Why We Need Opposition – A Living Example

 You may or may not know that Northern Ireland’s newest political party, NI21 – Set up by John McCallister and Basil McCrea have an aim to normalize politics in Northern Ireland.

Part of the remedy to Stormont’s squabbling sectarian structures has been prescribed by NI21 MLA John McCallister, who is in the process of drafting up his Opposition Bill which will aim to set up a formal opposition in the Assembly.

 For me, one of the main selling points of the creation of an opposition has to be a result which would hopefully see greater accountability and scrutiny of Government Ministers.

Government Ministers are woefully held to account at the minute. A reason for this? One reason is that the committees don’t seem to have any real fire power to give a Minister a real grilling, and, even when there is a small chance of a Minister getting every little word or statement that they make pulled to pieces – the rallying call goes out, and whoever the Ministers colleagues on the committee happen to be will be ready to defend the Minister to the end. This is not how they should function.

Another reason is the more obvious one that there is no formal opposition. Think of how absurd that is. That in a modern Western liberal democracy, we have no opposition to the government?

Our Government isn’t being held to account as effectively as it should be, this much is clear to see. We are in desperate need of a formal opposition to dive in and tackle all the nitty gritty notoriously laborious detail that often the media outlets won’t do because, well for a start it isn’t their job to hold the government to account and secondly I doubt that it would have a welcomed impact on the ratings.

However, here’s a living example as to why we need an opposition.

On exactly the 14th November 2011, the BBC reported that Health Minister Edwin Poots ‘launches car smoking ban consultation’. The BBC then reported that Mr Poots said, “Passive smoking is a health issue which I take very seriously, particularly when those affected by it are children, who are more vulnerable to second-hand smoke as they breathe more rapidly and inhale more pollutants per pound of body weight than adults.”

 I agree with Mr Poots, passive smoking is a health issue, and I’m glad that he takes the issue very seriously. Further, I’m glad that he said he would consider banning smoking in all private cars, as I indeed think it should be.

But we just have a slight problem. Where is the consultation over two years on from when it was reportedly launched? Mr Poots told us that he takes the issue seriously so he surely must have it completed? After all It has been over two years since the consultation was supposedly launched, according to the BBC.

On 1 June 2013, after searching endlessly on the DHSSPS website in an attempt to try to find the consultation, I lodged a FOI request, asking if I could have access to it. Here is a snippet of the reply which I received; ‘A public consultation exercise on options around banning smoking in private vehicles is expected to be undertaken before the end of 2013.’

Okay, so it appears that by June, no consultation had been undertaken. Which is fairly pathetic. But I have been assured by an official from within the Health Department that there will be one before the end of 2013? So I waited it out.

It’s getting very close to the end of 2013 and still I sadly don’t see any publication of a consultation on banning smoking in all cars on the DHSSPS website, nor does there appear to be one in the process of being undertaken. I thought that I should double check that I was in the right – So I  phoned various outlets within the Department and it doesn’t seem like anybody there has any information at all on whether the consultation had been undertaken (never mind being completed by the end of 2013 as I was told).

 Do we need an opposition then? Yes, of course.

 In a properly functioning democracy, it shouldn’t be up to university students like me to have to probe for answers to find out if a Government department is doing what a minister has said they would do, it should be up to the opposition, which should be formally funded so that it can fully hold the Government to account. It should also be said that it doesn’t matter how big or small an issue appears – and this issue in particular is a serious one – Ministers should be held to account.

The likelihood is that Government Ministers aren’t going to want to push for a pesky opposition that will (hopefully) always be on their backs, checking and then checking once again if they are carrying out what they said and acting as a proper checking mechanism.

In the end it will be the public who benefit from a formally funded opposition as we will have a clearer vision as to just how well those in the corridors of power are actually fulfilling the functions as they have said.

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