OPINION: We should value our MPs' time in London

WHAT makes a good MP? You might think that attendance at the House of Commons would be a useful start.

Too often, in Northern Ireland, however, attentive constituency work is mistaken for an assiduous approach to Westminster politics at large.

Of course it is important for a member of parliament to be accessible to the general public.

Armando Iannucci's political comedy, In the Loop, has some fun at the expense of a fictional young minister, Simon Foster, who opposes war in the Middle East.

While he tussles with his principles, and the high politics of international diplomacy at the UN, his downfall is a collapsing wall at the local constituency office.

It's a neat piece of satire.

Politicians today are expected to juggle duties which range from law making to acting like a glorified social worker.

Regular surgeries are a must, and any diligent member will take time to listen to his or her constituents' concerns, but an MP should serve the constituency as a whole, as well as the individuals which make it up.

That means attempting to drum up investment for the area, exerting influence at parliament on its behalf and attending debates and divisions in the House of Commons.

If an MP spends precious few hours in parliament, and a great many filling out forms for a constituent, for example, then it is probable that he or she is not making the best use of time and therefore, the service being provided is not as good as it should be.

The DUP apparently doesn't agree.

It recently attacked Conservative and Unionist candidate for Strangford, Mike Nesbitt, on the grounds that he wouldn't be able to assist in the completion of a disability benefit (DLA) form.

Even if we suppose that the DUP were right, and Nesbitt claims that he is rather familiar with this particular type of document, it seems an odd line of attack, against a prospective Westminster MP.

After all, in Northern Ireland we have no fewer than three levels of political representation. A local councillor can help with a DLA form, or a member of staff in an MLA's constituency office can provide assistance.

Frankly, while an MP should be able to point a constituent in the right direction, they are not making the best use of their skills, or time, if they are doing the paperwork themselves.

Many politicians and parties in Northern Ireland have a curious attitude to politics at Westminster. General elections are often treated as if their chief purpose were to maintain the profile of local politicians between Assembly contests.

Consider the upcoming tussle in North Antrim. Jim Allister, of the TUV, and the DUP's Ian Paisley Junior will engage in a vicious, personal battle, but the arguments are sure to centre around power-sharing at Stormont.

It will be left to Irwin Armstrong, the Conservative and Unionist candidate, to inject a dose of relevant Westminster politics.

Sinn Fin, of course, refuses to sit in the House of Commons at all.

While DUP MPs are amongst the most eager claimants of expenses, they are the rarest attenders at Westminster.

Yes, they all have duties at Stormont, often at council level too, and they work hard in their constituencies, but their constituents are, effectively, left with part-time representation at national level.

For an abstentionist party, like Sinn Fin, there is a devious logic to this approach, and to double jobbing. For a so-called unionist party, like the DUP, it represents the blindest parochialism.

They purport to value the sovereignty of Parliament, and the integrity of the United Kingdom, yet they treat national politics, and the House of Commons, with contempt.

It is only natural that the public often rewards politicians which it sees working locally. The UUP's Sylvia Hermon, another poor attender in recent years, is regarded highly in North Down, because she is frequently there.

Meanwhile Alasdair McDonnell, the SDLP MP in South Belfast, is similar and he remains quite unabashed about his double-jobbing.

We should remember though, as we go to the polls in May, that MPs are supposed to carry out the bulk of their work at the House of Commons in London, voting and exerting influence for their constituencies and constituents.

If they rarely attend, they are not doing their jobs properly.