As the BBC reports, the government has stated that “Over the coming months Ministers will be talking to all Northern Ireland parties to address how to take the issue forward in light of the views and clear issues of principle we discussed today.” The issue being the payment of allowances expenses to MPs who do not take their seats. As the Deputy Leader of the House, Liberal Democrat MP, David Heath, told MPs yesterday
The Committee on Standards in Public Life recognised when it reported in November that the decisions on allowances for elected Members who did not take their seats were political, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out. The previous Government promoted the arrangements specifically-it would appear-to support the political process in Northern Ireland and to encourage Sinn Fein to play a greater role in mainstream politics.
The right hon. Gentleman brought up the position adopted by parties in previous debates and before the general election. There are Members who have always opposed the decisions on the grounds that all MPs elected to serve at Westminster should carry out their full duties in representing their constituents, and that includes participating in the business of the House. They have always seen this as primarily a House of Commons issue and agreed with Speaker Boothroyd at the time on “associate membership” of the House. He also said that some Members have always taken the view that the matter should be subject to a free vote-that is, it is for individual Members rather than the parties.
Since the decisions were taken, circumstances in Northern Ireland have changed considerably. We have a new devolutionary settlement, which is at the heart of the peace process. Northern Ireland is now firmly set on the political path, with Sinn Fein Members playing a full role in the Assembly. Though dissident republicans continue to try to undermine those who are committed to the political process, there is no question-I hope and pray-of a return to the troubled decades of violence. As a result, it is time for us to look again at the issue. It is clear that there are real and strongly felt issues of principle under discussion.
The Belfast agreement is clear: Northern Ireland is, and will remain, part of the United Kingdom until or unless a majority of the people of Northern Ireland vote otherwise. Sinn Fein has accepted the consent principle set out in the agreement, and there is therefore no good reason why its Members should not take their seats at Westminster. Whatever arguments were made in 2001 and 2006, they were made in a different political context. Northern Ireland has moved on. The principle for the future must be that all elected Members should take their seats and play as full a role as possible as Members of the House. [added emphasis throughout]