"Better fewer but better" – that was the approach that Lenin, the founder of
the Soviet Union, adopted to reforming the state apparatus under communism.
It wouldn't be a bad slogan for our own Executive as they face into an age
Lenin's rallying cry drifted back to me when I read Alex Attwood's decision
to cut his ministerial salary by 5% and his proposal to cut civil service
pensions. His comments followed a call by Sinn Féin for 15% salary cuts
across the assembly.
It may strike a chord with voters who, in last week's poll, commissioned by
the Assembly itself, showed very little confidence or interest in the
devolved institutions. 27% expressed any degree of trust in politicians,
with only 1% trusting them highly. It wasn't a matter of apathy; although
61% said they took either very little interest or no interest in the
Assembly, a large majority (66%) said they were interested in local
This all adds to a steady loss of confidence in the institutions and it is
reflected in the fact that just half of the population intend to vote in the
next Assembly election. That is a scary figure because, on past form, people
are more likely to say they will vote and then forget about it on the day,
than to say they won't vote and then do so on impulse.
So it's understandable that politicians should be tempted to put on the hair
shirts when it comes to pay in the hope of winning sympathy from the voters.
The problem is that this could end up in a race to the bottom which will
Which brings me back to "better fewer but better"? The problem with our
politicians is not that they are too well paid, it is that there are too
many of them – and too many duffers have been elected to make up the
numbers. As a rule of thumb if you are an MLA and you can't believe your
luck at the salary you are getting, then you probably shouldn't be one.
Anyone who watches proceedings at Stormont can see that not all members are
up to the job. It's not just that 108 MLAs and ten ministries are too many
for a little place like this. The headcount was inflated to balance the
interests of various traditions and factions whose support was deemed
necessary to the success of devolution. It wasn't just that the big
nationalist and unionist blocs had to be satisfied with the carve up; there
had to be enough seats to ensure that the loyalist parties and the Women's
Coalition would have seats.
The Treasury didn't count the cost of peace. During negotiations it was
worth paying whatever it took to support the fragile new institutions, but
is it worth it now? To quote Attwood 's former leader Mark Durkan, it may be
time to get rid of some of the "ugly scaffolding" erected at the time of the
Good Friday and St Andrew's agreements.
The DUP has shown courage in tackling this issue with its proposals for a 75
member Assembly. I believe it could go closer to the 52 who sat in the old
Stormont parliament. When we pay for so many politicians, and so many teams
of advisers, we are buying deadlock and indecision. We need to pay enough
money to attract people of ability into politics, but we don't need so many
making up the numbers.
More ugly scaffolding exists in the form of quangos created to make direct
rule more accountable. They should be chopped and amalgamated. There are
also too many checks and balances and veto powers for efficient government.
They need to be trimmed back if decision making is to work and confidence in
Stormont is to be restored.
Perhaps it is even time that we could think about having an opposition in
the Assembly. It will be necessary to retain cross community government for
some time but it's questionable whether every single party should be
represented at the top table.
I believe that these would be popular ideas with voters for any party who
put them forward in May. In the meantime a similar approach should be taken
to cuts – the soft option of top slicing budgets will bleed essential
services to death and lower the quality of life.
Whole programmes and areas of vanity spending need to be taken out. That has
to happen alongside the strongest possible representations to Westminster
for more funds to protect services and investment. The government's
programme is too hard and too harsh, the trades unions are right on that.
However, the executive can make the best case for more help if it shows it
is spending the funds it has to maximum effect and is prepared to take hard
decisions, not just make gestures.
Refusing to strike a budget or trying to buy time with tokenistic gestures
on MLAs pay just won't cut it either locally or in London.