Europe

Northern Ireland lawmakers to suffer pay cut for their power-sharing failure

DUBLIN — If you’re a Northern Ireland Assembly member, the cost of political failure at Stormont will be around 800 quid a month.

Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris wrote to all 90 MLAs (members of the legislative assembly) Thursday to confirm that, in punishment for their inability to form a new cross-community government, their salaries will be pruned by 27.5 percent on New Year’s Day.

The British government took a similar step in 2018 during Stormont’s last protracted breakdown of power-sharing, the system at the sclerotic heart of the Good Friday peace agreement for Northern Ireland. At that time, the Irish republicans of Sinn Féin had pulled the plug; this time around it’s the Democratic Unionist Party obstructing government formation.

In both cases all MLAs, among them moderates caught between the polarized opposites of Sinn Féin and the DUP, will absorb the same hit to their wallets. The cuts confirmed by Heaton-Harris will slash MLAs’ gross salary from £51,500 to £37,337, which, once income tax and health insurance deductions are taken into account, will lower monthly pay by about £800 net.

The DUP insists it won’t resume government alongside Sinn Féin until the U.K. abolishes the controversial trade protocol under the U.K.’s Brexit agreement that requires EU checks on goods arriving at Northern Irish ports.

Middle-ground MLAs — among them newly-elected figures who have barely had the chance to figure out Stormont’s parliamentary microphones — say it’s solely the DUP’s fault and other parties shouldn’t be subjected to “collective punishment.”

But Heaton-Harris told them in his letter that, because the assembly wasn’t sitting, nobody was in position to do their full jobs.

“Time and time again I have heard the public’s frustration, particularly in the current economic climate, that their elected representatives continue to draw a full salary whilst they are not performing all the duties for which they were elected,” he wrote.

Heaton-Harris said he also would raise the bar for collecting travel allowances. MLAs will have to clock in at Stormont for at least 100 days a year, up from the current requirement of 72, to qualify for full benefits. He made no cuts to pay for MLAs’ constituency office staff.

The latest move reflects the ill-defined boundaries of power in Northern Ireland, which the British government governed directly from London from 1972 to 1999 and, following the first collapse of Good Friday-era power-sharing, again from 2002 to 2007.

Since then, the U.K. government has been publicly committed not to impose “direct rule” again. Instead, in the current absence of a Northern Ireland Executive, it has passed legislation through Westminster that will transform Stormont’s top civil service brass into de-facto ministers empowered to take decisions normally left to elected politicians. That move has been denounced by Stormont veterans as “an affront to democracy.”

Yet the U.K. government retains direct-rule muscles when it feels like flexing them. To the Democratic Unionists’ chagrin, Heaton-Harris has just ordered the Northern Ireland Department of Health to start full provision of abortion services, a move long blocked by the DUP, a party with a Christian fundamentalist base.

As with the looming pay cuts, Heaton-Harris says if the DUP doesn’t like what he’s doing, it can reclaim the reins of power at any time.

The DUP’s Edwin Poots told BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback show that Heaton-Harris could cut his pay to a penny and it wouldn’t alter his demand for the trade protocol to go first.

“If we have to eat grass, we’ll eat grass,” Poots said.




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