Mystery of the MP who refuses to take oath

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The Independent Online
An MP avoided taking the parliamentary oath in May and is therefore an illegal Member. On the eve of the visit by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to Number 10, Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, asks why they are still barred from the Commons while the MP keeps his seat.

Tony Benn openly says that he lies when he affirms his "true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors"; Tony Banks smirks and crosses his fingers; but another MP has told The Independent that he did not utter the words prescribed by law. Under the Parliamentary Oaths Act 1866, any MP or peer who sits or votes without having taken the oath is subject to a fine of pounds 500 for every offence - of sitting or voting - and if an MP commits the offence "his seat is also vacated in the same manner as if he were dead." A by-election writ should be moved immediately.

Because the illegal MP revealed himself under "lobby terms" - a parliamentary confidence - his identity cannot be disclosed. The Independent asked him whether he would be willing to go public in order to force a by-election on the principle, knowing that he would be allowed to stand again for his own seat. He refused.

Because Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness openly refuse to affirm allegiance to the Queen, they are barred by the Parliamentary Oaths Act from even sitting or speaking in the House of Commons.

Under the constitution of Sinn Fein, they are prohibited from taking part in the proceedings of Parliament - even if the oath was changed. But they do want access to the House of Commons, and its facilities.

Following the IRA ceasefire, and the Sinn Fein commitment to the democratic process, the two men have been allowed into the all-party talks at Stormont, and tomorrow, for the first time since 1921, Sinn Fein leaders will go to No 10 for talks with the Prime Minister.

Yet Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness are barred from the precincts of Parliament, apart from the parts that are open to members of the public, under a ruling made by the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, on 14 May.

Dramatically extending a Speaker's ruling of 1924, stopping all payments to MPs who do not take the oath, she told MPs: "Those who choose not to take their seats should not have access to the many benefits and facilities that are now available in the House without also taking up their responsibilities as Members."

Following a meeting with the two men last week, Miss Boothroyd reconfirmed her stand, saying there was no such thing as associate membership of the House. "There in so halfway house," she ruled.

Mr Benn, who has long campaigned for a change of the oath of allegiance itself, told the Speaker that her ruling was of such "constitutional importance" that it was a matter that should be decided by the House itself, rather than the Chair. But there is no sign of Ministers asking MPs to debate and decide the issue for themselves.

In the May election, Mr Adams was elected MP for Belfast West, on a majority of almost 8,000 votes. He represents a 61,785-strong electorate. Mr McGuinness won a majority of less than 2,000, and he represents 58,836 voters.

When he delivered his oath in May, Mr Benn prefaced the statutory affirmation of allegiance, saying: "As a dedicated republican, and under protest, and solely to serve my constituents, I declare and affirm..."

The MP who did not deliver his oath told The Independent that he mumbled different words so that the clerk could not make out what he was saying. But he did not utter the words required by the Act.