News that the UUP has asked the Government for funding to form an opposition at Stormont confirms two things: 1) the party is taking seriously the possibility of leaving the Executive in order to hold it to account, 2) money is currently an impediment.
Asking for cash is a sensitive issue in the current climate and rival parties are likely to attack the Ulster Unionists’ plans on that basis. It must be said, though, that no system of government comes without a price tag. It is inconceivable in most democratic systems that an opposition could function effectively without money to pay for researchers and other staff.
There are plenty of ways to cut spending in over-governed, over bureaucratised Northern Ireland. A little cash to breathe accountability into the system would be one of our wiser investments.
If other parties fixate on the cost, it is more than likely because they are not genuinely committed to the principle of an official opposition in the first plance. With Sinn Féin that goes without saying. The DUP, Alliance and SDLP are less cut and dried cases.
Certainly the DUP’s official enthusiasm for voluntary coalition is probably more tactical than genuine. It’s inconceivable that the party would want to operate its alliance with Sinn Féin, without the UUP to provide political cover.
The Alliance party has not endured a desperate scramble for a seat at the Executive table just to give it up now. If there were a voluntary system, it could not so easily pose as a selfless team player. It would have to stand over the policies formulated by Sinn Féin and the DUP and fight their corner, if it chose to remain in government.
Alongside Ulster Unionists, the SDLP is probably more open to the potential of opposition politics. Still, if the UUP were to go out on its own, there would be a strenuous debate within the nationalist party as to its response.
There’s an internal fault-line within the SDLP not unlike a similar divide in the UUP. The greener wing sees Sinn Féin as a more natural ally than Ulster Unionists. The notion of a coalition of the middle ground can be problematic.
The road to an official funded opposition is fraught with difficulties, but the UUP’s negotiations are significant, taken in conjunction with Tom Elliott’s speech, earlier this week.
The party is clearly thinking about the repercussions of the election and the likelihood that either its suggestion for the phasing of d’Hondt will be rebuffed or that it can’t agree a programme for government with Sinn Féin and the DUP.
It also sounds like there could be more follow through from the UUP than many of us initially suspected.