The Ulster Unionists have announced they will not take their seats in the Executive Committee of the fifth Northern Ireland Assembly (effectively Northern Ireland’s devolved Cabinet), and will thus “lead the opposition”.
Northern Ireland’s peculiar institutional arrangements, however, lead to some confusion over this. What does it mean?
The Assembly and Executive Reform Act 2016 (often referred to as the “Opposition Act”) allows for the official creation of what is termed an “opposition” at Stormont.
Such an opposition is “official”, but may only be formed from parties which would have qualified for the power-sharing Executive but have opted not to take their seats in it.
It entitles the leading party in it to certain research funding, speaking rights (such as first question at First Minister’s Questions) and positions (such as appointing the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee). Any second party entering “opposition” on the same basis gets similar, deputised arrangements.
In the fifth Northern Ireland Assembly, the parties qualifying for the newly reduced seven-member Executive are the DUP, Sinn Fein, Ulster Unionists and SDLP.
In practice, having accepted their nominations for First Minister and deputy First Minister, the DUP and Sinn Fein are committed to the Executive. This gives the Ulster Unionists and SDLP the choice.
The Ulster Unionists have announced that they will not take their Executive seat, and thus will be entitled to the role formally described as “leading qualifying non-Executive party”, but which will informally no doubt come to be known as “largest opposition party”. The SDLP has not yet announced if it will take the same step, thus taking the deputy roles available to it.
The Alliance Party does not qualify to be a formal opposition party because it does not qualify for a seat in the Executive as of right. (There is a separate issue of the Justice Ministry, which is not directly part of Executive formation but, rather, is elected by cross-community vote of the Assembly; but this has nothing formally to do with “opposition”).
The Ulster Unionists are likely to be followed out of the Executive by the SDLP, forming an “opposition” of sorts which will be able to scrutinise the work of the Executive. This will provide for an Executive-versus-Opposition debate in the Assembly and in the media which will be more typical of other jurisdictions.
This is still not an “opposition” in the sense understood elsewhere, however, in that it is not an alternative government in waiting. Even if the “opposition” parties were narrowly to win more seats than their rivals in each designation at the next Assembly Election, their opposition would not be compelled to go into “opposition”.
It is, therefore, a work in progress!