Cllr Alex Stafford is an Ealing councillor, representing the Ealing Broadway ward, and former advisor to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland featured widely in the UK news recently when the Home Secretary raised the threat level of dissident republican terrorists in Great Britain from moderate to substantial. Whilst this is a concern, there was a far more significant change coming from Northern Ireland which was not as widely publicised, but which will have a far greater effect on the peace process. This was the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) ruling themselves out of the Northern Ireland Executive and setting themselves up as the Official Opposition in Northern Ireland. To many in Britain, this would seem quite normal following an election; however, this is the first time the Assembly has ever had a real and meaningful Opposition to hold the government of Northern Ireland to account.
Under power-sharing agreements all the main parties represented in the Assembly, the DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP, Alliance Party, and the UUP, can take up positions in the Executive in relation to their vote share. This means that since the peace settlements, Northern Ireland has lacked any real opposition.
Some of the smaller parties in Northern Ireland have refused to take part, but their influence and support has been minimal. Now, with Northern Ireland’s third biggest party setting up a viable alternative system of government, there really is a chance to normalise politics, offering a choice of policy to vote for, rather than merely dividing people down sectarian lines.
This move is the logical continuation of the UUP/Conservative deal of 2009. Here, the idea was to normalise politics and give the people of Northern Ireland a real choice when it comes to policy and those governing them. Since the end of the deal, the Conservatives in Northern Ireland have been stepping up to the plate, fielding candidates and starting to get some cut through; however, whilst they grow, this move by the UUP must be welcomed to aid the normalisation process.
Since its nadir in the late 2000s, the UUP has had a renaissance over the past couple of years under their leader, Mike Nesbitt. Predictions that this, the original unionist party, would fold after the rapid success of the DUP, have come to naught. At last year’s General Election, the UUP won two seats, the highest number since the 2001 election. Whilst the winning of Fermanagh and South Tyrone was due to a deal with the DUP, they managed to wrest a seat off their unionist rivals in South Antrim, showing that they can go toe-to-toe with the DUP, and win. On top of this, the recent Assembly election showed that the UUP had stopped their seemingly perpetual decline by holding all their seats.
In the short-term, the move by the UUP to shun limited power may be seen as foolhardy, after all, fewer of their ideas will be implemented and they will get less prestige – and resources – from having a minister, but in the medium and long term this can only aid their chances of completing their revival. Now the UUP has made this courageous step, it is up to the other main parties, such as the SDLP and the Alliance, to decide whether they go into the status quo Executive or become opposition MLAs and join with the UUP to form the Official Opposition to help break down the traditional sectarian divides.
This cross-community formation is not as radical as it may first seem and, in fact, has worked in other post-conflict countries. Lebanon, which suffered a bloody sectarian 15-year civil war and years of disruption afterwards has managed to somewhat normalise its politics. The main parties from all communities (Maronite, Orthodox, Catholic, Druze, Sunni, Shia, Alawite) generally broadly fall under two grand coalitions – the March 8 or March 14, with both coalitions representing parties from all religions and communities. This enables voters, of all religions and communities, to have a real choice when it comes to election time.
As both grand coalitions are a mixture of all communities, the populace are able to feel part of politics as well as showing them that there is an alternative to the sectarian violence of conflict. Whatever their belief, whatever their community, politics can transcend these divides. After all there is no community or religion that has a monopoly on the right way to collect taxes or ensure the streets are swept.
Northern Ireland is still struggling with the ghosts of its past, and the terrorist threat is still real and murderous. Nevertheless, the political parties of all colours have made tremendous steps – what was unimaginable only a few years ago is now the norm. Now there needs to be a new norm, one which gives those living in Northern Ireland the promise of a better future. Whilst the mainland parties are starting to become a significant presence in Northern Ireland, in the meantime the creation of an Opposition in the Assembly is a much-needed and overdue measure. The last time the UUP made such a courageous decision for the people of Northern Ireland was signing up to the Good Friday Agreement (in contrast to the DUP who opposed it initially) and electorally they suffered heavily for this.
Now is the perfect time for the UUP to once more show their political leadership in Northern Ireland. The peace has been secured so now it is time to focus on the proper and accountable functioning of the political institutions. The UUP have taken a brave and bold step – and should be lauded for this courageous decision.