This past weekend the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) held its annual conference. With the party no longer running the Assembly, nor possessing even a single Westminster MP, the issues at stake seemed to be much less weighty than in previous years and this was reflected in the coverage--or lack thereof--that the conference attracted in the Ulster press. The most important event at the conference did not actually take place inside it, but rather outside when a group of members held a discussion on an opposition strategy for the party.
When the Good Friday Agreement was negotiated in the late winter and spring of 1998, the emphasis was on attracting a critical mass of support for the GFA by sharing out power in the Executive as widely as possible. It was contemplated that the UUP and Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which negotiated most of the first strand of the agreement (internal arrangements for Northern Ireland) among themselves, would remain the dominant parties in their respective communities for some time. This did not pan out--within three years Sinn Fein had overtaken the SDLP as the largest party among nationalists and two years later the DUP did the same to the UUP among unionists. It took another two years to confirm the DUP's dominance in the general election of 2005. Those involved in the Northern Ireland peace process spoke in terms of "sufficient consensus"--a term borrowed from South Africa--which meant in practice that the UUP, SDLP, and Sinn Fein were all in agreement on something. The UUP and SDLP because they were the largest parties in their communities and Sinn Fein because it spoke for the IRA. After 2003 it was established that sufficient consensus meant the DUP as well--because without support from the DUP consensus was not stable on the unionist side. After 2007 the meaning of sufficient consensus soon became narrowed in practice to include just the dyarchy of the DUP and Sinn Fein.
Under the GFA, ministries in the Executive are divided up using the d'Hondt method which means that they are divided up proportionately based on the share of seats in the Assembly for each party with the largest party choosing a ministry followed by the next largest etc. in successive rounds until all the ministries are disposed of. This was designed to bribe all the major parties to support the GFA. But there was no provision for an official opposition--only a marginalized opposition of tiny parties like the PUP, Alliance, and initially the UKUP and UDP as well. The main priorities were to keep the shooting and bombing stopped and stabilize the peace in that order. Now that those have been accomplished it is time to seriously start thinking about making provision for an official opposition.
But that might not be so easy because the ruling DUP/Sinn Fein dyarchy want to continue feeding at the trough, suckling off the teets of the British taxpayer, and if possible completely destroying their respective rival parties. During the IRA's long war the leading members of the SDLP were periodically harassed by the Republican Movement that denounced them as collaborators with the British occupation. It was for this reason that former SDLP leader John Hume referred to the Republicans as fascists. And since 2003 there have been periodic proposals to create a new unified unionist party out of the DUP and UUP, which in practice would mean the former absorbing the latter. If the Ulster Unionists want to modify the GFA to create an official opposition with funding, they will have to win the support of both the SDLP and Alliance for their project and then together convince London to call a review conference to modify the Agreement. This may, unfortunately, be beyond their capacity. Let's hope not.