Opposition must be braver and bolder

Posted By: October 24, 2016

Tom Kelly. Irish News (Belfast). Monday, October 24, 2016

At the weekend Colum Eastwood became the first serving SDLP leader to speak at the annual conference of the Ulster Unionist Party.

He had accepted the invitation of unionist leader, Mike Nesbitt.

It’s a bold move softened by the fact that former leader Margaret Ritchie had already spoken at a similar conference nine years ago when she was an SDLP minister in the executive. Back then the Ulster Unionists were in the same executive. Now both parties sit on the opposition benches together.

Since declaring as the opposition,  neither the SDLP nor the Ulster Unionists have made much of a hand of the opportunities that present themselves. The DUP and Sinn Féin may be in government but it has all the warmth of an arranged marriage.

At joint press conferences the tag team of Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness – more affectionately known as ‘Marlene’ – give the appearance of a Colgate advertisement but it’s through gritted teeth that they smile.

Brexit is fast becoming a serious chasm between both parties with all the vulnerabilities on the Sinn Féin side. Now the deputy first minister is taking his ire out on the British government saying he does not trust them over Brexit. The SF finance minister has said as much that the British treasury is freezing him out. But it’s being taken for granted that worries them most.

The difficulty for Sinn Féin is twofold. The DUP are cock-a-hoop over Brexit – even if they don’t represent the majority views of voters in their own region. Sinn Féin can’t afford to look like DUP poodles over the Brexit negotiations. So far their rhetoric has not matched their actions. Period reenactments on the border won’t cut it. Secondly, the Irish government is now taking the Brexit initiative in the Republic leaving Sinn Féin out in the cold.

Now that the Stormont executive is a two-party double act, there has been an element of both parties helping each other out of difficult spots. They have each other’s backs – if only to check that no backbencher has stuck a knife into it. One Sinn Féin minister has described it as removing the dysfunctionality of the previous five-party coalition.

Sinn Féin hopes that by being workmanlike in the executive they will become less toxic to Unionist audiences in The North and that some government fairy dust will spread towards the electorate in the Republic too.

The bonhomie is less evident on the DUP side. Don’t expect Gerry Kelly to be addressing the DUP conference anytime soon.

The DUP-Sinn Féin axis works, not because it’s a cohesive partnership, but because they can successfully coalesce through the bartering of pet projects – one after another. Thus, all governmental activity is not evenly distributed, balanced or driven by economic need. It’s cheCK book diplomacy with no guarantees beyond the next executive meeting.

Yet on Brexit the DUP and Sinn Féin are on an inevitable collision course and not even a new spin doctor supremo will be able to paper over the cracks that are starting to emerge. Sinn Féin knows that their constituency won’t wear any form of Border controls. And that means in any shape or form. They also realize the huge risk of putting their political credibility into the hands of a Tory government at a time when Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Nationalist Party are standing up to Brexiters’ policy in Holyrood and Westminster.

All of which leads back to the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists. No amount of well-meaning headline-grabbing stunts like speaking at each other’s conference will amount to a hill of beans if both parties can’t establish some ground rules on trust.

The recent SDLP motion seeking special status for Northern Ireland in the negotiations over Brexit was entirely reasonable. The Ulster Unionist response was baffling and nonsensical.

Research suggests that over half of middle-class unionist voters and a third of working class Unionists voted to remain in the EU. And that’s much more support than is currently enjoyed by the Ulster Unionists. Having bravely decided to support Remain, Mike Nesbitt should now be targeting those voters.

The UUP should learn from the deficiencies demonstrated by previous leaders who having chosen brave and bold courses of action quickly undermined their actions and political credibility by half-heartedly embracing them or racing to change them at the first sign of trouble.

Both the SDLP and UUP should be braver in their risk taking and even bolder in trusting each other.