Promises easy to make in opposition

Reporting on the Eastleigh by-election earlier this week on the Ten O'clock News, my colleague James Landale pronounced that "the stakes could hardly be any higher".

It made me wonder whether, in covering the campaign for the by-election in Mid Ulster due one week later, a reporter could get away with a piece to camera explaining that "the stakes could hardly be any lower".

That's not to diminish the concerns of the electorate in Mid Ulster.

But, in contrast to Eastleigh, where the future of the Westminster coalition may be influenced by the outcome, Mid Ulster appears likely to see the replacement of one abstentionist Sinn Fein MP with another.

Nothing is over and done with until the people put their ballot papers in the boxes, but Sinn Fein appears so confident that Francie Molloy will succeed Martin McGuinness that the party has already confirmed Mitchel McLaughlin as Mr Molloy's potential successor at Stormont as principal deputy speaker.

Patsy McGlone will do his best to fly the SDLP flag, whilst at the time of writing there's still speculation about a potential unionist unity candidate or the entry of a dissident republican into the race.

But the husband of the prisoner Marian Price has told me on a couple of occasions he doesn't back the idea of a proxy candidate standing on his wife's behalf.

Double jobbing

In the absence of such a development, it's hard to see the electoral maths opening up a real opportunity for a unionist candidate, no matter how united his or her support. Willie Fraser has also said he'll throw his hat into the ring.

Coincidentally, on the day the writ was moved for the Mid Ulster by-election, the Northern Ireland Office published its draft bill on double jobbing and other potential changes to the political system here.

The Conservatives may point to the impending ban on double jobbing as a reason why Martin McGuinness et al are now making their choices between Stormont and Westminster.

However it was the decisive action by the Assembly's Independent Financial Review Panel, in radically reducing any allowances for politicians with dual mandates, which really forced the Stormont parties' hands.

Thinking back to the era of UCUNF, when David Cameron was over here promising to tackle double jobbing and Sinn Fein's Westminster allowances, I can remember being told that consideration would be given to handing a Westminster seat to a runner-up if a victorious abstentionist candidate refused to take their seat.

That idea went away, and we've yet to see the long-promised action on cutting Sinn Fein MP's allowances.

Is this because it could be a useful bargaining chip in some future negotiation with the DUP?

Smaller assembly

Or simply proof that it's easier to make promises in opposition than to deliver them in government?

The Northern Ireland Office draft bill long-fingers various other ideas Owen Paterson floated - an extended Stormont term, a smaller assembly or legislation to provide for an opposition.

If successive secretaries of state wait until there's an all-party consensus at Stormont on the need for an opposition, then they will wait a long time.

At this point it's hard not to conclude that John McCallister was right when, during the Ulster Unionist leadership race, he argued that the only way an opposition is going to happen is if parties take unilateral action themselves.

The bill also covers the anonymity currently granted to party political donors here, an issue which has attracted the interest of campaigning groups such as Friends of the Earth.

The veil of anonymity had been due to be drawn aside at the end of this month, potentially making donations given as far back as 2007 open to public scrutiny.

That's now been extended to September 2014, but the latest draft bill enables the Northern Ireland Secretary to gradually liberalise the donations system enabling some details to be published.

Is this a positive move towards greater transparency, as the local Conservatives claim?

Or a wasted opportunity to move to full disclosure of party funding, as the Alliance Party argues? If future secretaries of state move as slowly on this as their predecessors we may know the answer some time around 2021.

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