So what did we learn from this morning’s Budget debate at the Assembly? Not much in concrete terms. We know that the Finance Minister claims (PDF) he has found an extra £120 million for health and £150 million for education, but the UUP and SDLP are still sceptical about the figures.
From a broader perspective one thing is certainly clear. The contours of an Opposition to the de facto coalition at Stormont are already taking shape. The exchanges in the chamber this morning, tattered and fractious though they were, looked a lot like a Budget Statement debate at Westminster.
The core of the Executive, Sinn Féin and the DUP, bummed up Sammy Wilson’s speech as best they could. It was, after all, their programme which was revealed to the Assembly. The UUP and SDLP scrambled to grasp the detail and respond, for the time being managing to land few blows.
In a so-called five party coalition it looks like dysfunction, in a voluntary coalition it looks a bit like normal politics. The opposition listens to the Finance Minister’s statement, having had the details presented as a fait accompli only hours before, and then sets about drilling down into the figures and poking holes in the spin.
The DUP and Sinn Féin might pose as the bitterest of enemies, but we’ve witnessed on many occasions how they can act as one in the Assembly chamber. This morning MLA after MLA from the two parties rose to chastise the SDLP and accuse the UUP of culpability for “Tory cuts”.
The Alliance Party, still pathetically grateful for its gerrymandered ministry, suggests that the smaller unionist and nationalist parties should put up and shut up by leaving the Executive. On one level this is seriously ironic - both are entitled to ministers under d’Hondt, while Alliance is not.
On another it makes perfect sense. Let the DUP and Sinn Féin suck the life-blood out of their APNI fig-leaf. Get on with doing the job you’ve already been edged into doing but do it wholeheartedly and well.
If the coming election were fought on a truthful basis the electorate’s choice would be self-evident. Keep the current DUP-Sinn Féin coalition, or vote for the UUP and SDLP, in order to encourage them to form an alternative government.
Instead we’ll have a charade where this morning’s bosom buddies will tear each other to shreds. The DUP will urge voters to marginalise Sinn Féin - it's de facto ally. It’s a nonsense and with every passing year it becomes yet clearer that it’s a nonsense.
There is already a governing coalition in place and, although the UUP and SDLP have ministries, they’re not part of it. The smaller parties are increasingly acting like an Opposition.
Opposition politics are already evolving at Stormont. The formalities are not yet in place, but that's the way things are moving.