Thursday, April 9, 2009

A little oath goes a long way

Chekov at Three Thousand Versts of Loneliness is pondering the Conservative Party's plans to strip Sinn Féin MPs of their relatively recently won right to claim MP expenses, which they enjoy despite failing both to take the oath of allegiance to the Queen and to take up their seats at Westminster. The Tories' Northern Ireland spokesman Owen Paterson approvingly recalls former Speaker Betty Boothroyd's ruling that there could be no 'associate membership' of the House of Commons. But that ruling was always a nonsense, because to all intents and purposes associate membership of the Commons was exactly what Sinn Féin held even under the 'Boothroyd doctrine'. They were denied parliamentary offices, and the financial support to properly represent their constituents. You might reasonably think the logic of such a stance is that they were no longer MPs at all. They should therefore have been instantly debarred and their seats put up for re-election, as would automatically be the case if an MP were to be declared bankrupt or sentenced to a jail term in excess of twelve months. But of course Sinn Féin MPs were not debarred, and it's not difficult to see why - because in most cases the constituency would simply have re-elected a Republican in the subsequent by-election. Unless the government then took the incendiary step of banning Sinn Féin from even putting up candidates for Westminster, it would just have gone on and on as an eternal farce. So we were instead left by necessity with a kind of purgatory situation in which Sinn Féin representatives were neither full MPs or non-MPs. "Associate membership" does indeed seem like a very good way of describing such an arrangement.

But however such a situation came about, it seems to me that by not debarring such people and putting their seats up for re-election, you are tacitly conceding the point that they are in fact ultimately legitimate MPs. And, that being the case, it's only logically consistent for them to be given all the facilities and financial assistance to represent their constituents that is afforded to every other legitimate MP.

I'm left with the impression that rather than taking a rational approach to the effective and just distribution of resources, the Tories - perhaps unsurprisingly - are instead transfixed by their belief in the mythical significance of the oath of allegiance to the Queen. After all, it would be perfectly possible for an MP who has taken the oath to then never turn up to the Palace of Westminster again and to be considerably more lax than the five current Sinn Féin MPs in taking on his or her constituency responsibilities. And yet under the Tory plans, as far as I can see such an MP would not lose a penny.

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