Northern Ireland’s politicians accept they cannot keep being paid while not sharing power, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire has said.
After 10 months with no government in Stormont, Mr Brokenshire said he is considering new laws to dock or stop MLAs’ salaries.
And he also revealed that power-sharing talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein broke down at the end of last week on the issue of culture and the Irish language.
Under scrutiny at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in Westminster, the secretary of state said: “I think, to be honest, there is consensus even among the politicians in Northern Ireland, the MLAs themselves, that this can’t carry on.
“They acknowledge that for them to be paid at the rate that they are, not being able to do the job that they do, is simply unsustainable.”
An MLA is on £49,500 a year after they got a £500 pay rise in April – three months after the Stormont Executive collapsed.
That is almost double the official figure given for an average wage in Northern Ireland.
Mr Brokenshire said that in order for politicians’ pay to be stopped, a law would need to be passed at Westminster.
“I have said, and I will reiterate it again, that I will keep this issue firmly under examination and if it looks like this is not going to make progress, then yes, I will certainly be taking forward steps here to deal with that issue,” he told the committee.
DUP MP Gregory Campbell, who sits on the committee, told Mr Brokenshire that if MLAs’ salaries are stopped then politicians should continue to receive constituency funding in order to run an office and keep representing the local area.
Mr Brokenshire gave a pessimistic assessment of the power-sharing talks.
He said there has been some progress but that talks had stalled at the end of last week, as the parties failed to agree on an Irish language act.
The secretary of state said the absolute latest an agreement could be reached to revive Stormont is October 30.
The near-Halloween deadline has been set to allow the UK government time for a budget to be put in place by the first week in November.
Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill insisted her party wants to do a deal.
“Sinn Fein have been consistent in our resolve to restore the institutions on the basis of the Good Friday Agreement with equality, rights and respect at their core,” she said.
“I said last week that challenges remain in order to deliver sustainable institutions.
“One way or another, this process is coming to an end.”
Party president Gerry Adams added: “What we need to see is the Good Friday Agreement fully implemented.
“The current crisis is caused by broken agreements.
“Any return to British direct rule would be a breach of the St Andrews Agreement. That would be in addition to the other existing breaches.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: “It appears that Sinn Fein and the DUP have brought us to the brink of ‘direct rule’. It appears they have used their big mandates to achieve one thing – bringing British direct rule.”