changed among the meagre numbers of MLAs who don't belong to parties that are represented in the coalition. Two are now unionists: one the liberal independent from East Londonderry, David McClarty, the other the anti-power sharing TUV leader Jim Allister. Only the Green Party's Stephen Agnew represents the progressive soft-left in Northern Ireland.

It is hard to see how McClarty, Allister and Agnew can find common ground to form an effective opposition to the mandatory coalition returning to power next week. Their philosophies and world outlooks are too diverse.

The only real radical change to the architecture of power sharing at Stormont is for two of the parties in the last government to decline a share of power this time around. Rather than denouncing people as "scum" (a pathetic, counter-productive and foolish outburst) the UUP leader would better serve local politics if his party announced it was forming an official opposition bloc to the DUP-Sinn Fein juggernaut. The UUP would be even better off if it did so without Tom Elliott at the helm but rather someone far better able to cope with the age of 24/7 news, such as the ex-UTV presenter Mike Nesbitt.

As for the SDLP, if Margaret Ritchie is serious about saving her leadership she should contemplate doing something bold and deciding that her party's main role in the new term is to hold the DUP-Sinn Fein duopoly to account. Both Ritchie and Elliott might find that their respective party memberships and their electorate would rejoice that they are no longer part of any cosy club.

The only option is to form a credible opposition. Otherwise they cannot complain about how Stormont runs or charge the two big parties with the smear of "carve-up". If they are inside the tent they are part of the ministerial "carve-up" too.

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