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Fionola Meredith

MLA pay hike row is a failure of political principle, not just a complete PR disaster

Fionola Meredith


Politicians should have refused the rise outright, if they wanted our respect, writes Fionola Meredith

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Financial debate: MLAs quickly opposed their pay rise after hearing the public’s reaction

Financial debate: MLAs quickly opposed their pay rise after hearing the public’s reaction

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Financial debate: MLAs quickly opposed their pay rise after hearing the public’s reaction

You've really got to pity our poor MLAs. Life is so tough for them. There they are, just ten days back in Stormont, when they get a £1,000 pay rise foisted upon them.

Nothing they could do, they protested helplessly, as they waited for the riches to rain down: they didn't ask for it, an independent body decided upon it, and they were forced - simply forced - to take the cash.

Imagine if you didn't go to work for three years, yet still kept being paid, and then when you finally shuffled back into the office, you were rewarded by a tasty one grand salary sweetener.

In what insane world could that happen? Well, we all know the answer to that, don't we. It's Northern Ireland. The land where the bizarre, improbable and downright outrageous is what passes for ordinary political life.

It's worth looking closely at the way this story unfolded, because it tells you a great deal about the way our representatives treat the people who put them there: in other words, us.

The initial response from most of the parties was distinctly hushed. Since their return, we've heard plenty from the new ministers about all the vital work they plan to do, but on the topic of the salary hike, they seemed a little shy. Not keen to chat.

When this newspaper first asked the five main parties for a response to the issue, Sinn Fein, the DUP, the SDLP and Alliance all replied through anonymous spokespeople. "No comment": that was the succinct UUP answer.

To his great credit, Gerry Carroll, of People Before Profit, immediately stood up and loudly condemned the hike, describing it as a "slap in the face" for striking public sector workers. Jim Allister, too, said that the NI public had every right to be furious, and that it would fuel public disillusionment with Stormont.

But since the first, noticeably muted reaction of 'nothing we can do', the main parties have been scrambling over themselves to take the awful look off it.

That nice little 'welcome back' pay rise has become like a great squawking, incontinent albatross around their necks.

The DUP said they were "totally opposed" to the move and were examining options to see if the money could be given back. If they really couldn't return to sender, their MLAs would use it to "support local causes".

"Unjustifiable," declared Sinn Fein: the party wouldn't accept it, and was "actively exploring options to stop it". Failing that, the funds would go to charity. The SDLP were also planning to pass the cash on to good causes of their choice. Some canny MLAs even found the chance to do a spot of opportunistic virtue-signalling: UUP party leader Steve Aiken said he would donate to Christian Aid, a cause "very close to my heart", and urged others to do likewise.

Finally, the five main parties got together and wrote to the Assembly Commission asking for the pay proposal to be deferred until a new independent financial review panel (IFRP) was in place.

Meanwhile, Pat McCartan, the chair of the previous IFRP, has been trying to defend the move, claiming that it's "entirely justified through the whole method that we use with job evaluation, pay comparison, and looking at all other legislatures on these islands".

It's true that our MLAs get paid less than those in Scotland and Wales, but the big difference is that Scots and Welsh representatives have actually been working in their respective assemblies, while our lot have been sitting for the last three years on their very comfortably accommodated rears, self-indulgently squabbling about side issues, as the place falls apart around them.

Neither do I buy the much-touted line that salaries need to be maintained at a reasonably advanced level to attract high calibre people into politics. You'd have to be nuts to stand for Stormont, which must be in the running for the most petty, quarrelsome and dysfunctional little parliament on the planet. As for those who are already there, many are just tribal place-holders, whose mediocre employment skills wouldn't get them far in other jobs.

While the proposed pay hike was certainly a disastrous failure of PR, the real failure here is one of principle. I feel sure that if there hadn't been such a huge public outcry, that £1,000 would have quite happily have found its way into MLAs' bank accounts.

Once it became clear that the people wouldn't tolerate it, the politicians rushed to distance themselves from the cash. I would have a lot more respect for them if they'd done the honourable thing and outright refused it from the very start.

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