Northern Ireland

First Stormont Opposition Day sees SDLP dance a solo tango

John Manley

John Manley

A relative late comer to journalism, John has been with The Irish News for close to 25 years and has been the paper’s Political Correspondent since 2012.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood (centre), with South Belfast MP Claire Hanna (left) and Opposition leader Matthew O'Toole lead their MLAs into Stormont ahead of the first official 'Opposition Day'. PICTURE: REBECCA BLACK/PA (Rebecca Black/Rebecca Black/PA Wire)

The SDLP has invested a lot of energy into its role as Stormont’s opposition.

Unable to secure a seat in the executive due to its failure to meet the necessary electoral threshold, the party has concluded that this offers a good opportunity to reverse its fortunes.

The SDLP has insisted its opposition will be constructive rather than sniping from the sidelines though the nature of politics means the line between the two can often be blurred.

We’ve had an opposition before, albeit relatively briefly post-May 2016 assembly election until January the following year, after which Sinn Féin collapsed the institutions at the height of public outcry over the RHI scandal.

The role of the UUP and SDLP in shining a spotlight on the executive at this time is often overlooked. It’s very possible that without an opposition, the RHI scandal wouldn’t have received the attention it did and the whole issue, like many other equally costly and poorly managed executive initiatives, may well have been swept under the carpet.

First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly have been asked to give a commitment that they will not collapse devolved government
First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly didn't respond to an SDLP Opposition Day motion. PICTURE: LIAM MCBURNEY/PA (Liam McBurney/PA)

So there is clearly merit in an opposition, though it’s arguable that with only seven MLAs (Justin McNulty has had the whip withdrawn), the SDLP lacks the critical mass to be effective.

In Matthew O’Toole, who previously worked in Downing Street’s communications team, it has a very capable assembly leader who is adept at identifying and seeking to exploit his larger opponents’ vulnerabilities.

For example, on the first day the institutions were restored, he sought a commitment from the first and deputy first ministers that they would not collapse the institutions, as both their parties have done in the past. This is undoubtedly an issue that resonates with the man and woman in the street but to date his efforts have proved fruitless.

The first ‘Opposition Day’ of this mandate saw the SDLP again pick-up this theme with a motion on reform of the power-sharing institutions that would prevent one party collapsing the executive, along with a commitment from Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly similar to that which was previously sought.

Matters didn’t go quite according to plan - or seemingly to the rule book.

Assembly protocols dictate that where matters for debate fall within a particular minister’s remit then they must respond. However, despite being in the chamber beforehand, neither the first or deputy first minister chose to address the matter, resulting in a mild rebuke from speaker Edwin Poots.

There were contributions to the subsequent debate from the DUP and Sinn Féin benches but the absence of ministers from the chamber suggested every effort was being made to nullify the impact of the inaugural Opposition Day. What the SDLP ended up with was effectively a solo tango, culminating with Sinn Féin and the DUP combining to defeat the motion.

The opposition had better luck with its following motion, calling for public sector pay negotiations to be concluded before the end of the month, which is also the end of the financial year. It received unanimous cross-bench support, however, as a non-binding motion, it means nobody is obliged to act on the outcome.

The SDLP’s third and final motion again related to reform and called for the establishment of an ad-hoc committee to move forward institutional reform. It carried more weight than the earlier non-binding motion but was again thwarted by the combined power of Sinn Féin and the DUP, who despite making positive noises occasionally, are clearly resisting efforts to dismantle what was once referred to as Stormont’s “ugly scaffolding”.

The first Opposition Day is perhaps best characterised as a ‘no score draw’, with an expectation that in the months ahead there may be many more like it.