TUV leader Jim Allister has said a £1,000 pay rise for MLAs just 10 days after they returned to work will fuel public disillusionment with Stormont.
The five main parties all insisted yesterday that the salary increase was not their decision, but People Before Profit's Gerry Carroll accused them of "washing their hands" of the situation and challenged them to vehemently oppose the hike.
He said it was "a slap in the face" for nurses who had to strike for pay parity.
MLAs' pay rose from £49,500 to £50,500 and the Belfast Telegraph has been told they are set for another £500 rise in April.
The salary hike came into effect when power-sharing was restored. It had been put on hold when devolution was suspended. Responding to massive public anger, former Secretary of State Karen Bradley cut MLAs' pay in September 2018.
Mr Allister said: "I completely understand why there is such public anger. The timing of this pay rise is inappropriate.
"MLAs haven't been functioning in all regards for three years. Yet 10 days after they return to work, they secure a salary increase. While it is not of their making, it is immensely embarrassing.
"The standing of MLAs with the public is very low. Looking at the quality of some MLAs, people may wonder who in their right mind would pay them a salary of over £50,000 a year?"
The TUV leader said that MLAs who disagreed with the pay increase could not refuse it.
"It is my understanding you cannot refuse your salary or say 'only pay me so much' and ask for the rest to be given to charity, for example," he said. "But you could write a cheque to the Treasury and that money would go back into the national coffers."
Mr Allister said civil servants' pay had fallen behind in recent years and he would be asking Sinn Fein Finance Minister Conor Murphy to address that.
People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll said: "The fact that MLAs are back in post just over a week and are having their wages topped up will no doubt come as a slap in the face to nurses who stood on freezing pickets for months for pay parity, and the civil service staff who are still taking industrial action to get what they deserve.
"Some MLAs are washing their hands of the decision by saying pay is set by an independent body. I don't think that's good enough. They need to come out and say this pay rise is wrong, unfair, and shouldn't be imposed. People on the streets and on social media are absolutely furious."
Mr Carroll added: "People Before Profit have always advocated for MLAs to be paid an average worker's wage - it's what I take home. How can MLAs receive a salary that is around double the average wage and claim to competently represent their constituents' interests when their financial realities are so different?"
A DUP spokesperson said: "It is right that MLAs do not take decisions on their pay and office cost allowances. We support the independence of this process."
A Sinn Fein spokesperson said: "MLAs' pay is set by an independent body, not by MLAs. MLAs had no input into this decision, nor did they seek it."
An Alliance spokesperson said: "MLA pay is set by an independent body to ensure MLAs don't control their and their staff's pay and conditions. The raise is a result of the Independent Financial Review Panel determination and not a decision for MLAs. Any reasoning for the rise needs to be explained by the panel.
"We are not happy with the timing or content of this increase, but it is not within our gift to refuse it unless sole control of salaries and office cost allowances is returned to MLAs, and that would be a retrograde step in terms of public confidence." An SDLP spokesperson said: "MLA pay and office costs should not be determined by Assembly Members and it's right that an independent body is responsible for reviewing these matters.
"This pay increase, however, is poorly judged and even more poorly timed. The SDLP will make representations to the Independent Pay Review Body urging them to consider public confidence in the political process when making awards."
Alan McQuillan, who sat on the Independent Financial Review Panel, which set the rules on MLA pay, defended the increase and said it was below inflation.
"The inflation rate over the past three years was 6%. MLAs have secured a £1,000 pay hike and they will receive another £500 in April. But that is still just 3%.
"I understand public anger given that MLAs are just back to work. But I would have taken their pay off them two years ago when they weren't doing their job. I called for that to happen many times, but the Secretary of State chose not to."
Mr McQuillan said he didn't believe that a £50,500 salary was too high for MLAs.
An Assembly spokeswoman said: "Following the formation of an Executive on 11 January 2020, the full provisions of the Assembly Members (Salaries and Expenses) Determination (Northern Ireland) 2016 are in effect, including the provisions for an annual up-rating.
"The current annual salary payable as a member is £50,500."