Controversial amendment on double-jobbing in the North is to be withdrawn

Boris Johnson announces move that is hailed as a ‘humiliating defeat’ for the DUP

 British PM Boris Johnson has announced the withdrawal of a controversial amendment. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/UK parliament/AFP via Getty Images

British PM Boris Johnson has announced the withdrawal of a controversial amendment. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/UK parliament/AFP via Getty Images

 

The British prime minister has said a controversial UK government amendment which would have reintroduced so-called double-jobbing for politicians in Northern Ireland is to be withdrawn.

An under-pressure Boris Johnson, who is facing calls for his resignation over parties held at Downing Street during lockdown, revealed at prime minister’s questions in Westminster on Wednesday that the amendment, which was due to be debated in the House of Lords, would not proceed.

On Tuesday, six of the North’s political parties – Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance, Ulster Unionist Party, the Green Party and People Before Profit – wrote to Mr Johnson expressing their opposition to the amendment and calling for it to be withdrawn.

It was also opposed by the British Labour Party and Liberal Democrats, and there have been suggestions the amendment was withdrawn because the UK government feared it would be defeated.

Mr Johnson announced the withdrawal as he responded to a question from the chair of the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Simon Hoare. “The vast majority of people and indeed politicians across Northern Ireland believe that whatever the question, double-jobbing is not the answer; could I urge my right honourable friend to listen to the majority and ask him not to move the government amendment in the other place [House of Lords] later today?” asked Mr Hoare.

“I’m grateful to my honourable friend and I’m advised that I think the amendment in question is indeed going to be withdrawn,” Mr Johnson replied.

Legislation preventing politicians from holding multiple elected positions simultaneously, also known as double-jobbing, came into effect for the North in 2016, forcing a number of MPs to give up their seats in the Assembly.

It drew strong criticism from other political parties in the North, who said it was aimed at benefiting the DUP, which the party denied.

The amendment would have allowed the DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson to stand in the forthcoming Assembly elections – due by May at the latest – while retaining his seat as an MP.

It means that if Mr Donaldson wins an Assembly seat in May, he must resign as MP for Lagan Valley, triggering a byelection in the constituency.

Speaking afterwards, Mr Donaldson said voters should have been given the opportunity to decide if they wanted him to represent them in the Assembly and in Westminster.

“From my own constituency I’ve had a lot of people saying we want you to remain our voice at Westminster but we also want you to lead your team into the Assembly elections,” he said.

“I’m not afraid of the electorate. I was willing to put myself before the electorate and to seek a mandate from the people because, ultimately, it’s the people who decide.

“I think it’s for others who didn’t want that to happen to explain why they didn’t feel that people should have a say in this.”

He again dismissed any suggestion of a deal between his party and the UK government, saying “to be absolutely clear, there was never any question of any deal around any of this issue.”

The Deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, said the UK government’s “about turn was the right thing to do” and was the result of cross-party opposition to the amendment.

“It proves yet again that the DUP is out of step and the Tories out of order,” she said.

‘Waking up’

The Alliance Party leader, Naomi Long, who co-ordinated the joint letter of opposition from the six parties, said she welcomed the “prime minister finally waking up and listening to the will of the overwhelming majority of people and parties in Northern Ireland”, and said the DUP now had questions to answer.

“As the only local party backing the potential return of double-jobbing, the question now needs to be asked of the DUP as to how serious they are about the Assembly.

“Sir Jeffrey Donaldson needs to affirm his commitment by removing his repeated threats to bring it down, focusing on his party doing what they were elected to do, and ensuring a new executive is formed without delay post-election,” she said.

The SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, said the withdrawal of the amendment was a “humiliating defeat” for the UK government and the DUP.

“Jeffrey Donaldson and the DUP will have to account for their own cynical moves over the last number of days but it is clear from the public response that there is no support for politicians squatting on seats to protect their own political position,” he said.

Ulster Unionist peer Reg Empey said the withdrawal was a “victory for positive dialogue and engagement with government and other parties”.

Additional reporting - PA.