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19 September 2016

What difference will the Official Opposition make to the Assembly?

Assembly Chamber
There has been one major change in how the Assembly works since the election in May, the introduction of an official opposition. Before the Fresh Start Agreement which was agreed in November 2015, Ministerial posts were allocated using the d’Hondt system and the Executive consisted of the five largest Parties (DUP, Sinn Fein, UUP, SDLP and Alliance) as well as the Justice Department which was taken by Alliance outside of the d’Hondt process.

Now, those parties (the Ulster Unionist Party, and the Social Democratic Labour Party) which were entitled to Ministerial positions in the Executive but chose not to take these up can form, and have formed, an official opposition. There are currently no formal ‘Leader/deputy Leader of the Opposition as the Fresh Start Agreement says that no titles are to be conferred.

Those Parties which are below the threshold for participation in the Executive, on the other hand, cannot be part of the official opposition; currently these are Alliance, Green Party, People Before Profits, and Traditional Unionist Voice.

What difference will this make? For a start, those MLAs who make up the official opposition will have enhanced speaking rights as stated in the Fresh Start Agreement. 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. In addition, parties belonging to the official opposition are entitled to additional financial and research assistance under the Financial Assistance to Political Parties.

In terms of the way official opposition will work, 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

Opposition Day

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). 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.

And if you’re wondering why Northern Ireland didn’t have provisions for an official opposition before now, it was due to the way that the structures of the Assembly was 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.

If you’re interested in seeing how opposition will work, you can watch the first Opposition Day live via the Assembly’s website.

For more information read - 11 Essential Assembly Official Opposition Questions & Answers