Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Westminster calls time on Stormont's double-jobbers

A tale of two cities: a new Bill will end double-jobbing in London and Belfast
A tale of two cities: a new Bill will end double-jobbing in London and Belfast

The end is nigh for double jobbing. Yesterday, the Northern Ireland Bill, a hotchpotch of measures aimed at tidying up politics in the province, was debated for the first time in the Commons.

Its early introduction in this session – weeks after the Queen's Speech – means that it won't be too long before MPs are barred from also sitting in Stormont.

At the moment, three – the DUP's Sammy Wilson and Gregory Campbell, and Alasdair McDonnell from the SDLP – have a dual mandate.

The Bill also prevents MLAs from sitting concurrently in the Dail, but not the House of Lords, so Lord Morrow can keep his seat at Stormont, if he chooses.

And any Irish senator who manages to get elected to the Assembly can hold on to both jobs.

The NIO says the demands of membership of the Lords and Senate don't have the same workload and responsibility as those of an MP, so there is no reason to extend the double-jobbing ban.

It has taken some time to get here. In 2009, just after the Commons expenses scandal, the Committee on Standards in Public Life produced a report, entitled Safeguarding The Taxpayer, calling for an end to "multiple mandates".

It questioned whether "it is possible to sit in two national legislatures simultaneously and do justice to both roles, particularly if the MP concerned holds a ministerial position in one of them."

At the time, Peter Robinson was MP for East Belfast as well as First Minister and Sammy Wilson was (and remains) both Minister for Finance and MP for East Antrim.

It is worth noting the reasons why the committee thought double jobbing was "unusually ingrained in the political culture of Northern Ireland".

It said the legacy of the Troubles discouraged many from politics.

It also thought parties were "fearful of giving up seats in Westminster in case the local devolution settlement collapsed".

Four years on, the Assembly looks like it is here to stay. Its electoral cycle is to be brought into line with Scotland and Wales, with a fixed five-year term, meaning the current crop of MLAs will stay in office until 2016.

The legislation allows for a future reduction in MLA numbers.

There is certainly a case to be made: Scotland has 129 MSPs legislating for more than five million people, while, in Northern Ireland, there are 108 MLAs for a population short of two million.

A slimmed-down Assembly may make sense, but not at the expense of smaller parties.

Stormont is still a parliament without an official Opposition and the Greens, the TUV, Ukip and now NI21 provide at least some counterpoint to the big parties.