In defence of MLA salaries. How to lose your readers in your opening five words. Whisper it though and there might - just might - be a case for your local Assembly members to earn £50,500 each year.
Naturally, there has been a furore this week over the "pay rise" - a peg to inflation really - given to MLAs. And yes, if it was you or I returning to work after taking three unauthorised years off, we would be collecting P45s not salary increases. The timing and optics are appalling. Little wonder that the parties raced to the media declaring how they would forego the rise or give it to charity. The rise appeared to mock those citizens stuck on a hospital waiting list awaiting treatment, victims of the abject absence of Assembly and Executive decision-making for 36 long months.
However, we need to think about the broader picture beyond a modest pay rise which, whilst politically awkward, does not break household finances. It works out at 7 pence per voter. Let us use our very vivid imagination and imagine a functioning, stable Assembly over the next few years. I know, I know. It's very hard. But try. What is an appropriate MLA salary in a working Assembly?
When you compare the situation in Northern Ireland with those in the other devolved institutions and at Westminster, it is apparent that MLAs are not high rollers. Should pay parity only extend to categories we like, such as nurses? A Westminster MP earns £79,684, a member of the Scottish Parliament £61,778. Considering it still has fewer powers than the Northern Ireland Assembly, despite a massive recent catch-up, the salaries of Welsh Assembly members appear very generous, at £67,649 per annum. Can someone explain why a member of a legislature in Wales receives 33% more money than counterparts in Northern Ireland? Only a minority of Welsh electors have ever bothered turning out for their Assembly elections. Almost two-thirds of Northern Ireland's voters showed up to elect their MLAs last time and every contest has seen a majority voting - with average turnout also above that for the Scottish Parliament.
Of course, £50,500 for an MLA sounds a lot. It is, when you consider the average annual wage in Northern Ireland is £27,500. But, on those rare occasions the Assembly is sitting, MLAs do work long hours. When Assembly salaries were belatedly cut during Stormont's recent siesta, the review by Trevor Reaney considered how much work MLAs did beyond the chamber.
Citing the research of my University of Liverpool colleague, Dr Sean Haughey, Reaney found that MLAs performed an average of 27 hours constituency work per week. Now the Assembly is back, you can more than double that workload, as they will also be legislating and scrutinising. When it is pointed out that an MLA is earning far in excess of the average weekly wage, that's because she or he is putting in far more hours than the 38 per week put in by the average worker. It's not as if the MLAs award themselves pay rises. In 2011, the Assembly Members (Independent Financial Review and Standards) Act conferred the powers to set MLA salaries and expenses upon an Independent Financial Review Panel. It used objective criteria to make determinations and set the pay rate and inflation-link years ago.
The work that MLAs do is important. If it did not matter, we would not care when there is monumental incompetence such as the RHI debacle. Nor would the public have demanded a return to work with such vigour. The consequences of Executive idleness in terms of the health crisis were starkly apparent - life or death in some cases. Should MLA salaries reflect this importance? Gerry Carroll and People Before Profit, argues, on a principled basis, ought they be paid only the average wage of the citizens they represent? It is a strong argument in terms of keeping MLAs in touch. But paying MLAs less will not make working people better off.
Of course, everyone thinks the job they do is important. Even university professors - who, it should be acknowledged, are rewarded significantly more lucratively than MLAs. When workers want a pay rise, many contact their boss and outline why they are a deserving case. MLAs don't have that option. And they risk being voted out of employment every five years.
There are no truly objective criteria over what constitutes importance or fairness in terms of wages - and some blind spots. That might explain why people in the city where I work (rightly) rage over the indignity of having to visit a food bank to survive, yet are content when the dominant local football club pays £75m for a centre back to keep a bag of wind out of a net - and rewards him with more money in a year than those food bank strugglers will see in their lifetime. No talk of players being paid only the wage of the supporters or community they represent.
There are many things wrong with the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is still too large, an Assembly member for every 14,000 voters compared to one for every 30,000 in Scotland and every 37,000 in Wales. There are far too many special advisors. The political grandstanding and shenanigans test patience. But the irony amid the latest controversy is that MLA salaries are among the least of its problems.
So, there we have it. There is a case for MLAs being paid at least £50,500 each year. If anyone is still reading by this point…
Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool