Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Taking a few thousand pounds off MLAs won't hasten return of Stormont ... and given that's Karen Bradley's job, is she worth £3,000 a week either?

Pay cut is a kick in the teeth for UUP, SDLP and Alliance members who are simply chafing to get back to work, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Karen Bradley still has a huge role to play in disentangling the knot of Northern Ireland politics
Karen Bradley still has a huge role to play in disentangling the knot of Northern Ireland politics

The news that the Secretary of State is finally going to cut the salaries of MLAs calls to mind the old joke from the Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington courtroom drama Philadelphia: "What do you call a thousand lawyers chained together at the bottom of the ocean? A good start."

A pay cut is also a good start. It's a fairly modest one, too. Karen Bradley could have cut off local representatives' pay altogether. Since there's no Stormont for them to actually turn up to work in, that wouldn't have been wholly unreasonable.

She could even have cut their £49,500 annual salaries in half. Instead, it's 15% and the cut will no doubt be broadly welcomed.

Impatience with politicians has grown commensurate with the length of time that the Assembly has been suspended. The announcement that politicians may have slightly less spare cash to spend in the run-up to Christmas may help blunt some of that resentment.

At the same time, it is something of a kick in the teeth for the SDLP, UUP and Alliance representatives, who are not to blame for the impasse and remain eager and willing to resume their duties at any time.

The pay cut will cause financial discomfort to many whose families already make sacrifices for the sake of public service. It's like a teacher punishing the whole class for the disruptive behaviour of an unruly few.

It inevitably causes bitterness among innocent pupils - and rightly so. It also leads to disillusionment with the system.

If you've done nothing wrong and are treated the same as those who have, then why bother doing the right thing at all?

That's why it's considered bad practice among most educationalists. Only those who are to blame for a problem should pay the price for it.

But then, that gets to the heart of the issue. The British Government doesn't want to say who's to blame for the continued failure to restore devolved government, so has to put on this artificial "I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed" act instead, shaking its head at the silliness of the natives over whom it presides, while refusing to take an actual lead in imposing a solution. Instead of punishing the whole class collectively for the sins of some, why not impose a penalty on the teacher, in this case Karen Bradley, for not doing her job?

According to the official Government description, the role of the Secretary of State includes "lead(ing) on political stability" and overseeing the implementation of the Stormont House and Fresh Start agreements.

Can anyone honestly say that Karen Bradley is leading on, well, anything? Even the recommendation to cut MLAs' salaries was first made in a report at the end of last year by former Assembly chief executive Trevor Reaney. It's taken until almost the anniversary of that report for Bradley to take action.

The British Government has been equally tardy about giving civil servants the power to take funding decisions, which are normally the function of Stormont ministers. Only now is she promising to "bring forward legislation" to empower civil servants and the suspicion must be that, like the pay cut, it's just meant as an incentive to the squabbling parties to finally agree a deal to bring back Stormont.

Some of the decisions which have been put on hold all this time involve so-called "legacy issues" - another area over which the Secretary of State has official responsibility. There are legal issues around whether civil servants can make executive decisions, but Karen Bradley should have been proactive about removing those obstacles, rather than always playing catch-up. Put it this way. She's hardly Little Miss Quick, is she?

Despite Northern Ireland's importance to national politics having diminished alongside the reduction in violence, her job, nonetheless, remains a full Cabinet position, with a corresponding salary of £141,505 - considerably more than the £35,888 a year which MLAs will be receiving once the two cuts announced yesterday have been implemented in full.

Of course, the DUP and Sinn Fein, who are to blame for the two-year hiatus in devolved government, are not an unruly minority, but a majority of MLAs. And by some margin at that.

If there was another election, they'd also form a solid majority once again, so perhaps we all ought to look a bit closer to home before apportioning blame.

Why should the leadership of the two main parties change their negotiating stances when they keep being rewarded for their inflexibility at the ballot box?

There's a sense of resignation about this situation, as if it couldn't be any other way, but things really were different until comparatively recently.

The Ulster Unionists and SDLP won over half the votes at the 1997 General Election, as they'd done consistently since the 1970s, through all the violence, all the rancour.

By the following year's Assembly election, the DUP and Sinn Fein were already taking huge bites out of that vote. A few years later, the positions had entirely reversed.

Having managed to hold the fort for moderate politics throughout the Troubles, peace suddenly pushed people to the extremes politically. So, what had changed in the meantime?

Obviously, the Belfast Agreement is what changed. It may be heresy to criticise the 1998 deal, because it's credited with having brought peace to Northern Ireland after decades of cruelty, but it's equally foolish to deny that the mechanisms put in place by that historic accord did offer incentives for polarisation.

Consider it as the law of unintended consequences. By guaranteeing power to the largest unionist and nationalist parties, the Belfast Agreement weakened the argument for moderate centrism. That this happened under the prime ministerial watch of arch-centrist Tony Blair is just one of life's little ironies.

Taking a few thousand pounds from the pockets of MLAs won't do anything to solve that underlying dilemma. It will temporarily dilute public anger, but the fact that politicians continued to be paid large salaries while not being able to agree on the time of day, never mind anything more substantial, was always a symptom rather than the cause of that collective frustration.

And while we're all to blame to some extent for the stalemate for having freely elected the people who are causing it, it's also an uncomfortable truth that doing so was a rational response in a system which rewards divisiveness.

The British Government, as represented by Karen Bradley, still has a huge role to play in disentangling that knot. While it can't, or won't, step up to that plate, can the Secretary of State honestly claim that she's worth her three grand a week, either?

Belfast Telegraph

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