SDLP tribes at war over Alasdair’s ‘poverty’ stance – UPDATE: Alasdair strikes back!

A very public war of words has broken out within the SDLP following Party Leader Alasdair McDonnell’s decision to launch a Save Politicians from Poverty Appeal in his Irish News interview earlier this week. Today, the SDLP Mayor of Lisburn, Brian Heading, has written to the paper strongly criticising his party leader. During his appearance on BBC Radio Ulster’s The Nolan Show this morning, Heading inferred that McDonnell owed party members and the general public an apology, whilst also indicating that he had received considerable support from party members this morning for his stance.

In his letter, Heading states:

In the current economic climate of business closures and daily announcements of job losses, the idea of such an increase will be hard to stomach by the electorate…….

I am not aware (according to the declaration of interests provided by MLAs to the assembly) of any MLA likely to be living in ‘poverty’ on their retirement or removal from office by the electorate,” he said.

Brian Heading was firmly in the Alex Attwood camp during the party leadership contest last Autumn and was publicly critical of Alasdair McDonnell’s proposals during that campaign. Given McDonnell’s recent announcement indicating that Attwood’s Ministerial status will be short-lived, this development suggests the internal divisions within the party are far from healed.

 UPDATE: Alasdair has struck back, with a somewhat bizarre appeal for all political parties to

stand up against populist media witch hunts and defend the vital democratic principle of decent wages for elected representatives.

On a point of order, said media witchhunt would appear to refer to my posts on Slugger and a letter written by his own party colleague, Brian Heading, prompting a radio interview with Stephen Nolan (who also takes a hit in McDonnell’s statement.)

The remainder of the press statement is below. Take note of the acerbic remarks directed at party colleague, Brian Heading.

Also worth noting is the somewhat unfortunate use of the adjective ‘decent.Perhaps there’s an Ulster Unionist out there who could have a word with Alasdair…..


SDLP Leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell called upon all parties to have the courage to stand up against populist media witch hunts and defend the vital democratic principle of decent wages for elected representatives.

Wed 4th January

He said: “All parliaments started out as assemblies of rich men passing laws to suit rich men. When ordinary working people first got the vote, it meant little when they couldn’t actually afford to stand for election.


“It was social democrats who led the struggle for an even playing field.


“The vast array of social protection that we have all over Europe today just would not have happened without representatives being paid. We need to be very careful that our assemblies don’t  turn into millionaire clubs again.


“Politics is not a job for life, people should be encouraged to come in and go out. 


“It is important that ordinary people should be able to leave their job or trade to spend a period as representatives, and also be able to go back to their previous life without landing in poverty.


“That is why I highlighted the pension issue which in many ways is more important that the actual pay rate.


“There is no room for duck-house style abuses or lavish lifestyles. There is no need to spend vast amounts of money – good representation can be had for a mere fraction of what Stephen Nolan is paid out of our licence fees.


“We in the SDLP stand for decent pay and conditions for all workers including elected representatives and decent social protection for all. 


“We know from our everyday contacts just what pressure people are under, but we do not fall for simplistic or populist slogans which don’t solve anyone’s problems.


“Cllr Heading is entitled to his opinion but I think he is wrong. In the face of witch hunt reporting and with so many other politicians keeping their heads down, we need to get our facts right and keep our eye on the vital democratic principle at stake.


“Even if we pay MLAs starvation wages there is no guarantee that the areas of deprivation Cllr Heading is properly focused on will be tackled any better.

“The whole history of social democracy tells us that proper representation properly paid for is the best guarantee of proper legislation and proper social protection.”





  • J Kelly

    Alasdair is continuing in the footsteps of Durkan and Ritchie and taking the SDLP on the long slow march to the pages of history. He promised a new forward looking SDLP and his first three major announcements have been a disaster, the lights enough said on that. Second his innovative approach to the rotation of his singlle seat, not a bad idea for a small party give experience and build the party. But what was the reason for this move according to Big Al “sharing out the small cake” this coupled with more money for the impoverished MLAs has really set the scene for a forward looking dynamic SDLP as we head into 2012. These utternaces have let me down as I have always predicted that Big Al would be bad internally for the SDLP but would at least be capable enough in the media. I cant be right all the time.

  • This little spat is somewhat ironical considering Alasdair’s New Year message:

    “We need to put the healing of division back at the heart of the political agenda and we need to do it this year.”

  • Comrade Stalin

    I agree that it is wrong for politicians to be talking about voting themselves in with a pay rise, and with the same breath freezing the pay of other public sector workers.

    However, it will be SF and the DUP who decide whether or not the rise goes ahead – not the SDLP. Accordingly, for them to go public on an issue like this suggests either bad political judgement, or that there is ongoing internal resentment over McDonnell’s victory.

  • Quite extraordinary public spat which will bring no electoral advantage.
    Comrade, I suggested on another thread that MLAs and MPs should not be allowed to vote themselves a pay increase; they could only do so at the end of term for incomers after the next election. They knew last year what the salary would be.

  • keano10

    Pretty cataclysmic start from Alasdair. First impressions are normally everything in this media-driven political age and he could’nt appear more ou-of-touch with public sentiments if he tried.

    To have a rsepected member of his own party already calling for him to make a public apology takes some doing…

    I thought at the time of the SDLP Leadership Election that McDonnell’s victory was manna from heaven from Sinn Fein and it is already proving to be the case. McDonnell is a notoriously poor listener and his arrogant and abrasive manner leaves him with virtually no chance of making any inroads into the huge gap that now exists between the two parties.

    A McDevitt victory would have posed SF many more potential difficulties, but McDonnell’s early leadership performance indicatse that the Stoops are’nt likely to be setting the political world alight anytime soon…

  • Framer

    Anyone know what Big Al claimed from Westminster and Stormont last year on top of his two salaries and gold-plated, inflation-proofed, final salary pension? Accrual rate?

    As a double-jobber, he can still claim full expenses from both legislatures even if he loses a little salary now.

    BTW eighteen MPs used to do the job that now requires 108 MLAs plus extensive staffs but if it is the price of peace…

  • J Kelly

    Somebody would need to tell Big Al when you are in a hole stop digging, he is now talking about strarvation wages.

    Our young people are emigrating in their droves, older people are freezing in their homes, and Big Al expects us to believe that £43000 basic pay is starvation wage and that doesn’t include the wife as a secretary or driver. The SDLP need to disband before it tears itself apart.

  • Banjaxed

    And now we know why he wanted the lights turned down – he didn’t want them illuminating and thus exposing his money-grabbing attitude to public service.

    That said, McDonnell appears to continuing on in the tradition of the gobsmackingly incompetent means of the everlasting internal communication problems of the Stoops since the days of John Hume. Don’t they ever meet or talk to each other over the phone; don’t they even ‘share’ each other’s email addresses; and I suppose a good tweet is also out of the question?

    You couldn’t make this up!

  • jthree
  • anonymouslyopinionated

    Honestly, I can see where a lot of people are coming from, that in this economic climate the SDLP shouldn’t be pushing for higher salaries and pensions for politicians. I personally believe at this moment in time it should not be a top priority. However it is a valid position, with MLA’s earning considerably less than memebers of the Scotish and Welsh devolved parliments. MLAs have crucial jobs within our society yet are provided with little security.
    I do feel that the media is blowing Brian Headings comments way out of proportion. A bit of negative press does not mean that the party is over, and one SDLP representative speaking out publically against Alasdair is not a sign of a waring party. One dissatisfied member does not speak for the party as a whole and despite getting of to a shakey start I still believe that McDonnell can stop and reverse the decline of the SDLP and has the potential to be a great leader of what is still a great party.

  • Rory Carr

    I, of course, think that Mr McDonnell is quite the most wonderful leader that the SDLP has ever had – more wonderful even than the very wonderful, Gerry Fitt, more wonderful indeed than the the truly wonderful, Margaret Ritchie.

    I can only wish him many happy years as leader, and offer my hope that he may continue to lead the party in same vein of growth and parliamentary success as his illustrious predecessors.

  • michael-mcivor

    But will brass neck Alasdair make a public apology to the people-or even to his s.d.l.p party who had the wit to elect him leader- you could not make it up-

  • carnmoney.guy

    Ah how we pine for the good ole days……..
    do u remember margaret facing down the loyalists ( well u know, not ACTUALLY facing them down, but cutting funding to a no political group who happen to work in loyalist areas )
    do u remember how she trunced Sinn Fein in South Down ( well u know not ACTUALLY truncing, more getting the unionist / SDLP vote out against Catriona Ruane )
    do u remember how she stumbled and hesitated thru interviews, but got there eventually

    Come back Margaret, all is forgiven

  • Comrade Stalin


    Comrade, I suggested on another thread that MLAs and MPs should not be allowed to vote themselves a pay increase; they could only do so at the end of term for incomers after the next election. They knew last year what the salary would be.

    I am not that convinced that salary is an issue that voters seriously take into account, all other things assumed equal. If their local politician is doing well, people will not be fazed if he gives himself a pay rise. If he’s not doing well, then why would they vote for him in the first place ? I think voters are more annoyed when politicians try to get extra cash under the table, although I’d note how the expenses scandal does not appear to have made any serious dent in the outcome of the UK parliamentary election.

    That is why this is the wrong issue for Alastair to go to the mattresses over. His opinion on this does not matter as it will not count in an assembly vote anyway. He would have been better to try to keep this quiet and preserve the unity in his party. On top of that, he is making it look as if, as leader, he is dangerously out of touch – the MLA salary, even before all the expenses are accounted for, is around about double the median salary in Northern Ireland, and when you consider that many MLAs are employing family members, these are households doing quite nicely for themselves. I guess for someone used to the £130,000ish salary of a GP it’s a step down …

    What we are seeing here is the “bull in a china shop” stuff that Alistair is famous for.

  • Framer

    Got Big Alasdair McDonnell’s Westminster expenses for 2010-2011 off the IPSA website. They totalled £123,967 (excluding salary, employer’s pension contributions, Stormont salary and Stormont expenses).

    He ought to be one of the biggest employers in South Belfast on his Westminster money alone. (He only employs one family member.)

    Constituency Office
    General Admin
    Travel and Subsistence

  • keano10

    Good God !

    Alasdair’s follow-up statement is even more erratic and bizarre than his first. What on earth’s name makes him think that the wages of MLA’s are anywhere near the top of the public consciousness??

    His reference to potentially paying MLA’s “starvation wages” is absolutely mind-boggling stuff.

    Does no-one in The SDLP Press Office actually vet these statements even if they do come from the Party Leader? Or is McDonnell going to be so tyrannical that his word is gospel, full stop?

    To actually name Heading in a recriminatory press release and therefore make the spat even more public than it already was, seems to say very little about McDonnell’s leadership qualities and evem less about his grasp of the needs of the wider voting public.

    The self-destruct button has unsurprsingly been pressed by the SDLP’s new leader. It is the rapidness with which he has done it, which amazes.

  • Comrade Stalin

    BTW eighteen MPs used to do the job that now requires 108 MLAs plus extensive staffs but if it is the price of peace…

    This is populist rubbish with a small grain of truth.

    Under direct rule, the Secretary of State effectively ruled by decree (or more accurately, Order in Council), and usually the decrees involved created legislation either specific to the Troubles, or rehashes of legislation or policy that had been passed for England and Wales.

    Our 108 MLAs have the opportunity to deliver substantially better government than this. The fact that they have to date chosen not to do so is not a reflection on devolution, but on the quality of the representation we choose to elect.

  • iluvni

    I thought the review of wages had been conveniently farmed out to favoured consultants, so that MLAs could claim any increase was not their decision.

  • Comrade Stalin


    That may well be the case. Which makes it even more ridiculous that Alisdair chose to make an issue out of it.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Frankly low wages increase the chances of “being influenced”, so I understand perhaps that politics like any other role should provide value for money representation for value for money representatives (hopefully). Pensions should be parallel with any public sector pension scheme to avoid “being influencers” themselves after they’ve finished their role.

    Maybe such an agreement is a halfway between the Headings and McDonnell’s. I don’t know, since politicians do employ a lot of staff maybe high wages are a price to pay for tackling unemployment, if anything this would give SF party members more roles to apply for.

  • So that’s why so many public representatives do “homers” – it is because of the starvation wages.

  • Comrade Stalin


    I noted a comment you made on the other thread about winding up costs. These are intended to allow ex-MLAs who have stepped down or lost an election to pay redundancy to their staff.

    In the case of MLAs who stepped down voluntarily, I wonder how many of those paid-off staff have gone on to accept employment with whoever the newly substituted MLA was ? Strictly speaking this is legal (as the support staff are employed directly by the MLA and not by the assembly) but not something that I suspect would impress members of the public ..

  • sherdy

    Can the good doctor not find a cure for his Fut&Mouth disease, or is it Mad Cow disease?

  • cynic2

    The Green Drool dripping down this post is positively egriegous

  • Framer

    Not rubbish at all Comrade Stalin. The 18 MPs were permitted to debate every Order in Council and could ask PQs and initiate discussions and even private members’ bills etc just as the 108 do at Stormont.

    That the MLAs have failed to legislate since devolution is nothing to do with their calibre but because the system is one of mutual veto so very few things can be reformed because they normally favour one community more than the other.

  • “Nevin,

    I noted a comment you made on the other thread about winding up costs.”

    Thanks for the info, CS, but I don’t recall mentioning winding-up costs.

  • Comrade Stalin


    The 18 MPs were permitted to debate every Order in Council

    Orders in Council were debated ?

    and initiate discussions and even private members’ bills etc just as the 108 do at Stormont.

    No. The House of Commons at Westminister did not make legislation for Northern Ireland. Apart from certain security-related aspects, I can recall no legislation in the Commons covering the areas that are now devolved.

  • Mick Fealty

    Now CS, I’m not sure what role you think MLA have played in the Legislative Assembly as regards actual law making… Just turning up at a Westminister debate should score a little more heavily than most MLAs can manage in a year.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Sorry Nevin, I seem to have crossed a few wires – apologies.

  • Abu Mikhail74

    Sweet suffering Jaysus. Watching this eejit lead such a famous party is like watching Fabianski keep goal for Arsenal.
    The ‘switch down lights’ thing was just the usual piss poor organisation that’s almost come to seem charming from the SDLP. But this?

    What’s next? Holidays with Rupert Murdoch? Best man at Cecilia Ahern’s wedding?

    He’ll be buying koi carp at five hundred quid a throw any minute… oh wait, that’s another NI politico with the common touch…

  • iluvni

    “I think if MPs slept on a park bench and starved themselves that would still be too much for some people.”


    From his recent SDLP conference speech:

    “Unless we quickly and clearly demonstrate that we
    have the will and ability to recover then our existing
    level of support will begin to drift away by the middle of
    next year. The next 100 days are absolutely crucial.”

    I make it 58 days to date … how’s that going anyway?

  • keano10

    I wonder if Conall is already planning the no-confidence motion…? 🙂

  • Framer

    Big Al’s press statement is a masterpiece of bad writing and poor execution. I assume he did it himself, the army of staff being on extended Christmas leave.

    Comrade Stalin – Orders in Council are legislation and were debated. See this list of 20 in 2006 for example and check out the debates –

    The Housing (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006
    The Water and Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) 2006
    The Smoking (Northern Ireland) Order 2006
    The Electricity Consents (Planning) (Northern Ireland) Order
    The Rates (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006
    The Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006
    The Work and Families (Northern Ireland) Order 2006
    The Water and Sewerage Services (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006
    The Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006
    The Recovery of Health Services Charges (Northern Ireland) Order 2006
    The Budget (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006
    The Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006
    The Private Tenancies (Northern Ireland) Order 2006
    The Fire and Rescue Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006
    The Local Government (Boundaries) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006
    The Planning Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 2006
    The Budget (Northern Ireland) Order 2006
    The Stormont Estate (Northern Ireland) Order 2006
    The Rates (Capital Values, etc.) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006
    The Judicial Pensions and Retirement Act 1993 (Addition of Qualifying Judicial Offices) Order 2006

  • And to add to the SDLP’s woes – on a small scale – the Irish News reported on Tuesday that their Antrim councillor Gráinne Teggart – first elected to council in May 2011 – is standing down.

  • Dewi

    Margaret Ritchie was very hard done by. Pretty good general elections and a tad unlucky the he Stormont elections, How McDonnell feels that such statements are appropriate in these desperate times beggars belief. Every single Sinn Féin leaflet / broadcast / press release from now on should quote him……and we need a nickname quickly..

  • Comrade Stalin


    Orders in Council are legislation and were debated. See this list of 20 in 2006 for example and check out the debates –

    In the cases I checked the legislation went through immediately without a debate; or there was a debate for about 15 minutes. I accept that a “debate” did take place, but it’s a mere formality compared to the often long debates and multiple stages and committee analysis that get done in the assembly whenever they bother introducing legislation.

    Mick, I know they’ve not been legislating, that’s why I made the point that it is important not to misrepresent a failure in our politicians with a failure of devolution; devolution does, after all, work just fine in England and Wales.

  • Comrade,
    I presume you meant Scotland and Wales. An English parliament is yet to come.

  • cynic2

    “I think if MPs slept on a park bench and starved themselves that would still be too much for some people.”

    Who paid for the Park Bench then.

  • cynic2

    “it will be SF and the DUP who decide whether or not the rise goes ahead”

    No it wont. An Independent Body now decides – they have no say in it.

  • Framer

    C. Stalin – there was 90 minutes set aside for debates on (unamendable) Orders in Council in both houses. If concerned MPs from here could not talk that length of time they may have been falling down on the job. It depends on the subject matter at times.

    With six times as many MLAs at Stormont (none abstentionist) they certainly should be able to fill the time available.

    I have to admit however to being impressed by the fact that in 2011 the Assembly passed 29 Acts, vastly more than I realised so it may be they are getting on top of the legislating job.

    Not sure if they discussed the bills at length or proposed many amendments. Have a look.

  • michael-mcivor

    The s.d.l.p deputy leader has come out on todays Irish news front page to offer her criticism of Alasdair- Dolores Kelly said she is deeply unhappy with her party leaders comments and even says that Alasdair is going against party policy- seems like the s.d.l.p’s main dissident is its leader-

  • Twinkle

    Whatever became of his GP pension and his farm with 300+ sheep down in the Glens of Antrim, would this not give him an income that keeps him above the poverty line? Add to this his MP pension when he retires, his MLA pension, state pension, the list goes on and on. Self destruct a la the swish family Robinson of a year or two ago. I fear he has written his own epitaph!

  • cynic2
  • Comrade Stalin

    Another twist to this story is that the SDLP have taken the press statement that Chris linked to above, off their website.

    Obviously there is a panic back in SDLP HQ – has Alisdair been persuaded that his statement was wrong ?