Belfast Telegraph

Exterminate our double-jobbing Time Lords now

By Gail Walker

SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie is seeking the party nomination to stand for South Down in the forthcoming general election.

If she is elected (and that's a big if with SF's Caitriona Ruane breathing down her neck), Ritchie intends to stand down from her position as Social Development Minister. She will also forego her MLA salary.

It is, in some ways, fine and dandy in regards to most voters' beef at the idea of public representatives drawing two salaries from the public purse. Alas, however, it doesn't answer the fundamental question: Margaret, how can you defeat the space-time continuum by doing two full-time jobs at one and the same time?

As well as being leader of the SDLP, of course ...

The fact is, the Permanent Coalition Government operated in Northern Ireland is bizarre enough as a form of ‘democracy’, without adding yet another tier of bureaucracy all of our very own. One where a Minister in one Government can serve as an MP in another Parliament as an Opposition member, while remaining a constituency representative barracking her or his own Government Ministerial colleagues and being barracked and lobbied in turn.

It’s strange enough that a Government Minister here can march up and down with placards as an MLA protesting against decisions taken by her or his own Ministerial colleague in another Department.

Margaret Ritchie’s decision flies in the face of Mark Durkan's announcement last year about his own position (“If I stand in the next Westminster election, I will be standing on the basis I am not a continuing MLA, that's what our party position would be.”) But we all know it’s not only Margaret who finds herself in double trouble.

We may have got over-excited recently about ‘celebrity’ candidates, but we haven’t failed to notice the same-old faces beginning to jockey for position in the Westminster Handicap. Aren't voters entitled to ask what happened to all the promises of ending the ‘two jobs' travesty? The problem is, for all the frenzy over the expenses scams, as usual our politicians thought none of it really applied to them. While many may have thought the swine were driven from the temple, it seems we only gave them (a rather extended) notice to quit.

Different parties have different schemes to phase out dual mandates and some individual MPs are mapping out their own futures, but the final, final date, according to an assembly motion, seems to be ... 2015. Yes, 2015. In other words, what should have been straightforward and simple has become a convoluted mess.

The gravy train may — and I emphasise may — be coming to an end but it's reaching the final stop at a hellishly slow rate. It’s like being on one of those NIR ‘every hole in the hedge’ routes.

With back-to-back Westminster and Stormont elections this year and next, most people would have thought that 2011 would have been the obvious and fair cut-off date. After all, it was the date recommended by the chair of the Committee on Standards on Public Life.

But what's obvious and fair about the current system, eh? Indeed, if 2015 is the terminus then our lot will be in a position to stand in next year's assembly elections as well. Yes, they won't be paid any Stormont salary but they will be able to claim expenses. How’s that that for an extended curtain call?

And it still doesn't answer the philosophical conundrum I posed earlier. Then again, maybe, like grumpy Doctor Whos, they are able to defy the laws of time. MP, MLA and Time Lord — some CVs must look very impressive.

Still, it's something to ponder when you cast your X at the General Election, you're not only voting for a party, you could be voting for five years of part-time representation as well ...

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