The two main parties involved in the Stormont talks deadlock have rejected a claim their first priority was to ensure salaries were paid during the Assembly’s suspension.
The DUP dismissed the comments – made by a former member of the panel that set MLAs’ pay – as “absolute nonsense”.
Former PSNI assistant chief constable Alan McQuillan had claimed he was told by well-placed sources that one of the first things sorted out was the continuation of MLAs’ salaries – whatever happened during the protracted negotiations.
“That’s where their priority lies – with the party machines,” he said.
Mr McQuillan, who sat on the independent pay review panel, said the political wage bill at Stormont amounts to more than £1 million a month, including expenses.
“I understood from political sources three weeks ago that there was agreement between Secretary of State James Brokenshire and all the parties that they would be paid, even if the talks failed, so trying to get them to change that is virtually impossible,” he said.”
The 90 MLAs have been receiving their £49,500 basic salary since the election in March.
Mr McQuillan also said the UK Government had an obligation to ensure Northern Ireland had a “basic standard of government” during any political breakdown.
“The secretary of state can’t just stand back and let government here hang,” he told the News Letter.
“He’s now saying that he will step in and set a budget but he won’t implement direct rule. Well, setting a budget simply means that the officials have got the money to keep the services rolling – it doesn’t mean that all the important decisions that urgently need taken, around the health service etc...none of those will be taken.
“Basically it appears to be a strategy of drift. That’s fine except there are hundreds, thousands of people on waiting lists that aren’t being addressed.
“There are huge problems in the health service that aren’t being addressed.”
Mr McQuillan added: “We need somebody to take a grip of that now, and make sure the people are there to start the process of consulting and planning and taking forward how we are going to exploit that and bring more jobs here, and more money into this community. But there is nobody doing that.
“We have a sovereign government in Westminster that has responsibilities for this place and it’s about time the secretary of state started to exercise them.
“We have already had five months of no delivery and we are now talking about another three month delay, effectively, before we get the talks going again.”
A DUP spokesman branded Mr McQuillan’s claim “absolute nonsense” and added: “Mr McQuillan should produce evidence to support his allegation.”
A spokesman for Sinn Fein said: “Alan McQuillan was not a participant in the talks process. Sinn Fein’s only agenda for the talks was the integrity of the institutions and outstanding rights based issues.”
• Ninety-five percent of readers who responded to a News Letter online survey said they believed MLAs’ should NOT receive their salaries while the political impasse continues.
The survey posed the question: ‘Should MLAs continue to receive their salaries’.
Of the 5,020 people who answered the question, 4,769 (95%) said no, while 251 (5%) said yes, they should continue to be paid.
Meanwhile, commentator Newton Emerson said such a move would be a “collective punishment”.
Speaking on the Nolan Show on Wednesday, he said: It would be a bit of a collective punishment as there are only two parties deadlocked. It would be a bit of an over-reaction.”
Asked if a wage cut would be acceptable, DUP leader Arlene Foster said: “I think that would be a relevant question if we weren’t doing any work.”