Little chance of Stormont Tea Party

By Jim Fitzpatrick
BBC NI Politics Show presenter

Image caption,
The Tea Party has become an umbrella group for many different causes

On this side of the Atlantic the widespread consensus among many political commentators is that the Tea Party movement in the US is bonkers.

It may be the fact that the name invites the prefix of Mad Hatters, or it may be the sometimes extreme nature of the views expressed, or even the unorthodox personal history of some of its best-known members.

Whatever the reason, it seems many over here can't quite believe such individuals and policies would win widespread support.

As a movement, rather than a political party, the Tea Party does lack some coherence.

But if there's one central theme that seems to bind them together, it is the belief that government should be small and the individual supreme.

This is a concept that runs very deep in the American psyche.

In Northern Ireland, we complain when our politicians take long holidays.

"Why aren't they at work on our behalf, solving the problems of the world?" is the implied chant. Yet in the States it is the precise opposite.


It's not that they want them to take long holidays. They just don't want them to be "interfering" by coming to work. Many state legislatures in the US sit full-time for only a fraction of the year.

Take Virginia, which boasts the "oldest continuous law-making body in the New World".

Its state legislature, which would equate to our Stormont Assembly as a regional parliament, has a House of Delegates and a Senate.

Delegates, essentially their MLAs, are elected for two years only. The senators (a maximum of 40) are elected for four years.

They sit for 60 days on even-numbered years and 30 on odd-numbered years with the provision that they can extend an annual session by a maximum of 30 days.

Delegates are paid an annual salary of $17,640, a figure considerably less than even Sinn Fein MLAs receive on their "living wage" dictated by the party.

In fact, Virginian delegates aren't expected to live on their £10,000. Again, in complete contrast to Stormont, they are expected to have earnings from outside interests.

The taxpayer does not want to fund a full-time political class.

These arrangements are not a fantasy of the Tea Party - they are the norm. The Tea Party would go further and apply the same part-time principles to national government as well.

Stormont will be debating its own running costs on Monday.

We know Peter Robinson has already suggested cutting the number of MLAs and departments.

Sinn Fein, for now, has rejected his argument, while the other parties vary from cold to lukewarm on the idea.

Masochistic streak

It's popular, in the current climate, for politicians to beat themselves up.

Sinn Fein has shown an almost masochistic streak by arguing that MLAs pay should be cut by 15% but rejecting the proposal that civil service pay should be frozen.

But cutting their own pay and numbers is more for the optics than the effect.

Fewer politicians will not significantly reduce the cost of Northern Ireland's big government.

But as the cost of our big government is currently borne by English taxpayers and the benefits of it are currently enjoyed by citizens in Northern Ireland, there is no incentive for local politicians to cut there.

That is another key difference with the US where individual states must balance their own books on an annual basis with precious little help from the federal government.

For that reason it's hard to see a Tea Party movement gaining ground here for, unlike the United States, the majority is strongly in favour of big local government so long as central government continues to foot the bill.

On Sunday's Politics Show we'll be reporting from the SDLP annual conference and we'll be joined by leader Margaret Ritchie.


PS - The Mad Hatter had tea with a dormouse. But it was another rodent - the ginger variety - that hit the headlines recently whenever Harriet Harman fired a misjudged missile at Danny Alexander. The resulting favourable publicity for the maligned Chief Secretary to the Treasury has, I'm told, prompted the DUP's Simon Hamilton - a proud redhead - to quietly beg political opponents to hurl similar insults at him in the Stormont chamber. None has yet taken up the offer.

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