Ben Lowry: Double jobbing change seems to be bid by London to shore up the DUP

This column was hurriedly changed last night as I was helping colleagues to put the paper to bed.

Saturday, 15th January 2022, 1:13 am
Updated Sunday, 16th January 2022, 3:37 pm
It is reported that Westminster MPs elected to Stormont will, for a while, be able to stay in the House of Commons – which seems to be a plan to help the DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson's transition to the Assembly

I had written about the legacy of the Troubles, about which there have been a number of striking developments, but which is a subject that can be revisited in the coming weeks.

Instead here is some early analysis of a dramatic report that emerged late in the evening.

The BBC is saying that MPs will be able to be elected to the Stormont Assembly in the coming elections, expected in May, but will be able to keep their Westminster seats.

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However, dual mandates will only be permissible until the next general election, which could be as far away as December 2024.

The details are still emerging and as I write this not confirmed, but it does seem to be a very clear effort to get the DUP out of a major bind.

It shows a determination on the part of the government in London to maintain the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, amid repeated warnings from the DUP that they will close this Stormont parliament and bring forward an election if there is not sufficient progress on the reform of the NI Protocol (the Irish Sea border).

What is as yet unclear as of late on Friday is whether or not this is part of an agreement between the DUP and the Conservatives.

For months journalists have been aware of suggestions that some sort of arrangement will be made to help the DUP out of its various crises.

One huge problem for the party is, first, how to get Sir Jeffrey Donaldson elected to the Assembly and, second, how to hold on to Lagan Valley at Westminster.

The web version of this article will link to an article (see link below) I wrote a few months ago about how one of the safest unionist seats in the country has suddenly become a constituency with a very split vote.

The swing against the DUP in Lagan Valley in the 2019 Westminster election was dramatic, and the biggest in Northern Ireland against them in percentage terms.

It is likely, but by no means guaranteed, that the DUP would retain it if Sir Jeffrey got into Stormont and, due to the double jobbing rules, had to vacate his position as MP, leading to a by election.

It is clear from last night’s announcement that Boris Johnson’s government does not want to see the DUP plunged into even deeper troubles.

The DUP faces enough of a challenge in Lagan Valley in the coming assembly election.

It once had four Stormont seats in the constituency and now only has two. It is very likely, but not even certain, that it will hold two, given the large number of well-known candidates now in Lagan Valley, and the sharp rise in the votes of most of the DUP’s rival parties.

Yet it still seems possible, despite at times conflicting signals from the party, that Sir Jeffrey, Edwin Poots and Paul Givan will all be standing there, in which case there is a very strong chance one of them would fail to get elected in the now five member constituency.

The BBC says that details of the plan to allow MPs such as Sir Jeffrey to hold on as MPs after entering the assembly were outlined in a letter from the government peer Lord Caine to fellow lords.

Jonathan Caine is little known among the public but was for a long time a very influential Northern Ireland Office advisor.

Critics of the NIO’s institutional weakness in the face of a partisan pro nationalist Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, of whom I have been one, were struck by Lord Caine’s recent appointment as a junior NIO minister.

It seemed that for once London was putting in place a minister who had understanding of some of the cultural problems within the NIO and that it was perhaps a welcome retreat from the UK tendency to install NI ministers who are, at least in tone, neutral on the constitutional divide here.

The appointment of Conor Burns as a minister who openly expresses his unionism was similarly significant.

But some unionists will be alarmed by this new development on double jobbing.

The TUV leader Jim Allister QC MLA said in a statement late last evening:

“Tonight’s news that MPs will be permitted to contest the Assembly election while retaining their Westminster seats is a shameless fix. Is this the last throw of the dice, a desperate attempt by the DUP to reverse their nosedive in the polls?”

He added: “If so, I suspect they will be in for a rude awakening. Dual mandates were abolished for good reason. The public demanded a policy of one man / woman one job. They are unlikely to be impressed at this policy being reversed.

“The only thing which has changed since the abolition of dual mandates is the desperation of the DUP. What price have they paid for this? Is this why they toned down their Protocol opposition?”

This last point is the most important one. The DUP has got defensive recently when it has been criticised, above all by Mr Allister, for seeming in recent weeks to have tone down its rhetoric about the NI Protocol.

Gregory Campbell wrote a long letter to this newspaper during the week (see link below), attacking the TUV leader for his persistent warnings about the DUP weakening its position.

So has there been an understanding between the DUP and the Tories? Or is this a sweetener given to the unionist party without any assurance in return.

As it happens, I have for years argued that the double jobbing ban was doing nothing to help politics here (see link below from 2019).

The ban on being a councillor and an MLA or MP is particularly stupid — it means that councillors, who have to have a full-time income to live, can hold any external job at all, from being a farmer to a surgeon to a bus driver, but cannot hold the most relevant jobs of all, that of full-time elected political office.

I think you should be able to be a member of all three — council, Stormont and Westminster — if you can persuade voters to vote for you but you should only then get one salary, whichever is the highest.

However, this development, if accurately reported, seems like a cynical way of amending a flawed policy.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter editor. Scroll down for information on how to subscribe to the News Letter

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