Life

Jake O'Kane: As far as Parliament goes, the old order is gone, never to return

That delicate balance of diverse laws, practices and conventions, which evolved over centuries in place of a written constitution, has been exposed by Brexit as a creaking, antiquated edifice, incapable of withstanding the political vicissitudes of the modern world

MPs applaud the Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow after he announced that he will stand down at the end of next month unless an election is called beforehand. Picture by UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA
Jake O'Kane

AS A teenager studying A-level politics, my class visited Westminster on a school trip. Our host and guide for the day was Gerry Fitt, founder of the SDLP. I remember during his tour Fitt pointed out antiquated anomalies such as hooks on the walls upon which MPs, if they wished, could hang their swords.

Starting our visit in the Central Lobby – the place in Westminster you see politicians being interviewed on television – Fitt pointed to the four doors leading off the main hall, on top of which were mosaics of the patron saints of each of the four nations.

He shared with us an insider joke, that the placement of each saint indicated the aspirations of that nation’s politicians. England’s St George was above the door to the Lords, because that was where all Englishmen dreamt of going. St Andrew of Scotland was above the door to the Commons bars… enough said. Because the Welsh had a reputation as brilliant orators, their patron saint, David, stood above the door to the Common’s Debating Chamber. Above the last door – the exit – stood St Patrick, as this was the only door Irish politicians for generations had wanted to walk through.

Even though a nationalist, it was obvious Fitt had grown attached to the Palace of Westminster, so much so that he found no difficulty bending his knee when offered a peerage after losing his seat as an MP to Gerry Adams. It was clear Fitt couldn’t countenance leaving the place he’d come to view as his second home.

This week, a second former leader of the SDLP, Margaret Ritchie, also accepted a peerage, though I’d argue for different reasons. Standing down as a member of the SDLP, Ms Ritchie explained her rationale for taking the peerage as an effort to ensure an Irish nationalist voice was heard in Westminster during its paroxysm over Brexit.

Having recently bravely fought back to health after a bout of cancer, it is difficult to question the sincerity of her intentions or the courage of her actions. Indeed, so exceptional are the times we’re living through, Ms Ritchie’s decision is hardly worthy of note.

I don’t know the origin of the saying ‘handcuffed to a lunatic’ but it perfectly describes our situation as we languish under the control of an out-of-control Westminster. Already suffering a deficit of democracy for over two years by the disgraceful abdication by local MLAs of their responsibilities, we now have the borderline personality disorder masquerading as Boris Johnson shutting the Mother of Parliaments for five weeks.

In what form Parliament returns is anyone’s guess, but we can be sure of one thing – the old order is gone, never to return.

That delicate balance of diverse laws, practices and conventions, which evolved over centuries in place of a written constitution, has been exposed by Brexit as a creaking, antiquated edifice, incapable of withstanding the political vicissitudes of the modern world, a 24-hour news cycle, the internet, and social media.

When the Conservatives, breaking an age-old convention, announced their intention of standing a candidate against the Speaker of the House, John Berkow, he brilliantly turned the tables by announcing he would be standing down as Speaker on October 31. In so doing, he continues to oppose Johnson and his lackeys who would subvert the will of Parliament against a no-deal Brexit. By leaving on that date, he guarantees the new Speaker will be selected from a Commons opposed to ‘no deal’.

Democracy in Northern Ireland – always a complicated confection following the painful machinations culminating in the Good Friday Agreement – at least offered some semblance of local representation. That is now gone and we languish under direct rule in everything but name.

Adding insult to injury, as we sit politically emasculated, our peroxide PM does all in his power – not even ruling out breaking the law – to push us off the cliff with a ‘no-deal Brexit’ which remember, like Scotland, we voted against. In a frantic last week of business, Westminster voted down the idea of no deal, and demanded another extension.

Reports emerged that the PM was considering sending an accompanying letter to the EU alongside Parliament’s request for an extension of Article 50, stating his government’s rejection of any delay. Senior judges and lawyers have warned such an unprecedented act is illegal.

It seems that even though the PM had a privileged education, he missed reading the work of the great political philosopher, John Locke, who stated, “Where-ever law ends, tyranny begins”.

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