The Assembly’s first ever Opposition day was a lacklustre affair, conducted in the absence of three party leaders, in which Executive feathers remained relatively unruffled.
For the first time in its history Stormont has played host to an Opposition day. Comprising the UUP and SDLP (which declined their entitlement to take up ministerial positions), Stormont’s first official Opposition since 1972 set the agenda with a selection of topics for debate. Under the Fresh Start Agreement, official Opposition MLAs receive enhanced speaking rights while the two parties are also entitled to additional financial and research assistance.
Modelled on the Westminster parliamentary system, Assembly Opposition day is an opportunity to set the itinerary by raising a series of topical issues that the Executive parties neglect or would prefer to actively ignore. In theory, it is an occasion for the rigorous pursuit of answers to difficult questions. In practice, however, proceedings closely resembled a normal day of Assembly business.
The three matters put forward by the Opposition were:
- public confidence after NAMA revelations (UUP);
- rural bank closures (SDLP); and
- impact on women of changes to the state pension (UUP).
The Business Committee ensured that each of the three debates were afforded between one hour and one and a half hours’ worth of time.
Mike Nesbitt relished the occasion, stating: “I rise on a significant day for the House: the first Opposition day. It is different from the Opposition that we had in the 1960s and 1970s; for the first time, you have two parties of official Opposition that are entirely committed to making these institutions work.”
Nesbitt went on to criticise the prevalence of “ostrich politics” within the Assembly in relation to the NAMA controversy and Brexit. It is, he contends: “A disrespectful attitude to the House.”
Alliance’s Naomi Long was distinctly unimpressed with the Opposition’s selection which she maintained could have been debated as a regular motion and accused both parties of wasting an opportunity. As the two subsidiary topics were beyond the remit of the Assembly, Long stated: “It begs the question as to why, on a much-vaunted first Opposition day, the UUP and the SDLP would bring motions which put the Executive under no pressure whatsoever.”
Indeed, it appears as though the SDLP in particular opted to play it safe and kick into touch with their choice of an inconsequential debate upon an uncontroversial, though highly discussed, issue. If such tame contributions were to continue in the future, there is a distinct possibility that the official Opposition could find itself outflanked by the tenacious minor Assembly players who constitute the unofficial Opposition.
In the aftermath, a joint statement was released by the official Opposition regarding state pension age amendments, with contributions from both parties included.
As illustrated by the measured and assured responses issued on Opposition day, the concept of an official Opposition appears to have forced the Executive parties into a position of uneasy truce. This marriage of convenience ensures that the Executive parties abstain from the public spectacle of any intense domestic feuding, thereby preserving the energy required to deflect enhanced scrutiny from within the Assembly as well as media intrigue. This new dynamic is exemplified by the peculiar accomplishment of a post-Brexit referendum letter addressed to Theresa May having been signed off by both the First and deputy First Ministers. Similarly, Sinn Féin have faced accusations of having provided the DUP with a “soft-landing” regarding the ongoing NAMA scandal.
The weight of responsibility now rests squarely on shoulders of the two remaining Executive parties alone. In the absence of a previous five-way share of accountability, Sinn Féin and the DUP should find any ability to rest on their laurels, with regards to Executive performance, greatly constrained. Both parties are now solely exposed to the consequences of deadlock and underachievement.
There will be two further Opposition days prior to Christmas with a total of 10 conducted before the completion of this Assembly session in summer 2017.