Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Assembly will only be reformed when MLAs employing family members is recognised for the nepotism it is

Family affair: Robin Newton and his son Adam
Iris and Peter Robinson
Alistair Graham

What is it about Northern Ireland politicians that some so assiduously employ family members? It's always a nice irony when 'unionist' political figures betray their ignorance of the British moral universe.

In 2009, the First Minister Peter Robinson and his wife Iris, were labelled 'The Swish Family Robinson' in the national Press, having accumulated more than £500,000 a year in salaries and expenses from Westminster and Stormont – assisted by the employment of their two sons, their daughter and their daughter-in-law.

Almost a third of MLAs employ family members, but the DUP is by far the biggest offender – with the Belfast Telegraph revealing recently that Robin Newton had his wife, son and daughter on the payroll.

Sinn Fein employs none at all – but then, in that party the beneficiaries of patronage stem from Mafia-like paramilitary clans, not family connections.

And no more than a quarter of Ulster Unionist, Alliance and SDLP Assembly members employ relatives, whereas 61% of DUP MLAs do.

None, of course, could do this if the Fair Employment Act 1989 applied to them.

The act requires every other employer – with the (indefensible) exception of the churches still controlling the publicly funded education system – to have formal and transparent recruitment procedures, so the best person can get a job.

The act was the product, ultimately, of revulsion against the clientelistic, 'It's not what you know, it's who you know' culture under the old Protestant monopoly which dominated Northern Ireland, effectively challenged by the civil rights movement in the radical 1960s.

In the second decade of the new millennium, that inward-looking, sectarian culture is best embodied by the party founded in polar opposition to the civil rights movement – the DUP.

And how out of touch it is with opinion in Britain was underscored by the reaction of Alistair Graham, former chair of the Westminster Committee on Standards in Public Life, to the latest revelations: the words he chose were "appalling" and "totally shocking".

Mr Graham knows a bit about employment, as a former trade union official and he knows quite a bit about Northern Ireland, as a former chair of the Parades Commission. He urged its politicians to "put their house in order as a matter of urgency". We shouldn't hold our breath, however, for three reasons. The first is that many politicians just don't see the problem.

The Northern Ireland sub-culture of evangelical Protestantism at the core of the DUP is inherently backwardly-looking and mistrustful of modernity – a stop-the-world-we-want-to-get-off mindset epitomised by the creationist attempt to rewrite the age of the Giant's Causeway. Where on earth would open recruitment fit in that worldview?

The second is what Willie Doherty, the Derry artist, described as the "dysfunctional" political system bequeathed by the Belfast Agreement, as he appeared at his show reflecting on the Troubles in the 2013 City of Culture.

It is a basic principle of democratic systems that government is separate from the state, so that public authority does not discriminate among citizens of competing views and any party can exercise power on an equal footing, if it attracts electoral support.

In Northern Ireland, all this is back to front. Parties have been allowed to negotiate the kind of government that suits them, rather than one that embodies universal norms and they have colonised Stormont with their own political tribes, at the expense of the impartial advisory role of the professional civil service.

The third reason is the most troubling. At Stormont, only the remaining social democrats in the SDLP, the liberal Alliance Party, the ecological Greens and NI21 have a political raison d'etre that means anything in the rest of the world.

In ancient Greece – the birthplace of democracy – Aristotle said that what made man a 'political animal' was his (or her, we would now say) power of speech and so notions of justice.

And those on the red, yellow, green, or blue parts of the political spectrum can all engage in democratic deliberation, from their legitimately different perspectives, as to what a just society looks like.

But the two big parties in Northern Ireland compete only on an ethnic tug-of-war, fought with flags, parades and commemorations.

For them, there are only political Protestants and political Catholics – not the citizens who, for Aristotle, shared in the administration of justice and the holding of office in the state.

If politics is not the pursuit of the public good, then what is left is the seeking of private spoils.

Sadly, Northern Ireland is too similar to today's Greece – another dysfunctional polity, brought low by waves of patronage, in which the two main parties distributed publicly funded jobs to their own supporters while occupying power.

The only solution will come when politicians employing their families is recognised for the nepotism it is.

The greater irony is that the DUP should be the worst exponent of a word derived from the Latin for nephew – originating, as it did, with popes who still built dynasties – in spite of being celibate – via their next of kin.

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