Ben Lowry: The double jobbing ban hasn’t helped Northern Ireland politics, if anything it has made it worse

Double jobbing in politics: Some politicians have been members of, clockwise from top left, Stormont, Westminster, Strasbourg parliament, and council (Belfast City Hall). But voters re-elected them to these multiple mandates
Double jobbing in politics: Some politicians have been members of, clockwise from top left, Stormont, Westminster, Strasbourg parliament, and council (Belfast City Hall). But voters re-elected them to these multiple mandates
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Every so often, an administrative or governance idea for reform sweeps the public mood.

Typically the idea is seized upon by politicians, and is then implemented.

And not infrequently, the idea has not been properly thought through, and concern at any problems with it have been cast aside.

One such idea was the ban on double jobbing by politicians.

The notion took hold around 2010. By that autumn it had the support of the main Stormont parties.

For decades there was almost no opposition among voters to double jobbing. Some of the most popular politicians were repeatedly re-elected to more than one role, including John Hume (MP and MEP and at various times a Stormont MLA) and Ian Paisley (likewise).

John Taylor was a member of all three bodies and a councillor too (albeit not all four at the same time). Various politicians have been both MP and MLA, and an even larger number both MLA and councillor.

The law banning double jobbing did not in fact come in until after the assembly election of May 2016.

But a particularly stupid aspect of the ban went through almost unchallenged: the prohibition on being MLA and a councillor.

There is a simple reason why this is inappropriate. Even after 2014, when local government reforms saw council powers increase and a drop in the number of councillors in Northern Ireland, from more than 500 to 462, being a councillor is still a part-time post.

Most councillors need a full-time job to make a living.

They can be a postman or a taxi driver, a doctor or a business owner, an engineer or a gym instructor. Councillors have been all of these things and plenty more. But they cannot hold the only job that is fully relevant to politics — that of Stormont assembly member.

This daft ban has already led to problems. In the 2014 council elections, some councillors stood down so they could stay as MLAs, only to lose their Stormont post in 2016. This shut them fully out of politics.

Likewise, some existing councillors who were elected as MLAs in that 2016 contest, and stood down from their local authority, then lost their Stormont seat in 2017.

Few politicians are as determined as Danny Kinahan, who stepped down as MLA when he was elected to the House of Commons in 2015, but found himself without either seat after he lost South Antrim in the 2017 general election, until this month when he tried to become a councillor – and succeeded.

Many people will have no sympathy for politicians who lose their seats. But the polarisation of politics has led to unexpected elections, here and nationally, and has made elected office even more turbulent, and unattractive, to potential candidates, than it was before.

We do not have enough capable people who are willing to go into politics as things stand, let alone in the event of dual mandate bans.

Voters are often scathing about politics yet few people would themselves tolerate the financial uncertainty or the abuse politicians face.

Northern Ireland needs bright people in all these positions. For example, councils now have significant planning powers and we need sharp people in such roles, who are alert to the risk of exploitation.

The ban on dual council and other mandates was foolish, but even the ban on being both an MLA and MP, which is more easily justified, has been problematic. Stormont party groups have struggled to find suitable ministerial or leadership contenders there, in part due to the ban. A disproportionate share of DUP talent is now at Westminster.

My own view is that politicians should be allowed to hold multiple mandates. If voters disapprove, they can reject them at the ballot box.

If not, they should be allowed to hold the dual roles but on the strict understanding that they only get one salary. They should also get only one set of office and staffing expenses for dual roles, unless it is an unavoidable expense related to travel and accommodation.

In other words, someone would be entitled to be any combination of councillor, MLA, MP, and (if we stay in the EU) MEP, but they would only get one of those salaries (the highest one) and they would only get one set of office expenses (the highest one), but they would be reimbursed for shuttling between venues.

In my experience a good politician is not just slightly more effective than an indifferent one, but many times so. If they want to apply that energy to multiple positions then it should be up to them to persuade voters of their ability to do so.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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