The abolition of the dual mandate – that a politician could take up seats in more than one elected chamber at the one time – was an unambiguously positive reform. The idea of politicians splitting their time between two elected roles, and taking a salary for both, even in some cases while holding down another private-sector role, played into every negative stereotype of the ruling class. Such double-jobbing was banned in the Republic in 2003 and in Northern Ireland in 2015.
A British parliamentary report into the dual mandate across the UK in 2009 found that the practice was “unusually ingrained in the political culture” of Northern Ireland, where, at the time, 16 of the 18 MPs were also MLAs.
Seven years after it was abolished, the British government this month attempted to reinstate double-jobbing in the North by allowing MPs to return to the Assembly without the need to immediately vacate their Westminster seats and trigger a by-election. The move sparked uproar among all bar one of the parties in Belfast.
The one exception was the DUP, which its critics said would be the chief beneficiary of the change. Under current rules, if DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson wins a seat in the Assembly in the election in May, he would have to step down as an MP, causing a byelection that his party could struggle to win. The proposed change would have averted that possibility while also allowing the DUP to run its high-profile MPs in other constituencies in May, boosting its chances of emerging as the largest party at Stormont. The proposed change was a crude manoeuvre designed to give the DUP a leg-up in advance of an important election, the other main parties alleged.
After those parties, nationalist and unionist, issued a joint letter to oppose the plan, and amidst signs of increasing opposition to the move at Westminster, Boris Johnson’s Conservative government on Wednesday withdrew the plan just hours before it was to go to a vote in the House of Lords. The idea should never have got that far in the first place.