Does the Northern Assembly need an ‘opposition’?

I’m sure if you live in Ireland you may have something of an opinion on this matter, and I suspect that the closer you get to the North, the stronger your opinion may be. Many now vouch that if the North’s apparatus is to become a better functioning democracy (whatever that may be, I believe is up for debate) the Assembly needs a proper funded opposition or as Ian Parsley has suggested, a challenge function, to keep those who decide to be in government on their toes. He also speaks about ‘civic society’ getting behind the issue, a group that has always somehow made me think, who the hell are ‘civic society’? Am I a member of this organisation? Where do we meet to discuss these matters that effect ‘us’? If I’m not a member, can I join? Something for another post I suppose.

IJP goes on to also criticise the SDLP for ‘sleepwalking’ into a debacle over opening a debate concerning whether to go into opposition or not. Kevin Breslin, a stalwart on IJP’s site and others, argues to the contrary. Personally, I think he (IJP) is somewhat misguided on this issue as it’s always good to talk, get everything out in the open and then try and settle on an issue, but there is also something to be said for a debate/argument getting out of hand and then it showing your party as squabbling amongst themselves. It never draws affection from the general public (see the Tories and any time they talk about Europe).

How about over at Eamonn Mallie’s site where Chris Taylor noted we don’t have an ‘effective’ opposition? Again, this comes from someone (Taylor) who noted he had little interest in a lot of things that you would expect a serious journalist to have? Well, to be fair, Eamonn did note that in many countries a party in opposition is often never too effective as they may have been recently in government, defeated and they are trying their best to purge themselves and become electable as opposed to holding the power in government to account (see the Tories during the Blair years, Canada’s Conservative party in the 90s, Fine Gael during the Bertie and Biffo years for examples). They have internal wars over direction, beliefs and policy, they are not too preoccupied with what’s going on in the real world and to be honest, not too many people apart from party loyalists are concerned with what they have to say until things start to go wrong in the economy.

Then we have semi-‘liberal unionist’ Ed Curran over at the Bele Tele who discussed former secretary for the North, Owen Patterson’s consultation paper concerning proposed reforms to the Assembly and how it is run. Of course, the architecture for governance in the North was agreed by way of an all Ireland referendum but treaties and the will of the people of somewhere foreign have never stood in the way of a meddling Tory MP when an idea comes into their heads or the result doesn’t fit their world view. This ‘consultation’ will come to nothing as Patterson, now De Viliers, is going on a solo run, a very bad idea in Northern politics.

To be frank, I find it amazing and somewhat coincidental that all of these calls for an ‘opposition’ happen to be raised by the media and some pols now as opposed to say, oh I don’t know, 2002. Well, for starters, we are in the middle of one of the worst recessions/depressions since the 1930s and our legislative assembly is seemingly unable to get us out of trouble at the moment. Granted, it does not have any/little revenue raising powers compared to most parliaments so it is reliant on the person who calls the tune to dole out the dough, in this instance an economically illiterate lot from the Shires sitting over in Westminster who believe austerity is the best way to get us out of our predicament caused by their banker/financier friends. People in the North have not in the main voted for austerity, yet demand is being sucked out of the economy and unemployment rises. What employment there is available is incredibly poorly paid and thus means that a new brain drain is happening (I don’t have much of a brain to be included in said drain of course).

Further, the guys in charge on the Hill are not exactly media luvvies in the normal sense. One group are evangelical Christians who believe they are god’s chosen people and have over the years and even today, paid lip service to democracy and human rights. The other are tied to former paramilitaries who bombed and assassinated hundreds over close on 30 years, who caused billions of pounds of property damage and untold amount of psychological damage. They actively call for the destruction of the ‘state’ too, and that meant up until recently by any means possible.

Both the DUP and Sinn Fein (SF) are seemingly at the furthest ends of the Northern political spectrum as they come (supposedly), both oppose most of what the other has to propose whether it is an Irish Language Act or the abolition of the Parades Commission. We appear to have grid lock up on the Hill and it is known not to produce too much legislation, something it has received much criticism for.

Yet, where were the calls for an ‘opposition’ function when the UUP (remember them?) and the SDLP were in charge? That’s right, there were none. Why? Well, as the excellent FJH has noted in many different posts, and I hope I am not taking his words out of context, but SF and the DUP were not supposed to be the winners from the Agreement. It was meant to be Hume and Trimble wot won the peace. It was supposed to be them with Bono on stage, us all cheering them on to our Northern Utopia. Except that’s not how it ended up.

We are told that the DUP and SF do not face any kind of pressure in their roles in government as they cannot be voted out of government, yet I point to the welcome demise of the UUP and the thankfully arrested fall of the SDLP as proof that people have rather short, selective memories and that this supposition is incredibly flawed. We have the ballot box, the ultimate decision maker. In fact, I find some of the commentariat’s opinions on this matter incredibly insulting. It goes along the lines of ‘poor, stupid people vote for ‘extremists’ like the DUP/SF as they believe they will uphold their traditions/causes which are sectarian better.’ Of course, the likes of the SDLP or UUP had nothing to do with their own downfalls and would not be ‘as’ sectarian as their competitors. They are the acceptable faces of our traditional divide to the media and ‘civic society’. Of course, we could simply accept the will of the people on these matters, consider that maybe they have considered the merits of voting for certain parties and in the end decided that SF or the DUP act in their best interests, but the media does ‘know’ better.

We also get wheeled out how the turn out for elections is going down and down as a sign that there is something wrong with our political system, however, it could be quite easily argued that we are in fact doing something very right and normalising perfectly fine as we come in line with turnouts throughout Europe and elsewhere. Of course, that wouldn’t fit in the narrative of something being ‘wrong’.

As I touched on previously, the Assembly is not noted for the massive amounts of legislation it brings out. Critics of this include many right leaning commentators who are also for the ‘ripping up’ of red-tape. I find their position somewhat contradictory to their stated aim of less bureaucracy as legislation can often create even more. Do we judge a body that can create legislation by the amount or quality of its legislation? I go for the latter and as a lawyer I always believe that less is more in this instance. Legislation takes time, money and a demand for it. All too often we see knee-jerk reactions from pols everywhere that they will legislate their way out of a problem when their department may already have the powers to do what is necessary, but pols love to be seen to be ‘doing something’ when the media tell us their is a supposed ‘public out cry’. So, in this instance I would ask people who raise this issue a simple question; ‘What specific legislation do you feel they should be bringing out and why?‘.

But getting to the main thrust of the piece, the need for an opposition. Aside from all of the hypocrisy, the over looking of facts, the ignoring of history and the wanton need to tinker from the media and pols, the simple fact of the matter is this; we DO have an opposition already. It’s absolutely everyone who happens to be in the Assembly at the moment. Don’t believe me? How about Peter Robinson opposing Michael McGimpsey in relation to the radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin in Derry for starters? Or the SDLP, a party in government, not supporting the Girwood Barracks project in North Belfast? Then there is everyone’s opposition to SF’s handling of the 11+. Or how the Alliance was dragged over hot coals for its position on same sex marriage.

Go to the BBC NI’s site, the Bele Tele, News Letter, Irish News, Irish Times or any of the plethora of sites which have a focus on all things in the North. There is massive opposition to anything done in the North by any party. It’s nearly knee jerk, playing to the gallery, but often it is genuine too. We have an opposition function, it is everyone. We also have a non-mandatory government as parties can of course decline taking up a ministerial porfolio, however, they chose not to. Why? Well, aside from political parties existing as they want to exercise power in line with their supposed and stated beliefs, it gives voters a shop window to see what might happen if they vote for more of the guys who happen to hold less of the ministerial portfolios than there larger competitors. They can demonstrate competence with their portfolio whilst having an ‘in’ with senior civil servants, something they do not have if in opposition.

Ah, but we should fund the opposition so that they may provide effective oversight of what the government is up to.’ Really? Yet we are told we have too much government up on the Hill. Too many civil servants and hangers on. Too many layers of government, too many MLAs, too big a public sector etc. etc.  We know what those in power are up to. We have a unique solution to a very unique problem. We had an ethno-religious tyranny of the majority until the late 60s, we now have a qualified democracy and participants who are constantly at each others throats, leaking news or reports, criticising each and their decisions or lack of all of the time. We have an opposition, we have so much democracy and checks and balances nowadays that it would make other democracies blush, it is just that our democracy doesn’t look like those of others as it can’t, history tells us why.

So, what do you all think, should we reform Stormont? Is everything hunky dory structural wise or if not, what would you recommend we change and why?



9 responses to “Does the Northern Assembly need an ‘opposition’?

  1. No you havent taken me out of context at all. In fact I would go further. The purpose of the Good Friday Agreement was to get the IRA a role in Govt….obviously foreseen as a minority. Therefore the GFA cant work outside the broadest coalition. If it was simply a matter of the biggest unionist party and biggest nationalist party forming a govt, and the smallest nationalists and unionists being in opposition, then I would see SDLP being in Opposition for at least three electoral cycles (12-15 years) and UUP and Alliance in opposition for ever.
    And frankly Sinn Fein is unlikely to be happy with Opposition…..if your role in govt is guaranteed youre unlikely to take less.
    The whole system……allocation of speakers in debates is all proportional.
    What SDLP probably has now is a semi-detached role and probably the tactic is to increase their seats numbers to around 16 (where they were with Ritchie) or up to 18. Depending how the other parties perform, that should give them two Executive seats.
    But crucially Opposition might be out of the hands of everyone……..I just cant see the system surviving another five years. It might be simply a matter of SF refusing to implement cuts……it might be renewed violence (a major incident)…… might be Historical Enquiries Team at PSNI feeling the wrong collars. But I just dont see how it can survive the weight of contradictions.

    • FJH, I think your point re the system not surviving is a good one. Maybe it is having some perspective that being far away gives you, maybe it is talking to people who know of what happens in the North but not the ins and outs, but I think your point re a 3rd Agreement may be a starter.I was talking to my best friend here in Aus who I am staying with, an indigenous socialist, about the goings on in the North and how Nats see it. She looked at me and said ‘sorry, but Northern Ireland is seriously f***ed up mate’, and she is entirely right.

      The time frame on the change to the governance structures or a new agreement, who knows, but something has to give as we have far too much unfinished business whether it is the whole parades situation, an Irish Language Act, governance and accountability or the past atrocities, these issues and many more need to be sorted out as no one is willing to try and come to some kind of compromise and bring these bell-weather issues in from the cold. I am a firm believer that the GFA and St Andrews did enough to get us over some lines but it is obvious that we need to do more to make things more bearable.

      The more I have had time to think about this, talk to others about the whole matter, the more I have come to think that the system is not fit for purpose in many ways but I lack the imagination as to what we should replace it with. I believe quite strongly that we have an opposition already in effect, however, I am also convinced that we do not have a decent settlement in place that satisfies the highest common denominator of issues amongst us all. I am also not convinced that a challenge or opposition function would help us settle these issues. I merely look at the likes of Mike Nesbitt, a supposed liberal-unionist, and all I see is a spiv tbh.

    • “But I just don’t see how it can survive the weight of its contradictions.”

      Sadly, I do. Financing NI ie power remaining with HM Treasury. I’m all for devolution including tax varying powers, but as I’m wont to say, careful what you wish for. No NI politician would *really* welcome that responsibility for trying to generate sufficient income to pay for the public services we consume here.

      So, cynically, political dividends will remain for NI politicians to blame non-NI parties in the UK Government of whatever day for the budgetary woes of the province.

      Meanwhile, our local media will stay contented with the predictable, regular inter-party squabbles.

      That is, unless an Opposition has some radical suggestion for NI financial self-sustainability (eliminating our £1 billion p.a. waste due to our societal division is a good start), then it risks producing surplus fodder for media consumption but no credible alternative to the status quo.

      Or put another way, radical social change doesn’t come from an approved grant application. If you’re going to oppose, get organised and just do it. An Opposition is just one option.

      • Thanks for dropping on by Mr. Ulster, a lot of worthwhile points and things to mull over I think.

        Re HM Treasury being used a a stick to beat Westminster with and shift the blame from decisions made in Stormont to London, I couldn’t agree more. I think that at times parties here are in the right to blame Westminster for some of their decisions but they will obviously use this in instances when this is obviously not the case.

        I too would (eventually) like to see all tax varying powers vested up on the Hill, however, with an atrocious private sector that pays below average wages compared to most places within Ireland or the UK I think people would soon cry out for the return of direct rule and the rather large subvention that would come with it, so it would fall under a matter that needs to be treated very carefully indeed. Perhaps a thread for later on.

        As for eliminating our £1 billion p.a, again that is something to be considered and looked at but if I may be honest, this is an issue that needs to developed a whole lot better. Whilst in principle I have no problem with integrated schooling for instance, would I send a child of mine to an integrated school? No. Why? Well, I want my child to be schooled in Irish or at the very least in a school with an Irish ethos which is what Catholic schooling de facto does. We have people of another tradition in power who at every chance undermine and denigrate the Irish language at every opportunity together with Irish traditions and they want me to trust them with regards to the education of any child I may have? This is beyond belief and the reason why many who would naturally support such a proposal will never run with it.

        I do believe that our local media does have a rather large part to play, however, they are somewhat stuck in a ‘troubles’ mind set whilst bemoaning the lack of ‘normal’ politics here. Tbh, deep down in their hearts they don’t want some kind of normality here as it means that this place is no longer that interesting. Further, many of our journos lack the skills or intellect to deal with issues outside of needling politics, economics being the one that springs to mind immediately. Like a broken record and one that IJP will be familiar with on his own page, but I believe that the media in the North knows the price of everything and the value of nothing (see upgrade to the road to Larne, the A5, social spending, cost of spending up on the Hill etc.)

  2. I hope you don’t mind an intrusion “the other way”…

    Very briefly, I’ve come to the conclusion that “Do we need an opposition?” is the wrong question (assuming that by “opposition” we mean a mandatory requirement for parties not forming the “Government” to go into Opposition, however worked out).

    The real question is: “Can we have a (‘normalised’) Opposition?” – to which the answer is “no”.

    • IJP, you are not intruding whatsoever, you’re more than welcome even if we disagree on many things.

      I like your discussion on McAllister’s opening and the notion of a challenge facility in the Assembly, but as you can see above, I am very skeptical on it’s workings. Regarding your own specific points, I think that many may find them somewhat unique, maybe even slightly vague (maybe the wrong word) or a step too far as you are using phraseology that is foreign to them and herego they cannot relate to it.

      That said, I do not object to more oversight in a democracy, though I do question it’s timing and who is raising the questions.

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