Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 26 November 2014

After these recent scandals just who can we trust now?

Who would have believed that the reputation of two of our most revered institutions would be ravaged by scandal in the same week?

We have witnessed more than just a shot across the bows of both the British Parliament and the Irish Catholic Church. They are holed broadside and listing perilously and are hit now by a tidal wave of public anger and disgust.

They may not be sunk by the scandals but their authority is submerged, so much so that the lifeboats are all launched and a huge rescue operation is necessary to save their reputations.

The past has caught up with the Irish Catholic hierarchy. No one can be sure what the future holds for the British democratic process. We can say with certainty that neither of these venerable institutions will be seen in the same respectful light again. The damage to the image of both is incalculable.

From cardinals and bishops to prime ministers and political party leaders, the message is the same. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. The word reverberates from the confines of the Vatican to the Mother of Parliaments. At every turn of the news pages of the papers, priests and politicians are now bending the knee in embarrassment and contriteness.

These are worrying times for the fabric of our society. The old order of Church or State to which so many have adhered with unquestioning loyalty in the UK and Ireland has self-destructed in our faces. The more the truth is revealed of the financial abuse of tax-payers' funds or the sexual abuse of school children, the more it hurts and our society is left to pick up the pieces and ponder: what next? Can we ever trust them again? The abuse of power and privilege in these islands was carried on by those who did not want us to know the truth. Some are now found out as highly dishonourable members of the British parliament; others, alive and dead, as appallingly Unchristian Brothers or Sisters of No Mercy in the Catholic Church.

The influence of the Catholic Church and indeed of churches in general on this island has declined exponentially in only three decades. The terrible admissions of abuse published last week may well serve to accelerate that demise as a new younger generation moves into uncharted secular territory and turns its back on segregated education.

Unfortunately justice will never be done in the cases of the thousands who suffered but we do have the reassurance that in today's world, such abuse could not be covered up for long. This brings me to my central point about both the British and Irish scandals. They occurred because people turned a blind eye, or were not sufficiently inquiring, or because those who were in control kept information from us.

There is a new order now. Transparency and openness thankfully replace secrecy and cover-up. We want no more one way mirrors whereby politicians and priests see us but we cannot see them. The process of re-selecting candidates or selecting new ones in every party needs to be taken more seriously by delegates. If this had happened in the past, the political system would not be in its current mess.

The suspicion remains that too many party delegates simply rubber-stamp the election of a candidate and seldom inquire how their MP is performing. Delegates have the right to probe and must ask questions about their MP. How many hours have been spent at Stormont, how much time has been devoted to Westminster, how an MP justifies his or her expenditure and what each has achieved. It is time to insist on a more rigorous and regular appraisal of what our 18 Northern Ireland MPs do for their money.

For example, it is several months since I raised the issue of “double-jobbing” in this column. Of 17 double-jobbing MPs at Westminster, 16 come from Northern Ireland. That is indefensible. As David Cameron has pointed out, this is arguably as pressing an issue to resolve as the expenses scandal. With the next election around the corner, the issue of the double-jobbing MPs must be resolved swiftly.

First Minister Peter Robinson says his party will act on double-jobbing by the time of the next General Election. If I were a member of the Democratic Unionist party, Sinn Fein or the SDLP, which have 16 double-jobbing MPs between them, I would insist that my party ended the practice forthwith and selected new candidates for Stormont or Westminster. People in every constituency must be able to examine their MP's expenditure of public funds. I hope that the media here will continue to hold them all to account. The parties, not least the DUP which has more MPs than any other, are keen to tell us of the misgivings they have had about the expenses system at Westminster and how they would reform it.

The collective comments of all the parties would hold a lot more credibility if they had opened their mouths much earlier. Instead they filled their boots, like most other MPs with the generous expenses which were on offer.

The expenses exposure has been a triumph for the Daily Telegraph. Other media, including this paper, are also keeping politicians on their toes and undoubtedly, spurred by the public's concerns, will continue to do so. In this age of instant communication, of mobile phones, the internet, and an inquisitive print and broadcast media, it is inconceivable that either the duplicity of some MPs or the abuse in the Catholic education system could occur again.

If politicians at Westminster and Stormont and the civil servants and public relations teams behind them, have not got the message that transparency and openness are the future. and secrecy and cover-up belong to the past, they do not deserve to be in the positions they hold. Politicians have been discredited — not by the media — but through their own greed. They have no one but themselves to blame.

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