Six Stormont parties have written an open letter to the Prime Minister calling on him to ditch contentious plans to reintroduce dual mandates.
The Government is seeking to amend legislation currently going through parliament to allow MPs to return to the Assembly without the need to immediately vacate their Westminster seat and trigger a by-election.
Under the proposal set to be tabled in the Lords, MPs could be elected MLAs and remain as Members of Parliament until the next general election. Only at that point would they have to vacate their parliamentary seat.
Critics of the move have accused the Government of trying to facilitate DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s planned return to Stormont, allowing him to contest the forthcoming Assembly election while remaining MP for Lagan Valley and avoiding a potentially tricky by-election for his party.
The Government is seeking to amend draft legislation already proceeding through Westminster aimed at bringing greater stability to the powersharing institutions.
The current law banning Northern Ireland politicians from double-jobbing as MLAs and MPs came into effect in 2016.
Alliance Leader @naomi_long has written a letter to the PM, co-signed by the majority of local party leaders, expressing the breadth of opposition to the potential return of double-jobbing here. pic.twitter.com/nj7PC6NXMo— Alliance Party (@allianceparty) January 18, 2022
The new proposed arrangements would see it return for temporary periods in between general elections.
The letter to Boris Johnson is signed by Alliance leader Naomi Long, Green Party NI leader Clare Bailey, UUP leader Doug Beattie, People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill.
They wrote: “As leaders of a wide spectrum of Northern Ireland political parties, we are writing to stress our firm opposition to your Government’s amendment in the House of Lords on the reintroduction of dual mandates/double-jobbing, including on a time-limited basis.
“The roles of MP and MLA are full time roles, and it is not possible for someone to simultaneously do full justice to both. There has been a broad consensus across the political spectrum for several years against this practice, and we had regarded this matter as settled and closed with the legal prohibition in the NI (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014.
“There has been no consultation with the Northern Ireland parties regarding this measure and it has been brought forward just months away from an Assembly election, which cannot be seen as impartial benefitting as it does only one party.
“It has also departed from the stated position of the Northern Ireland Office that such amendments would only be considered where ‘sufficient consensus’ exists: in fact, all parties with the exception of the DUP are firmly opposed to any return to double jobbing.
“Furthermore, we have significant concerns that the implications of this amendment could fuel political instability, in direct contradiction of the stated purpose of the Bill.
“We strongly urge your Government to withdraw this amendment.”
Ms O’Neill has also written to Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis accusing him of undermining the democratic process.
In Ms O’Neill’s letter to Mr Lewis, which has been seen by the PA news agency, she wrote: “The amendment tabled to the Bill by your Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Lord Caine) to reinstate double-jobbing was not agreed by the parties or Governments as part of NDNA (New Decade, New Approach agreement).
“Therefore this attempt by the NIO to include it can only be interpreted as a crude political manoeuvre to shore up the DUP, in what amounts to an each way bet for the DUP Leader to both contest the forthcoming Assembly election, yet retain his Westminster seat.
“It has been roundly criticised and rightly opposed by the local parties, with the exception of the DUP which speaks volumes.
“The irony is that you contend that it is aimed at aiding political stability, yet the only party and political Leader threatening such stability at this time is the DUP and its Leader, Mr Donaldson himself.”
Commenting after sending the letter, Ms O’Neill described the Government move as a “disgraceful interference in the democratic process and the upcoming Assembly election”.
Sir Jeffrey has insisted that his party had not struck a deal with the Government over the proposal.
He questioned the criticism voiced by other parties, noting that they did not articulate opposition when the proposal was raised in a House of Lords debate before Christmas. He said the idea was first floated by the Labour Party.
“So I take with a pinch of salt some of the outrage we’re now seeing manifested by some of the political parties,” he said on Monday.
Labour has made clear that it will oppose the amendment if it is brought to a vote in the Lords this week, insisting the proposal does not have sufficient cross party support among Northern Ireland parties.
Mr Lewis defended the move on Twitter on Monday evening.
He said the amendment had originally been proposed by Lord Alderdice, a former leader of the Alliance Party.
“The principle received cross-party support in the Lords,” he added.