Wednesday, 16 February 2011

A New Opposition in Northern Irish Politics?

The leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Tom Elliott has today called for a transition in Northern Irish politics over the next 5 years to bring the system of mandatory coalition government to an end and to bring in an official opposition in Stormont.

Tom Elliott - Ulster Unionist leader

I find this report on the BBC website today that details his call a fascinating one as it goes to the heart of the delicate party political climate that currently exists in Northern Ireland.

I have a particular interest in Irish politics as previous blog posts allude to here and here.

Good Friday Agreement
Since 1997, any rule of law from Stormont has only been possible if the main unionist and nationalist protaganists have worked together in government.

Since 2007, the Stormont Assembly has been functional with a DUP First Minister and a Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister. Also involved have been the UUP and the nationalist SDLP. This has been necessary to keep the fragile peace that has built over recent years in Northern Ireland, in one piece on the floor of the country's legislature. The liberal non-sectarian Alliance Party were an opposition party until leader David Ford took up the reigns of Ministerial Office at the newly devolved Ministry of Justice last year.

A new way - Fracture or Progress?
But what Tom Elliott is today calling for is a transition in the working of government so that when the next Parliamentary term (which begins after elections in the spring) ends in 2015, it will be replaced by one that sits in the traditional way - with a government being faced by a scrutinising opposition.

Can it work? The fact that we now have a government led by the deadliest of foes, the DUP and Sinn Fein, shows testament to how the political process has matured in recent years in Northern Ireland. But then, is the current mandatory form of government the best way of keeping them all together, pointing in the same direction? Will a government/opposition system only help to remind the differing parties and particularly the nationalist and unionist camps, of their differences?

The Future?
At present, the 108 seat Stormont Assembly is composed as follows...

DUP - 36 Members
SF - 27
UU - 16
SDLP - 16
Alliance - 7
Green - 1
Independent - 5

For arguments sake, presuming that the 2015 result (let alone the 2011 result this coming May) is the same, a government would need 55 seats to form an outright majority.

Presuming the DUP are still the largest party in 2015, it would be expected that they would prefer to work with their Ulster Unionist colleagues than to consent to do so with the nationalist parties. On the current numbers, this would leave them 3 short of forming an outright majority government. Would they them cobble together a few independent to work alongside them to give them a weak majority government or would they form an even more fragile minority government?

The Stormont Assembly Chamber

On present numbers, there's no realistic chance that the nationalists could form a majority government and that may be playing on Tom Elliott's mind today as he announces his vision for Northern Ireland.

But what if demographic changes continue and as many commentators suggest, could conceivably lead in the future to a nationalist majority in Northern Ireland? What then? The scenario mentioned above but flipped on its head and a nationalist majority with a unionist minority in opposition?

Walk First, Run Later
I think the idea, whilst a reasonable one, is not for this time. There's no doubt that the test of the Northern Irish political structure is whether in the future it can adapt to a government/opposition system without breaking back out into the old battles of the past. Indeed, it would be proven to have matured completely if a unionist/nationalist majority government could be formed through choice and not through mandation.

But I don't think we're there yet.

We must remember that one of the most contentious areas of policy, that of policing and justice were only finally devolved to Stormont on April 12th 2010 - less than 12 months ago. At that time, because the nationalist and unionist blocks were unwilling for the other to occupy this most sensitive of governmental posts, they voted instead to give the role to the non-sectarian Alliance Party. This was only last year so it's clear that there's still a trust-gap evident in Northern Irish politics.

Until this has disappated, the mandatory form of government in my view is the best and safest way forward for Northern Ireland. Forcing the parties to work together in government will hopefully continue to break down the enmities of old.

They've made great strides forward in recent years but it's too big a gamble to risk by moving ahead in this fashion so soon.


  1. No matter how hard I try, I agree with you ONCE again.

    Its so damn annoying agreeing with basically everything you write!

  2. For this to work, the Northern Irish would need to radically overhaul their party system. Instead of republican and republican-er fighting unionist and unionist-er, there would need to be a republian conservative party and a unionist conservative party who would be willing to form a coalition against a unionist socialist party and a republican socialist party (or vice versa).

    I'm not sure that that will happen in Northern Ireland for a while.

  3. Sorry Andrew! We'll disagree sometime soon I'm sure!

    Ben, you're quite right. It's what I alluded too in my 4th from last paragraph. It's such an unlikely scenario that you mention that makes the change that Elliott has called for so unsustainable at this present time.