Northern Ireland news

Michelle O'Neill writes to British government calling for ditching of ‘double jobbing' plan

Michelle O'Neill has written to Secretary of State Brandon Lewis accusing him of undermining the democratic process
David Young, PA

Michelle O’Neill has called on the Government to ditch a plan to reintroduce dual mandates, branding it a disgraceful interference in the forthcoming election.

The Sinn Féin deputy first minister has written to Secretary of State Brandon Lewis accusing him of undermining the democratic process.

The British 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 being 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 British 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 other four parties in the Stormont Executive have fiercely criticised the move, which has been proposed by way of an amendment to legislation already proceeding through Westminster aimed at bringing greater stability to the powersharing institutions.

Ian Knox cartoon 18/1/21 

The current law banning politicians from double-jobbing as MLAs and MPs came into effect in 2016.

The new proposed arrangements would see it return for temporary periods in between general elections.

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.

“These attempts by the Government, and your Department only serve to undermine the democratic process.

“Despite the endless talk of a ‘balanced approach’ and your desire to build substantive relationships across sectors and communities, this legislative amendment, unless withdrawn, demonstrates the actual reality.

“I am urging you, and your Under Secretary to withdraw the amendment, and to act faithfully and responsibly by legislating only for what was agreed in NDNA itself, and to reflect this in the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill.”

Commenting after sending the letter, Ms O’Neill described the British government move as a “disgraceful interference in the democratic process and the upcoming Assembly election”.

“Individuals should not be allowed to hog elected positions and deny people their right to elect more representatives,” she said.

“These plans should be abandoned now.”

Sir Jeffrey has insisted that his party had not struck a deal with the British 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.

Mr Lewis defended the move on Twitter yesterday 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.

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