The sudden resignation of SDLP MLA Conall McDevitt was a shock on two fronts. Firstly he resigned because he felt he had fallen below the standards required of a public representative by not declaring money he had been paid from his former employers. That money, he said, was to help mentor the management team taking over from him at the public relations firm where he had previously been managing director. It was a surprising lapse on his part not to register that payment given that he has been firm on the need for ethics in public life.
The second shock was that he resigned totally from politics. That is not a option many in politics in Northern Ireland consider no matter what allegation is directed at them or even if they feel their reputation has been damaged. Nevertheless, Mr McDevitt realises that he made a serious error and has done the honourable thing by bowing out.
Yet for a man versed in the ways of public relations, he made crucial errors. The non- declaration of the money from his former employers was a stupid mistake as he admits. But earlier, the media had discovered that he had made payments to his wife and her company out of public funds. He had employed her, quite legitimately, to carry out research for him in his role as a member of the Policing Board. He had also paid consultants employed by her out of his office allowance for other research. Again this was a legitimate expense, but these dealings created a wrong impression.
This is a bitter blow to the SDLP as he was seen as a rising star within its ranks. He was adept at using the media – ironically given the role it played in uncovering his mistake – and in connecting with younger voters through social media. He also appeared to be a politician with something to offer the wider public in Northern Ireland, a fact underlined by his support within the South Belfast constituency. He will have to make his mark in some other sphere.