The way he frames his derision for the oppositional system of politics seems to suggest that he views it as some manner of foreign and detrimental British construct, suitable for nowhere but Westminster. Because Mary Harney will survive a no-confidence vote, there is no purpose in opposition and the only politics worth pursuing are those of government. How those who once railed against authority change their tune whenever their representatives gain some!
Feeney’s carping lecture lingers on that paradigm of political probity, the Republic of Ireland government. Even if the Dail was the epitome of accountable and workable governance, it is difficult to see what point Feeney is attempting to make. The Republic’s government is certainly comprised of a coalition, for the simple reason that it is extremely rare for southern parties to achieve an outright majority.
A voluntary coalition is of course a very different animal from a mandatory coalition. A further distinguishing factor is that the Executive in Northern Ireland is in many senses not a coalition at all. The parties do not come together to formulate policy. Their appointees come together to form an Executive, whose machinations are then often concealed from the parties they represent. This Executive is not even in any meaningful way subject to the scrutiny of the Assembly. Of course we’ve already been subjected to Feeney’s theory as to why Northern Ireland must be governed by an unaccountable cabal. Unionists are in the majority and unionists cannot be trusted.
Feeney’s derision is not confined to unionists on this occasion. The SDLP are also on the receiving end and he retains his most pointed contempt for Alliance – “the NIO’s front party”. Anyone in actual fact who isn’t part of the Axis’ carve-up. Feeney is so remorselessly withering, and yet the central planks to his argument are manifestly rotten. The UUP is indicted for not having “copped on that the administration at Stormont isn't like the two-party system at Westminster and isn't ever going to be”. Well if that is the case, why on earth are the party’s oppositional proponents making perfectly clear that their preferred option is to go into joint opposition with the SDLP, thus making the actual reality of a SF / DUP coalition a technical reality also? Where is the evidence for Feeney to back up his assertion that any unionist in Stormont believes in, or aspires to, a one party government?
The entire concept of parliamentary opposition seems to be problematic for Feeney.
“Suppose they did go into opposition. That would mean more ministerial positions for the DUP and Sinn Féin.Now here's the crucial question. Would it mean any more money for the new ministers' departments? Nope. It would simply make it easier for the First and Deputy First Ministers to allocate resources because members of their own parties couldn't whinge.”
This is of course complete illogical nonsense. The purpose of going into opposition is patently not to free up more money for whichever ministers fill the positions the two parties would leave. That would be an entirely counter-productive strategy. The parties would go into opposition because their voices are not being listened to, policy is being imposed on them and yet they are expected to assume responsibility for that to which they are opposed. Clarity and accountability are the concepts the parties would be striving toward. In Feeney’s cynical opinion these ideas are obviously not worth a jot. The rationale for going into opposition is so blatant as to barely need elucidation – these are not policies we agree with, we are leaving the two parties who have formulated these policies to be accountable for them, we will question the policies which we do not agree with and outline the alternatives from outside the Executive.
The actual crux of what Feeney is saying boils down to two sentences:
“However, unlike in a voluntary coalition they have no leverage over the big parties. They just have to thole it.”
No Feeney, the smaller parties do not have to “thole” it. What indeed is the point of having ministries without having influence or leverage? Sinn Fein and particularly the DUP are hysterically frightened of their administration being exposed for what it is – a coalition between those two parties. There is no benefit to be gained from remaining in an Executive without any real semblance of power. The SDLP and UUP need to be as ruthless as their opponents were when they were the two main parties.