Promises easy to make in opposition


Reporting on the Eastleigh by-election earlier this week on the Ten O'clock News, my colleague James Landale pronounced that "the stakes could hardly be any higher".

It made me wonder whether, in covering the campaign for the by-election in Mid Ulster due one week later, a reporter could get away with a piece to camera explaining that "the stakes could hardly be any lower".

That's not to diminish the concerns of the electorate in Mid Ulster.

But, in contrast to Eastleigh, where the future of the Westminster coalition may be influenced by the outcome, Mid Ulster appears likely to see the replacement of one abstentionist Sinn Fein MP with another.

Nothing is over and done with until the people put their ballot papers in the boxes, but Sinn Fein appears so confident that Francie Molloy will succeed Martin McGuinness that the party has already confirmed Mitchel McLaughlin as Mr Molloy's potential successor at Stormont as principal deputy speaker.

Patsy McGlone will do his best to fly the SDLP flag, whilst at the time of writing there's still speculation about a potential unionist unity candidate or the entry of a dissident republican into the race.

But the husband of the prisoner Marian Price has told me on a couple of occasions he doesn't back the idea of a proxy candidate standing on his wife's behalf.

Double jobbing

In the absence of such a development, it's hard to see the electoral maths opening up a real opportunity for a unionist candidate, no matter how united his or her support. Willie Fraser has also said he'll throw his hat into the ring.

Coincidentally, on the day the writ was moved for the Mid Ulster by-election, the Northern Ireland Office published its draft bill on double jobbing and other potential changes to the political system here.

The Conservatives may point to the impending ban on double jobbing as a reason why Martin McGuinness et al are now making their choices between Stormont and Westminster.

However it was the decisive action by the Assembly's Independent Financial Review Panel, in radically reducing any allowances for politicians with dual mandates, which really forced the Stormont parties' hands.

Thinking back to the era of UCUNF, when David Cameron was over here promising to tackle double jobbing and Sinn Fein's Westminster allowances, I can remember being told that consideration would be given to handing a Westminster seat to a runner-up if a victorious abstentionist candidate refused to take their seat.

That idea went away, and we've yet to see the long-promised action on cutting Sinn Fein MP's allowances.

Is this because it could be a useful bargaining chip in some future negotiation with the DUP?

Smaller assembly

Or simply proof that it's easier to make promises in opposition than to deliver them in government?

The Northern Ireland Office draft bill long-fingers various other ideas Owen Paterson floated - an extended Stormont term, a smaller assembly or legislation to provide for an opposition.

If successive secretaries of state wait until there's an all-party consensus at Stormont on the need for an opposition, then they will wait a long time.

At this point it's hard not to conclude that John McCallister was right when, during the Ulster Unionist leadership race, he argued that the only way an opposition is going to happen is if parties take unilateral action themselves.

The bill also covers the anonymity currently granted to party political donors here, an issue which has attracted the interest of campaigning groups such as Friends of the Earth.

The veil of anonymity had been due to be drawn aside at the end of this month, potentially making donations given as far back as 2007 open to public scrutiny.

That's now been extended to September 2014, but the latest draft bill enables the Northern Ireland Secretary to gradually liberalise the donations system enabling some details to be published.

Is this a positive move towards greater transparency, as the local Conservatives claim?

Or a wasted opportunity to move to full disclosure of party funding, as the Alliance Party argues? If future secretaries of state move as slowly on this as their predecessors we may know the answer some time around 2021.

Mark Devenport Article written by Mark Devenport Mark Devenport Political editor, Northern Ireland

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  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Can't fault Alliance, they tried to facilitate compromise. A rare thing in NI politics. During the Civil Rights Movement in America in the 50's, when radical white people resisted the change, would it have been better to fall back to what was before just because the minority were disgruntled???

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.


    By the way, as a nationalist the flag flying never bothered me – I didn’t even know it was there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Alliance tried to go for a compromise arrangement.

    The problem wasn’t that the flag was flown for less days, it was that the DUP & UUP tried to make an issue out of this for political gain (i.e. Naomi Long’s seat).

    The DUP & UUP whipped up into a frenzy a bunch of thugs with room-temperature IQ’s and then feigned surprise when riots started.


  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Chris London. "Alliance had rush of blood" to their head .Why I wonder. They saw what could have happened if they had abstained in the vote,and came up with an alternative outcome, which I may add ,would not have been to my liking. But if they had abstained they would still have been castigated by ALL shades of loyalism. So it,s be damned if you do ,OR be damned if you do,nt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    6 Cont.....
    The Alliance are too naive, child like. They see things in black and white where as in life there are many shades of grey. And as such we all need tolerance and understanding. With regards to the flag debacle I fear they had a rush of blood for they saw for the first time their vote counting without any thought of the consequences. Both sides are moving closer but can't be rushed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I would first agree with your views on the two main parties, point scoring to the detriment of the electorate. Until the majority wake up and move from tribal politics we have little hope.
    As far as the Alliance is concerned I fear that they have shown themselves as naive.They did not think about the consequences of their actions during the vote on the flags and are just too TBC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    How are politicians supposed to get anything done in this circus of NI politics? The main parties are so diametrically opposed to each other that they cannot even agree on neutral issues because of this prepetual game of one-up manship. I hope that Alliance can attract votes from the dare I say majority middle class on both sides who want a better life for their children without the pettiness.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Whats sad is the fact that we still appear to be happy with the way our politicans act. God help us if they were ever asked to act like proper politicans and deal with trivial things like our economy. Lets face it in certain areas parties could put up a donkey and it would get voted in. The proof of the pudding as they say....

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Promises,propositions,there,s no difference.If the likes of Willie blood Raiser pops his tuppence worth into the ring.All the same,it would be great to see their faces if the shinners did take north Belfast.Half of their capitol city S F. The other half Alliance and SDLP.That,s a CRACKER. Or maybe it,s the way I tell it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    DUP need all the help that can get, given that North Belfast looks like it will change hands to SF in the next Westminster election.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    People of the 6 counties who vote in Westminster elections are very clear that any potential Sinn Fein MP will not swear an an oath of allegiance to the british crown & therefore will not sit in the House of Commons. If Unionists & the british Government were truly democrats then they would accept the will of the people. SF MPs still work for all their constituents & are entitled to allowances



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