Belfast Telegraph

Do we really need to spend £600k telling leaders how to speak?

By Liam Clarke

Charles Chuck Feeney ranks as one of the most enigmatic and generous people in human history, but is his money being well spent on projects like teaching MLAs to speak like actors?

Is Stormont really a charity? Or is this enigmatic tycoon helping our squabbling politicians to a better place?

The Irish-American billionaire, unlike the ministers who are receiving his largesse, normally travels standard class.

Even his children don't expect much when he goes. He reckons too much unearned income can put young people off the rails. It is the task of his charity, Atlantic Philanthropies, to get rid of all £5bn before he dies; so far, they have disposed of over £4bn.

In February 2011, he wrote to fellow philanthropists Bill Gates and Warren Buffet saying, "I cannot think of a more personally rewarding and appropriate use of wealth than to give while one is living - to personally devote oneself to meaningful efforts to improve the human condition. More importantly, today's needs are so great and varied that intelligent philanthropic support and positive interventions can have greater value and impact today than if they are delayed when the needs are greater."

He has been giving to Northern Ireland since 1990. Initially, unionists were suspicious because some early donations went to develop Sinn Fein's political capacity or funded restorative justice schemes. When it became clear that this help was dependent on moves towards peace, most unionists have either accepted the purity of his motives or, at least, liked the colour of his money.

Atlantic Philanthropies help our universities and a host of charities with major endowments. The first donation to the Assembly was £400,000 in 2010, for "Building Political Leadership Capacity at the Assembly". Judging by events since 2010 that wasn't enough and now Atlantic have coughed up another £600,000 for a new "Politics Plus" programme.

It will encourage women into politics as well as training MLAs in communications, speech-writing, research and how to use stage techniques when speaking.

When we listen to some of the speeches offered up in the Assembly, read out from civil service briefings in a halting monotone, it is obviously inadequate. The answer which occurs to most people is that we should have fewer MLAs, not that we should get training grants for the duffers.

Of course it is Mr Feeney's money and he can spend it how he likes. This is money which will flow into the local economy through training and lobbying companies.

We are better off than if we didn't get it.

The committee which distributes this money is the Northern Ireland Assembly Legislative Strengthening Trust (NIALST). The details on its website are not up to date but it consists mainly of MLAs, as well as communications experts like Quintin Oliver of lobbying firm Stratagem. The voters, and not just those who give or receive the courses, should be represented and consulted.

Most of us would agree with efforts to encourage women, ethnic minorities and other underrepresented groups into politics. We might question the priority of teaching acting techniques to some of the comedians at Stormont. Effective communication is important but we have already spent £400k on this stuff and we shouldn't really be voting for people who can't communicate in the first place.

Given a choice, most voters would probably rather see the money spent on teaching our politicians to communicate in a comprehensible, transparent way. They should be taught their duties under the Freedom of Information Act and the necessity for compromise.

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