Talking to rank and file members of SDLP over the past 48 hours, I get the impression that the Party would prefer to be in Opposition than in Government for this Assembly term.
Some caveats…most of the people I have been talking to were always in favour of Opposition but importantly people seem disenchanted with the outworking of the Good Friday Agreement. It is not just “sour grapes” that SDLP would only have only a marginal role …one Executive seat…in any Government. There is a genuine feeling that the Good Friday Agreement as signed in 1998 has been “hollowed out” by amendments at St Andrews, Hillsborough and “Fresh Start”.
As I have said before, the right moment for SDLP to go into Opposition was in 2011, when Democracy was stood on its head to facilitate the DUP-Sinn Féin coalition. The Alliance Party was given an the Justice portfolio….thus 52,000 Alliance voters had two Executive seats while 95,000 SDLP voters and 95,000 UUP voters had only one Executive seat each. A travesty that shames the saintly Alliance Party.
With the number of Government Departments reduced, the threshold for entitlement to a seat in the Executive has been raised above the level for Alliance to claim any except the DUP-SF gift of Justice. Manners have been put upon Alliance.
The striking thing about last weeks election is just how unchanged the political landscape is. DUP (38), UUP (16) and Alliance (8) go back to Stormont with exactly the same number of MLAs. Sinn Féin (28) and SDLP (12) go back with one and two less respectively. The five -party coalition must be partly to blame…if nothing changes, there is little point voting. The institutions expect and maintain the five party coalition. It is certainly stable but just as certainly it is stagnant.
UUP actually left the coalition a few months ago and as expected they have said they will not serve in the next Executive.
SDLP are still “negotiating” with DUP annd Sinn Féin to get them to accept some progressive policies. It looks like shadow boxing.
Neither DUP or SF look likely to accept SDLP proposals, which sets the scene for one of those silly parade down the great Stormont staircase so that Colum Eastwood, flanked by his Assembly team, announces that SDLP will go into Opposition.
It would be better if we did not have sham negotiations.
The best SDLP could get out of agreeing to go into government is just one Executive seat and a paid Special Advisor.
Really the Party that does best out of SDLP going into government is Sinn Féin. It provides cover for SF to say that it is a genuine multi-party arrangement rather than a DUP-SF coalition.
There are complications. There is no space for Opposition…and the numerically superior UUP have got there first. At present the arrangement where leading unionist party (DUP) sits across the horse-shoe shaped benches from the leading nationalist party (SF) is meant to demonstrate the Grand Coalition…but any Opposition should face the Government. Unsurprisingly Mike Nesbitt wants the furniture re-arranged.
And of course there is the question of MONEY. In any civilised Democracy the Opposition should be state-funded…to pay for the research and staffing that an alternative government needs.
But…will the numerically stronger UUP constitute an Official Oppostion that is right wing and unionist get more funds than SDLP that is left wing and nationaliist.
I could do without sham negotiations which are expected to take two weeks. I strongly suspect that there is a second set of talks going on between SDLP and the Norn Iron Office to establish ground rules before SDLP decides to walk away from Government.
Certainly a DUP-SF coalition with Alliance clinging on to Justice (gifted by the DUP-SF in defiance of a mandate) underscores what the Government has been for some years. As Mark Durkan said, we live in a one-Party state with an orange wing and a green wing.
And SDLP really need to stop providing Sinn Féin…and the Alliance Party …with cover.