Former SDLP leader says Government handing DUP’s Donaldson ‘blank cheque’ before election
Baroness Ritchie has called for plans to reintroduce political ‘double-jobbing’ in Northern Ireland to be taken off the table — and warned the Government “not to tamper any more” with the current legislation.
The former SDLP leader’s comments come as the DUP accused rival parties of “faking outrage” and “throwing dust into the air” as the furore over dual mandates escalates.
If the new proposal goes through, it would allow MPs to be elected to Stormont but keep their Westminster seats.
The plan, proposed by Lord Alderdice, has prompted fury from the Ulster Unionists, Sinn Fein, the SDLP, Alliance and TUV, who regard it as favourable to the DUP in the run up to May’s Assembly election.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson could be a major beneficiary of the proposal, having previously indicated that he would give up his Westminster seat in order to run for a place in the Assembly.
Currently, if he was elected to Stormont he would have to have stood down as an MP, leading to a by-election in his Lagan Valley constituency. But if the rules change, he can retain his Westminster seat and stand for election to the Assembly in May.
Baroness Ritchie, who was reported to have said that there was a case to be made for the Alderdice amendment, told the Belfast Telegraph that she was “totally opposed to double jobbing”.
“It’s giving Jeffrey and the DUP a carte blanche cheque and that’s not right,” she said.
“The original amendment at Committee stage was a different one. The bottom line is I’m opposed to double jobbing.
“The legislation should remain as it is, and the Government shouldn’t tamper any more. Just leave it alone and keep double jobbing legislation in place.”
Details of the plan were outlined in a letter from NIO junior minister Lord Caine to fellow lords on Friday.
Baroness Ritchie said she “didn’t get a letter from Lord Caine” and added: “My attitude is they should be taking it off the table.”
Her comments come after the DUP released a statement on Sunday saying the move would “encourage stability at a time when devolution is deeply unstable” and would merely “bring Northern Ireland into line with other parts of the UK”.
“It was first proposed by the SDLP’s sister party in the Commons before Sir Jeffrey was Leader of the DUP,” it said. “Therefore if parties are surprised, they were asleep at the wheel when this was being discussed in the House of Commons.”
The statement added that “Lord Alderdice, a former Alliance Party Leader, proposed this amendment in the House of Lords which has been adopted by the Government. Others have spoken in favour of it during that debate.”
The plan was proposed by Lord Alderdice, who quit the Alliance Party in 2006 and is now a Liberal Democrat Peer, during a committee stage reading of the NI (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill on Wednesday. He argued that dual mandates would encourage easier transitions between serving in London and Belfast, and benefit the Assembly.
But Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry told the Belfast Telegraph that the proposal was a “backwards step” that represents “a perversion of our democracy”.
The North Down MP added that “coming so close to an election, it can be seen as interfering with the democratic process” and he urged the UK Government to “reconsider this move”.
“Those who proposed and back this move are out of touch with public opinion in Northern Ireland, who don’t want to see double jobbing,” he said. “The question needs to be asked why the UK Government are putting this forward when it is not wanted by the vast majority of people and political parties?”
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill on Saturday accused the UK Government of interfering in the Assembly poll, while the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Doug Beattie, accused the Northern Ireland Office of effectively supporting the DUP election campaign.
TUV leader Jim Allister said it is a “shameless fix”, adding, “Last throw of the dice for some.”