Dear MLAs, it’s time to earn your salaries

Posted By: September 09, 2017

Patrick Murphy. Irish News. Belfast.  Saturday, September 9, 2017

Dear MLAs,

Many people might think it unfair that you should be paid for doing nothing. They could reasonably suggest that, since you have now been paid for six months for saying, “It’s not us, it’s them”, your salaries should be stopped and the money given to schools instead.

Others might suggest that Stormont is now The North’s most upmarket dole office, where those signing on can claim free travel and enjoy subsidized meals. Of course, this column could not possibly comment on such scurrilous perceptions, but it certainly shows what an ungrateful electorate we have.

However, in view of the growing belief that you have become a luxury we can no longer afford, you appear to have a choice: start working, or stop taking the money. You might argue that much as you would like to work, you cannot begin until Stormont returns.

But what is there to prevent the parties meeting (in Stormont, if necessary) to formulate social and economic policy, which could be implemented as soon as the executive meets again?

Have you three arguments against that? I thought you might. The first is that a non-sectarian Stormont would not help the electoral chances of the main political parties.

Perhaps we could solve that one by using the old Senate chamber just for sectarianism, possibly on Fridays. The Assembly chamber could be used for policy formulation on other days. (Indeed if you were in a hurry home on a Friday, you could just rush into the Senate chamber and write a few sectarian slogans on the walls, to save time.)

The second problem, you might suggest, is that the parties may not agree on social and economic policy. Well, it would be nice to see that they have some and if they cannot agree, it would at least indicate some genuine differences between the parties, which could give us a real electoral choice.

The third problem is determining which policy areas you should discuss. I would normally suggest education, but Stormont has inflicted so much damage on it at all levels, that it might be helpful if you stayed away from it. So, how about agriculture, which was probably the least contentious policy issue in Stormont?

How do you, as an MLA, propose to guarantee food security here? Yes, you. You are an MLA and agriculture is a devolved matter. So, how will you ensure that there is enough affordable food in our shops, whatever the post-Brexit agreement?

Leaving the EU will produce a vast policy vacuum, so do you favor something similar to the Common Agricultural Policy, or should agriculture revert to a free market system? (Yes, I know these are hard questions, but it is your job to answer them.)

The UK imports 80 per cent of fresh vegetables and 40 per cent of fresh fruit. With the falling pound and Brexit, food prices may jump by 22 per cent in the next few years. But we currently subsidize farmers to merely maintain grassland in good agricultural and environmental condition. Should we subsidize them instead to produce food crops?

If we tried that, most farms here would no longer have the expertise or the machinery to do so. Fortunately, we have a world-class education and training facility in the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE). So should we start re-training farmers on a large scale?

There is a high chance of world food shortages, through climate change, water scarcity, global market greed and political instability.

So how can we achieve improved food security, which will resist supply, price and safety shocks? How will we tackle increasing reliance on food banks and the problem of poor diet? What will you do to ensure the production of good quality, healthy, food affordable to all, while maintaining sustainable ecosystems and fair financial returns for food producers?

Scotland has a Good Food Nation policy, which aims to increase domestic production of food which is both healthy and environmentally sound. The Dublin government has a number of investment schemes for developing fruit and vegetable production and commercial horticulture, including bee-keeping, as part of a national environmental framework. Should we not have the same?

So what is stopping the lot of you from formulating an agreed policy on such an urgent and non-sectarian issue? Oh, of course, it is the political deadlock, God bless it. What would politicians do without it?

It means that MLAs just have to collect their salaries, eat their subsidized meals and leave the problems of the real world to those who live in it.