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20 January 2000 Edition

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Westminster facilities still on ice

The thorny issue of the use of Westminster facilities by elected Sinn Féin Members of Parliament Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness has again been raised in recent days. There have been suggestions that both the Prime Minister Tony Blair and Secretary of State Peter Mandelson are strongly in favour of a lifting of the ban imposed by the Speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd, who denied the use of all Westminster facilities to the two MPs soon after the 1997 election.

The whole question is something of a grey area, since parliamentary rules state that Members should be explicitly barred only from the debating chamber of the House of Commons if they refuse, as have Adams and McGuinness, to take the oath of allegiance to the Queen. The matter of whether such MPs can avail themselves of other facilities, such as office space, is purely a matter of discretion. Consequently, when Martin McGuinness was in London in October last year and decided to pay a visit to the House of Commons restaurant before his appointment with the Prime Minister, parliamentary security personnel were thrown into some confusion about whether or not to try and prevent him. In the event, they decided against trying to take any action.

Charles Moore, editor of the Daily Telegraph, was present at the same time and furiously demanded an explanation from the Sergeant-at-Arms of the House. He responded that McGuinness was allowed to use `social areas' of Westminster, suggesting that the rules are made up on an ad hoc basis.

However, the position taken by Boothroyd has caused concern amongst many MPs, including some, like Harry Barnes, who in other circumstances are virulently anti-republican. Even he concedes that the refusal to allow Adams and McGuinness the full facilities of the House means that their constituents are, by extension, refused proper representation.

Martin McGovern, Sinn Féin representative in London, believes that a motion overturning the ban will be brought before the House by the Labour government within the next two or three weeks, but it is not clear as yet whether any attempt will be made to link this issue, like almost every other, to the matter of decommissioning.

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