A Case For Opposition – then let the voters decide

jim nicholson

By Jim Nicholson MEP

ulster unionist party

Ulster Unionist


haass o sullivan

In the early hours of New Year’s Eve, a document was placed in front of the five Executive parties on the basis that we would agree it in full or reject it in its totality. It was understood by all, including Dr Haass and Professor O’Sullivan, that the Ulster Unionist Party would need to take it to their Executive body. When this happened, the Executive decided that the document as a whole was not viable and therefore unacceptable to us.

However this is not to say that the process to find positive resolutions is over; nor do we think that the issues of parades & protests, flags & emblems and dealing with the past should be allowed to slip off the agenda. The status quo is no more palatable than the full text of Haass 7.

The three issues Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan were tasked to facilitate talks on encompass some of the biggest challenges we face as a society and it would be unfair to allow those issues to continue to go unresolved, given their toxicity.

fun clip

But already we have stepped outside the negotiations of the past six months into a very ambiguous land. In a glimpse into the often fractious relationship within the Office of the First and deputy First Ministers we have heard contradictory messages coming from the two biggest parties in Northern Ireland. In the immediate fall-out from New Year’s Eve, the DUP called for a working group to see how we might resolve the differences over the text of Haass 7, while Sinn Fein wanted a working group focused solely on the implementation of Haass 7. How ironic that a process instigated by FM and DFM to encourage compromise should end with the two figures at loggerheads.

Having been central to the successful campaign to persuade the European Union to invest heavily in underpinning peace in Northern Ireland, including a new PEACE IV fund, I was surprised to see the lack of debate, never mind agreement on the matter of who should fund the structures proposed in Haass 7. The document itself offers nothing beyond last minute lip service to costs. If resources would have to be taken from the Block Grant, the most likely current option, which departments are we proposing to top slice? Health? Housing? Education? Economic development? Given that our most vital departments are already stretched, not least Health with the major incident at RVH Accident & Emergency in January, can we justify taking more money away to channel into new proposed structures?


The Belfast Agreement was signed sixteen years ago. It promised much, not least in terms of a “new start”. Many would argue they have been subjected to under-achievement, across the main themes of mutual trust, economic prosperity and better government. Dealing with the Past, alongside Reconciliation and building a truly Shared Future, are landmines that, unless defused, have the capacity to derail our political focus, without warning.

As a senior and long-standing Member of the European Parliament (MEP), I see many forms of “normal” politics, so feel I am in a good position to assess what’s right for Northern Ireland.

The “normal” I crave for Northern Ireland sees a universal commitment to ensuring the terrorism we endured for so many years never happens again; our children and grandchildren expect, deserve and demand no less. That requires a fair resolution to issues such as Parades & Protests, Flags & Emblems, and Dealing with the Past. My colleagues and I will not be found wanting in that regard.



Normal politics also requires that we offer the electorate choice. That is why I support the Ulster Unionist Party’s policy of introducing an Official Opposition at Stormont. Yes, I accept that in our “normal”, the devolved government must be cross-community and therefore a coalition. But no, that does not mean we should fear creating the space for an Official Opposition, with the space and resource to offer the voter a proper alternative. By space and resource, I mean nothing more than speaking rights in the Assembly, days when the Opposition set the matters for debate, and a fair allocation of the staff and facilities available to all MLAs who wish to research policy development. For the avoidance of doubt, it is not about money.

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Haass did not deliver. The issues remain. I want better. I want to do what’s right for Northern Ireland. The solution is obvious. Let the Parties of Government say what they intend to do, the Official Opposition offer the alternative and leave it to the voters to decide.



Jim Nicholson MEP has served Northern Ireland in the European Parliament since 1989, becoming one of Europe’s most experienced and respected politicians. He has previous experience of elected service in local government, Stormont and Westminster.



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7 Responses to A Case For Opposition – then let the voters decide

  1. Stephen Cooper says:

    The failure of the uup ‘negotiating’ (sic) team at the Belfast Agreement is laid bare with Haass brought in to deal with the three issues that should have been nailed down in 1998. Of course, entering into talks with a pre-determined outcome within the Unionist families’ rejected framework documents was the height of foolishness and incompetence.
    The refusal of nationalists to embrace democracy is precisely why they will not tolerate an opposition, as your uup delivered a veto to a minority, which was necessary to persuade sfira to decrease their terrorist activity.
    The failed BA institutionalised sectarianism and ingrained the ‘us and them’ mindset in the electorate and cleared the middle ground and swelled the ranks of the two extremes. Compromise is only possible when both sides are genuine in their desire to reach out and move on, and as we witnessed on Friday night, ira bombers obstinately refuse to say sorry for their murderous acts, which is at the very least a desirable starting point for anyone within their sordid organisation to be taken seriously.
    Republicans have displayed complete disregard to their victims and their refusal to tell the truth about their past and continual attempts at justifying same, show their true intentions of coercing more concessions under the false guise of peace or progress. The plain truth is that the oxymoron of a shared future with those who have their stated objective of destroying NI, is conveniently ignored and instead we have the misguided insistence that consolidated peace can be attained, even though those destroyers cannot even bring themselves to call NI by its name, never mind build a better country.
    Until such times as democracy is restored and the rule of law re-established, there can never be progress in the true sense of the word.
    Stormont is dysfunctional with the exception of a one man band, outplaying the not so grand orchestra and delivering results for victims and more recently, RUC GC widows; meanwhile, outside in the council estates, paramilitaries have increasing influence and terrorists sit in governance over the very place they want to destroy.
    Is that ‘progress’?

  2. Willie Drennan says:

    It is encouraging to hear more politicians now acknowledging the need for an Official Opposition coalition at Stormont. This is crucial for accountability and to give voters opportunity for change.

  3. Pingback: Jim Nicholson MEP (UUP) states need for official opposition

  4. Michael High says:

    Given the choice between the Traditional Unionist Vision of democracy as being crude majority rule and the suggestion that we adopt the democratic practices of both our neighbours who have an official opposition, I could even be persuaded to vote for Jim Nicholson’s approach. His ‘new’ thinking is to be encouraged.
    Who knows, we might even start arguing about issues such as education, employment and the environment instead of us’ns, them’ns and so on.

    • Stephen Cooper says:

      Nothing new here from Jim Nicholson, although I am glad to see him catching up the TUV’s proposals from years ago, and you are incorrect, our policy is not ‘crude majority rule’, it is democratic as recognised internationally.
      It is rather amusing that you and others have not realised we have been promoting exactly what he is now promoting, i.e., an opposition and one which can be able to challenge and hold the governing parties to account, for quite some time now.
      Plagiarism, and a poor attempt at dressing up the TUV’s policy as his party’s.
      If you can cast off your bias against my party, you will be surprised if you scrutinise the hard work and diligence not only at Stormont with the MLA of the year, but the grass roots commenting and contributing to print media and online forums and discussions, which instigates debate and offers strategic thinking for the Unionist community.

      • Michael High says:

        I’ve only lived a third of my life in NI, so I tend to have an outsiders understanding of our politics here. I’m always ready to learn and so I did make a point of looking at the TUV website before penning my comment of 5th February. I used the phrase “Traditional Unionist Vision” to indicate the attitude that I perceive to be held by most people of Orange / Unionist opinion. I see TUV as having the distinction of clearly articulating their vision, whilst all the other parties apply a politically correct or expedient gloss on what they think in their heart of hearts.
        Granted, I have an outsider’s interpretation of what Jim Nicholson wrote and it may be that I just read into it what I wanted to read. My hope is that Jim is genuinely proposing something new. However, your comments have opened my eyes to a present problem with the notion of an “official opposition”, namely it assumes the existence of a “genuine government”.
        My thesis is this. During direct rule, everyone in politics, both Orange and Green, were in opposition; not so much against each other but against the secretary of state who called all the shots. This created a whole generation of politicians who can only operate in opposition mode. Today, they are demonstrating the same paralysis of thought that beset Labour whilst Thatcher was in power, and then beset the Tories whilst Blair held the reins. With the return of Stormont, our politicians are still good at criticising and being wise with hindsight but seem incapable of giving effective leadership. Consider how long it has taken to rationalise local government or to establish the Education & Skills Authority. There’s not much sign of defined policy or effective leadership there. Again, I found the TUV web site to be very clear about the party’s role as an effective opposition to the republicans, but I’ve no idea what would they want to achieve if elected to government. Again, I recently asked a prominent republican politician what was his vision for a shared future. His response left me none the wiser. For all I could tell, it might not include a united Ireland.
        In political terms, I’m in the white ground in the middle of the tricolour. I don’t understand and I can’t relate to either the Orange or the Green. Come election time, it is us folk in the white ground who will determine the outcome though! If we had the democratic practices of both our neighbours, we could evaluate the rival policies and the leadership qualities of the parties. Our votes would then put one lot into power and we would then rely on the other parties to keep the government’s conduct under scrutiny. The key thing is that I’d be voting for a government, not for an opposition.
        Looking at the current generation of politicians, I see little in the way of policy choices, though I hear much scare mongering as to what the underlying policies might be. I see little in the way of the qualities of leadership that would encourage me to cast my vote in one particular direction. Be assured that I don’t have a bias solely against the TUV. I despair of all of them.

        • Stephen Cooper says:

          Michael, that is reasonable, although I must say that our sole MLA and party leader is proving to be the most effective in Stormont by the proverbial mile. The paralysis you refer to is a result of the dysfunctional structures which were set up under the BA, and obviously to appease the minority community, they had to give a veto to prevent the will of the majority overruling their policies.
          I think it is rather simplistic to look at the superficial posturing of the current crowd; instead, I urge you to evaluate and reflect upon the TUV’s policies and indeed Jim’s record in this term and arrive at a judgement which is unsullied my media bias or external influence. We will speak the truth and serve our constituents well and stick to our principles which are paramount to our integrity.
          If you have anything at all you want clarification on, or expanded upon, I am only too happy to oblige.
          All the best.

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