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Still no deal ... so why pay MLAs £1m a month for doing nothing?

Member of panel which set politicians' wages says 'it's now time to turn off the tap,' calls for 'end to farce' as bill sits at £5m

By Suzanne Breen

Anger is growing that over £5 million has been wasted on Assembly members' wages and expenses despite the failure to reach a deal at Stormont.

The bill is set to increase at a rate of £1m a month, even though the Assembly and the Executive aren't functioning and civil servants are running Northern Ireland.

A member of the panel that set MLAs' pay called on the Government last night to "end this farce".

Alan McQuillan said: "It's time to turn off the tap."

He was speaking after talks to restore power-sharing ended yesterday without a deal, and the DUP and Sinn Fein blaming each other. The negotiations will be shelved until the autumn.

Mr McQuillan, a former PSNI Assistant Chief Constable who sat on the Independent Financial Review Panel, said it was wrong to keep paying MLAs when the political institutions were mothballed indefinitely.

"They're hardly value for money. What are they contributing?" he asked.

"Civil servants in the Stormont departments are making all the decisions. Most people wanted the Assembly back but, now that's not happening, they see no reason to keep paying politicians for doing nothing."

The DUP and Sinn Fein leaders last night both defended the continuing payment of salaries while Stormont was in cold storage.

Arlene Foster said that her colleagues would be working over the summer to find a resolution to the issues preventing a deal.

When asked if MLAs pay should be halted, she said: "That would be a relevant question if we weren't doing any work.

"I have indicated very clearly that we intend to continue the negotiations, the coming together, the talks over the summer months."

And Michelle O'Neill said: "Our people are here, our MLAs are here. They are working and they will continue to work. We are very focused on wanting to make these institutions work and we are also very focused on delivering first class constituency services for all of our citizens."

Mr McQuillan claimed that neither party had answered the question satisfactorily. "They say they will be working but what work exactly will they be doing?" he asked.

He explained that MLAs salaries and expenses had cost £5 million since March. "Every month, we're spending £1 million on them.

"The talks won't begin again until the autumn.

"Judging by the last negotiations - which went on five months - they'll drag into 2018. The bill at that stage will be £10 million."

Mr McQuillan urged the Secretary of State James Brokenshire to take action but admitted he was unlikely to do so.

Mr Brokenshire yesterday said that power-sharing wouldn't be restored in "the immediate term".

He added: "I will reflect carefully in the coming days on any further steps which may be required to support the continued effective provision of public services in Northern Ireland."

However, Mr McQuillan claimed that many people believed that the Government was shirking its responsibilities by allowing for "political drift" in Northern Ireland.

He said: "Westminster will likely pass a budget for us but that isn't enough.

"Decisions must be taken regarding the NHS, where we have rapidly accelerating waiting lists. The Bengoa Report (on the future of the NHS in Northern Ireland) must be implemented."

Mr McQuillan said that "direct rule with input from the Irish government seems to be the best route to honest, competent government in Northern Ireland".

The DUP cited Sinn Fein's "excessive demands" as the reason for the deadlock. Mrs Foster expressed disappointment that a deal hadn't be reached.

"We are going to keep working at it through the summer and hopefully we can come to an agreement later on in the year," she said.

"I want to send that message very firmly to the people we represent. I think what we want to see is an agreement that everyone can buy into, whether you're a nationalist or a unionist."

Ms O'Neill blamed the Tory-DUP deal for the lack of political progress. She said her party was "disappointed but not surprised" that an agreement had been secured.

"What this constitutes is a monumental failure on behalf of Theresa May," she said. "She has set back decades of work that has been done here throughout the years and it's a consequence of the DUP supporting the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister in turn supporting the DUP."

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann warned that devolution "could drift into an abyss".

He said: "The two largest parties have been given their two biggest mandates ever - but they still haven't been able to reach agreement. Despite being given time and space, it's groundhog day yet again in Northern Ireland politics.

"This is a shame and disgrace."

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry described it as "a sad and frustrating day" and said that the "deep, deep political impasse" between the DUP and Sinn Fein had put public services in "real jeopardy".

SDLP MLA Nichola Mallon said that the DUP and Sinn Fein were "putting their own narrow self-interest ahead of the interests of the people of Northern Ireland" who now faced "weeks upon weeks of further political paralysis".

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney encouraged the parties to "maintain dialogue" over the coming weeks.

"The governments can support and encourage but, in the final analysis, it is only the parties themselves that can make an agreement with each other," he added.

Belfast Telegraph


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