Ulster: N Ireland Assembly votes itself a pay rise

Politics in Belfast comes speedily of age as the first full day of business opens with pounds 9,000 pay rises all round agreed

NORTHERN IRELAND politicians demonstrated yesterday that they have come some way since the days when, it was said, the first item on the political agenda was "the split". In the Belfast Assembly almost the first item of business was, instead, the pay rise.

On the first full day of routine business since last week's devolution of power to Belfast from Westminster, members voted themselves and their new ministers hefty rises.

The move was not be as venal and self-serving as might be assumed, given that the assembly was putting through the recommendations of an independent review board.

None the less, the apparent haste to pay themselves more was seen as a poor move in terms of the assembly's public image, and may generate some cynicism about the motivation of at least some of its members.

The salaries of the 108 assembly members are to rise by pounds 9,000 to pounds 38,000, while the new ministers will get pounds 71,000. The pay for first minister David Trimble and his deputy Seamus Mallon was increased to pounds 102,000, although neither will receive the full entitlement since they are also Westminster MPs. More money is also to be paid to junior ministers and committee chairmen and deputy chairmen.

The new levels will put an end to several decades in which full-time politics offered a living to only a small number of people in Northern Ireland. Until the assembly was set up Westminster and European parliament seats, together with party posts, offered the only political livings, meaning that probably fewer than 50 people were salaried political operators. One hope is that the increased rewards and many new jobs available will encourage a new generation to become involved, attracting new talent and widening the political gene pool.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams spoke against the pay rise, saying he was concerned that the first order of business since devolution should be a substantial increase in salaries. He added: "I would point out that the increase suggested is almost three times more than the income of a single person on income support." Mr Adams was accused by the SDLP of "political opportunism".

t Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble is to be honoured by the French government this week for his work towards peace in the province, it was confirmed today.

The Ulster Unionist leader will receive the Legion d'Honneur - the highest decoration France can bestow - during a ceremony on Wednesday night in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris.

Mr Trimble was awarded the Legion d'Honneur with fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate John Hume in November. But while the SDLP leader travelled to receive the award, Mr Trimble was unable to attend the ceremony.

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