Stormont opposition was effective despite limited time

Stormont's fledgling opposition parties had contrasting election results, but Political Correspondent John Manley finds the experiment was regarded as largely positive

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and UUP leader Mike Nesbitt at Stormont. Picture by Mal McCann

Mike Nesbitt's resigned as Ulster Unionist leader hours before Friday's election count had concluded, having witnessed a slump in support for his party that saw it lose more than a third of its 16 MLAs. Given that he was also the leader of Stormont's first official opposition since 1972, it could be argued that that experiment too was a disaster.

However, if you talk to Ulster Unionists and SDLP representatives about their experience of opposition, they are generally positive. Some even go as far as suggesting that it was the opposition parties which created the impetus that led to the collapse of the executive, even if much of the 'credit' went to Sinn Féin.

"We worked positively with the UUP on a range of policy and ensured there was no hiding place for Sinn Féin and the DUP on countless scandals including Nama, SIF and RHI," said an SDLP source.

"We were so effective that Sinn Féin eventually joined us in opposition to the DUP's arrogance and scandal weeks after they were boasting about the many successes of the two party executive."

Former NI21 deputy leader John McCallister, regarded as the chief architect of the assembly's opposition, believes the UUP and SDLP partnership worked well but due to circumstances, didn't have time to bed in.

John McCallister believes Stormont's first opposition since 1972 was becoming an effective voice

"I think initial expectations were perhaps too high and there were some teething problems but once they got into their stride they were an effective voice," he says.

"The only issue was time – the short mandate meant they were still working things out when the election was called, so in many ways they didn't get the opportunity to develop and articulate their alternative vision."

The former South Down MLA, whose private members bill set the template for Stormont's opposition, senses that the assembly's big two would be more comfortable if their adversaries from the last mandate joined them in the executive this time around – a back-handed compliment of the opposition from within the executive.

"Listening to senior Sinn Féin figures like John O'Dowd, you get a sense that they didn't enjoy being in government on their own with the DUP while being criticised from opposition benches by the SDLP and UUP," he says.

"They would much prefer to have them inside the tent as there's fewer places to hide when there's just two parties and an independent justice minister in government."

Other factors were at play but electorally, being in opposition appears to have worked better for Colum Eastwood's party than Mike Nesbitt's.

"Good opposition is not necessarily about forcing a change in government or improving electoral performance but about improving the overall standard of governance," says John McCallister.

"You would hope that if you're effective it would translate into a lift at the polls."

Both the SDLP and UUP now see getting into government as the priority but it appears they won't shirk their responsibilities in opposition if circumstances dictate.

This time around, they will be joined by the Alliance party, whose increased share of the vote means it too can avail of the albeit limited resources available to official opposition parties.

But before we get to see what Stormont's next opposition looks like, we need first to get an executive up-and-running.

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