Belfast Telegraph

All MLAs' pay drops by 15% from midnight ... but is it really fair on the 41 Members who didn't walk out?

While the Assembly was sitting, it actually passed as much legislation as the Scottish Parliament, writes Professor Jon Tonge

This week marks a significant milestone in the slow death of Northern Ireland's devolved Assembly. From tomorrow MLA salaries will fall by 15%, with a further 12.5% cut to follow next year.

It's not Sunningdale for low earners, though, to rephrase Seamus Mallon. A vale of tears is not expected.

From January MLAs will be paid £35,888 per year, compared to the current £49,500.

The average annual salary in Northern Ireland is £27,102. And that's for full-time work.

Since its establishment in December 1999 the devolved Executive and Assembly has been missing in (non)-action for more than 37% of the time. That's almost 2,500 days.

No one has lost a day's pay. In the afterlife, put me down for this gig.

But sympathy should be offered to many MLAs. Nearly 40% don't belong to the DUP or Sinn Fein, so are largely blameless for the current hiatus.

And among the 55 MLAs belonging to the 'Big Two', there are plenty who want the Assembly back.

It's their livelihood, they enjoyed working there, want to properly represent their constituents and are willing to do a deal.

But a deal appears unsellable internally within their own parties.

Despite the cynicism towards Assembly failures there remains extensive support for its restoration.

Our University of Liverpool study last year showed majorities of more than two-thirds of voters - across the community divide - in favour of restoring the Executive and Assembly and in agreement with the power-sharing principle that legislation should require cross-community consent from most unionist and nationalist MLAs.

There is even a tentative case - understandably little heard amid the noise of the shameful RHI fiasco - that the 2007-16 Assembly performed more creditably than is sometimes realised.

The 2007-11 version passed 67 Bills and the 2011-16 model 70 Bills. Those 137 Bills represent a rate of legislation comparable to the Assembly's Scottish counterpart, which passed 153 Bills during the same period.

If the Assembly was restored the mutual vetoes which blocked some welfare and social legislation will be very difficult to exercise.

In the last full Assembly term the DUP was responsible for three-quarters of the 115 petitions of concern, which triggered the need for cross-community consent for a measure.

In 95% of those cases the DUP was operating alone, without UUP support for the petition. With only 28 MLAs, the DUP's blocking capacity is now removed.

So, those banging on about the need to do away with the petition of concern are missing the point. There may be a case for getting rid of it, but it is no longer the problem.

Even on, for example, same-sex marriage - opposed by the vast majority of unionist MLAs - the DUP would be unable to block and the UUP won't help it.

The bigger point is that institutional tinkering will not in any event change the party attitudes which are preventing restoration.

Secretary of State Karen Bradley claimed in her interview with this newspaper (October 26) that her recent Westminster Bill took "an important step towards our goal of restoring the devolved power-sharing Executive and Assembly... the main purpose of the Bill is to provide for a fixed period in which an Executive can be formed at any time".

As if there was a fixed period during the last two years in which an Executive was somehow prohibited by law from being formed.

Giving civil servants more powers - or clarifying their existing ones, as the Government prefers to put it - indicated the lack of faith that the parties will be back to exercise theirs.

And the curious supposed deadline - of March 26 plus five months - made little more sense than having March 17 or July 12 as cut-off dates.

Before the end of the year we'll have reached 700 days without an Assembly.

Chuck Wood's old Northern Soul classic song told us that: "We had a little quarrel, yes we did, but seven days is too long without you."

The Secretary of State's cover version offers the same boundless optimism and pleading.

Unless party attitudes change dramatically we might soon be looking at another Bill creating another "fixed period" for Executive formation.

How about a cut-off date of October 5, 2020? That will mark 1,000 days without an Executive.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool. He is co-author (with Maire Braniff, Thomas Hennessey, James W McAuley and Sophie Whiting) of The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest To Power (Oxford University Press, 2014) and The Ulster Unionist Party: Country Before Party?, which will be published by Oxford University Press in December

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