The Northern Ireland Assembly’s official Opposition, formed by the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), will be the first of its kind since the Assembly was established in 1998 (see chart). Thanks to recent legislative changes, parties with nine or more elected members can now form an official Opposition to hold the Northern Ireland Executive to account, gaining access to funding and enhanced speaking rights in the Assembly.
This marks a significant development in Northern Ireland’s political arrangements: until now, the major parties have generally participated in large power-sharing coalitions, with each being allocated ministerial posts on the basis of a strict formula reflecting their share of seats. The new government will be formed of only the largest unionist and nationalist parties (the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin), as well as a single independent.
Since 1998, Northern Ireland’s ‘consociational’ model of government has rested on sometimes rather uncomfortable cross-community power-sharing coalitions. Initially, the more centrist UUP and SDLP were the dominant forces within their respective communities and led the executive in the first term of devolution. The Assembly was then suspended from 2002 to 2007 over allegations of an IRA spying operation.
Power-sharing resumed in 2007, by which point the DUP and Sinn Féin had become the dominant forces, but the spectre of another collapse arose in 2015 when the UUP withdrew from government over allegations of IRA involvement in an assassination.
A disagreement between Sinn Féin and the other parties over welfare reform also threatened to trigger the end of power-sharing (and the resumption of direct rule from Westminster) until a deal was brokered in November 2015 (sweetened by extra money from the UK and Irish governments, and discussed here).
Until now, there has been little provision for official legislative scrutiny of the Executive, with the Opposition on occasion comprising as few as three MLAs, with no additional funding provided to hold the Executive to account. UUP leader Mike Nesbitt has hailed the recent development as a "big, bold step forward to normal democracy", and it will be interesting to see how the opposition parties work together to hold the executive to account.
Another feature of Northern Ireland’s delicately balanced politics is the sensitive position of Justice Minister. This role, which is allocated differently from the other ministries and requires cross-community support, had been held by the non-sectarian Alliance Party since the devolution of justice powers in 2010. But with Alliance moving into opposition too (though they are too small to qualify for official Opposition status), the post has been given to independent MLA Claire Sugden, who faces a big challenge in leading policy in this contentious area without the backing of party machinery.
The formation of an official Opposition signals that in some respects, Northern Ireland is moving towards more ‘normal’ political arrangements. But as the Justice Minister nomination demonstrates, Northern Ireland’s politics still rest on carefully balanced cross-community relations, and the region’s tensions will likely continue to present unique challenges as the Assembly moves into this new term.
An animated version of the chart is available on Twitter.