While it is hard to imagine the idea of an Official Opposition in the Northern Ireland Assembly as an alternative Government in waiting, presently, the value of an alternative voice is essential to any functioning democracy is not in doubt.
What currently counts as opposition, by smaller parties and even the most gifted of individuals, is too easily dismissed and ignored. For now, admiration for those who might be keeping the big boys on their toes seems unlikely to translate into a significant electoral gain anytime soon.
John McCallister’s recent resignation from the Ulster Unionist Party follows on from his defeat as a leadership candidate, largely campaigning that the UUP should go into immediate opposition. Mike Nesbitt won that battle. However, Nesbitt’s unwillingness to consider going into opposition without the necessary legislative framework to make that ‘Official’ is not necessarily the best of politics. By not arguing strongly that the option should at least exist, and putting forward the case for the legislation to even enable the possibility of an ‘official’ opposition emerging at some point, he binds himself to a failing Executive, closes an option, and loses a valuable bargaining stance. More importantly, he also fails democracy in Northern Ireland: not that he alone carries that fault.
The previous Secretary of State Owen Patterson, and the current SoS Theresa Villiers, both seem to believe opposition might be a nice idea, but there is no urgency to make provision for an ‘Official’ opposition. Opposition is not a matter for consultation, it a matter of urgency and essential for democracy to flourish. Legislation is essential to enable even the possibility of stronger democratic discourse emerging to better serve the people of Northern Ireland.
It is not that there is no case for the possibility of an ‘Official’ opposition, just that there seems to be no champion for the idea. Perhaps the Secretary of State ought to chat to one of her Cabinet colleagues. In 2000 Michael Gove wrote a pamphlet for the Centre for Policy Studies entitled ‘The Price of Peace’. Simply and incisively, Michael Gove stated:
“The health of any democracy depends, pre-eminently, not on a single method of election, nor any specific doctrine of the separation of powers but on the freedom to oppose.”
It is hard to see how this argument could be challenged. Gove goes on to say of the structure of NI Government:
“The automatic inclusion of all major parties in power means there is no, can be no, alternative Government to vote into power if things go wrong. It is the threat of eviction from office which acts as a goad to efficiency in government and a guard against corruption. Take it away and you create an immovable oligarchy unresponsive to public anger or sentiment.”