Parties must find new ways to bring genuine public concerns into Stormont…

I’m not a fan of slagging politicians off over money. The much larger sums they’re charged to handle are usually far more important than how much take-home pay they get each month. And we don’t pay half enough attention to what they do with that (enter RHI, NI Water et al).

But the announcement of an MLA pay rise after a three years absence without leave is a hard swallow. Suzanne Breen writing in the Belfast Telegraph writes:

This looks like a massive pat on the back for MLAs for doing what they should have been doing all along. And a slap in the face to the rest of us.

It doesn’t matter where you stand on New Decade, New Approach. Whether you want an Irish Language Commissioner, an Ulster-British Commissioner, neither or both. People of all political persuasions and none are united in opposing this salary hike.

The optics are awful. To ordinary people from Ballymurphy to Belvoir, this looks like the political establishment rewarding itself while preparing the rest of us for austerity.

It’s not just MLAs whose pay is going up – that of ministers is rising as well. No wonder the vast majority of Stormont representatives have so little to say on the issue.

In truth, none of this is to do with the MLAs themselves. Their pay is set by non-politician members of the Assembly Commission. It may be a consequence of Sinn Féin’s three-year boycott of the institutions, but at moments like this politicians of all parties must take the heat.

The SDLP took their time to respond, but when they did it was to announce that their MLAs would donate their salary increases to charity. Other individual MLAs have since followed suit. It all demonstrates how there’s an awkward balance to be struck that’s been ignored up to now.

That balance lies between attending to the business-as-usual of Stormont and managing rising expectations of what Stormont can actually achieve. The last thirteen years of breakdown, negotiation and stasis has finally triggered a cynical nerve in the NI public.

Tracking the public’s views is essential for all parties, but that’s hardly been a priority for Northern Ireland’s political parties where, up till now, not going back to war has been considered to be the only premium matter at stake. Communal fear and loathing has done the rest.

In a new move, the SDLP also announced a new list of party spokesmen that includes some of their brightest new talents at council level. Crucially, each theme is based on matters of public concern, not departments. Like it or not, all parties must start doing things differently.

What crashed Stormont was not the inadequacy of the institutions but a political failure to take account both of shifting public opinion and the necessary rigidities of the 1998 powersharing institutions that have drawn the two main governing parties inward and away from voters.

It hasn’t helped either that there’s been a dearth of the fresh ideas that are always needed to create genuine political flow within Stormont’s interdepartmental administration (“what can we all get behind?”). Whether it can manage that without an Opposition at this stage is moot.

MLA wage rises may only be a minor issue on the wider scale of things, but it signals a bigger problem that hasn’t gone away. Developing the ability to generate solutions is the responsibility of politicians, not technocrats who decide MLA pay or indeed run the civil service.

“Intelligence is quickness to apprehend as distinct from ability, which is capacity to act wisely on the thing apprehended.”

— Alfred North Whitehead