There was a time when Jim Allister could persuasively claim to be the ‘one-man opposition’ at Stormont. Love him or loathe him, his legal background and punching oratory made for some of the more memorable moments in the Assembly chamber over the last two terms – and some of the most uncomfortable for the parties of the Executive.
That is precisely the point of an opposition: to ask awkward questions and to keep government ministers on their toes. When the Social Development Committee grilled then minister Nelson McCausland over Jenny Palmer’s allegations over the inappropriate handling of Red Sky contracts, it was Jim Allister who directed some of the most effective, probing questions.
When responding to a question posed by Allister back in February about the DUP’s stance on the upcoming EU referendum, the then Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell tried to avoid answering by (wrongly) stating, “we do not know what the referendum question is.” Allister wasn’t having any of it, pointing out that the wording of the question had clearly been set out in Section 1 of the European Union (Referendum Act) of the previous year. The minister’s appallingly poor grasp of a matter of huge significance to his department had been exposed.
It should be noted that McCausland and Bell were both later dropped from the Executive. They largely brought about their own departures, but the role of Jim Allister in scrutinising their ministerial performances should not be overlooked.
Beyond scrutiny, Jim Allister did something else that an effective opposition should do: he put in the cumbersome work to try and introduce laws of his own. He took up the issue of the appointments of ministerial special advisors (SPADs) and made it his mission to ‘clean up’ the process. He successfully introduced a private member’s bill to prohibit those found guilty of serious offences from serving as SPADs, and later (unsuccessfully) tried to reduce the number of SPADs and their pay. The latter effort was still notable for the discomfort it caused the DUP and Sinn Féin for choosing to oppose it.
However, as the TUV today meets for its annual conference in Cookstown, we are reminded of the vast limitations of a ‘one-man opposition’. Prior to May’s Assembly election, its leader said it would be a failure if he ended up being the party’s only candidate elected to Stormont. He was, and it was. The blunt reality is that Jim Allister is an intelligent individual with impressive ability, but his party lacks a final – and crucial – function of any credible opposition: to provide a compelling alternative vision for Northern Ireland. The TUV certainly seems to have a vision, a rigidly ideological one, but it isn’t one that has received any real traction with the electorate beyond a narrow, staunchly unionist base.
This is where the Ulster Unionists and SDLP must really step up to the plate. It has been six months since Northern Ireland finally gained an official opposition. Since May, the two parties have provided some encouraging signs of their seriousness of purpose.
The first ‘opposition day’ in the Assembly (when the opposition gets to set the day’s business) saw a debate on Nama allegations. It also presented a petition to the Speaker on pension inequalities affecting women. More recently, Colum Eastwood made a notable appearance at the UUP’s conference: “Both the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists share the common ground of wanting to make Northern Ireland work.” Recognising the obvious gap between their respective unionist and nationalist ideologies, Eastwood and Nesbitt expressed an intriguing – and refreshing – commitment to cooperating on the issues where they do agree.
Part of the reason for the Ulster Unionists’ and SDLP’s failure to make progress in May’s Assembly election had been similar to the TUV’s. None of the parties was able to both present an appealing vision for the future of Northern Ireland and to appear credible in doing so. Unlike the TUV, whose very raison d’être appears to resist any pragmatic or strategic repositioning, the UUP and SDLP both have an opportunity to jointly develop such a vision. It will take time, effort, and much more than a few joint press releases.
Colum Eastwood and Mike Nesbitt can learn a lot from Jim Allister. He goes to show that you don’t need a mass of MLAs in order to scrutinise those in government. But as his party’s uninspiring and outmoded conference draws to a close for another year, he also goes to show that you need more than just a few stinging one-liners to be a true opposition and government-in-waiting.