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20 September 2016

11 Essential Assembly Official Opposition Questions & Answers

1. What does Opposition mean in Northern Ireland?

On 17 November 2015, the DUP and Sinn Fein agreed a Fresh Start Agreement which agreed a framework for addressing what the First Minister and deputy First Minister described as some of the most challenging and intractable issues impacting Northern Ireland, following on from the Stormont House Agreement of December 2014. This included the issue of enabling a formal opposition, something that had not been envisaged in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (which followed the 1998 Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement) or the St Andrews Agreement of 2007.

Briefly, the Official Opposition in the Northern Ireland Assembly will consist of those parties which would be entitled to Ministerial positions in the Executive but choose not to take these up. The Official Opposition will have enhanced speaking rights during Plenary business including (Fresh Start Agreement, Section F, Appendix F4 point (v)).

2. Is our Opposition based on John McCallister’s - Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Act 2016?

No, the structures for the Assembly’s Opposition come from the Fresh Start Agreement of 17 November 2015.

3. Is there an official Leader of the Opposition?

No; the Fresh Start Agreement (Section F, Appendix F4 point (iii))) says that there will be no formal titles for those in Opposition, including for the leaders of the parties that make up the Official Opposition.

4. If there is no Official Leader who does lead the Opposition?

The structure of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Official Opposition does not provide for any titles such as Leader/deputy Leader of the Opposition. The Fresh Start Agreement (Section F, Appendix F4 (iii)) acknowledges that titles may be conferred through custom and practice, but these are not official titles.

5. Does the Leader of the Opposition or Opposition parties have defined roles or extra funding?

Although there is no Leader of the Opposition, those in the Official Opposition do have defined roles. For example, a member of the Official Opposition will be the first contributor to a debate on the Budget and Programme for Government, after the Minister’s speech. The Fresh Start Agreement says that the Official Opposition has enhanced speaking rights for some Plenary business. In addition, parties belonging to the Official Opposition are entitled to extra financial and research assistance under the Financial Assistance to Political Parties.

6. Who is a member of the Opposition?

Members of the Official Opposition are those MLAs who belong to parties that are entitled to a Ministerial post in the Executive but have declined to take up these positions (see the Fresh Start Agreement, Section F, Appendix F4, point (i)). Parties which choose to go into Official Opposition must do so at the time they decline to join the Executive when d’Hondt is run.

Not all Parties are in the Official Opposition; any Party below the threshold for participation in the Executive cannot be part of the Official Opposition. The Parties that are outside of the Official Opposition are Alliance, Greens, People Before Profits, and Traditional Unionist Voice.

7. How does it differ from other legislatures?

Opposition takes different forms across the legislatures. To examine the various forms Opposition takes, the Assembly’s Research Services produced a Report in 2012 which formed part of a Report by the Assembly and Executive Review Committee.

8. Why did the Northern Ireland Assembly introduce formal Opposition?

The Assembly has been investigating opposition for some years; in 2013, the Assembly and Executive Review Committee completed a Review of d’Hondt, Community Designation and Provisions for Opposition. In 2016, the Committee carried out a Report into the Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Bill which was before the Assembly, proposed by John McCallister (then an Independent Unionist member).

Although the Bill passed through its Assembly stages and received Royal Assent, the Assembly’s Official Opposition is based on the provisions in the Fresh Start Agreement.

9. Why didn’t the Assembly have a formal Opposition before now?

The structures of the Northern Ireland Assembly, including how the Executive is to be constituted, were originally set out in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 following the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and amended by the 2007 St Andrews Agreement. These structures envisaged that all Parties eligible to take Ministerial posts (using the d’Hondt system) would take part in the Executive and did not set out any form of Official Opposition.

10. How will Official Opposition work in the Assembly?

The Speaker, in consultation with the Business Committee has agreed to schedule a minimum of 10 opposition days each Session. The first of these is scheduled for Monday, 26 September 2016.

An Opposition Day will consist of four hours of business, selected by the Official Opposition. Question Time will continue as normal, with questions being asked by all Members. Members of the Opposition will (as is usual during Question Time) be entitled to ask the first supplementary question on the first three questions put to any Minister during Question Time and the first Topical Question (more information can be found in the Fresh Start Agreement, Section F, Appendix 4)

11. Who decides what Opposition business will be scheduled?

The items for Opposition business will be selected by the Official Opposition and agreed with the Business Committee which is responsible for the scheduling of Plenary Business.