Ulster Unionist leader, Mike Nesbitt, made the first significant tactical gamble of the new Northern Ireland Assembly, this afternoon. The UUP declined an Executive ministry, to which it is entitled under Stormont’s d’Hondt system, and became the first party to enter ‘official opposition’.
The idea of recognising a voluntary opposition was included in the Stormont House Agreement of 2014, concocted by the two governments, Sinn Fein and the DUP, and restated at the Fresh Start Agreement of 2015. However, legislation to finally make it possible was introduced and guided through the Assembly by John McCallister, an independent MLA who lost his seat at last Thursday’s election.
It’s deliciously ironic that Mr McCallister fought an Ulster Unionist leadership election campaign against Mr Nesbitt on the platform of taking the party into opposition, back in 2012.
The UUP leader has taken a while to get to this point, but pressure to stay out of devolved government has intensified. The party withdrew its minister from the last Executive, after revelations about the continued existence of the IRA and its links to Sinn Fein. Yesterday, the PSNI chief constable made it clear to Mr Nesbitt that nothing much had changed in that regard, over the intervening seven months.
The UUP hedged its bets during the Assembly election campaign, refusing to state clearly whether it would take a ministry or not. Its subsequent performance at the polls was underwhelming, despite widespread expectations that Ulster Unionists would win back seats. Even still, there was speculation that the party leader could be enticed into the Executive by the prospect of an education portfolio.
The UUP badly needs to find a compelling reason for voters to vote for its candidates and this decision should give it a clear purpose, which can be turned, in time, into a powerful message to the public. Success will depend upon the Ulster Unionists’ ability to present themselves as an effective opposition and a credible alternative to the parties of government.
That task will be made easier if it is joined in opposition by the SDLP, which is also entitled to a ministry. Because of the system at Stormont, no single party can form an Executive, but a cross community, voluntary opposition can start to present itself as a ‘government in waiting’. Over the next week or so, we'll find out whether Colum Eastwood agrees.