Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 22 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Will Northern Ireland send young guns to Commons?

Fresh face: Naomi Long is new blood among Northern Ireland MPs but nearly as old as PM
Fresh face: Naomi Long is new blood among Northern Ireland MPs but nearly as old as PM

David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband will be making some big decisions in the fortnight before the Commons returns from its summer recess. All three party leaders are planning a reshuffle of their ministerial teams.

It is expected they will promote more young MPs and more women. Female members of the 2010 intake should keep their phones near to hand come September.

The contrast with local parties who take their seats at Westminster is stark. While the next generation of MLAs is finally in the driving seat, with the appointments of Simon Hamilton and Mark H Durkan as finance minister and environment minister, our MPs are still the old guard.

The DUP, the largest local party in the Commons with eight seats, has no female MPs. The party has had only ever sent one woman to the Commons, Iris Robinson.

The average age of DUP MPs is 55. William McCrea has been an MP on and off since 1983, and Jeffrey Donaldson has been there since 1997.

Ian Paisley Jnr, elected in 2010, is regarded as new blood. He is 46.

The SDLP is in a unique position in that all of its MPs have been leader of the party at some point. They sit in a Commons that saw the biggest influx of new MPs since 1945 at the last election.

Naomi Long was one of the new intake and her election did mark a new chapter, as the first Alliance MP and the first woman elected to represent a Belfast constituency since Patricia McLaughlin in 1959.

A talented and well-liked politician, her prospects would be very different if she had been elected as a Tory, Labour or Lib Dem MP.

She is the same generation as Clegg, Cameron and Miliband – at 41, she is only five years younger than the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister and just two years younger than the Labour leader.

Many of the bright young things on the Labour benches tipped for promotion could be running major government departments in less than two years.

While our MPs have much to recommend them, their demographic is out of step with the direction of travel in British politics.

Old and wise is no longer an advantage. The Lib Dems are still bitter about the vicious treatment Ming Campbell received when he became party leader at the age of 65. Whether this preference for ever-younger leaders is good for our politics is open to debate.

No doubt our current MPs would argue that experience counts, and it does. But with the Assembly serving as a useful apprenticeship for ambitious local politicians, inevitably some will graduate from MLA to MP in 2015.

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