The Official Opposition: What does it mean?

28 July 2022 - by Jessica Kee

With the SDLP announcing that they are to establish a formal opposition in the Northern Ireland Assembly, we take a look at what exactly this means as set out in the Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Act (Northern Ireland) 2016.

The provision for an Official Opposition was first introduced back in 2016 by former MLA John McCallister through a Private Member’s Bill.

Since then, there has been one formal Opposition which was made up of MLAs from the UUP and SDLP, after both walked away from the Executive in May 2016. However, it was short lived, ending on 24 January 2017 after the Assembly was dissolved for a 'snap' election following the collapse of the Executive over the RHI scandal.

Following criticisms of the limitations of the opposition model after the UUP and SDLP’s stint on these benches, New Decade, New Approach (2020) made arrangements to strengthen the ability of the parties in Opposition to hold the Executive to account, including proposals to extend the period of time in which parties can form an Opposition.

What is the purpose of the Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Act (Northern Ireland) 2016?

As stated by the legislation, the purpose of the Act is to “provide for the formation of an Assembly Opposition; to provide for the passing of an Assembly and Executive Transfer of Responsibilities Motion; and to reform the Assembly and the Executive.”

Put simply, the Act seeks to:

1)    Provide for the formation of an Assembly Opposition to scrutinise the work of the Executive, Ministers and departments and hold them to account;

2)    Confer the Opposition certain rights and benefits within the Assembly;

3)    Promote constitutional change to facilitate the development and enhancement of the role of the Opposition;

4)    Reform the Executive by enhancing collective decision-making.

Who can form the official Opposition in the Assembly?

The Opposition can be formed by one or more qualifying parties in the Assembly. A qualifying party, essentially, is a party which has chosen not to hold a Ministerial office despite being entitled to do so under Assembly rules. A qualifying party may also be a party whose members comprise 8 per cent or more of the total number of seats in the Assembly (90) and does not contain a member who is a Minister.

When might the Opposition be formed?

In New Decade, New Approach, parties agreed to amend the Assembly Executive and Reform (Assembly Opposition) Act (NI) to provide that a party can enter the Official Opposition under the Act up to two years following the formation of the Executive. However, as it stands this has not yet happened and so the current legislation states that those parties which choose to go into opposition should elect to do so at the time they decline the offer of a ministerial position in the Executive when d’Hondt is run.

If the Executive collapses, does the Opposition collapse too?

If the Executive falls, and all Ministers cease to hold office, then there is nothing to oppose. As a result, the Opposition is also dissolved at this time. If the Executive is re-formed, then the Opposition can be re-formed.

Who can lead the Opposition?

If one party chooses to form the Opposition, then that party may nominate a Leader of the Non-Executive Party.

Where the Opposition is formed by two or more qualifying parties, then the nominating officer of the largest party must nominate a person to be the Leader of the Largest Non-Executive Party. The nominating office of the second largest party in this Opposition must nominate a person to be the Leader of the Second-Largest Non-Executive Party.

Standing Orders in the Assembly may provide for alternative names for the offices in leadership of the Opposition.

What speaking rights will the Opposition have in the Assembly?

Standing orders must make provision that speaking rights in the Assembly are allocated on the basis of party strength. However, the Opposition is entitled to “enhanced speaking rights”. This includes a minimum of 10 days per year set aside for Opposition business in the Assembly.

Further, Standing Orders in the Assembly must ensure that the first and second questions put to the First and deputy First Minister during topical questions come from the leadership of the Opposition.

Does the Opposition have the right to chair the Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee?

The Opposition is given the right to chair any Assembly committee established to consider accounts and reports on accounts laid before the Assembly.

The chairperson of the committee is to be nominated by the Leader of the Non-Executive Party.

The deputy chairperson of the committee is to be nominated by the Deputy Leader of the Non-Executive Party or Leader of the Second-Largest Non-Executive Party.

 Is the Opposition entitled to representation on the Assembly’s Business Committee?

The Opposition is entitled to be represented on the Assembly’s Business Committee, the group which considers the business to go forward to the floor of the Assembly.

What financial assistance exists for Opposition parties?

As is standard, all political parties represented in the Assembly are entitled to payments under the Financial Assistance for Political Parties Act (Northern Ireland) 2000. Included in this Act are provisions for additional payments to be made to political parties in the Opposition. On top of this, the New Decade, New Approach Deal recommended a further increase in allowances for Opposition parties.

The legislation in full can be found here