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Alasdair McDonnell forced into climbdown after demanding pay rise for MLAs

By Liam Clarke

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell twisted and turned last night in a desperate attempt to get himself off the hook after advocating increases in MLAs' pay over the past three days.

Dr McDonnell had argued that MLAs should be entitled to a small rise in their £43,000 salary and a pension increase to keep them from "poverty".

Last night he struggled to explain himself, saying on TV that his comments had been "honest and straight", though "injudicious".

When he became leader in November, Dr McDonnell said he should be judged on his performance during his first 100 days in office. Now, after just over two months in the job, he is struggling to prevent open warfare in his party. He said his "choice of words over the last two days, without explaining the wider context, has caused offence to the public and party members, and for that I am sorry".

He also acknowledged that, as stated in yesterday's Belfast Telegraph, "SDLP party policy is that there should be no pay rises for MLAs".

However, he stopped short of saying he had personally changed his mind on the issue.

Instead, he explained his comments by saying: "I pointed out that absolutely no-one is immune from financial hardship when they lose their jobs."

These words seem to have satisfied his critics, at least for the time being.

Brian Heading, the mayor of Lisburn, was the first party member to openly criticise him.

"I welcome Alasdair's latest statement. Now we need to put this behind us and move on. I look forward to working with him in the future," councillor Heading said last night.

Only yesterday morning Dr McDonnell was accusing the media of a "witch-hunt" against him for focusing on what he said about pay.

"Even if we pay MLAs starvation wages there is no guarantee that the areas of deprivation councillir Heading is properly focused on will be tackled any better.

"The whole history of social democracy tells us that proper representation properly paid for is the best guarantee of proper legislation," he argued.

The key factors in forcing a climb- down and public apology seem to have been the discovery that he was going against policy, followed by the intervention of Dolores Kelly, his deputy, and Sean Farren, a party veteran.

Both expressed shock and dismay at his language.

Ms Kelly said that she had entered politics to advocate social change, not to secure good pay and pension for herself.

On Monday Mr McDonnell must face his party's MLAs at a brain-storming session at Stormont.

Many are expected to tell him his comments have opened them to criticism that they are in politics for the money.

It has also provided an opportunity for Sinn Fein to make political capital.

Yesterday the republican party issued a paper advocating no wage increases.

Alex Maskey, a party spokesman, said: "MLAs already receive a good wage while Alasdair himself is also on an MP's wage, is a practising GP and has other business interests.

"That his own party members have come out against his comments shows how completely out of touch he is with public opinion."

WHAT HE SAID

"I do believe, however, strongly, that Assembly Members, because of the volatile nature of the role - I mean, they can be sacked at a month's notice - that there is a need for generous pension provision because you could find yourself at 57 or 58 years of age left on the street, and I am very aware of that."

"Wouldn't it be nice if the system was that maybe the wages weren't as good as they could be, but at least if there was six months or a year, there's a reasonably generous sliding exit and that there was some sort of a pension provision that made sure they weren't in poverty?"

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