Page last updated at 11:03 GMT, Friday, 12 December 2008

MEP by-election system changes

Martina Purdy
By Martina Purdy
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

The Northern Ireland Office is pressing ahead with a system for replacing MEPs who fail to serve their full term - despite initial opposition from a body charged with safeguarding the democratic process.

Strasbourg parliament
The system would change the way MEPs are replaced
The Electoral Commission told the NIO that the proposed system lacked transparency, but the advice was discounted.

The government intends to remove the need for a by-election if one of Northern Ireland's three MEPs vacated their seats early.

In the event of resignation or death, the MEP's party could simply nominate a replacement.

A bill to that effect is before Parliament, following a consultation process.

Parties were broadly supportive of the change but the Electoral Commission proposed an alternative that still avoided a by-election.

It suggested a list of possible substitutes should be made available to the electorate before polling day.

It's understood the NIO decided against the Electoral Commission's recommendation because it would have allowed parties to change the list post-election anyway.

Obviously we would prefer to see a system that's open and transparent
Cahir Hughes
Electoral Commission
Other regions do not have by-elections - which favour the largest party when only one seat is being contested.

Secretary of State Shaun Woodward declined to be interviewed on the issue.

The Electoral Commission's Cahir Hughes stopped short of overtly criticising the NIO.

He said the decision was ultimately a matter for government. But he also made clear the Commission preferred a list of substitutes.

"We proposed that system because we believe that it was more open and transparent - the NIO has chosen not to take that forward," he said.

It's simply a practical arrangement and it avoids a costly election in Northern Ireland
Jeffrey Donaldson
DUP
"Obviously we would prefer to see a system that's open and transparent and our reason for doing so is we believe that puts the interests of the voter first."

The main political parties were broadly in favour of the change. MP Jeffrey Donaldson, director of elections for the DUP, said the proposed change made sense.

"It's simply a practical arrangement and it avoids a costly election in Northern Ireland," he said.

"Quite frankly, at this time when people are facing an economic squeeze do we really want to be spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on a needless by-election?"

Jim Allister's Traditional Unionist Voice objected however.

The MEP said it was a serious matter that the NIO had not accepted the recommendation of an independent body such as the Electoral Commission over vested interests such as parties.

Accusing the government of arrogance, Mr Allister warned that this was open to abuse and could be challenged in the European courts.

His concern is that parties such as the DUP could field a "trojan candidate" - a high profile politician who would stand aside after the election in favour of a less well known party member.

"What's the point in having an election? The election is about the electorate having their say so I think it is preposterous this suggestion that a party leader could simply at his whim put in whoever he wants."

It's understood the NIO decided against the Electoral Commission's recommendation because it would have allowed parties to change the list post-election anyway.

The bill, currently at committee stage, is expected to be passed into law by Westminster by next summer.

Print Sponsor



FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC iD

Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2017 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific