MLAs in line for pay rise despite not doing their job

The News Letter reports that members of the Northern Ireland Assembly are in line for a £500 pay rise – having received a similar increase in the recent past – despite having not sat since March.

Apparently MLAs are not directly accountable for the decision because they have outsourced decisions about their pay to an independent panel (whom the public cannot hold accountable) – although in an odd twist, MLAs have also refused to re-appoint that panel’s membership so this decision is actually the product of a sort of bureaucratic autopilot.

Since March 13, when the devolved legislature last met, MLA and their staff have apparently cost taxpayers more than £6 million in salaries and expenses – and although Foster claims the local parties are ‘doing their best‘ to get Stormont restored she has spoken out against James Brokenshire, the Northern Irish Secretary, trying to use this unearned cash as leverage.

However Pat McCartan, until recently the head of Stormont’s pay review body, has urged the Secretary of State to take a much tougher line: “He said that if there had been no return of devolution by Christmas the government should notify MLAs that in three months their salaries will be cut by 25%, followed by 50% three months after that and then finally to zero three months later, next September.”

England is turning Wales into a ‘penal colony’, claims prison reform campaigner

Alas, self-indulgent nationalist nonsense is not confined to Labour. Yesterday Frances Cook, the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, made the rather eye-popping claim that England is turning Wales into a ‘penal colony’.

The spur for this outburst, in which she described Wales as nothing less than “the Botany Bay of the 21st Century”, is that there may be a new so-called ‘super-prison’ built in Wales “at England’s behest”.

Reading through it the motivation is perfectly obvious: by making a colonial analogy and drawing an unfavourable comparison with Scotland, Cook is tickling the ego of the Welsh devocracy in a bid to win support for her preferred policy agenda. Nonetheless, coming from an apparently serious political figure some of her claims are straightforwardly ridiculous.

For example, it seems very unlikely that anybody is going to attach to Wales an Australia-style reputation as a ‘penal colony’, unless they pay very close attention to Cook and Plaid Cymru. Nor is it plausible to think that released prisoners will have “no idea how to get back to England”, as if simply releasing them anywhere in the much larger country east of the border would activate a sort of home-soil homing instinct.

This is another unwelcome reminder, as if more were needed, that so long as it suits the short-term interests of much of the political class to exacerbate (and indeed, invent) divisions within the UK the politics of distintegration will persist. The simple truth is that the British Government is building prisons for British prisoners in Britain, and not ‘exporting’ anybody anywhere.

Foster praises May’s Florence speech…

It’s not all bad news though. According to the Belfast Telegraph Arlene Foster has welcomed the Prime Minister’s speech on the Brexit negotiations, describing it as a “positive vision”.

Foster leads the Democratic Unionist Party, the largest local party in Northern Ireland and the only major force there to campaign for Brexit. Her ten MPs are currently providing the Government with its working majority in the House of Commons.

She also stressed her party’s staunch opposition to any arrangement which might give Northern Ireland a distinct status from that of the mainland United Kingdom:

“In terms of Northern Ireland, there’s nothing that’s going to separate us politically from the rest of the United Kingdom such as a border in the Irish Sea.  We delivered this message to Guy Verhofstadt earlier this week. We voted to join the EEC as a nation and we must also leave the European Union as a nation.”

This is in stark contrast to the position taken by Owen Smith, who has called for Ulster to remain within the EU even as the rest of the country leaves. This should perhaps not be surprising, coming from a man who addressed a Sinn Fein fringe at Labour conference billed as the “Secretary of State for the North of Ireland“.

The Ulster Unionists meanwhile have urged the Dublin government to pursue closer relations with Britain, on which note I share this letter, courtesy of the Irish News, in which a gentleman from County Cork urges the Republic to rejoin the UK.

…as Welsh Tories criticise Johnson’s Brexit intervention…

According to Wales Online, the Foreign Secretary’s latest intervention into the Brexit debate has not gone down well with grassroots Conservatives in Wales.

Most of the more senior people interviewed, such as Byron Davies, the new chairman of the Welsh party, were gently dismissive of the article’s disruptive impact, and Kay Swinburne MEP argued that it was important for there to be “one simple message” from the British Government to the rest of the EU. Some of the councillors were, perhaps predictably, more robust.

Although trivial in itself, this story serves as a useful reminder of how Brexit has provided us with a truly national political story in an age when so much of what was once British politics is balkanised between the various devolved legislatures – a subject on which Roger Scully, the doyen of Welsh polling, is bringing out a new book.

…and Scottish Labour leadership candidates urge party to reject the Brexit deal

Both of the men vying to succeed Kezia Dugdale as Labour leader in Scotland, have urged the UK party to vote down the Government’s Brexit deal in order to force an early general election, the Scotsman reports.

This came on the same day that Dugdale herself used her column in the Daily Record to denounce Jeremy Corbyn for his lacklustre performance during the EU referendum last year. She also called for a second referendum – a position neither of her would-be heirs has yet endorsed.

Meanwhile Anas Sarwar, the more right-leaning of the two contenders, has endured a torrid week after coming under sustained criticism for his family firm’s apparent refusal to live up to Labour ideals by recognising unions and paying the ‘real living wage’. Indeed at one point it looked as if Alex Rowley, the acting leader, set him up for a kicking by none other than Nicola Sturgeon, he First Minister, in the Scottish Parliament chamber.

Sarwar has responded with that old Labour favourite, short-sighted and entirely tactical nationalism. He claims that if Richard Leonard, his English-born opponent, winds the contest it risks returning the Scottish party to the status of a ‘branch office’ within the wider UK movement.