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A senior British Labour politician has urged Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire not to cut the pay of Stormont politicians because of the deadlocked political process.
Mr Brokenshire told the House of Commons on Thursday that he would reflect carefully on whether the 90 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly should continue to receive their full £49,500, or €55,000, salaries. Members have appeared resigned to Mr Brokenshire docking a significant portion of their pay over the continuing failure of the DUP and Sinn Féin to reach a deal that would restore the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly.
Mr Brokenshire said reducing MLAs’ pay would require primary legislation at Westminster. “In the continued absence of a functioning Assembly the status quo is not tenable, and therefore I will be seeking independent advice on MLA pay, on what steps may be taken to reflect the current circumstances,” he told MPs.
But the UK Labour Party’s spokesman on Northern Ireland, Owen Smith, warned against punitive steps. “Cutting politicians’ pay is always a popular thing to argue for. We need this generation of Northern Ireland politicians to work and talk together to try and bring about powersharing,” he said. “While he is right that patience is wearing thin in Northern Ireland he should resist steps that would undermine the ability of the parties to negotiate and engage, particularly the smaller parties.”
The DUP’s deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, said the political drift could not continue and accused Sinn Féin of laying down new terms to justify not re-entering the Executive. Sinn Féin’s preconditions must be lifted, he said. “If that will not happen then decisions must be taken at Westminster in consultation with local politicians at Stormont.”
Mr Brokenshire said he had no option but to prepare for a budget for Northern Ireland, but such a move could be averted were the DUP and Sinn to find a political accommodation with each other. The Conservatives would honour their £1 billion deal with the Democratic Unionists, he added. “We stand by our commitments, and as a party we stand by the agreement that has been reached with the DUP. Nothing I have said today changes that.”
Mr Brokenshire is due to begin introducing a budget on November 13th, when Westminster returns from a week-long recess, but he insisted it did not mean London was taking control of the North. “Passing a budget in Westminster does not mark a move to direct rule any more than the passing of legislation by this house to set a regional rate [for Northern Ireland] did in April,” he said. “It is not an obstacle to continued political negotiations, and the government will continue to work with the parties with that intent.”
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and British prime minister Theresa May earlier spoke by telephone about the latest talks failure. Both described the remaining gaps as narrow. But the senior Sinn Féin negotiator Conor Murphy said a deal is unlikely unless “there’s a step change on the part of the DUP and both governments on the issues of rights”. The last round of talks failed, he said, because the DUP refused “to accept a future based on rights and equality”, a position that had been supported by a British government dependent on the DUP for its survival.