SDLP leader calls the DUP 'bigots' during Westminster debate

Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell made the comments during a Westminster debate

The DUP and the SDLP have clashed after Alasdair McDonnell branded the DUP "bigots".

The SDLP leader made the remark during a Westminster debate on the Northern Ireland Bill.

The bill examines political donations, double jobbing and structures at Stormont.

The comment came after the DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson asked why the SDLP had supported naming a playground after an IRA hunger striker.

In response Mr McDonnell said: "The issue you refer to is not relevant to this debate and it's quite simply an example of the DUP... the DUP are bigots and they want to drive a wedge through our society."

The remarks provoked a rapid response from DUP MPs including the North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds.

He argued that the words were not appropriate parliamentary language.

Deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle said: "Bigots is a very strong word and I am sure honourable members never judge each other like that."

He added that the remark was not appropriate.

Dr McDonnell maintained that he did not accuse any of the DUP members who were sitting behind him in the chamber.

The South Antrim DUP MP Willie McCrea later said the remark was "a slur".

Earlier, plans to stop MLAs double-jobbing as MPs moved a step closer after legislation was debated at Westminster.

Under a new bill, assembly members will not be allowed to work as Members of Parliament at the same time after 2015.

The ban on double-jobbing was confirmed in a raft of measures outlined by Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers.

The bill also intends to allow those donating to political parties to remain anonymous until at least September 2014.

It will also mean that the Northern Ireland Assembly term will run until 2016 instead of 2015.

The Northern Ireland Miscellaneous Provisions Bill also gives Stormont the power to reduce the number of MLAs.

Ms Villiers told the Commons that the legislation was "a new bill for more normal times". She said it would "improve the way politics works in Northern Ireland".

'Missed opportunity'

The Conservative MP said devolved government in Northern Ireland "was well established", and she said this legislation would "focus on the politics of delivery".

Shadow NI Secretary of State Vernon Coaker said the Labour Party accepted many of the planned changes but he was disappointed by what had been left out of the legislation.

He said the government had missed an opportunity, and that it should have included measures for "dealing with the past and a Bill of Rights".

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said the bill showed "the stability of the assembly and the political process".

The North Belfast MP raised the issue of party political donations. He said his party was in favour of greater transparency but highlighted concerns from the Electoral Commission who had worries about donors being intimidated. Mr Dodds said the threat "is real" and he said the government had "got it right".

Nigel Dodds in House of Commons Nigel Dodds said the government had 'got it right' on political donations

DUP Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson took issue with the suggestion that double-jobbing had been a major political problem. He said many political figures who were in the assembly and in the Commons during the early days of the peace process "provided leadership". He said they were "not a problem but part of the solution".

Alliance MP Naomi Long said more needed to be done to open up the issue of party funding.

Exploited

She said: "For as long as mystery surrounds this, parties will be open to the charge that they are so influenced, but will be largely unable to defend themselves against such suspicion."

The East Belfast MP added the bill did not go far enough and added that she was "disappointed that a firm commitment has not been given to remove anonymity from the first possible opportunity".

South Down SDLP MP Margaret Ritchie said there were some good things in the bill. She said she supported the progress towards greater transparency around political donations and plans to end political double-jobbing.

She said that was to be welcomed but she questioned the decision to extend the assembly term until 2016.

She accused the government of doing "a U-turn" and said that the extension of Stormont's mandate had been made "without asking the people for permission". The electorate had given MLAs a mandate to "govern for four years not five".

The issue of an assembly election in 2016 was highlighted by the North Down MP Lady Hermon. She had concerns that April 2016 would be the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising and she was worried that would be exploited by Sinn Féin.

The Northern Ireland Bill now goes to the committee stage.

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