Public Affairs

The new Northern Ireland Bill

Theresa Villiers, NI Secretary of State. Picture: Michael Cooper The Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill is Theresa Villiers’ first major piece of legislation as Secretary of State. agendaNi summarises the planned changes in the law on political donations, elections and the workings of the Assembly.

Political party funding

The Electoral Commission holds the details of individual donations to political parties in Northern Ireland but is strictly prohibited from disclosing these. The stated intention of the ban (introduced on 1 November 2007) is to prevent intimidation of donors.

Political donations in the province were not regulated before November 2007. The ban was due to last three years but has regularly been extended by the Government, citing security grounds. It will now expire on 30 September 2014. Continued confidentiality, until that date, is supported by the DUP, UUP, SDLP and the Electoral Commission.

Sinn Féin, Alliance, the Green Party and the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee say that anonymity should be ended. Alliance and the Green Party publish names of donors voluntarily.

Naomi Long commented that the public should be able to “judge for themselves whether such donations influence the decisions, policies and actions of parties.” Peter Robinson, though, has said that even if intimidation did not happen, “there would certainly be the perception among those who might be willing to donate that it could.”

The names of donors who made payments between 1 November 2007 and 30 September 2014 will remain confidential.

The Government concluded that donors would have expected confidentiality to be upheld even after the ban expired.

Ending dual mandates

Three MPs currently sit as MLAs: Sammy Wilson, Alasdair McDonnell and Gregory Campbell.

Under the Bill, sitting MPs will be barred from standing in Assembly elections. If a candidate happened to win a Westminster and Assembly seat at once, he or she would have eight days to decide which seat to take. The ban on dual mandates will also apply to TDs.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee suggested extending the disqualification to include peers and MEPs. The Government turned down these proposals as peers receive no salary and traditionally have jobs outside Parliament, and there is no “ongoing concern” about MEPs’ dual mandates. The Government plans to end dual mandates in Wales and the practice has been ended voluntarily in Scotland.

Nigel Dodds noted that the DUP’s dual mandates will be phased out by 2015. However, the DUP’s 2010 general election manifesto stated that “successful DUP candidates will step down within weeks from the Northern Ireland Assembly, as early as practically possible.”

Assembly election in 2016

The next UK general election, on 7 May 2015, is due to coincide with the next Assembly election as MLAs were elected for a four-year term in May 2011.

The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections have already been postponed for one year. Their members believed that multiple elections on one day will confuse voters but this has occurred in Northern Ireland in 2001, 2005 and 2011. The DUP, Sinn Féin and Alliance Party requested a similar extension to bring Northern Ireland into line with Scotland and Wales.

The Government has agreed to extend the Assembly’s term to five years. This means that the next Assembly election will now take place on 5 May 2016.

The SDLP is strongly opposed to the extension. Alasdair McDonnell stated that the election “has been postponed so that it can be held at a time of possible tension” between the centenaries of the Easter Rising (24 April 2016) and the Battle of the Somme (1 July 2016).

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has heard no “convincing arguments” that a move to five-year terms would benefit the people of Northern Ireland.

If five-year terms are permanently adopted, the subsequent Assembly election would take place on 6 May 2021, just before Northern Ireland’s official centenary. The first Parliament of Northern Ireland was elected on 24 May 1921.

Assembly structure

The Government is willing to consider a reduction in the Assembly’s size and allowing for a formal opposition but there is no agreement on this among the local political parties. The Secretary of State will allow the Assembly to legislate on the number of MLAs per constituency. She is encouraging the larger parties to be “generous” in allowing smaller parties to take on that role: “Innovation often comes from those who are prepared to take on the prevailing consensus.”

Minor points

• The Justice Minister will be appointed under the d’Hondt procedure rather than a cross-community vote.

• The Secretary of State will allow the Assembly to legislate for three public bodies: the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Civil Service Commissioners and the office of the District Electoral Areas Commissioner.

• The NIO plans to remove the three-month residency rule for registering voters (introduced in 1949) as it believes that the risk of electoral fraud has decreased since the Troubles.

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