As an advocate for the Union, Councillor Alexander Stafford recently wrote a piece for leading Conservative website, ConservativeHome, looking at the development that for the first time in decades Northern Ireland has an Official Opposition led by the Ulster Unionist Party.
Following on from the article, Councillor Stafford was asked by Northern Ireland’s leading political website, Slugger O’Toole, to write for them on this momentous occasion.
Both articles are reproduced below and can be found here and here.
Alexander Stafford: At long last, Northern Ireland has an opposition – and thank goodness for that
Northern Ireland featured widely in the UK news recently when the Home Secretary raised the threat level of dissident republican terrorists in Great Britain from moderate to substantial. Whilst this is a concern, there was a far more significant change coming from Northern Ireland which was not as widely publicised, but which will have a far greater effect on the peace process. This was the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) ruling themselves out of the Northern Ireland Executive and setting themselves up as the Official Opposition in Northern Ireland. To many in Britain, this would seem quite normal following an election; however, this is the first time the Assembly has ever had a real and meaningful Opposition to hold the government of Northern Ireland to account.
Under power-sharing agreements all the main parties represented in the Assembly, the DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP, Alliance Party, and the UUP, can take up positions in the Executive in relation to their vote share. This means that since the peace settlements, Northern Ireland has lacked any real opposition.
Some of the smaller parties in Northern Ireland have refused to take part, but their influence and support has been minimal. Now, with Northern Ireland’s third biggest party setting up a viable alternative system of government, there really is a chance to normalise politics, offering a choice of policy to vote for, rather than merely dividing people down sectarian lines.
This move is the logical continuation of the UUP/Conservative deal of 2009. Here, the idea was to normalise politics and give the people of Northern Ireland a real choice when it comes to policy and those governing them. Since the end of the deal, the Conservatives in Northern Ireland have been stepping up to the plate, fielding candidates and starting to get some cut through; however, whilst they grow, this move by the UUP must be welcomed to aid the normalisation process.
Since its nadir in the late 2000s, the UUP has had a renaissance over the past couple of years under their leader, Mike Nesbitt. Predictions that this, the original unionist party, would fold after the rapid success of the DUP, have come to naught. At last year’s General Election, the UUP won two seats, the highest number since the 2001 election. Whilst the winning of Fermanagh and South Tyrone was due to a deal with the DUP, they managed to wrest a seat off their unionist rivals in South Antrim, showing that they can go toe-to-toe with the DUP, and win. On top of this, the recent Assembly election showed that the UUP had stopped their seemingly perpetual decline by holding all their seats.
In the short-term, the move by the UUP to shun limited power may be seen as foolhardy, after all, fewer of their ideas will be implemented and they will get less prestige – and resources – from having a minister, but in the medium and long term this can only aid their chances of completing their revival. Now the UUP has made this courageous step, it is up to the other main parties, such as the SDLP and the Alliance, to decide whether they go into the status quo Executive or become opposition MLAs and join with the UUP to form the Official Opposition to help break down the traditional sectarian divides.
This cross-community formation is not as radical as it may first seem and, in fact, has worked in other post-conflict countries. Lebanon, which suffered a bloody sectarian 15-year civil war and years of disruption afterwards has managed to somewhat normalise its politics. The main parties from all communities (Maronite, Orthodox, Catholic, Druze, Sunni, Shia, Alawite) generally broadly fall under two grand coalitions – the March 8 or March 14, with both coalitions representing parties from all religions and communities. This enables voters, of all religions and communities, to have a real choice when it comes to election time.
As both grand coalitions are a mixture of all communities, the populace are able to feel part of politics as well as showing them that there is an alternative to the sectarian violence of conflict. Whatever their belief, whatever their community, politics can transcend these divides. After all there is no community or religion that has a monopoly on the right way to collect taxes or ensure the streets are swept.
Northern Ireland is still struggling with the ghosts of its past, and the terrorist threat is still real and murderous. Nevertheless, the political parties of all colours have made tremendous steps – what was unimaginable only a few years ago is now the norm. Now there needs to be a new norm, one which gives those living in Northern Ireland the promise of a better future. Whilst the mainland parties are starting to become a significant presence in Northern Ireland, in the meantime the creation of an Opposition in the Assembly is a much-needed and overdue measure. The last time the UUP made such a courageous decision for the people of Northern Ireland was signing up to the Good Friday Agreement (in contrast to the DUP who opposed it initially) and electorally they suffered heavily for this.
Now is the perfect time for the UUP to once more show their political leadership in Northern Ireland. The peace has been secured so now it is time to focus on the proper and accountable functioning of the political institutions. The UUP have taken a brave and bold step – and should be lauded for this courageous decision.
Northern Ireland has started its first steps into a brave new political world
It is said a week is a long time in politics, and this has definitely been true in Northern Ireland. Just over a week ago the UUP made the decision to reject taking a Ministry and have instead decided to form an Opposition. The SDLP has now also decided to pull away from government and join them on the opposite side of the chamber.
Elsewhere I’ve commented that the UUP had made a “brave and bold step – and should be lauded for this courageous decision” of launching what will become the Assembly’s first ever real Opposition.
It is both the right thing for their party, by giving them a platform and a raison d’être, as well the right thing for Northern Ireland by giving choice to voters over policy and outlook, rather than dividing them along traditional lines.
Therefore, it is pleasing to see that the SDLP has broken with its fellow nationalists and will join the UUP in Opposition. These voices will significantly strengthen the Opposition and allow for a more diverse, wide-ranging and cross-community representation, giving the Opposition credibility across the country.
Nevertheless, once again the SDLP has found itself playing catch-up with the rest of the mainstream parties. The UUP’s decision made waves, and all credit to the media-savvy Mike Nesbitt on being able to grab the momentum for these changes; however, the SDLP’s hand has been forced.
The UUP manoeuvre put the SDLP between a rock and a hard place.
By sticking with the status quo, when there is an Opposition they would struggle to make their voice heard in the Assembly, and their raison d’être would continue to be questioned; if they moved in with the UUP they would be seen as reacting to events, merely copying a group who has already made a brave decision.
Rather than creating a new movement and be seen to drive forward a new type of politics, the SDLP is running the risk of constantly chasing the latest fad, rather than displaying in-depth thought leadership.
The differing approaches, and timings, from the UUP and SDLP belie their different prospects. The SDLP continues to struggle to elucidate its relevance in an already crowded field, which is having an effect on its vote share. The UUP, however, is at last starting to turn the corner electorally.
Gaining two seats at the Westminster election and maintaining the number of seats at the Assembly, demonstrates that the worst is over for the UUP and it is possible for things to get better.
With the Opposition move, Mike Nesbitt has clearly seen a gap in the market, one that the previous UUP/Conservative deal aimed for, and is trying to use it as a springboard for the future of Northern Ireland politics.
These changes have caught off-guard the DUP and Sinn Fein. The SDLP decision to move should be of serious concern to Sinn Fein. The Shinners have recently been feeling the squeeze across several arenas in Northern Ireland and this pronouncement by the SDLP will only add to this pressure on an unexpected front.
Whilst it remains to be seen if any of the nationalist vote will now return to the SDLP, the Shinners will have to take the potential threat seriously, and no amount of bluster from them hides the fact that they have been wrong-footed and made to look weak.
Between the options of Opposition and joining the Executive, is it only right that the SDLP has moved in with the UUP. It will help to normalise politics in Northern Ireland, giving all members of the community a genuine choice of policies and ideas.
Whilst this move is not going to completely break down the traditional divides, it does start to fragment the lines, which eventually will aid the realignment and normalisation of politics.
Whether the SDLP and UUP stick to Opposition when the reality of losing power and prestige hits them is yet to be seen, but for now, Northern Ireland has started its first steps into a brave new political world.