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Alasdair McDonnell's call for MLA pay increase is counter to SDLP’s own policy

By Liam Clarke

SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell has been likened to “a bull in a china shop” by a senior party figure over his call for substantial wage and pension increases for MLAs.

It’s also emerged his stance breaches established party policy, which is for a pay freeze.

It has caused widespread dismay among party members and will be raised in an internal meeting next week.

Dr McDonnell said the increase was necessary to ensure “decent pay and conditions for all workers, including elected representatives”. However a policy document commits the party to fighting for “a public sector pay freeze for public servants who earn above £31,500 (including MLAs).”

The commitment is contained in a paper entitled Partnership and Economic Recovery, which was passed by the party executive and issued in December 2010.

“This is causing widespread concern across the party,” said one senior MLA. He added that people were being reminded of the prediction contained in WikiLeaks that Dr McDonnell would behave like “a bull in a china shop” if he became leader.

Politicians were critical, but reluctant to be named.

Sean Farren, a party elder statesman who retired in 2007, said he agreed with Dr McDonnell that politicians deserved to be properly paid. However, he added: “In our present circumstance it is hard to argue that MLAs are in receipt of anything that approaches a starvation wage.

“I don’t see any immediate or pressing reason for raises in MLAs’ pay and pensions when public sector workers are taking cuts in their remuneration.”

Last night Dr McDonnell defended his stance against criticism from councillor Brian Heading, the mayor of Lisburn, who said that many people in his

constituency were living in far deeper deprivation than MLAs.

“We in the SDLP stand for decent pay and conditions for all workers, including elected representatives, and decent social protection for all,” he said. He added: “Even if we pay MLAs starvation wages, there is no guarantee the areas of deprivation councillor Heading is properly focused on will be tackled any better.”

The question of pay, expenses and pensions is being considered by an independent financial panel which met yesterday and will meet again later in the week.

Panel member Alan McQuillan said figures had not been discussed. “Factors we must bear in mind include the fact that MLAs haven’t had a pay rise for 10 years and that the pay is supposed to be set at a level that attracts people of suitable ability,” he added.

It is predicted that MLAs could receive an extra £7,000, bringing their wages up to £50,000 a year.

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