Within the five Stormont "frenemies" allegiances can change


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Sinn Fein, it's fair to say, really doesn't like Owen Paterson. Previously Gerry Adams accused the Secretary of State of "arrogance" for not calling a border referendum.

Now Martin McGuinness has described Mr Paterson's speech announcing a consultation on creating a Stormont opposition as "clumsy and ill-thought out".

The Northern Ireland Office has consistently made it clear it will only re-write the rules at Stormont with the consensus of the local parties.

So Sinn Fein's response isn't a very good omen.

No matter how many responses drop in to the NIO letterbox advocating a Westminster-style system at Stormont, the secretary of state will have to deal with a majority nationalist party which accuses him of wanting to "re-write the Good Friday Agreement".

The independent unionist David McNarry this week called for a referendum to be held both on creating a "voluntary coalition" and cutting the number of Stormont MLAs to 80.

But if Gerry Adams isn't going to get his way on a border poll anytime soon, then David McNarry is probably going to have to wait even longer for his referendum, no matter how populist his approach.

Leadership contests

In truth, two consultations of a kind have recently been held on the idea of creating a Stormont opposition.

They were called the SDLP and Ulster Unionist leadership contests.

The UUP's John McCallister was clear about his intention to walk unilaterally into opposition - but party activists opted instead for Mike Nesbitt, who wanted to remain within the Executive tent.

During the SDLP leadership campaign Conall McDevitt was less explicit about replacing the mandatory coalition, but did talk about negotiating a new system of government.

In the event, although the young South Belfast MLA polled well, he came in as runner up to Alasdair McDonnell who has shown little enthusiasm for dismantling the Good Friday Agreement's "ugly scaffolding".

Whilst some may day dream about opposition, Wednesday's joint statement from the first and deputy first ministers is an example of the system, as Churchill might have phrased it, up with which we must put.


By and large the two dominant parties in the mandatory coalition call the shots and the others then decide whether to like it or lump it.

Within the five Stormont "frenemies", allegiances can change.

At one point Alliance appeared the loyal coalition partner with the SDLP and UUP outside the tent .

But January's decision by the DUP and Sinn Fein to sacrifice Alliance minister Stephen Farry turned the tables.

Alliance's alienation from the big boys appeared compounded in May by their falling out over the still to be published new community relations strategy.

Now the abolition of the Employment and Learning Department has been delayed could the shifting sands at Stormont reconfigure once again?

It's hard to say. No wonder the voters get either confused or disinterested when elections are called.

But if any politician at Stormont really wants change they would need to take unilateral action rather than wait for either the NIO consultation or some hypothetical referendum to change the rules of the game.

PS: I'm away for the next two weeks - in my absence my colleague Martina Purdy will be blogging here from time to time.

Mark Devenport Article written by Mark Devenport Mark Devenport Political editor, Northern Ireland

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  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    The Strawbs: your #'s are wrong based on 2 things: 1) the entire pop of NI isn't eligible to vote & 2) all of those eligible to vote don't. Subsequently, SF's piece of the pie is more like 26%, not the 10% you propose.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Unemployment Benefit for a single man over 25 is £71 (88 euros) in Northern Ireland.

    In the Republic of Ireland it is 196 euros (£157).

    Perhaps we should all move South.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    #4 SenseNotSo Common

    My wife once told me of a woman whose family said they were fed up living under the British yoke and moved from the Markets in Belfast to Cork.
    Three weks later they were back.
    "We'll fight for Ireland from here. The benefits are better!"
    I doubt much has changed. A protest vote is much easier cast than one which hurts the the pocket.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I'm interested to see how much appetite there is for a discussion around the continuation or otherwise of the secrecy around donations to political parties.
    Will the parties push for normalisation to extend into this particular sphere?
    Or will they still claim security exemptions for this one small group of influential political actors?
    It is time that people found out who pulls the strings.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.


    the sf vote at the last election was 178000, out of an electrate of 1213000 so there vote was about 10 so less than 15% of the elecotrate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Entropic man,

    If half of Catholics would to stay in the UK, how come Sinn Fein enjoys the vote it does?

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    3)c) Republic refuses, unwilling to pay 2000euros per Irish head to fund North.

    4) Direct Rule.
    Politically unacceptable. No democratic representation for North.

    5) ?
    Any ideas; we need something workable!

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.


    1) Assembly as is.
    Non-functional. Assumes a consensus which does not exist.

    2)Assembly opposition.
    Green or orange would dominate as in the bad old days.

    3) United Ireland
    Unlikely. a) Protestants vote for UK as is.
    b) Half of catholics vote for UK, the benefits are better.


  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I disagree with Sinn Fein on a border poll, which there is little basis for at the moment, but I'm glad they oppose the plan to create an opposition. Why would anyone want to switch from a system where the vast majority of our representatives are elected fairly and are in a position to influence policy, to the medieval Westminster model where the vast majority of voters are ignored?



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