Belfast Telegraph

NI Assembly Election: MLAs will get salaries even without deal on Executive

By Noel McAdam

MLAs will be paid as normal, even if there is no agreement to restore the Executive.

As counting to decide who fills the 90 seats of the new, smaller Assembly got under way this morning, it was confirmed that, once elected, MLAs are entitled to receive their salaries “and other financial assistance”.

Secretary of State James Brokenshire is required to call another election if the parties fail to restore the Executive within a fortnight of the first sitting of the Assembly.

But there is speculation the Government will instead rush emergency legislation through Westminster effectively mothballing the Assembly — and in that scenario MLAs would continue to be paid.

Stormont’s most senior former spin doctor, however, hinted that the Government could use the threat of stopping MLAs’ pay to boost the prospects of agreement between the parties.

Former Executive Press secretary David Gordon, who lost his job just over six months after being appointed in controversial circumstances by Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness, said there would be no protests in the streets if salaries were stopped.

Writing exclusively in this newspaper today, the former BBC NI Stephen Nolan Show editor asks: “Would the threat of an imminent pay halt encourage a talks breakthrough?

“If the pay continues this time, my old colleagues in the Nolan Show could fill the programme for weeks on this one subject.”

But an Assembly spokesperson said: “Once those elected to the Assembly sign the undertaking and the members’ roll, they are entitled to receive their salaries and all other financial assistance so that they may carry out their functions as a member.

“These functions include all of their parliamentary and constituency duties.”

The speculation over salaries comes on top of the revelation that the MLAs who lose their seats today will receive substantial payouts from the public purse.

Among them are several representatives who had already announced they would not be seeking re-election, including the DUP’s Alistair Ross, Sinn Fein’s Caitriona Ruane and Catherine Seeley and Ulster Unionist Ross Hussey.

The so-called ‘resettlement payments’ shared among 32 departing MLAs following last May’s Assembly election totalled £696,331, with further winding-up allowances of £471,151.

Former First Minister Peter Robinson received £58,318 after quitting his East Belfast seat, but the highest payment of £79,981 went to veteran ex-SDLP North Belfast MLA Alban Maginness.

Self-appointed public spending watchdog the Taxpayers’ Alliance said: “Ratepayers will find it strange that so much of their cash can be paid out in so-called resettlement payments to those who lose their seats at the ballot box.

“When hard-pressed families are struggling to make ends meet, it is incumbent on all areas of the public sector to cut out wasteful spending, and a system that rewards failure needs to be challenged and reviewed.”

The first results from yesterday’s election are expected by mid-afternoon, although the full picture of the make-up of the new Assembly will not emerge until tomorrow.

Legislation requires the newly elected representatives to meet for the first time within eight working days, so it is expected that the Assembly will not hold its inaugural meeting until Monday or Tuesday of the week after next, March 13 or 14.

From that point, the parties then have just 14 calendar days to form an Executive, after which the Government can call another election. 

Mr Brokenshire has repeatedly emphasised that he is focused on securing the restoration of a “strong and stable” devolved government.

A UK Government spokesperson said last night: “When the election is over, the parties have a duty to come together and find a way forward to govern together in the interests of Northern Ireland as a whole.”

Key election issues

  • The prosecution of soldiers for conflict killings: The DUP are demanding measures to ensure British troops who served in Northern Ireland cannot face probes into their actions if they have already been investigated. Nationalists have said there should be no hiding place for any suspect, whether military, police or terrorist.
  • The Renewable Heat Incentive: The botched green energy scheme caused the collapse of power-sharing after former Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned in protest and took DUP First Minister Arlene Foster with him.
  • Cross-community voting: UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said that, after his own party, he’d vote for the SDLP ahead of other unionist candidates. The comments prompted a backlash from some colleagues who depend on transfers from other unionists, and ridicule from the DUP. SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has not explicitly said he would recommend a second preference for the UUP but urged supporters to back candidates who wanted change and praised Mr Nesbitt’s stance.
  • An Irish Language Act: The campaign for a law giving official protection is a touchstone equality issue for Sinn Fein. Mrs Foster has said more people speak Polish and the DUP withheld support. In 2014, former DUP culture minister Gregory Campbell was barred from addressing the Stormont Assembly for a day for phonetically parodying the language and failing to apologise, beginning a speech with: “Curry my yoghurt can coca coalyer”. “Go raibh maith agat, Ceann Comhairle” translates as “thank you, speaker”.

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