12th May 2016: the Ulster Unionist Party announce their intention to head to the opposition benches.
19th May 2016: the SDLP claim that the Programme for Government was not ambitious enough and announce that they will be entering opposition.
I had thought this an exceptional move by the UUP and the SDLP. The DUP and Sinn Fein were quite clearly rattled. For the first time, in a very long time, the two parties had been truly sidelined by the significantly smaller parties.
Not knowing how to spin the news, both parties resulted to crass sniping. Sinn Fein constantly criticise the SDLP for being an irrelevant nationalist party, but note here how badly this experienced Sinn Fein MLA responded. Touchy.
It has been just over two weeks since Nesbitt announced that the UUP would move into opposition. In that time, the political ground has shifted multiple times.
There has been, and still is, much positivity around the move to opposition by both the UUP, SDLP, and Alliance. Indeed, at the time, I thought Nesbitt’s initial move was a stroke of political genius. And surely this much was confirmed by the sour reaction displayed by the two major parties?
25th May 2016: the NI Executive is announced. The DUP and Sinn Fein comprise the majority of the Executive with independent Claire Sugden filling the contentious Justice ministry.
Now the political landscape represents something never seen before here.
The DUP and Sinn Fein have moved from being uncomfortable partners in a mandatory coalition, to initially being lonely partners in government since the UUP and SDLP announced that they would not be taking their government seats.
Now, we have a remarkably different situation.
The cheap digs from the DUP and Sinn Fein at the UUP and SDLP for entering opposition have ended. There is no scent of crisis in the air. Martin McGuinness has been talking about a new era of government relations with the DUP. This could spell chaos for the future of the UUP, SDLP, and the Alliance Party.
A 2014 LucidTalk poll showed that 70% thought the Assembly was ‘not good’, ‘bad’, or, ‘very bad’. Despite this, in the recent Assembly elections the two main government parties were returned with a whopping mandate. It’s common knowledge that politics in Northern Ireland is a place apart from the rest of the UK. This poll shows the extent of this difference – despite huge dissatisfaction with the governing parties, the DUP did not lose a single seat and Sinn Fein lost just one.
Now that the DUP and Sinn Fein have picked themselves back up from having the rug pulled under them initially, trouble could be on the horizon for the smaller parties on two main fronts.
The number of seats is to be reduced by 18 at the next Assembly election. This could hurt these smaller parties unless they manage to carve out a significant role in opposition. Secondly, and bizarrely, people may actually begin to favour political stability and the government of DUP and Sinn Fein. If they managed to achieve such a significant mandate in a climate of political apathy, what might they achieve if they begin to govern efficiently together.
The UUP, SDLP, and Alliance should be cautious. Yes, they managed to control the agenda for a very brief period of time and clearly rattled ‘Marlene’. Now the two major parties are back in control, if these parties fail to continuously rattle the government from the opposition benches, and present a credible alternative, then they should be worried about their future.