Elections to Westminster are going to take place in May. Northern Ireland is represented by 18 MPs in the House of Commons.
How much of a part do they play in Westminster politics and how much relevance does this have to what is happening in Northern Ireland?
Below, we outline the role and responsibilities of Northern Ireland MPs.
Why are people in Northern Ireland having to cast their votes in the general election and a council election next month?
The council election had originally been due to take place later in May, but the government changed its date, ostensibly to bring Northern Ireland into line with other local government elections elsewhere in the UK.
However, it was an open secret that the electoral authorities in Northern Ireland did not favour two votes in quick succession and moving the council elections was a clear early indication that 5 May was the favoured date for a Westminster poll.
How many MPs are there in Northern Ireland and what are their responsibilities?
There are 18 MPs in Northern Ireland. Like their colleagues elsewhere, they deal with their constituents' concerns and debate proposed legislation at Westminster. Since the suspension of the Stormont Assembly in 2002, Westminster has been handling more of the 'bread and butter' issues which were previously devolved. Four of the MPs are members of Sinn Fein who refuse to take their seats or swear the oath of allegiance at Westminster because they do not recognise British rule in Northern Ireland.
How are the MPs elected and do they get paid?
The MPs are elected by the 'first past the post' system. They receive an annual salary of £57,485. They also receive allowances up to a maximum of £77,534 to cover office, staff and other costs. As they do not take their seats, the four Sinn Fein MPs do not receive their salaries. In December 2001, Parliament's rules were changed so that the four MPs could maintain an office at Westminster and claim allowances. However, in March 2005, they were stripped of their allowances for a year following allegations of IRA involvement in the Northern Bank robbery.
What else do Northern Ireland's MPs do?
As senior members of their parties, many of the MPs have been heavily involved in the negotiations aimed at achieving the restoration of the Stormont Assembly and Executive. However, those negotiations broke down in December 2004, amidst continuing disagreements over IRA activity, visual proof of IRA decommissioning, policing and power sharing.
Is Northern Ireland not top heavy on administration with 108 assembly members and 18 MPs?
With the Stormont Assembly suspended, much of the workload, so far as legislation is concerned, has transferred to the MPs. Assembly members - there are six to each Westminster constituency - continue to maintain constituency offices and deal with local voters' concerns. A review is continuing into the overlapping layers of government and bureaucracy in Northern Ireland, but it is likely to have more impact on councils, health and education boards than on either Stormont or Westminster.
What is the importance of the general election with respect to the Northern Ireland political process?
Voters in Northern Ireland are effectively indicating who should speak on their behalf in the continuing negotiations. If any party increases its representation, this will be seen as strengthening its hand at the talks table.
Have the number of MPs from Northern Ireland's main political parties changed over the last four general elections?
Yes. In 1987, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP were the dominant parties in their respective communities. Northern Ireland had 17 seats. The Ulster Unionists had nine MPs, whilst the DUP had three. The SDLP had three MPs, whilst Sinn Fein had one. North Down was represented by the Popular Unionist Jim Kilfedder.
In 1992, the SDLP took West Belfast from Sinn Fein. In 1997, a new seat of West Tyrone was created and the Ulster Unionists won it, taking their representation to 10. Sinn Fein won West Belfast back from the SDLP and took Mid Ulster from the DUP. The UK Unionist Bob McCartney held on to the North Down seat which he won in a by-election after Sir James Kilfedder's death.
In 2001, the DUP made in-roads on Ulster Unionist territory taking East Londonderry, Strangford and North Belfast and increasing its representation to five. The Ulster Unionists, however, remained ahead with six MPs. Sinn Fein took Fermanagh South Tyrone and West Tyrone from the UUP, increasing its number of MPs to four. The SDLP retained their three seats.
In January 2004, Jeffrey Donaldson defected to the DUP giving them a bigger team than the Ulster Unionists at Westminster.
With plans in the offing to change council structures, are there any plans to change the number of Northern Ireland MPs at Westminster?
A Boundary Commission is looking at the borders of the current seats, but it is unlikely that the existing number of seats will be reduced.