Tue 24th May 2016
May 2016: The dust has settled on the 2016 Assembly Election
So the dust has settled on the election and while the results threw up no major surprises, we didn’t have to wait long for a bit of political drama which came in the announcement from the UUP that they will not be taking up their seats in the Executive and will instead form an official opposition. While Stormont has always had a small number of MLAs who sit outside the broad tent of the Executive parties, sometimes referred to rather dismissively as ‘the naughty corner’, the UUP announcement changes the shape and dynamic of the incoming Assembly.
And more drama has followed with the SDLP also announcing that the party will go into opposition and not join the DUP and Sinn Fein in the Stormont Executive.
At the time of writing View from the Chair, the Alliance Party had indicated that they were not in a position to accept the Justice Ministry but there was a chink of hope for negotiation. Whichever way they jump however, the shape of the field is changed already.
The official opposition has access to some limited funds with which to research and challenge policies, they still take up their membership of Stormont’s statutory committees and are automatically entitled to chair the Public Accounts Committee and table urgent questions to Executive Ministers. It adds up to an opportunity to both hold the Executive parties to account and also to devise and present a view of what an alternative Government might look like. That is an opportunity and a challenge for the opposition parties and how they embrace it will be one of the interesting elements of this Assembly term.
At the very least the UUP and SDLP – and whomever joins them – will not feel in any way obliged to vote for a budget, a Programme for Government, or any other ‘collective decision’ of the Executive, simply because they occupy one of the Executive seats.
Even the DUP and Sinn Fein should not feel any more uncomfortable at facing an official opposition, in all other legislatures this is the norm and the very fact that we are moving towards a more normalised and conventional style and structure of democracy is to be welcomed. Policies and decisions should be challenged, scrutinised and measured.
For those of us watching from the outside let us hope that opposition evolves into something positive, helpful and constructive. We don’t need opposition for opposition’s sake, or an opposition that paralyses much needed progressive decision making.