One of the issues which became a subject of heated debate at the Newcastle hustings was double jobbing.
A significant number of the prospective MLAs for South Down are also bidding to be returned as councillors – a pattern which is repeated right across Northern Ireland. Of course, this would simply continue the current widespread practice of dual mandates at local council and Assembly levels which, at one level, is uncontroversial.
For instance, at the hustings, the SDLP’s Eamonn O’Neill defended the practice, noting “that all councillors had to make a living as well as represent their constituency as the total fees available amount to £9500 per year for being a Councillor.”
Similarly, a commenter on Ian Parsley’s recent blog post on double jobbing, asks: “You can be a teacher and a councillor, you can be a GP and a councillor, you can be a postman and a councillor but you cannot be an assemblyman and a councillor? Why not?”
Of course, Dawn Purvis, who tried and failed to get a Bill passed at Stormont to outlaw double jobbing, has argued that the practice keeps new people out of politics and protects political dynasties.
What was different and of particular controversy at the Newcastle hustings, however, was the revelation that a number of the politicians seeking dual mandates would, post-election, decide to resign from one of the roles – presumably the less powerful (and lucrative) councillor position. The voters’ concern was less about double jobbing than an apparent abuse of the spirit of party co-options.
Sinn Féin’s Willie Clarke was one candidate – although he was by no means alone – in such a position. On the Newcastle Rocks blog of the hustings, his position and the wider situation was explained thus:
He also went on to say that he would be making a decision AFTER the election as to which role he would relinquish – for him a difficult decision as the entered politics to represent local issues but that he also loved making legislation. The same strategy emerged from John McCallister. It was pointed out that one of the two votes for these politicians at the next election was a wasted vote as we would be being asked to vote for the same name as Councillor and as MLA and yet only one of these roles would be fulfilled. It was clearly pointed out they were hedging bets, it is also clear that for those who are safe enough in their seats this is a strategy to secure the local seat for the party and then hand it on to a newcomer. This policy will be to the detriment of the smaller parties – in particular the Green Party and Alliance.
Sharp practice or all’s fair in love and politics?
I am the Northern Ireland Programme Director of Amnesty International UK and an occasional human rights blogger at Amnesty Blogs: Belfast & Beyond.
I’m on Twitter at @PatrickCorrigan