A Government plan to temporarily restore double-jobbing for Northern Irish politicians has triggered fierce opposition from four of the five Executive parties.
The UK Government is facing criticism over plans to allow MPs to retain their seats in Westminster while being elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The return of the “dual mandate”, or double-jobbing, would allow DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson to contest the upcoming Assembly elections while also remaining MP for Lagan Valley at Westminster.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill on Saturday accused the UK Government of interfering in the Assembly poll, while leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Doug Beattie, accused the Northern Ireland Office of effectively supporting the DUP election campaign.
The details of the move are outlined in a letter from Northern Ireland Office junior minister Lord Caine to members of the House of Lords.
It would see dual mandates returning only until the next UK general election in 2024.
The current law banning politicians from double-jobbing as MLAs and MPs came into effect in 2016.
The letter, seen by the PA news agency, says that the aim of the rule-change is to avoid triggering by-elections in Northern Ireland.
In the letter, Lord Caine said: “There is no appetite or consensus in Northern Ireland to allow dual mandates to continue indefinitely or to return to a situation in which the overwhelming majority of MPs from Northern Ireland were also members of the Assembly.”
He told peers that the “objective” of the UK Government is to support the functioning of the Assembly by “providing stability in instances where the Northern Ireland Parties need to reconfigure their representation across Parliament and Stormont, without the triggering of Parliamentary by-elections”.
It is part of a raft of measures, already passed through the House the Commons, designed to consolidate power-sharing in Northern Ireland following the return of the Executive in early 2020.
However, the plans to restore the dual mandate have already proved controversial and have been criticised by some parties in Northern Ireland.
Ms O’Neill said in a statement: “Plans to restore double-jobbing by allowing MPs to also become MLAs are unacceptable and must be scrapped.
“This is disgraceful interference in the upcoming Assembly election and a desperate attempt by Boris Johnson and Tory ministers in the NIO to facilitate Jeffrey Donaldson’s return to the Assembly and prop up the DUP.”
She called it “a major step backwards for politics here”.
Mr Beattie tweeted on Saturday: “The fact NIO now directly supporting DUP election campaign means they are not a neutral department.”
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long called it a “seriously retrograde step”.
She tweeted: “I staked my own political future on ending double jobbing in 2010, when I left Council and the Assembly to focus on representing m constituents in Westminster. I was successful in getting double jobbing banned.”
“Other parties promised to act but only did when forced by legislation in 2014.
“I’ve been both an MP and an MLA: you cannot properly do both jobs in the long term.
“The ban was subject to extensive consultation: this reversal has not been.
“Fairly obvious why it’s being done.”
SDLP MP Claire Hanna tweeted: “Being an MP is a full time job, and then some, as is being an MLA.
“People deserve representation at both levels, and dual mandates were abolished for good reason. NIO should not be facilitating DUP threats and gambling with devolution.”
Leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) Jim Allister called the plan a “shameless fix”.
“Last throw of the dice for some,” he tweeted.
“Dual mandates were abolished for good reason. That reason hasn’t changed. Only the desperation of the DUP has changed. What price has the DUP paid for this?”
There had been intense speculation in political circles about how and when Sir Jeffrey would return to local politics in Northern Ireland as an MLA, following his election as leader of the party.
He had pledged to return to the Northern Ireland Assembly, after being elected as DUP leader last summer.
It comes as the new party leader grapples with unionist anger at controversial post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland, as well as concerns about slipping poll ratings for the DUP following months of internal divisions.
The DUP share of the vote in Sir Jeffrey’s constituency was also slashed by over 16% in the 2019 general election, making a by-election in Lagan Valley an unappetising prospect for the party.
A spokesman for the Northern Ireland Office said: “On Wednesday, the Government tabled an amendment to the NI (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill.
“This followed a proposal by Lib Dem peer and former leader of the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland Lord Alderdice, during Committee Stage in the House of Lords, which could have allowed dual mandates to have been allowed indefinitely.
“This was not opposed by his front bench.
“The Government’s proposal is for any dual mandates to be strictly time limited to the subsequent Westminster election.
“It will enable the smoother transition between legislatures should an MP wish to take a seat in the NI Assembly, and therefore supports the objectives of the Bill in promoting greater stability.
“It will be subject to the usual parliamentary scrutiny as the Bill progresses.”