Northern Ireland

The English Question: Who should have a vote on 'English only' law?

The House of Commons Image copyright House of Commons
Image caption Scotland's independence referendum has sparked debate about the right of MPs from outside England to vote on matters that only concern England

Scotland has given its answer in the independence referendum, but the Scottish question has given way to the English question. Should English MPs alone vote on matters to do with England in Parliament?

The demand "English votes for English law" is reasonable, according to Northern Ireland MPs who have been interviewed by the BBC's The View programme.

But they also argue, it is not as simple as it sounds.

"The problem I have with it," said the DUP's East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson, "is how do you define 'English only' legislation? There are lots and lots of grey areas."

Mr Wilson pointed out a large infrastructure project in England might have consequences for his constituents seeking to bid for contracts.

He also cited changes in welfare in England and Wales, and how that would automatically have a knock-on effect across the UK, both in terms of policy and finances.

'Difficult to monitor'

East Belfast MP, Naomi Long, of Alliance agreed. She said the expansion of Heathrow Airport would, on the surface, appear to be a matter for England. But she pointed out this development would have a huge impact on Belfast City Airport in her constituency, and on the wider economy. "It affects the whole of the UK in terms of how we connect to the rest of the world."

The SDLP's Mark Durkan, MP for Foyle, said it would be very difficult to monitor who was voting on what.

"It would be a bit like on our driving licence, where we have all the different categories of vehicles. Different MPs would have to check on who's allowed to vote on what," he said.

Image caption Some commentators have suggested setting up an new English Parliament or Assembly, separate from the House of Commons, to deal with matters affecting England

The Foyle MP added that the logic of the argument for change opens other questions about our form of government.

"What I can't understand," said Mr Durkan, "is why people now campaigning very hard to stop elected members in the Commons voting on some matters seem to be quite content to have a lot of unelected members from all over the place in the House of Lords deciding legislation.

"So if you are going to reform things in the House of Commons then it makes the case for reform or even abolition in terms of the House of Lords."

He suggested one solution could be giving cities more power to make decisions.

'Recipe for deadlock'

Others suggest an English parliament or assembly, separate from the Commons which would deal with defence and foreign affairs, for example.

Professor of politics Rick Wilford, from Queen's University, Belfast, said this poses problems, not least if you had an English first minister who hailed from a different party than the prime minister. He said it could be a recipe for deadlock.

There are also warnings that opening the debate over political reform will lead to change in how the UK money pot is distributed.

"With a very low taxable base and with an underdeveloped private sector that could lead to the gradual further impoverishment of Northern Ireland... I'm not being a Cassandra here - but that is a potential risk."

All agree, however, that the status quo is not an option.

'Fair voice'

Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to devolve more powers to Scotland within months, with promises of UK-wide reform also, though the latter will take longer.

In the wake of the Scottish vote, Mr Cameron said: "I have long believed a crucial part missing from this discussion is England. We have heard the voice of Scotland and now the millions of voices of England must now be heard."

UKIP leader Nigel Farage has said there is no choice. "I'll tell you something. If we don't give the English a fair voice, we won't have a union. England will break away. England will say 'enough is enough is enough'. To save the union we need devolution that works for everybody," he added.

"We are on the cusp of major constitutional reform," according to Prof Wilford.

The challenge is for our politicians to reach agreement on what is best for Northern Ireland and then make their case at the table.