Northern Ireland's power-sharing parliament may soon have an official opposition

Once one party is brave enough to leave the Executive and enter official opposition, others will be encouraged to follow suit.

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Election season is well under way in Northern Ireland as the parties hit the campaign trail in anticipation of the 5th May ballots. Regardless of how individual parties fare, Stormont is set for certain change when it returns for a fresh parliament. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, political parties will soon be able to opt out of power sharing and instead become an official opposition party in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Earlier this year, Northern Irish politicians approved a bill to put in place procedures and structures for an opposition party to come into play following the upcoming elections, representing a major shift in how the power-sharing parliament operates. It has been heralded as a step towards normalisation in the region by some, as well as being criticised by others as being too much too soon and a slippery slope back to the discriminatory majority rule which fuelled violence in the 1960s.

In the 18 years since the Good Friday Agreement, an official opposition has so far been denied at Stormont as the peace process required that all major parties enter government and be part players in the power-sharing executive. This mandatory coalition was deemed essential as it meant that all of the main parties were invested in the parliament’s success and could consider themselves as wielding real power and influence. Similar to the Dodo’s cry in Alice in Wonderland following an absurdist competition that ‘Everyone has won and all must have prizes’, giving most parties a seat at the Executive table enabled the different groups to each feel they had triumphed and earnt something from the peace talks, saving them face among their local communities as they each presented themselves as the winners. However, a system in which everyone exercises control is inherently flawed and has resulted in internal power struggles ever since.

In the intervening years since the Good Friday Agreement, politics in the region has stabilised and normalised, whilst the principle of constant coalition has come under strain.

Currently, the 13 ministerial positions in the Executive are divided between the DUP (6 ministers), Sinn Féin (4 ministers), the Alliance party (2 ministers) and the SDLP (1 minister). It has been argued that the power-sharing format concentrates power disproportionately in the hands of the DUP and Sinn Fein and encourages voters to stick to traditional tribal party politics, instead of voting for newer and more progressive parties, as well as also reducing the amount of scrutiny of the Executive’s work. In particular, the division of power has been a deep source of frustration for the UUP and the SDLP who argue that they profit the least from the arrangement whilst the DUP, Sinn Fein and Alliance are the real winners.

The bill to enable an official opposition was proposed by Independent MLA John McCallister, who argued that it would represent “a move to a much more mature politics where policy matters”. He has based the bill on elements of the House of Commons and the Republic of Ireland’s Dáil parliamentary structures. It gives official speaking rights and powers to an opposition party. The bill envisages that the largest Nationalist or Catholic party would share power with the largest Unionist or Protestant party.

However, the party most opposed to this idea has been Sinn Féin who as the second largest party with 4 out of 13 Executive positions is arguably among the parties who benefit the most from the current mandatory coalition. They voted against the bill, arguing that Stormont was: “designed for a particular purpose and that when you try to move away from that or fuse it with another system, you could create Frankenstein’s monster.”

Yet despite the majority support for the bill in the chamber, no parties have yet come forward to confirm if they would intend to fill the opposition benches following this May’s election. The party most likely to initiate this would be the UUP, who have been most open to the idea in previous discussions. Last month, UUP leader Mike Nesbitt praised the idea of opposition, calling it “the next logical step” in Northern Irish politics. He said that his party has entered preliminary discussions with the SDLP on the matter. The SDLP were quick to deny this. However, local speculation has suggested that once one party is brave enough to leave the Executive and enter an official opposition, this will soon encourage others to follow suit with the SDLP and UUP being logical partners as the second largest nationalist and unionist parties respectively.

As it stands, the parties appear to be playing their cards close to their chest in the run up to the May election in case the idea of opposition spooks or confuses voters. After all, it is easier to run an election campaign on the premise of winning, rather than conceding defeat and setting out a vision for opposition. However, once the votes have been cast and Stormont meets again for the new government, it is likely that an opposition will be formed for the first time and regardless of the parties which form it, in so doing both Stormont and the peace process will enter a new phase.

Siobhán Fenton is a Belfast-based writer covering gender, politics and Northern Ireland.