In November 2015 the two largest political parties in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, reached a political agreement to resolve a number of contentious political and fiscal matters. This agreement, entitled ‘A Fresh Start’, also made provision for the establishment of an Official Opposition at the Assembly – a significant evolution from the mandatory coalition form of government established through the 1998 Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.
Specifically ‘A Fresh Start’ stated that:
“Arrangements will be put in place by the Assembly by March 2015 to enable those parties which would be entitled to ministerial positions in the Executive, but choose not to take them up, to be recognised as an official opposition and to facilitate their work. These measures will include:
a. Provision for financial and research assistance (from within existing Assembly budgets keeping these changes cost neutral); and
b. Designated speaking rights including the opportunity to ask questions and table business sufficient to permit the parties to discharge their opposition duties.
Next steps: A Statement of Proposed Entitlements for an Official Opposition will be introduced as part of the arrangements to enable those parties entitled to Executive ministerial positions but choose not to do so, to be recognised as an official opposition. The Speaker will be asked to arrange for the amendments to Standing Orders and relative administrative procedures. These amendments will make no change to the process for selecting and appointing Chairs and deputy Chairs of Statutory and Standing Committees. The Statement of Proposed Entitlements is attached at Appendix F4[ 1].”
On 8 February 2016 the Assembly debated and agreed the following motion tabled by the First Minister and deputy First Minister:
“That this Assembly endorses the Statement of Proposed Entitlements for an Official Opposition, as set out at Appendix F4 of the Fresh Start Agreement, and calls on the Speaker to take forward the implementation of these provisions before the end of the current Assembly mandate.”
This resolution gave the Speaker the required authority to implement the relevant opposition provisions. As a result the Speaker considered how each element should be taken forward, including which aspects should be implemented through Standing Orders, or through Speaker’s Rulings and administrative changes.
Changes to Standing Orders
A new Standing Order was developed and agreed by the Assembly which made provision for the recognition of the Official Opposition:
“45A. The Official Opposition
(1) Subject to paragraph (2), where a party is entitled to nominate a person to hold Ministerial office under section 18(2) to (6) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998; and declines to do so, that party may choose to be recognised as part of the official opposition.
(2) A party is not to be recognised as part of the official opposition if any member of that party holds a Ministerial office, or held a Ministerial office and ceased to hold that office otherwise than at a time when all Northern Ireland Ministers ceased to hold office.
(3) Where only one party chooses to be recognised in accordance with paragraph (1) that party is to be regarded as the official opposition.”
A number of other Standing Orders were also amended to facilitate the operation of the Official Opposition, once established:
• Standing Order 20A was amended to ensure that the first Topical Question to a Minister would be from the Opposition; and
• Standing Order 10 was amended to facilitate a new category of business called ‘Opposition Business’.
Speaker’s Rulings and administrative changes
The majority of the arrangements to enable the establishment of the Official Opposition were implemented through Speaker’s Rulings and administrative changes, agreed with the Assembly’s Business Committee where necessary. Whilst these arrangements can be changed much more easily than the Standing Orders of the Assembly, to do so would potentially be viewed negatively by the public and by the media.
The Assembly Commission also proposed changes to the Financial Assistance for Political Parties Scheme to provide modest additional funding for any political party in the Official Opposition, which were agreed by the Assembly in March 2016.
Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Act 2016
The Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Bill was sponsored by Mr John McCallister MLA – a former independent member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Through his Bill Mr McCallister sought to implement changes to the operation of the Assembly, including the establishment of a formal opposition. It should be noted that the development of Mr McCallister’s Bill significantly predated the ‘Fresh Start’ Agreement (agreed in November 2015), although the Bill only passed into law after it (March 2016).
The Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Act 2016 makes provision for the development of Standing Orders to enable:
• Formation of the Opposition;
• Timing of formation of the Opposition;
• Dissolution of the Opposition;
• Leadership of the Opposition;
• Topical Questions from the Leadership of the Opposition;
• Speaking rights in the Assembly;
• Enhanced speaking rights for the Opposition;
• Opposition right to chair the Public Accounts Committee; and
• Membership of the Business Committee for the Opposition.
Changes to the Assembly’s Standing Orders are normally considered and agreed by the Committee on Procedures before being considered by the Assembly in plenary. In addition any changes can only be made with ‘cross-community’ support i.e. support from a majority of MLAs designating themselves as ‘Nationalist’ and ‘Unionist’.
The development of such Standing Orders will be considered by the incoming Committee on Procedures, commencing in June 2016, however in the interim the aspects of the Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Act 2016 set out in the bullet points above do not apply to the operation of the Official Opposition.
Following elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly in early March 2016 the Government (66 members) was formally established on 25 May 2016 through a (mandatory) cross-community coalition of:
• Democratic Unionist Party (a Unionist party with 37 members)
• Sinn Fein (a Nationalist party with 28 members); and
• An independent Unionist member.
In addition an Official Opposition (28 members) was also established on 25 May 2016, formed by:
• Ulster Unionist Party (UUP, a Unionist party with 16 members)
• Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP, a Nationalist party with 12 members).
It should also be noted that the Alliance Party (8 members), Green Party (2 members), People before Profit (2 members) and Traditional Unionist Voice (1 member) are also in opposition, but are not eligible to join the Official Opposition. Therefore in effect the Opposition includes 41 members in total.
It remains to be seen how the establishment of an Official Opposition will change how the Northern Ireland Assembly operates, including how the Government (the Executive) is held to account. However it is clear that 25th May 2016 marked a significant change in how Northern Ireland is governed.
Appendix F4: Statement of Proposed Entitlements for an Official Opposition
(i) Those parties which would be entitled to ministerial positions in the Executive but choose not to take them up, to be recognised as an official opposition. Those parties which choose to go into opposition should elect to do so at the time they decline the offer of a ministerial position in the Executive when d’Hondt is run.
(ii) Provisions for an official opposition to be put in place by administrative, or other, means not requiring primary legislation. Parties noted that giving the provisions a legislative footing would require Westminster legislation as the issue was an excepted matter.
(iii) No formal titles are to be conferred upon individual members, including leaders of parties, within the official opposition. It is acknowledged that titles may come to be conferred informally on such office holders through custom and practice.
(iv) Provision should be made for cost neutral financial and research assistance for opposition parties, either through the Financial Assistance to Political Parties Scheme (FAPP), or a ring-fencing of Assembly research facilities.
(v) Official opposition should have enhanced speaking rights during plenary business, and these should comprise the following:
(a) Question Time
The first supplementary question after the tabling Member for the first 3 listed Oral Questions to each Minister.
The first Topical Question to each Minister to be allocated outside the ballot. The first supplementary after the tabling Member for a Question for Urgent Oral Answer.
(b) Executive Business – Budget and Programme for Government (PfG) debates
The first contributor following the Minister to Budget and PfG debates.
(c) Executive Business – Legislation
The first contributor following the relevant Statutory Committee Chairperson in Executive Bill debates; subordinate legislation motions; and legislative consent motions.
(d) Ministerial Statements
The first question to the Minister following an oral statement.
(e) Matters of the Day
The first contributor after the tabling Member to a Matter of the Day.
(f) Opposition Debates
The frequency of opposition debates to be determined by the Speaker in consultation with the Business Committee.
(vi) Should the official opposition comprise more than one party the apportionment of speaking rights amongst parties will be determined by such parties themselves on the basis of party strength, in a manner similar to the allocation of Private Members’ Business by the Business Committee.