Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland MLAs to get pay rise despite no work and call to halt salaries

Brokenshire warns of real threat to MLAs' pay if stalemate isn't broken

By Suzanne Breen

THE Government will consider stopping MLAs' pay to put pressure on the parties to reach a deal, the Secretary of State has warned.

James Brokenshire's declaration came as it was revealed Stormont politicians were set to get a salary rise - on April Fool's Day.

Their pay will increase by £500 this Saturday to £49,500 despite the Assembly being mothballed because of the political crisis.

The wages hike takes effect automatically under rules laid down by the independent body that set MLAs' salaries and expenses.

Addressing the House of Commons yesterday, Mr Brokenshire said he would keep "all options under consideration" in his efforts to see a new Executive formed, and he agreed that withholding politicians' pay "might crystallise minds."

That view is overwhelmingly shared across Northern Ireland, with a Belfast Telegraph poll yesterday showing 93% public support for stopping MLAs' pay while Stormont is in deadlock.

At Westminster, former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson asked Mr Brokenshire if "one measure that would put pressure on the parties to come back to the talks and might crystallise minds" would be warning them that, if a deal wasn't reached, MLAs' "salaries and expenses will not be paid from the public purse."

Mr Brokenshire replied: "Certainly, we will be keeping all options under consideration, but the focus has to be on looking to the positive, looking to that outcome that sees parties coming together and getting the devolved government back on its feet at the earliest opportunity."

The Secretary of State told MPs that the intensity of negotiations must increase urgently.

He said that, if the talks succeeded, he would move legislation to allow an Executive to be formed without the need for another election.

But Mr Brokenshire warned that while the Government did not want a return to direct rule, it would be forced to consider it if the negotiations failed.

"In the absence of devolved government, it is ultimately for the UK Government to provide for political stability and good governance", he said. "We do not want to see a return to direct rule. As our manifesto at the last election stated, local policies and local services should be determined by locally elected politicians through locally accountable institutions.

"But should the talks fail in their objectives, the Government will have to consider all options."

Sinn Fein reacted angrily to Mr Brokenshire's warning, with the party's Stormont leader, Michelle O'Neill (right), declaring a return to direct rule would be "an act of bad faith", breaching previous agreements.

Writing in today's Belfast Telegraph, Ms O'Neill said: "Sinn Fein has made it clear that all the outstanding issues can be resolved.

"We have no objection to the British Secretary of State leaving some time for that to be done, but we are totally opposed - and we would look to the Irish Government to oppose - any new legislation to bring back direct rule."

Ms O'Neill claimed the only option Mr Brokenshire was entitled to take was to call another Assembly election. "There is no legal basis for any other course of action", she said.

"While parties may or may not want an election, the fact is if the British Secretary of State brings in new legislation to restore direct rule, that will be an act of bad faith and a clear breach of an agreement between the Irish and British Governments in 2006."

Ms O'Neill insisted that Sinn Fein was committed to re-engaging in dialogue with the other parties. "We now need the necessary political leadership from the DUP and British Government to get the job done and allow our society to move towards a more prosperous and progressive future", she said.

However, DUP MP Nigel Dodds (left) claimed that Sinn Fein had decided the time for devolution was over and that the party's main ambitions "lie southwards" amidst fresh talk of a united Ireland.

Mr Dodds said: "Whilst we want devolution to work in partnership with Sinn Fein and others, we need a partner who is willing to work realistically within the parameters of a Northern Ireland with devolved government, within the UK, within the institutions as agreed, and with Brexit a reality.

"Some of us fear that Sinn Fein has now decided that the time for devolution is over, and they're moving on to a different phase where their main ambitions lie southwards."

Ulster Unionist MLA Andy Allen said that Sinn Fein had walked away from devolution "with total disregard for frontline public services and the people who rely on them - often the most vulnerable in society who Sinn Fein claim to be concerned about".

Mr Allen claimed it was disgraceful that after an "unnecessary" Assembly election that cost taxpayers £5m, we now had a political vacuum and a lack of leadership at Stormont.

Meanwhile, the former Labour Secretary of State, Lord Hain, urged Theresa May to play a direct role in trying to break the political deadlock.

Lord Hain, who was in office in Northern Ireland from 2005 to 2007, said he was "puzzled" as to why she had not been more directly involved in the process. "At times in the past, a Prime Minister's direct involvement - calling a summit in Hillsborough Castle or wherever it may be, together with the Taoiseach - has been crucial in breaking the gridlock", he added.

"The Prime Minister may be busy on other things, like Brexit, but there's nothing more important, I would suggest, on her agenda than keeping the peace process in Northern Ireland moving forward.

"If it stalls, and if it goes in any sense into reverse, that could be very dangerous indeed."

Lord Hain added a return to direct rule would be "a massive, possibly irreversible setback."

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