This is a fairly significant step particularly in Northern Ireland's democratic maturity. Since its inception in 1998, the Assembly and Executive hobbled along with the improbable fact that nearly all of its 108 MLA;s were essentially in Government - with consequently very few left to scrutinise and hold the government of Northern Ireland to account. Very few democracies in the world lack an Official Opposition but Northern Ireland certainly lacked one. This led to frequent Executive breakdown as parties faltered and fell out with each other over issues.
The new opposition emerged as the Fresh start agreement of 2015 clearly demonstrated to all the immense power carve up at work at the top. Fresh Start (like other decisions) was made with little consultation with other parties. It was essentially a two way deal between Sinn Fein and the DUP railroaded through to benefit their dominance.
The UUP and SDLP were relegated to the role of spectators. As a result the UUP and then the SDLP decided to remove themselves from the Executive and form an official opposition. The NI21 MLA John McAllister formed the basis for such a move by initiating legislation to provide for support for an Opposition. As a result:
- The Opposition are granted increased Speaking rights with guaranteed slots to ask questions and hold to account in Assembly business
- They are granted 10 Opposition day debates a year where they can set the agenda. This happened on Monday 26th September 2016, when Opposition debates were held on the issues of NAMA, Rural bank closures and women's pension rights.
- They will be allowed set piece debates throughout the year on key occasions.
- They also get financial and research bonuses to empower the parties.
This has the potential to create a lot greater degree of scrutiny. However, there are also questions. Many were initially welcoming of the fact that the moderate unionist and nationalist parties had both pulled out. However, a joint approach to issues is unlikely which undermines the principles of power sharing and limits real effective opposition. The UUP and SDLP have perhaps a divided agenda. - If they were united as a pairing they could really put pressure on the DUP and Sinn Fein alliance.