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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 February 2007, 20:41 GMT
Many seats raise many eyebrows
Mark Devenport
By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

Bob McCartney is surrounded by history. In his lounge he has a bust of Edmund Burke and a plate embossed with Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address.

In his latest course of action, putting his name down for six Stormont seats, he claims a fair historical pedigree.

This replica of Lincoln is seen by visitors as they enter the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Illinois.
Lincoln's speech has a place of honour in Bob McCartney's home

William Gladstone did it, he tells me, as did Eamon De Valera and Michael Collins too.

An English home ruler and two Irish nationalists may appear strange role models for this ardent unionist. But the UK Unionist leader says that he, like them, is motivated by a strongly held principle.

In his case it is to give anti-St Andrews Agreement unionists a choice of who to vote for.

The DUP are scathing about what they portray as Bob McCartney's fratricidal bid to split the unionist vote.

But he argues that if his campaign costs the DUP pole position, and puts Martin McGuinness in the first minister's place, that will end the current process.

Mr McCartney isn't the only politician fighting multiple seats.

Rainbow George Weiss, the eccentric leader of the Make Politicians History party, is contesting Belfast North, South, East and West.

The Independent Unionist William Frazer is running in both Foyle and Newry and Armagh.

Bob McCartney
Bob McCartney is standing in six areas

It's not the first time there has been a multiple candidacy, but the fact that an outgoing assembly member like Mr McCartney has tried the tactic has provoked considerable debate on the question; what if he should win in more than one place?

Bob McCartney says the answer is simple: he has appointed substitutes in all the constituencies as is normal practice in Stormont elections.

If he wins in more than one seat, he argues, he will resign and his substitute will take over the vacant seat.

Government sources are not so sure. They point to Article 6 (1c) of the Assembly Elections Order 2001.

This deals with the issue of substitutes.

It says the substitute cannot be used when a Stormont vacancy has arisen "as a result of the resignation of a person who has been returned as a member for more than one constituency".

So if Mr McCartney resigns from an extra seat, then a by-election looks on the cards.

But what if he chooses not to resign? Then the situation appears unclear. Some Stormont sources suggest that he may be treated as if he holds the number of seats which he gained in the election.

Obscure clause

Does that mean he could vote more than once? Again this is uncertain.

In last year's St Andrews Agreement Act one obscure clause on vacant seats allowed Sinn Fein to continue to exercise the vote belonging to their deceased assembly member Michael Ferguson without nominating a substitute or holding a by-election.

That vote was crucial, for example, in preventing the adoption of a DUP motion critical of the government's recent sexual orientation regulations.

In Westminster elections you can stand in more than one seat, but if you win you cannot take more than one seat.

In elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly a candidate can only stand in one constituency or on one regional list.

The DUP deputy leader, Peter Robinson, says it's ludicrous that theoretically 18 Ian Paisleys or 18 Gerry Adams could have hit the campaign trail.

He wants the rules in Northern Ireland brought into line with Scotland and Wales.

In fact under the 1998 Northern Ireland Act the secretary of state, Peter Hain, could have made an order that candidates should not contest more than one seat.

However, he did not exercise this power.

Of course this could all be academic. But if we do have a multiple winner don't be surprised if, one way or another, the matter ends up in the courts.

And no-one would relish that more than Robert Law McCartney QC.

mark.devenport@bbc.co.uk


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