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Adams resignation as MP sparks constitutional issue

26 January 11 18:41
Gerry Adams
By Conor Spackman
BBC News

When Gerry Adams announced his intention to step down as MP for West Belfast in order to run for the Irish parliament, most political commentators were fascinated with what it all meant for Sinn Fein's political strategy.

Few commented on the potential constitutional issue which his announcement provoked.

House of Commons procedures mean that MPs can never resign from their posts.

Under intricate rules dating back to 1642, they must instead become a member of one of two paid positions under the Crown.

When the Chancellor of the Exchequer accepts their application to become Crown Steward and Bailiff of either the Chiltern Hundreds or the Manor of Northstead, they are then disqualified from being an MP.


While the positions are honorary and actually unpaid, avowed Irish republican Gerry Adams has indicated he wants nothing to do with either of them.

With his party committed to its policy of abstention from Westminster, Mr Adams simply wrote a letter to the Speaker of the House of Commons, telling him that he was standing down.

It has led to a stand-off, with the Commons authorities waiting for Mr Adams to follow procedures and the Sinn Fein president apparently content that he has done all he is going to do.

A solution will not be simple, according to Londonderry-born barrister Austen Morgan, who is an expert in constitutional law.

He has said the House of Commons is unlikely to bend the rules for pragmatic purposes.

"The constitution is viewed as sacred and I don't think they are likely to diverge from it in order to satisfy the needs of one particular situation," Mr Morgan said.

"If he is not disqualified for some other reason, then he may have to stay until the end of the parliament in 2015."

Electoral law does not appear to provide a solution either.

In the UK, the Disqualifcations Act of 2000 means Westminster MPs can also sit in the Irish parliament, the Dail.

In Ireland, members of parliament are banned from sitting in the European Parliament but not in the House of Commons.

'As if they were dead'

The dual mandate option is unlikely to appeal to the Sinn Fein president, who has stressed that he is committed to serving only in the Dail.

Mr Morgan said that it leaves only a handful of other options for disqualification, including bankruptcy, mental illness or imprisonment for a term of more than a year.

"Assuming that none of these is likely to apply to Mr Adams, the only other option is elevation to the House of Lords and I think we can be quite sure that is not going to happen either," he added.

BBC Newsnight political editor, Michael Crick, has blogged on whether Mr Adams refusal to take the oath of allegiance could solve the situation.

Erskine May, the bible of parliamentary procedure, says that if such a member attempts to take their seat, they will be disqualified and "treated as though they were dead".

With the Treasury insisting that Mr Adams is still an MP, it seems unlikely that it will be issuing a writ for a by-election soon.

Without it, West Belfast voters face an electoral limbo, unsure of who represents their interests at Westminster.

According to Mr Morgan, the deadlock could also lead to the peculiar anomaly of the Commons continuing to pay Mr Adams allowances while he insists he does not want it.

"It really is a nice irony. Gerry Adams fought hard to get his office, his allowances without having to vote or take part in debates - basically to go to Westminster on his own terms.

"He went in on his own terms and now he wants out on his own terms as well."

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