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Sinn Fein: Parliamentary Oath of Allegiance

Volume 723: debated on Tuesday 7 December 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the statement by the Northern Ireland Secretary to the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on 8 September, that he was “open to suggestions” from Sinn Fein on ways to vary the parliamentary oath of allegiance to enable its MPs to take their seats at Westminster, reflects government policy.

My Lords, the Government have no plans to change the text of the existing oath. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have made clear their belief that Sinn Fein Members should take their seats in Parliament. If the oath is a barrier to them doing so, it is up to Sinn Fein to suggest an alternative. It will then be for Parliament to consider any changes.

My Lords, that is reassuring news. Perhaps I may remind the Minister of the judgment of the European Court, made when I was Speaker of the Commons, that the oath of allegiance is part of our constitutional arrangements and that the refusal of Sinn Fein Members to take it legitimately debars them from taking their seats. Will the Minister confirm that Parliament's allegiance to our constitutional monarchy will not be meddled with for the convenience of any party or Government, and will he bring his answer to the attention of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland?

My Lords, I do not know whether I can add much, other than to state the belief that the Good Friday agreement means that the constitutional settlement is a settlement, and that there is no reason why Sinn Fein Members should not come to the other place. We are not aware, one way or the other, whether that is a major problem for them, or whether they would abstain from coming to the other place in any event. The Secretary of State has said that if Sinn Fein Members have a problem with the oath, they must raise it and see whether there is a way in which it might be solved. That is the position.

My Lords, it is a mystery to some of us how Sinn Fein Members were able to claim the privileges of being Members of Parliament without taking the oath. Will the Government take on board that there would be wide repercussions in both Houses, and in public life generally, if there was a further dilution of long-established practices?

I understand what the noble and learned Lord is saying. The position at the moment is that the Sinn Fein Members do not come here and do not claim a salary. They cannot have a salary because they do not come here. They can claim expenses because they still do constituency work: the other place agreed that that should be the case. They cannot claim £500,000: their expenses amount to somewhere in the region of £800,000.

My Lords, part and parcel of the Belfast agreement is the agreement to behave in a peaceful way, with all that that means. As far as concerns allegiance, everybody who is elected to Stormont signs the roll of membership. They then designate their identity as nationalist, unionist or other: that is it. However, Ministers are required to take a pledge of office. There is a great deal more to that. It covers good faith, non-violence, peaceful and democratic means, and serving the people of Northern Ireland equally. Ministers sign up to a catalogue of things, but there is nothing that equates to an oath for Members of the Assembly.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that something along the lines of a pledge of office might meet the case of the elected Sinn Fein Members of another place?

My Lords, I do not know. The Secretary of State has put it to them: if they have a problem in coming, they must say what it is and let the other place as a whole decide whether that is something that it can deal with. The offer is open to them if they wish to come, but we do not know whether they do wish to come.

My Lords, given what my noble friend has just said, will he give an assurance that the oath taken by Members of the House of Commons will not change?

My Lords, I cannot be absolute about this. The Secretary of State, supported by others, has said, “If there is a problem, come and put something to us and we will give it our consideration”. I cannot say what the Members of the House of Commons will say en masse if something is put to them. It may be that something with which they can agree is put to them; or it may be that they do not entertain it. I cannot answer that question.

My Lords, surely the Minister can tell us the Government’s position and policy on this. It is all very well to say that the Members in another House might or might not take a view but I trust that Her Majesty’s Government have a view and advice to give the House.

As I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, at the outset, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have made clear their belief that Sinn Fein Members should take their seats. If the oath is a barrier to them doing so, it is up to Sinn Fein to suggest an alternative, and it is then for Parliament to consider changes.

Perhaps I may suggest that we are making very heavy weather of this, and I am with the Minister in the sense that I do not think we should be doing that. However, I recognise that there is a problem for those who do not sign up to royalism, as they see it, and that goes back to the Civil War in all parts of the kingdom, not just England. When people take the oath, as we do here, they take it to the monarch but with the crucial words “under the law”. The law is made by Parliament and the monarch is part of Parliament. There is a case for looking at whether we should emphasise the rule of law and Parliament rather more but, as long as we are a constitutional monarchy, the oath will inevitably involve the monarch.

The noble Lord is right. I repeat: the Government have no plans to change the text of the oath. It may be interesting for noble Lords to know that in Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Jersey, Guernsey, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Members take the oath, just as it is taken in this place, by either swearing or making an affirmation.