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Why scrapping MLA pay is not the answer

25th October 2019

This morning I took part in a debate on the Radio Ulster Nolan show on whether or not MLA pay should be scrapped, in light of the continued suspension of the Assembly, which has now lasted beyond the 1,000 day mark. Today’s debate, in which Alan McQuillan who sat on the Assembly body which decides in pay and expenses levels also took part, was sparked by the comments this week from Sylvia Hermon MP who said the £15million paid to MLAs since the last election was unjustifiable. That is undoubtedly the popular - and populist - view, but I am going to try and justify the continued payment of salaries. Here goes. 

Firstly, the DUP and Sinn Fein were the biggest winners in the last Assembly election. Sinn Fein made it clear they would not be entering Government unless there was agreement around an Irish Language Act, a totemic issue for the party and, they argue, to their nationalist electorate. The DUP made it clear in explicit terms that they would not be agreeing to an Irish Language Act. Despite the near agreement in February 2018 both parties have essentially held to the positions on which they were elected. Of course we should have an Assembly, of course the parties should do more to overcome their differences and it is a disgrace that we are now almost 3 years without an Assembly. But you know what? This is the political stalemate we voted for, the two main parties are effectively delivering on their mandate. People may think we deserve better, but you get what you vote for.

Secondly, I have huge admiration for anyone who puts their hand up to stand for election, be that to council, the Assembly, Westminster or for Europe. We have 90 MLAs who have a major stake in the Assembly, for whom it is their career, their source of income, the means by which they pay their mortgage and provide for their families. Take an average backbench MLA from the smaller parties, what influence does individual have on whether or not there is a deal to restore Stormont? The same applies to SF and DUP MLAs, is it fair to effectively sack them? MLAs are decent people, hard workers, they provide a service to their constituents, that should not be readily discarded. 

Thirdly, we either support the need for a political infrastructure in Northern Ireland or we don’t. If we sack the MLAs that generation of politicians will be lost. Each will have to seek alternative employment, or enter education or training. Having been schooled in politics to varying degrees they would most likely not return from whatever alternative career they pursued. With the political architecture comes funding and an ability to sustain political parties. Take away the Assembly and only two parties will have the resources and capacity to keep afloat. The Assembly will come back sometime. That could be 6 months, a year, maybe two years and it will be prefaced with an Assembly election. If we want to give people a choice come election time then we need to ensure that politicians and parties are in situ. The alternative is to say yeah, sack ‘em! Scrap MLA pay! Its a populist race to the bottom. 

If anyone wants to lament the £15million ‘wasted’ to date then fine, point taken. But while Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings can splash £100million on an ill-fated ’Get Ready for Brexit’ campaign focussed on the 31st October, then I think there are easier targets when it comes to identifying waste in the public sector. 

Our Assembly is moribund; the Assembly was in poor state and under delivering prior to suspension; it is a genuine disgrace that we haven’t had a Government in 1,000 days. I get all that and I agree. But withdrawing the salaries of the 90 MLAs isn’t the answer to Northern Ireland problems. Not by a long way.

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