By Anne Cadwallader
STORMONT — Normal politics came even more swiftly to the North than anyone had imagined when the 108 assembly members, sitting at Stormont on Monday, voted themselves, in their first post-devolution act, a hefty pay rise.
The 30 percent rise brings backbench assembly members’ basic wage to £38,036 per annum. Assembly members were on £29,000 before devolution. The new salary, set on the advice of the independent senior salaries review board, would constitute a small fortune for many living in the North’s working-class ghettos.
Opposing the rise were the strange political bedfellows of Sinn Féin and the leader of the vehemently anti-Agreement UK Unionist Party, Robert McCartney. Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin president, opposed the increase because it amounts to three times what a single unemployed person lives on.
Some accused McCartney of hypocrisy as he earns a wage as a Westminster MP, which he supplements with his earnings as a senior barrister.
Sinn Féin assembly members, and the party’s ministers, pay their wages into party coffers and are then awarded an "average industrial wage" to live on, amounting to less than £20,000 a year.
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The assembly agreed to accept the recommendations of the review board, which places them worse off than MPs in Westminster and Scotland on £47,008 and £40,092, respectively, but appreciably better off than their counterparts in Wales, who earn £34,438.
The resolution was carried by general assent granting the pay rise, annual office allowances of up to £34,850, a meal allowance of £18.30 for overnight stays, and a series of generous travel allowances which even include 6.5 pence per mile for members using bicycles.
In a dig at Sinn Féin, McCartney told the assembly, "Thirty of the 108 members were unemployed when they were elected. Many of them have never contributed a single penny by way of income tax, but they have taken plenty of it in the way of benefits."
Doing particularly well is the Ulster Unionist Party Leader and first minister, David Trimble. He takes his £47,000 as a Westminster MP, one third of his £38,000 as assembly member, and all his £64,300 allowance as minister. That leaves a few pounds change out of £124,000.
Trimble’s finances are boosted by the check for nearly £273,000 he banked a year ago as his share of the Nobel Peace Prize. He insists he will not be retaining the cash, saying it would go to a new political trust.
SDLP leader John Hume, his fellow laureate, handed over his money to two charities on both sides of the religious divide nine months ago. Trimble’s bank balance will have been increased with interest since he collected the prize money in Oslo last December.