Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Our right to vote on English affairs a quirk of Home Rule

Reform bid: the House of Commons where there will be heated debate on England-only proposals

During the debate on the first Irish Home Rule Bill in 1886, William Gladstone told the House of Commons: "If Ireland is to have domestic legislation for Irish affairs, they cannot come here for English or Scottish affairs."

He was wrong. For, 127 years later, we have home rule in Belfast, yet Northern Ireland MPs aren't shy of voting on the domestic affairs of England.

People here who recall the decades of direct rule from Westminster might sympathise with English frustration that decisions about local matters are being made by politicians whose constituents will not be affected.

It is a curious by-product of the Good Friday Agreement and devolution to Scotland and Wales that it is the English who now have good cause to complain about a democratic deficit.

Northern Ireland voters might be surprised at the extent to which local MPs vote on English affairs.

For example, the DUP and SDLP voted against the Health and Social Care Act that instituted huge changes to the NHS in England. The gay marriage bill applies to England and Wales only, yet unionist outrage at the proposals was heard loud and clear in its second reading in the Commons and DUP MPs voted against it.

Changes to England's abortion laws are another area where Northern Ireland MPs feel they have a right to vote – even though those laws don't apply here.

In opposition, the Conservatives complained bitterly that Labour relied on the votes of their party's Scottish and Welsh MPs to push through England-only legislation, such as the introduction of university tuition fees.

In government, the Tories formed an expert panel, including Professor Yvonne Galligan from Queen's University's politics department, to find a solution. The experts reported last month.

They said that the status quo cannot be sustained and proposed English-only laws should need the backing by a majority of MPs who represent English constituencies.

These England-only proposals cause problems, as they would introduce a two-tier Commons.

Northern Ireland MPs are likely to oppose any such measures in the unlikely event they are even brought before the Commons in this parliament.

Even the modest proposals from the commission may fall foul of the Clegg factor. The Deputy Prime Minister is responsible for constitutional reform but his record is not one of success, as the continuing existence of an unelected Lords demonstrates.

It looks like Northern Ireland MPs will continue to vote on England's affairs for some time to come.

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