Politicians and Their Expense Accounts

This radio studio has given us many spirited encounters over the years but the recent ones with local politicians and their expense accounts have been some of the most entertaining and frustrating. Never have grown men in the same sentence been so candid and so guarded about their wages.

We have been assured that nothing illegal has been done by our politicians in paying family members out of expense accounts. And let me repeat it. Nothing illegal has been done. And that’s good to know, our representatives aren’t breaking the law.

But we all know, at least I hope we do, that acting within the law is not necessarily the same as doing the right thing. Is it unreasonable to ask my politicians to do both? You see, fairly or unfairly, I want higher standards from elected officials. I want political AND moral leadership from them, which is why the shenanigans have left me frustrated and angry.

But there’s another thing that struck me. Believe it or not I’m strangely encouraged. Our politics now resembles the politics of everywhere else.

And here’s why. Elsewhere on the island there is a fine tradition of the clever politician. And if we’re honest, we’ve had grudging admiration towards the fly man who was susceptible to a stroke or two and whose character was as unstainable as Teflon. We even had a name for him, though I wouldn’t be allowed to say the word on radio. But the cute so-and-so* is a colourful feature on the political landscape.

What we may be seeing here is the emergence of the cute so-and-so in the Northern Ireland political class and with him, the emergence of real political scandal.

Furthermore, in the past, Westminster might as well have been a foreign country, except for those occasions when NI was an issue. But if in Derek Conway the Commons sneezed, it was our local assembly that caught the cold. And notice, it is a real, genuine political virus, that doesn’t recognise sectarian immune systems.

And that brings me to something else. Thankfully, the regulations will now change because people will demand it, and the news media won’t leave it alone until it does. It means that the electorate is galvanised round a shared issue. It’s not quite what we envisaged in the Shared Future policy documents but it’s welcome nonetheless.

And so, in closing, I want to share in the new spirit of openness and transparency, I declare that I am being paid for this piece. The princely sum of £60. But be assured I’ll not see any of it, because, in the best tradition, it is being paid to a third party….. with whom I happen to share a bed. And I’m reliably informed that it has already been spent.

Broadcast on BBC Radio Ulster Thought for the Day on Monday, 25 February, 2008

* the phrase is a common one in Irish politics, and Irish life in general. We speak of the ‘cute hoor’. The word ‘hoor’ is a variation on whore, and is used affectionately.

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