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Secretary of State's announcement of civil servant decisions is of greater significance

By Jon Tonge

Tough times for MLAs. They'll soon be receiving a mere 25% more than the average UK salary for not turning up for work.

Karen Bradley's belated adoption of the Reaney proposals for salary reduction offered an overdue response to farce.

It was also a minimal response - and one which simply ignored legislation which requires her to call an Assembly election. Such a contest would of course be pointless and possibly counter-productive - but it is the correct legal position, one usurped at ministerial whim. Of much greater significance than the cash crowd-pleaser was the Secretary of State's announcement of legislation to allow civil servants to take the decisions MLAs ought to be making.

Indirect rule.

If I was a civil servant I'd be asking for a cut of the £13,000 being taken from one of those poor MLAs. Civil servants will soon be effectively moonlighting as Executive ministers. And we all thought double-jobbing had ended.

Bradley's actions are an obvious attempt to keep Stormont open as a bit more than a tourist attraction.

Allowing civil servants to make decisions avoids the dreaded direct rule label. It keeps alive the possibility of a return to devolved government until there really does have to be an election, in 2022.

And even then, we could have a fantasy election to an Assembly that doesn't exist: 2003 all over again. Rule by civil service decree is profoundly undemocratic. Those elected by no-one will be making important decisions that affect everyone.

Governance transfers to the unelected and unaccountable. The main means of citizen redress will be via the courts. 'First Minister Sterling' - a job he does not seek and in which he ought not to be placed - will take decisions without democratic mandate.

Whether the quality of civil service rule will improve matters is unclear. A fair chunk of the RHI evidence suggests a body struggling with the complexities of the legislation - even if it ought to have been mainly a cut-and-paste from the Westminster model - and failing to warn hapless ministers as trouble developed.

In its defence, the civil service appeared short-staffed and overworked - problems now multiplied several-fold by the Secretary of State's promise of more roles.

The costs of a full Assembly dissolution would be personal as well as political. When the Assembly was created in 1998-99, it was not the main source of livelihood for many MLAs. Few had expected its formation and many had other jobs.

After years of relative stability from 2007-16, it has become the main source of income for most members (and their staff).

So sympathy is due to those MLAs who are blameless in the institutional collapse and diligent in their constituency duties. As my Liverpool colleague Sean Haughey has shown in the Journal of Legislative Studies, MLAs spend a big proportion of their work (more than 25 hours per week) on constituency activity.

There's also much to be said for working from home. But when the university term starts, I wouldn't get 35p let alone £35K for long if I played truant. And members of a legislative assembly need to be just that.

Reducing salaries can concentrate minds but not change them. It may make MLAs thrifty with the weekly shopping but paying people £13,000 less will not alter their views on an Irish Language Act, same-sex marriage, abortion, Brexit, blame for RHI, whatever.

Ultimately political will not fiscal rectitude will determine the Assembly's future. There remains the strong suspicions that the DUP is, for now, comfortable with political arrangements - no worries for the DUP nine, erstwhile 10, given their prospering at Westminster - whilst Northern Ireland's institutions are not Sinn Fein's ultimate concern anyway.

Logically, there is no reason why the Assembly cannot be reconstituted to deal with schools, hospitals and other matters, even if its members are still arguing over the dead-end of identity politics and wrestling over social issues.

An incremental way forward would be for the Assembly to revive but confine legislation initially to agreed ring-fenced issues - baby steps back to the full model. But don't expect anything prior to the RHI verdict anyway.

Public support for the Assembly - but not the current fake one - remains high, despite the cynicism over MLA pay. Credible immediate alternatives remain in short supply.

Direct rule? Non-runner for nationalists.

Transfer of powers to local councils? 11 mini-Stormonts.

Joint authority or unity? Unionist uproar.

At its brief best, the Assembly was passing nearly as much legislation as its counterparts in Scotland and Wales. Yesterday's nod towards a 'pay-per-legislation' model will not, alone, restore its fortunes, but at least a potential Guinness World Record - for Secretary of State indecision - has been avoided - for now.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool

Belfast Telegraph

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