Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Conall McDevitt: Victim of double standards?

The gloating at Conall McDevitt's resignation from frontline politics carries more than a whiff of blatant hypocrisy about it, writes Henry McDonald

Conall McDevitt quit over an undeclared payment
Conall McDevitt quit over an undeclared payment
The UUP's Lord Laird
Sinn Fein's Joe O'Donnell
Nelson McCausland

Some of those crowing over the downfall of the SDLP's one rising star, Conall McDevitt, ought to remember the title of the post-Johnny Rotten Sex Pistols' first single: No One Is Innocent.

Yes, it is true that listening to some of the comments from his party colleagues and friends since he withdrew from politics give the impression that he is some latter-day Captain Dreyfuss, felled by some sinister cabal.

Of course, when you wipe away their tears what you see is a talented, intelligent MLA who should have known better than not to declare payments from his former employer and that, therefore, his position was untenable.

McDevitt moved from south to north having been involved back in Dublin with the Irish Labour Party in the 1990s. This was a period when successive Labour leaders and TDs laid blow after blow on Fianna Fail (and to a lesser extent Fine Gael) over corruption, ranging from back-handers for land-rezoning to brown envelopes stuffed with cash to gain political influence.

Think of the venality of the late Charles Haughey, or the jailing of his ex-Justice Minister, Ray Burke. This was why McDevitt should have known better.

He saw the corrosive influence of political graft and favours on the southern Irish body politic. He would known better than most how those who criticised such behaviour in public life south of the border should themselves be above reproach.

Yet some of the indignation being expressed – particularly on social networks like Twitter and Facebook – has a whiff of double standards about it.

One anonymous voice on Twitter from the Short Strand area of Belfast has been making hilarity over McDevitt's humiliation.

There has been no such gloating from the same quarter when it came to one of the residents of that same district, the former Sinn Fein councillor Joe O'Donnell.

Just last month, a High Court judge found that a local housing association had been "not fair or equitable" in its allocation of homes.

Moreover, commenting on the allocation of a house in the area for a niece of O'Donnell, who was on the board of the association, Mr Justice Horner had this to say: "It is contended ... J[oe] O'Donnell was not in a conflict of interest, actual or apparent, because one of the units was allocated to his niece. I do not agree. It must be remembered that 'nepotism' is derived from the Latin word for nephew."

Meanwhile, the two main unionist parties (surprise, surprise) have been relatively muted in their criticism of McDevitt's costly memory-lapse.

After all, we have a UUP peer, Lord Laird, denying newspaper allegations that he agreed to carry out parliamentary work in exchange for payment and the DUP accused of its own brand of nepotism by appointing legions of family members as staff at Stormont.

There are serious question marks over the links between the main unionist party and business figures and the Red Sky scandal still looms large over Nelson McCausland's ministerial department – although the minister strongly denies there was political interference in the running of the Housing Executive and the awarding of contracts.

Beyond all these individual instances of favouritism, lobbying and graft, there are two major issues that degrade local politics.

The first concerns the tight secrecy around party funding, with the Assembly still being the only parliament of the UK were donors remain confidential.

In spite of tenacious efforts by the Friends of the Earth in conjunction with Green Party MLA Stephen Agnew, the list of private funders and businesses to parties here remains secret.

Westminster has the power to force local politicians' hands and shine light into the funding of Northern Ireland parties. They, in turn, argue, particularly on the unionist side, that confidentiality is a security matter and that a list of party donors would become a target-list for dissidents.

Yet in the era of relative peace and power-sharing, why should anyone fear transparency in terms of party donations? It remains a macro-scandal that the people of Northern Ireland are not allowed to know who coughs up cash for political parties and who – if any – exercise undue influence on political decision-making.

The second grand flaw in local politics, which also corrupts and skews the system, is the ability of parties, mainly nationalist to receive donations from foreign benefactors and supporters abroad. The UK has outlawed the practice of allowing tycoons from overseas to influence political life.

However, in many ways, the key to extending this prohibition lies not in London, but in Dublin.

Because, even if Westminster extended the ban to Northern Ireland, both Sinn Fein and the SDLP could get around it by keeping open the foreign funding-channel using the Republic.

The only way to stop this equally dubious practice would be for the Dail and the soon-to-be abolished Seanad to make it illegal for any party to raise cash from North America (or anywhere).

So long as these two shutters blocking out the light of public scrutiny remain fastened, the goal of open government and transparent politics at Stormont remains far off.

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