Ruthless opposition is the very best kind

Posted By: May 28, 2016

Patrick Murphy. Irish News (Belfast). Saturday, May 28,2016

Dear SDLP,

So you have finally done it. Following years of advice from this column to go into opposition, you have taken the plunge. Congratulations on your bravery and boldness.

No, we are not claiming credit for your decision. That must go to the electorate, who recognised that you were wasting time as wallpaper in the executive office and voted accordingly.

(Mind you, this column could claim credit for advocating a Stormont opposition, when the proposal was in the heresy-plus category and most people scoffed the idea. That’s the great thing about Ireland – if you want to be right in the long run, just go against the flow.)

So, now that you are in opposition, what are you going to do? We ask, because if you get it wrong, you are dead. No, not injured, wounded or scarred – you will be very dead indeed.

An effective opposition is an embarrassment to SF and the DUP. You have not just opposed them, you  have annoyed them. Their aim will be to render opposition parties electorally insignificant, so that opposition becomes meaningless. In doing so they will be ruthless (think Kilkenny hurlers) which is exactly what they should be (and they both do ruthless really well).

So what is your counter plan for being super-ruthless? Without wishing to be too critical, you might have made a better start to opposition in terms of timing and content. You managed to make your decision both too late and too early.

It was too late because you jumped from a point of electoral weakness after nine wasted years. It was too early because the next assembly election is five years away and that is a political lifetime.

The manner in which you went could also have been better managed. While the statement explaining your decision was excellent, entering opposition is best presented as a 10-part drama, rather than a news announcement.

Welfare reform, for example, was a missed opportunity. You could have threatened to leave, gone to the door, and come back, before finally walking out (just in time for the election) when, as the last straw, SF handed some powers back to Westminster. By leaving as you did, you deprived yourselves of a political hook (defending the most vulnerable) on which to hang your cause, opting instead for the vague “we got a raw deal” approach.

(Surprisingly, SF made the same mistake in choosing opposition in the Dáil. It should have gone into opposition in protest against the two main parties’ failure to abolish water charges permanently.)

Your pledge to engage in constructive opposition was also rather naive. You effectively promised to play nice hurling against Kilkenny – an admirable, but ultimately suicidal, sentiment.

But well done for being in opposition. So what is your game plan? Your first aim should be to dictate the play, by shifting the political agenda in three key areas.

First, you should develop a relationship with the UUP which moves you both away from Stormont’s in-built sectarianism and outflanks the Executive parties’ hard-line image. The arrival of People Before Profit (PBP) in Stormont will help to cultivate that anti-sectarian culture.

Then you must move away from Stormont’s self-congratulatory “world’s most successful peace process” approach and highlight instead our huge social and economic problems. Everything you say should focus on the plight of ordinary people. (Gerry Adams does that very well in Dublin. Learn from him.) Oh and skip the bit about your MLAs being young. Politics is not about you, it is about us.

Thirdly, as the DUP and Northern SF continue to move to the right, take a step leftwards. (Less Hilary  Clinton, more Bernie Sanders.) PBP will push Stormont’s agenda in that direction in any case. (Watch their two MLAs showing Kilkenny what ruthless is.)

To achieve all three, you must significantly improve your thinking and communication skills. For example, when SF and the DUP claim that opposition is negative, reply that you are in opposition to sectarianism, in opposition to child poverty, in opposition to – you get the idea. (Learn from Eamon McCann.)

Finally, allocate your best people to mark each minister person to person. Initially, you will get few scores off experienced players like Michelle O’Neill and Simon Hamilton. However, since SF in particular has not fielded its strongest side, you will score goals against several new ministers.

So, welcome to championship politics. The match will make little difference to the lives of ordinary people, but if either team can prove otherwise, it will win. We can only hope for an early result.