Gerry Adams has written to the Speaker of the House of Commons to resign his West Belfast seat. But obscure parliamentary rules mean that he is still considered to be a Member of Parliament.
I wrote last year of Adams’ decision to stand for Sinn Fein in the County Louth seat in the forthcoming Irish election. He stepped down from the Northern Ireland Assembly and then wrote a letter of resignation to Speaker John Bercow.
But Commons’ officials have cited procedures dating back four hundred years, which state that MPs are forbidden from formally resigning their seats.
A resolution of the House of Commons from March 1624 states that an MP cannot directly resign their seat except by death, disqualification or expulsion.
The usual procedure for an MP who wishes to leave their seat is to apply for a position of profit under the crown, which automatically disqualifies them from being a member of the House of Commons.
Under those rules, Mr Adams is now supposed to apply to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to become Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead.
Now does anyone really expect Gerry Adams to apply for a job with the British crown?
Sinn Fein’s position is simple: Adams has resigned and will not be applying for any other office.
But parliamentary officials quote Erskine May, the authority on parliamentary procedure, and insist that Adams is still an MP. This means that they will not issue a writ for a by election in West Belfast.
Technically there is nothing in either UK or Irish law that would ban Adams from sitting simultaneously in both parliaments. And that’s exactly what might well happen by default, unless some alternative can be found.
It has been suggested that Adams should attempt to enter the House of Commons and take his place in the chamber. The argument goes like this: as Adams has not taken the oath of allegiance to the crown, which all MPs are expected to take, he would then be automatically disqualified from being an MP and a by election would be called.
But why would Gerry Adams agree to take part in such a farcical process?
Once again the unwritten constitution has shown itself to be unable to cope with a modern situation. Surely an MP should be able to resign from office in exactly the same way as anyone else – with a simple letter of resignation.
And the procedures of 1624 should be left in the history books where they belong.