Friday 19 January 2018

Curbing politicians' pay might get the gears moving again

The Northern Ireland secretary could astonish everyone and order fresh assembly elections. But that would only drag the North’s voters to the polls for the fourth time inside two years and certainly change absolutely nothing. Stock picture
The Northern Ireland secretary could astonish everyone and order fresh assembly elections. But that would only drag the North’s voters to the polls for the fourth time inside two years and certainly change absolutely nothing. Stock picture
John Downing

John Downing

So, Gerry Adams and Arlene Foster have been given still more time to make a deal - with official hopes expressed it might even happen later this week. But eight days from the dreaded July 12 apogee of the North's marching season that is just not going to happen.

The Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire now appears set to expand the budgetary powers of Belfast civil servants to allow something as near to normal government as possible to continue.

Increasingly, there is a creeping assumption that this one, in time-honoured Northern Ireland fashion, is being pushed into early September. Mr Brokenshire's frustration is entirely understandable. "This hiatus cannot continue for much longer. There is no doubt that the best outcome is for a new executive to take those strategic decisions in the interest of all," he said.

The Northern Ireland secretary could astonish everyone and order fresh assembly elections. But that would only drag the North's voters to the polls for the fourth time inside two years and certainly change absolutely nothing.

Similarly, the other option is the "nuclear one" of establishing direct rule from London. That would be even worse, and be a big backward step from all the painfully won progress over the past 25 years, with fears that such a move might prove an irreversible, retrograde one.

But we are yet again at a juncture when the level of political progress over the past quarter century is being called into question. Sinn Féin insists nothing can happen without an Irish Language Act and accuses the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of lacking urgency. The DUP counters that it is up to Sinn Féin to show initiative. Mr Brokenshire's three options appear equally unpromising. It may be time to fall back on more direct action.

The members of the Stormont assembly are paid some £49,000 (€55,800) per year. Going back two months there were serious suggestions that this should be frozen pending an agreement. There is also a coterie of back-up party staff who receive pay from the taxpayers' purse to keep the political show on the road. Their pay may be equally up for grabs.

That certainly would be rough justice as politics is a precarious enough career path, especially for those unelected people who labour behind the scenes. But sometimes drastic measures are required.

Back in 2006, amid mounting frustration shared by both British prime minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, such action was taken. The assembly members' pay was cut by some £10,000 (€11,000) per year while power-sharing was suspended.

Then London and Dublin issued an ultimatum that salaries would be stopped unless power-sharing was back by November 2006. It proved tough but effective medicine.

Irish Independent

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