Within the five Stormont "frenemies" allegiances can change

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.

'Frenemies'

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.

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