Belfast Telegraph

MLAs go back to school... to learn how to be better politicians

Taxpayers and US tycoon fund £600k Stormont training

By Adrian Rutherford

Anger has erupted over plans to spend £600,000 on classes teaching Assembly members how to be better politicians.

MLAs will take part in a series of events aimed at improving their political skills.

Courses include managing their online reputation, becoming a better communicator and writing more effective speeches.

One will even instruct them how to perform like actors to increase "confidence and creativity".

The project will be funded by a £600,000 donation from Chuck Feeney, an Irish-American billionaire turned philanthropist.

But it will also have a £60,000 contribution from the taxpayer.

Last night, one MLA branded the scheme "farcical", saying the money should have been better spent. "One of these classes is how to be more like an actor - the idea of being trained to turn out like George Clooney or Cate Blanchett is farcical," said Ukip MLA David McNarry.

"We need real people, not cardboard cut-out politicians."

The £600,000 is being donated by Atlantic Philanthropies, a charity set up by Mr Feeney in the early 1980s. To date it has awarded tens of millions of pounds to education, health and peace-building across the island of Ireland.

Mr Feeney also gifted £400,000 to the Assembly five years ago.

Atlantic Philanthropies said the latest donation would support "the development of political leadership".

The money will be spent by the Northern Ireland Assembly Legislative Strengthening Trust (NIALST). It was set up by the Assembly Commission, the body which runs the Assembly.

The trust administers the fund and the programme is delivered under the brand name Politics Plus.

Part of the donation will be spent on events to promote women in politics, and classes covering subjects such as social media and effective questioning.

It will also fund courses on communication skills, and how to write and deliver better speeches.

Mr McNarry said: "Politicians need to win the confidence of people, and this is no way to do it. Once again this makes a laughing stock of us and simply wastes money.

"Mr Feeney's charity has done immense good in Northern Ireland, but he has picked on the wrong thing this time. I can name 10 other uses for £600,000 that would benefit Northern Ireland.

"If you can't make a speech or write a speech, you shouldn't be in the Assembly."

Independent MLA Claire Sugden said it was important for MLAs to broaden their skills base.

"In Northern Ireland, we are often criticised for the ineptitude of some of our politicians, and I think it's a fair criticism as the performance of some MLAs is better than others," she said.

"My role as an MLA is to serve the people of East Londonderry, and I will do that to the best of my ability. So any skills that will help in doing that are very welcome.

"People forget that the responsibilities of a politician are quite serious. If this was any other profession, you have continued professional development. So why shouldn't we have that as elected representatives?"

Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson, one of NIALST's trustees, defended the programme.

"Politics Plus has provided an opportunity for skills improvement," he said. "An opportunity for MLAs to cover a range of subjects which in other jurisdictions simply don't happen or, if they do happen, they happen at the expense of public funds.

"We've been very fortunate to deliver that cash to allow the public at least not to be putting their hands in their pockets."

The Atlantic Philanthropies website said the donation was "to enhance the capacity and capability of the Northern Ireland Assembly by supporting the development of political leadership with Members of the Legislative Assembly".

A spokesperson said: "The over-arching objective of Atlantic's grant-making in Northern Ireland is to cement peace and contribute to building a more equitable society that protects rights and strengthens democracy.

"Recognising the importance of political leadership to cementing the peace, Atlantic has provided support to Politics Plus to enable them to continue to provide independent, effective and creative progr ammes for those involved in politics and public life."

List of courses

  • Scrutiny of legislation
  • Effective questioning
  • Speech writing
  • Speech delivery and communication
  • Social media
  • Women in politics
  • Young female leaders academy
  • Twinning programme
  • Youth programme
  • Northern Ireland Assembly/National Assembly of Wales joint initiative
  • Political leadership programme
  • International
  • Pathways - Local government and public service development programme masterclasses

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