Belfast Telegraph

Probe as expenses scandal rocks Stormont: If politicians were tradesmen, no one would want their shoddy work and inflated costs

Rotten to the core?

Belfast Telegraph Comment

There are very few people who disagree with First Minister Peter Robinson's contention that Stormont is dysfunctional. But the problem is even greater than that. It is not just a case of the power-sharing administration not working effectively. It is actually working to the detriment of Northern Ireland as a whole.

Fixing the processes of government would be a relatively simple matter. The compulsory coalition without opposition was necessary to instil initial confidence in the power-sharing arrangement. With maturity it should be possible to evolve to a more normal, democratic parliamentary model.

But as this week's BBC Northern Ireland Spotlight programme on alleged abuse of expenses claims by MLAs shows, the problems go much deeper than mere administrative arrangements.

Changing the mindsets of the politicians is what really needs to happen.

Any examination of their performance is enough to cause dismay. If they were tradesmen, they would have gone broke years ago with no one willing to hire them due to shoddy workmanship and inflated costs.

Take some recent examples.

The allegations of manipulation of expenses shows there is an across-the-board arrogant disregard of the electorate by the political elite. These are people who are paid exceedingly well- at least twice the average of ordinary private sector employees, but who seem to want to more through allegedly inflated expenses.

The charge sheet from the programme makes unedifying reading - claims that Sinn Fein members channelled £700,000 in expenses through a research company run by the party's finance managers - the BBC could not find any evidence of the research carried out; an astonishing £4,000 heating oil bill for one DUP MLA's office which is now the subject of a police investigation; expenses of at least one former Sinn Fein member signed without his knowledge; the SDLP using £10,000 from each MLA to run its press office and the UUP claiming £84,000 for support services.

The worry here is that MLAs may have become so cossetted from the rest of us, so removed, that they genuinely don't understand how this plays out among a population currently experiencing real financial hardships. Monies channelled here or family members employed (without interviews) there sit badly with us no matter that no rules may have been broken. It is not enough for parties to keep saying they've kept within the guidelines when it is manifestly obvious they themselves should be toughening those rules.

It is not as if our MLAs come cheaply anyway. A Westminster MP costs each constituent 65p a year; a Welsh Assembly Member costs £1.08; a Member of the Scottish Parliament £1.44 and a Stormont MLA £2.64. Yet MLAs here have the lightest workload, with one MLA per 16,565 constituents compared to one for 50,107 in Scotland and one for 40,181 in Wales.

That shows that the Stormont administration is expensive and bloated and in dire need of severe pruning. Occasionally we hear murmurs that perhaps there are too many MLAs or government departments, but there is never any real suggestion that legislation will be brought forward to create a cheaper, more streamlined administration.

And we don't even get a good bang for our buck, as our American cousins would say.

The inter-party talks trying to solve the legacy of the past, parades, flags and emblems, and welfare reform seem destined to fail again. That makes us wonder if any of the parties really went into those talks determined to solve the problems. As the talks drift towards collapse we will continue to pay out a nightly bill of £40,000 to police the Twaddell loyalist camp, money that is desperately needed for other policing duties.

While the MLAs are raking in the money, many of their constituents will be facing tough times in the coming years. Some £1.3bn will be axed from the Northern Ireland budget by 2019. That is not just a legacy of austerity and disagreement over welfare reform, but also evidence of previous financial incompetence by ministers. We will pay for that in lost jobs and axed services.

Education reform is stuck in the long grass and we continue with a system which is failing unpardonably large numbers of our children.

While high-achieving pupils can match or surpass their counterparts in any other region of the UK, some 40% of pupils don't achieve five good GCSEs and one in three secondary schools cannot be classified as good. Most shamefully of all, 5,000 children leave primary school with poor literacy and numeracy skills.

One initiative which could do more than anything to create a shared society in the longer term would be to educate our children together.

Although Stormont has a statutory duty to support and promote integrated education, it prefers to press ahead with shared education - pupils from different schools meeting occasionally to take joint lessons. But the schools still retain their individual identity and ethos which means the concept really reinforces division in education rather than breaking down barriers.

Local government reform is glacially slow with not much expectation that the 11 super-councils now operating in shadow form will deliver a most cost-effective and streamlined service to ratepayers. With their new powers such as planning, it is hoped they will not become as bloated as Stormont.

Perhaps the one thing that really turns people off politics here is the continual juvenile bickering between the parties. Take the unedifying spectacle of Gregory Campbell and Gerry Adams locking horns over the Irish language.

All they have achieved with their toxic war of words is to pollute the political atmosphere even more than usual.

But are politicians solely to blame for this catalogue of failure and ineptitude? The old adage that we get the politicians we vote for certainly runs true here. Those standing for election know that very often the contest is one based on a sectarian or tribal headcount. Policies play little part in the electorate's decision-making, especially where the contest is close. Essentially we send our politicians to Stormont with a blank cheque.

So we - or at least the diminishing numbers of us going to the polls - must share some of the blame for this rotten state of affairs. And the rub is no one is going to come to our rescue. We may throw our hands in the air when yet another revelation of incompetence or abuse of process comes tumbling out the doors of Stormont, but that is only perpetuating the problems.

We should remember that real power lies in our own hands. If we as a civic society demand more from our politicians then we can bring about change. We may not have a preponderance of candidates with reforming zeal or the vision to see outside the box but we must still live in hope.

Democracy is too precious to be neglected or abused. If we don't put pressure on the politicians to get their act together then we will just have to get used to depressing headlines for the foreseeable future.

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