Real democracy without opposition?

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The only opposition standing in Parliament Buildings. Image courtesy of NI Assembly


It is not for me to offer guidance to the Ulster Unionist Party as to whether they should become an opposition party in Stormont or not. Nonetheless, it ought to be a matter of  real concern that we have not yet had any decent debate as to what role opposition might/could/ought to play in the maturing of our local institutions.

Thankfully, we do have very stable institutions. But we should be under no illusions that what has happily brought us to this point will serve us as well in the future.

Politics is by nature adversarial in our democracy, and that style is reflected in the layout of the House of Commons where government and opposition face each other every day across the table and the chamber at close quarters.

In Stormont most members face each other across an empty space – is that of itself symbolic? In both Cardiff and Edinburgh the chamber is semicircular and tiered, and the tone of political engagement seems rather different due to that physical arrangement.

Opposition can take many forms in almost any arena of life. In Syria at present, opposition seems to have brought the country close to civil war. In London, the Occupy movement sought to express its opposition to big business in visible 24/7 presence on the streets.

Opposition to welfare reform has ranged from large scale public demonstrations in our cities to legislative ping pong in Parliament between the House of Lords and the Commons (who always win in the end).

Not surprisingly, opposition usually leads to great resistance by those in power who are being opposed. Sustained opposition may eventually lead to compromise and even substantial change. Yet it is not the only model for effecting change in policy or practice.

Challenge is always important and must never be confused with opposition. I suggest that real challenge to those in power is always needed and that it should be welcomed, encouraged, nurtured and protected.

‘Critical friends’ ought to be seen as good friends. Critical friends question both the rationale for and the outworking of policy. Critical friends are critical to good government. Without them, the wider community is disempowered, and apathy and/or disillusionment thrive.

Unlike politicians or their parties, critical friends rarely seek power. They usually only seek to be heard and their views factored in. Their starting point is one of positive helpfulness to those they are engaging with – even if they profoundly disagree with them.

They are not an opposition to be outwitted, ignored or rubbished. They have been invited in, and are glad to offer their best critique, because they see the need for policy to develop and are not themselves tied to an ideology.

This type of engagement seems all too rare. Most groups (whether political parties, institutions, community associations, clubs or churches) seem to work on the assumption that they already have all the wisdom they need within their own immediate membership or circle. The levels of apathy, disengagement and even hostility surely tell us otherwise.

In political circles, the Civic Forum is obviously dead, but the need for challenge has not gone away – you know. It never will. Yet where is the challenge of the critical friends to realistically come from? The difficulty in answering that question should trouble our MLAs every bit as much as those of us in wider civic society.

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About Author

Rev. Norman Hamilton is the former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church. He is currently minister of Ballysillan Presbyterian Church in North Belfast. Born in Lurgan on 6 October 1946 Thomas Norman Hamilton was brought up in First Lurgan Presbyterian Church and was educated at Portadown College graduating with a BA from Trinity College Dublin in 1969.


  1. Frankie_Gallagher on

    I agree with you Norman, it ought to be a matter of real concern that we have not yet had any decent debate as to what role opposition might/could/ought to play in the maturing of our local institutions. 

    The real concern though is why has it not been debated and by whom has it not been debated. It doesn’t concern me that the Parties in Stormont haven’t debated it and I’ll tell you why. 

    All the parties in Stormont are conservatives or so – so, the DUP has declared itself ‘right of centre’ but stress that they are nothing to do with the Conservative & Unionist Party of Great Britain, the Ulster Unionist Party is a bit more right than that (they think?) and are not sure if they should be ‘openly’ associated with the Conservative & Unionist Party of Great Britain. The SDLP is not a labour group, it is not a socialist group and at best it can argue it is a democratic group with an ultimate goal of a united Ireland but as we see in the out workings of their activists, it is a right of centre (if not further) Catholic Nationalist group. The Alliance Party, now there is a group, this group can re-designate itself when the rewards are adequate. It goes out of its way not to be seen as an Irish Republican group, it goes out of its way not to be seen as an Irish National group, it goes out of its way not to be seen as a Unionist group. It also goes out of its way not to be seen as a labour group or a socialist group so they are a ‘not to be seen as’ group who are very happy administering the other conservative groups policies and actions. Then we come to Sinn Fein, they espouse to be a socialist group but their main goal is a united Ireland but who also do not want to be associated with the other two Irish Civil War parties Fianna Gael and Fianna Fail. So at best they can be seen as a National Socialist group who has a wide range of activists from out and out Irish Republican, to out and out Irish Nationalist, to Catholic, non Catholic, socialist and conservative and who I may add can be all these things at the same time all around the world. What all the Irish groups have in common (apart from the Stoop’s) is that the Irish state is unusual as a developed nation, in that its politics is not primarily characterised by the left-right political divide. This is because the three historically political parties (while in Ireland, it can change when abroad) Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail and Fianna Gael do not identify themselves first and foremost as either centre-right or centre-left parties, rather, parties that arose from the great split that occurred in Irish politics at the time of the 1922–1923 Civil War but all claim to be the true Irish Republicans or Nationalists.

    Which brings me back to my point Norman, The real concern is why has it not been debated and by whom has it not been debated. The concern for me of why it has not been debated is one of working out the starting point for the debate. Which is ‘where are the people at,’ at present they are a society coming out of a horrible violent conflict, who are still traumatised by that conflict and who simply want to live in peace. I’ll go a step further and state they ‘want left alone’ to live in peace. They have had enough of politic’s & politician’s for a while and what they have seen of it for the last forty or more years. Lets be honest, politic’s here was either political justification for murder & violence or political justification for wrecking everything that had the slightest semblance of working and that was by all sides. 

    I believe we are not getting this debate because the place where this debate has its legitimate roots is in our society not with the existing political parties and politicians. What society wants them to do is make the Assembly work and give them peace. We are moving into a period of healing, the sad thing is there is no help for society to begin that healing. I hope political Unionism moves to make this process of healing begin to happen sooner rather that later and don’t leave it up to the Historical Enquiries Team (HET).

    The second things is that it doesn’t concern me that the parties in Stormont haven’t debated it yet for the reasons I have stated above and I’ll go through them again, 1. The legitimate place for this debate to start is in society, 2. A society who want to live in peace but more importantly at this place in time want ‘left alone to live in peace,’ 3. How can the parties in the Assembly debate ‘opposition’ when they are all conservatives or derivatives of it, it would be like leaving the cat in charge of the cream and telling it not to lick it!

    In conclusion Norman, I don’t believe its time for any sort of opposition, it is a time for healing, a time for peace and a time for the politicians to make the Assembly work so society can be left alone to live in peace. What the Conservatives are doing in Great Britain will hit us soon enough and and when it does then that debate will begin. There is no rush, its coming.