A question of residency and representation

Over in Chicago, they’re going to elect a new mayor this month. President Obama’s former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is one of those running to be chief executive of the third largest city in the US. However, securing his place on the ballot paper hasn’t been plain sailing due to legal challenges around his residency “in the town for a year before the election”.

Clearly Emanuel and his family moved to live and work in Washington DC for a year or so before he stepped down – with Obama’s blessing – to return to Chicago to prepare his mayoral campaign. The Chicago Sun Times explains:

Ironically, President Obama would have no problem coming back to Chicago to run for mayor because he never rented out his home and has come back to stay there on rare occasions. “He has a physical location that he owns and has exclusive right to live in,” said attorney Jim Nally.

But Emanuel’s problem as he prepares to run for mayor is that he rented out his house, and the tenant refuses to back out of the lease.

At the end of January, the Illinois State Supreme Court held “that Illinois law and legal precedent were clear on the matter and Rahm is a legal resident of the city”. While the family had “moved most of their clothes and personal belongings to Washington DC … they did leave behind at [their Chicago residence, now leased out to someone else until June 2011] several larger household items, including televisions, a piano, and a bed, as well as several personal possessions such as family heirlooms and books”.

Strangely, while his residency was being challenged with respect to his mayoral candidacy, Emanuel continued to be registered to vote from his leased out Chicago address! (As an aside, there have been 54 mayors of Chicago. Two have been assassinated in office and another two have died in office. Not a great record.)

Closer to home, Gerry Adams has had to jump through a number of hoops to prove his residency in his adopted home of County Louth in order to appear on the electoral register.

But in the UK, residency and representation are far from coupled.

MPs have frequently been “flown in” to contest both safe and marginal seats at the whim of the local constituency organisation.

In Northern Ireland, many MPs and MLAs do not live or vote in their constituency. Some examples from across the parties.

  • The DUP’s Lord Bannside lived in Belfast, but was MLA and MP in North Antrim. His son continues this trend, voting in Lagan Valley, but representing North Antrim in Westminster.
  • Sinn Féin’s Caitríona Ruane lives in County Louth, but is MLA for South Down.
  • The UUP’s Mike Nesbitt votes in East Belfast but will be on the ballot paper for neighbouring Strangford.
  • SDLP and Alliance parties seem to be more consistent with high profile elected representatives living in the areas they represent. No doubt any variations I’ve missed will be pointed out in the comments below!

Would it be better for local representatives to have permanent roots in the communities that they seek to serve? Or is simply enough to let voters make their feelings known at the ballot box?

Update – for clarity, as mentioned in the comments below, the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972, Chapter 9, PART II, Section 3 states that candidates for councils should:

(a) on that day he is a local elector for the district of the council; or

(b) he has during the whole of the twelve months immediately preceding that day—

(i) occupied as owner or tenant any land in the district of the council, or

(ii) resided in the district of the council; or

(c) his principal or only place of work during that twelve months has been in the district of the council.

Belfast City Council’s website express this in plain English on their How to become a councillor page.

, , ,

  • Andrew Muir in Newry and Michael Bower in West Tyrone in the last General Election are both Alliance members in North Down where Muir is now a councillor and Bower hopes to be.

    Maybe not the highest profile members of Alliance but high enough to be candidates for the most senior elected office.

  • Drumlins Rock

    I believe Councilors must reside in or close to the DEA they wish to represent, to reside in an adjoining constituency should not be a bar on representing it, for example Mike Nesbitt is probably closer to the majority of Strangford residents than someone from Portaferry say.

    Living in a different country should not be allowed though! but I guess as usual NI is a special case, just wonder could the MP for Dover get away with living in Calais?

  • Sean Og

    Martin McGuinness represents Mid Ulster.
    Mitchel McLaughlin represents South Antrim. Both live in Foyle.
    William McCrea represents South Antrim. Lives in Mid Ulster.

    Cllr must live in council area or own a business in it.

  • If representatives don’t live in the community, why not move to a list system? The party still picks the personnel and we’re spared a lot of cost and expense.

    My belief is that the lower the level of government, the closer I want my representative living to me. I want my local councillor to be driving over the same potholes I am.

  • Rory Carr

    …Mike Nesbitt is probably closer to the majority of Strangford residents than someone from Portaferry say.

    Run that by me again please, DR. I am finding the greatest difficulty in making sense of it, as the last time I was there Portaferry was slap-bang in the middle of the Strangford constituency while East Belfast, where Nesbitt resides, is merely adjacent to a small area of its north-eastern border.

    You surely don’t intend a sectarian claim in that “someone from Portaferry” is likely to be nationalist while the “majority of Strangford residents” tend to be unionist ?

  • Drumlins Rock

    try reading a map Rory, Portaferry is on the very southern, sparsely populated tip of Ards, the vast majority of the population are much much closer to to the North West corner bordering Belfast (not north east, your geography is well up the left) as for your last comment, its petty even by your low standards.


  • Comrade Stalin

    Nigel Dodds has been a Belfast City councillor (and indeed Mayor) for along time despite living in Banbridge. I wonder how that all worked ? It must be the “place of work” provision, although I can’t imagine what he did before he was MP.

    In any case I don’t agree at all with the idea that there should be a residency prerequisite for elected representatives. If I want to elect the guy who lives 100 miles away because I think he’d do a better job, then how is it democratic to deny me that right ?

  • Rory Carr

    Drumlins Rock,

    East Belfast of course abuts the north west of the Strangford constituency and not, as I mistakenly typed, the north east. Residents of Portaferry will always remain closer to other residents of the Strangford constituency than any resident of East Belfast, nevertheless I understand your reasoning that a greater mass of the population of the Strangford DEA have a closer proximity to East Belfast than to Portaferry.

    As I said, I could not imagine that your thinking sprang from the petty reasoning I alluded to in my final paragraph and am pleased that you rightly confirm that.

  • So now we’ve cleared up the geography of Strangford and Portaferry, back to the question.

    Would it be better for local representatives to have permanent roots in the communities that they seek to serve? Or is simply enough to let voters make their feelings known at the ballot box?

    Is it a good thing that councillors have to have a (albeit tenuous) connection to the council area? Should this be true for MLAs too? Is the talent pool of serious politicians really too small to encourage people from areas to represent themselves?

  • Drumlins Rock

    CS, I’m with you on principle, the electorate should rule, but I think the current system is probably fair enough, although maybe should be be revised if RPA ever goes ahead, and give a bit more flexibility.

    For example locally we ran a candidate from Crossmaglen (yes there are Unionists in Crosmaglen) in the last assembly election with very little connection to Fermanagh & South Tyrone, since then he has spent 3 years employed in the area, has been working with many local community groups and will probably live down here when he marrys a local girl next year.