Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Double dipping, British Isles Style; OR Gerry Adams: He's an MP. No he's not. Yes he is. No he's not ...

Boy are there a lot of red -- and green -- faces in the British Isles.   And it's all over the decision by Gerry Adams to quit one MP's seat in one country to run for an MP's seat in another.

Here in Canada if you want to resign as an MP, you just tender a resignation letter to the Speaker of the House, then the Prime Minister issues a warrant to hold a by-election in the vacant district -- anywhere from 3 weeks out if it's a government seat, up to six months out if it's an opposition one.   Simple enough.

In the United Kingdom, it's not quite that simple.   Owing to a 1642 Parliamentary resolution there are only two ways you can vacate the seat for the district for which you were elected.   One, you die.  Two, you accept an office from the Crown -- whether it's a promotion to the House of Lords, an ambassadorship, head of a Quango (i.e. crown corporation), etc.

Simple enough, except Gerry Adams -- whatever else one may call him -- is also an "abstentionist" member of the British Parliament (that is, he was elected but refused to take an oath to the Queen and therefore could not take his seat, although he certainly could collect a salary and expense allowance), representing Belfast West, as well as being a member of the Northern Ireland regional assembly.   In a bid to go after his long sought dream, becoming the Taoiseach (Irish PM) he resigned from the MP's seat so he could officially file papers to run for election as a Teachta Dála (TD, or Irish MP) in a county right on the border between the North and South.  To get around the problem he couldn't "voluntarily" resign, it was announced he was named a peer -- yes, a British Lord -- with the awkward title of, get ready, Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead, one of two offices the British government long ago created specially to deal with situations like this.

The problem of course is that Adams never actually accepted the role even though it was announced that he did.   And the British PM was forced to apologize to Adams today.

And making things even more complicated are two things.   First is the Irish Constitution, which was revised in 1998 to renounce the South's claim to the North (redefining the Irish nation not as an island, but as a people; and that reunification could only happen democratically).   That Constitution, which has also since been amended to reflect the contentious Treaty of Lisbon, states among other things that while a TD cannot also serve as a member of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, it does not apparently prevent a TD from serving in the Northern Ireland Assembly or in the British Parliament.

And second?   It seems that under a 2000 British law, a sitting MP can also be a TD.

It's bad enough that one can be both an MP as well as a member of one of the national assemblies in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.   But to be an MP in both the UK and Ireland?

Imagine if one was elected as an MP in Canada as well as a Representative in the United States.   Here, we swear allegiance to the same Queen the UK has.  In the States, everyone from the Vice President on down takes a pledge (the President has his or her own oath) to defend the United States "against all enemies, foreign and domestic."   We already frown (although we also tend to look the other way) at people who resign one office, run for another at a higher level and collect both a salary and a pension -- double dipping, we call it.

Relations between our two countries, while testy at times, are still well above cordial -- as well as can be expected for sovereign states that are tied by history.

But not quite to the extent that the UK and Ireland are (not just because of their shared geography but also their membership in the European Union).   But we would never, ever tolerate a splitting of allegiances.   There have been Canadians who have held high office in the US -- Jennifer Granholm, for instance, recently ended a two-term stint as Governor of Michigan -- but they didn't hold any Canadian offices at the time, and we would be livid if an MP also moonlighted as an American legislator, even if it was elected dogcatcher.

For historical reasons (which are not entirely clear), however, the UK has always allowed not just its citizens but also citizens of Commonwealth countries resident in the UK to vote, a privilege also extended to Irish citizens who have free movement in the UK.   Because Ireland renounced its irrendentist claim to the North (as I noted above) the reason for banning Irishmen and Irishwomen from seeking public office in the UK as well, was also removed in 2000.

It's obvious the problem presented -- a terrible even if well intentioned conflict of interest.   One that could lead to Sinn Féin's goal of a united Ireland by stealth.   Technicalities aside, there should be no conflict of interest at all.    If Mr. Adams wants to quit his Belfast seat, a simple resignation  letter should suffice.  It's never been a secret what his aims are.   But he has to choose once and for all where he wants to fight -- in the halls of Westminster in London, or in the halls of the assembly of what he still calls "The Dublin Republic."

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