Northern Ireland

Attention-grabbing NI savings plans not so easy

Everyone loves to kick a politician.

In fact, the other evening when Assembly business was running late into the evening, some staff were overheard passing the time playing a parlour game entitled "Which One I Would Most Love to Punch".

Sinn Fein knows this. So its headline-grabbing measure in an economic package designed to address a potential £2bn in cuts, is cutting 15% from politicians' salaries - a measure that will save a paltry £7m annually.

DUP leader Peter Robinson knows the public mood too when he proposes reducing the number of MLAs and government departments.

His - so far uncosted measure - is likely to save a bit more than £7m but could incur some upfront costs which mean savings aren't enjoyed for a couple of years.

Sceptics

His enthusiasm for the rationalisation - as Sinn Fein points out - does not extend to local government where the DUP has stalled the Review of Public Administration, ostensibly on the issue of cost.

An accountant's report suggests the savings will take many years to feed through.

However, the sceptics believe the real reason for delay has more to do with boundaries and maintaining party fiefdoms at council level.

Alliance is playing a similar game. It suggests that tackling "segregation" could save £1bn in annual expenditure.

That's a figure that grabs attention.

And "segregation" is such a nasty concept there's no doubt everyone would support getting rid of it, especially when it would yield £1bn in savings.

But the intangible concept of "segregation" has tangible outcomes - notably in housing and education.

To make the real billion in savings we'd need to scrap Catholic schools.

'The other side'

We'd also need to close hundreds of health clinics and benefits offices which have been created in one community or another because people don't feel comfortable travelling to the "other side".

It would also mean an end to any choice of where you live in terms of public housing. Allocations would have to be religiously blind.

So the easy option offered by Sinn Fein saves little money.

The easy option offered by Peter Robinson saves more but isn't easily achieved.

And the easy option offered by Alliance isn't easy at all.

But let's assume the 15% pay cut for politicians wins support - the public are right behind it already - does it have any unintended consequences?

First of all, we need to consider if it is desirable to encourage a class of politician who is so ideologically driven they will sacrifice normal remuneration and advancement for the sake of some cause.

Self-interest is a reasonable and entirely healthy trait. Is it reasonable or healthy if our politicians don't possess it?

Setting that concern aside, what those cheering on the cut need to consider is the principle it establishes.

Politicians are already saying stuff about how they can't ask the electorate to suffer if they're not prepared to make sacrifices themselves.

But that implies that they aren't members of the electorate too.

'All in it together'

As citizens, the politicians will be paying the same extra taxes and experiencing the same squeeze in public services as everyone else.

If they go a stage further and cut their salaries by 15%, surely the principle of "all in it together" would suggest that all public sector workers should do likewise.

With half the Executive's bill consumed by public sector salaries, that's a measure that would save the billions necessary.

It would also redress the imbalance in wages between the private and public sector that some economists in Northern Ireland argue is necessary to allow the private sector to grow.

Now, who's in favour of that?

On Sunday's Politics Show we take a look at one cut that's almost definite - in the number of our Westminster constituencies.

And I'm joined in the studio by Alliance MP Naomi Long, who favours cutting the number of MLAs, as well as the newly-elected leader of the PUP.

See you Sunday,

Jim

PS - One DUP MLA did a star turn during the debate on double-jobbing this week.

Jonathan Bell scored a few hits on opponents by exposing the inconsistency in their positions.

He clearly enjoyed himself; a bit too much for one political rival, who was overheard telling a colleague: "If he was a Mars bar he'd eat himself."

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