Eastwood will be second fiddle in a one-man band

Posted By: May 25, 2016

Brian Feeney.Irish News (Belfast). Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Suppose, as Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness confidently predict, everything goes to plan today and ministers are chosen and an executive meets tomorrow, how will the new format with an opposition work?

You’ve heard supporters of the plan lining up to rejoice that, ‘it normalises politics’ here. At first that was only unionists who yearn for something like Westminster. That’s why Nesbitt was out of the traps immediately asking for the seating arrangements to be changed to look like a mini-Westminster.

For unionists, ‘normal politics’ is Westminster with its famous adversarial, confrontational House of Commons. Is that a good model for here?

For some reason, despite the structures for the north pointedly arranged to suit its unique politico-ethnic problem, confirmed again by the election results, it seems impossible to convince the protagonists for opposition that the British political system is not the only ‘normal’. Secondly, what’s normal in Britain can’t apply here.

There’s no opposition in Switzerland but Switzerland seems to work quite well. There’s opposition in Belgium but it’s carefully arranged within the two compulsory language groups in parliament which have equal powers. Unlike Britain virtually every other assembly sits in a hemicycle.

It might be worth contemplating that in Belgium the opposition for all practical purposes is a permanent opposition. That will be the case here. In Britain, which our ‘normalisers’ aspire to imitate, the opposition hopes one day to be the government. Here there’s no hope.

Can anyone identify which 17 Sinn Féin seats the SDLP expects to win? Can anyone identify which 22 DUP seats the UUP expects to win? Of course not. Sinn Féin has more seats than the UUP and SDLP together. The DUP has a third more again.

Churchill, who knew a thing or two about opposition, said being shot would be ‘a kindness’ compared to being in opposition and he had hopes of being in government. Neil Kinnock said opposition was ‘purgatory’ and he hoped to be prime minister one day. It’s generally accepted that in the British system the leader of the opposition is the worst job in politics.

At least here you can see some reasons why Nesbitt might go for it. It gives him the opportunity for grandstanding. He can also take the chair of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) if he wants. He can try to fence off the DUP into the same box as Sinn Féin so the UUP isn’t tainted with sharing power with republicans. Don’t assume for a minute Nesbitt opted for opposition to join with the SDLP in a cross-community arrangement.

Now can you see any reason for the SDLP to forgo a ministerial position? While Nesbitt is leader of the opposition and probably chair of the PAC, Eastwood is…ahm…what? If he turned down a role as minister because the DUP and Sinn Féin were bad to the SDLP – aw diddums – how much time do you think Nesbitt will make available to the SDLP? Maybe Eastwood will chair a committee? Otherwise there he is in a powerless assembly which meets maybe three days a week.

Churchill also advised that an opposition should be a lighthouse rather than a shop window. What he meant was you should try to point a direction or warn of hazards if anyone was listening but if you thought up good plans or policies and displayed them, the government would steal all your best stuff. Sinn Féin and the DUP would be delighted to help themselves to anything attractive in the opposition’s shop window because they’re in a position to implement good ideas unlike people who opted out of power, however minimal it might be.

Acting like a lighthouse on the other hand is difficult. You have to devise ways to attract attention. Create stunts. Beat your chest. Does Eastwood have the personality and brains to outshine Jim Allister or Eamonn McCann? Not on the existing evidence.

So far he hasn’t been able to present coherent plans for what he’ll do in opposition. Will he agree a common policy? Of course not. What will he do when matters like flags, emblems, parades, the past come up? Oppose the leader of the opposition?

He’s opted to be second fiddle in a one man band.