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Downtonesque delusions of grandeur in the excesses of these two aristocrats


Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson

Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson

Extravagance: The sense of entitlement at the office of the First and Deputy First Minister echoes the opulent TV drama Downton Abbey

Extravagance: The sense of entitlement at the office of the First and Deputy First Minister echoes the opulent TV drama Downton Abbey

Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson

With double the staff of the Prime Minister at double the cost, our First Ministers would appear to have rather grand ideas about their roles. It's a pity, says Malachi O'Doherty, that the big entourage hasn't delivered big results.

The building has gone to their heads. It was built to symbolise immense power that existed only in the imaginations of our unionist forebears. Before Stormont was erected into a commanding position in the Castlereagh Hills, over the whole of Belfast and much of Co Down, the founding fathers of the first devolved state had conducted their deliberations in Belfast City Hall, itself sufficient for many a delusional power-monger, you'd think.

There was a lot of that kind of thing in Belfast. The inflated self-esteem of burghers, bankers and clergy has left us Assembly Buildings, the Custom House and St Anne's and St Peter's Cathedrals.

It is as if this place has never been able to grasp a proportionate sense of its own importance.

By contrast, Leinster House in Dublin looks marginally grander than your average municipal library.

Of course, the sheer swell of Stormont was one of the engines of the peace process.

Tony Blair calculated that the prospects of governing from a palatial spread that would have sat well over Prague or Budapest, where they know about puffed up ministries, would just be too enticing.

A perfect symbol of the hauteur of small men, it would have been better turned into a museum or hotel than risk the prospect that another generation of local politicians would go in there and start to imagine they were princes.

Lord Brookeborough, when Prime Minister, conducted himself like royalty.

When he was about to go off to Australia for three months, he invited the BBC to his residence to see him relax with his dogs. It was a kind of farewell card to his subjects.

He didn't give an interview of course.

Why would he subject himself to the indignity?

Now, who does that remind you of if not the remote and cautious duo at the top today.

Maybe if we had put our parliament in, say, a decommissioned school building, the ministers wouldn't have lost the run of themselves. When the parties met first for their early deliberations on the peace process they were given a floor of the old Co-op building in York Street. I never saw anyone complain that there wasn't enough marble or oak or that they couldn't see from the window if the Mountains of Mourne were still safely intact.

Maybe a building that was better shaped for work than for inflating self esteem would have reminded our First Ministers to be a little more efficient and parsimonious.

Then they mightn't, for instance, be spending so much money on staff for themselves.

Now, it is hardly comparing like with like to say that Number 10 Downing Street has 184 staff and therefore the First Ministers should have more or less.

They aren't doing comparable work.

The Prime Minister may need 184 people to answer his phone, write his press releases, book his flights, make scones for foreign dignitaries, rub his shoulders, for all we know.

Would our First Ministers need double that number, there being two of them? Well, that would be a fatuous thing to say. Maybe the First Ministers have responsibilities that the Prime Minister doesn't have.

Maybe they do more of their work in their offices while the PM does all of his on a laptop by the fire in the living room.

Still, the plain fact that our boyos on the hill do have double the staff of the Prime Minister, and at more than double the cost, seems an unlikely reflection of plain practical realities.

Offumduffum, as OFMDFM is phonetically alluded to, employs 367 staff at a cost of £16.6m.

This for a region of 1.8 million people.

These figures have been pulled out by Jim Allister, the unofficial Opposition at Stormont which has no budget at all apart from his own salary and expenses.

Offumduffum says this is all meaningless.

Take the claim that their office in Stormont is on its way to being as big as Obama's White House if expansion continues. Doesn't mean a thing, they say.

Obama has 454 staff compared to Offumduffum's 367. Offumduffum is a "functioning department" with a "range of directorates".

So, for instance, the Commission for Victims and Survivors and the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry are funded by Offumduffum.

That whopping budget covers 124 people in the Equality and Strategy body, 55 in Executive Services and 36 in the Executive Information Services.

Jim Allister lights on the Equality body and the Press Office as the part he would most like to see cut.

Others would make their choice elsewhere.

Stormont operates on intensive news management. Journalists claim that, instead of being facilitated in covering events, they are provided with the photographs and press releases after they happen.

And too often the role of the press officer seems to be to refuse access, to say "No Comment" rather than to ease the flow of information about how our government works.

An answering machine could do that.

Offumduffum has the look of a department that has turned into an empire, a government in itself. It runs offices for promoting Northern Ireland in China and in the US.

It runs the social investment fund and arranges also for telegrams from the Queen for people deserving of congratulation.

It does more than the two men who lead the office could possibly manage or even keep in their heads.

And all that diligent work on fairness and equality and social development hides the fact that the big strategic decisions which those men should be making are stalled and that they have no agreement between them on how this place is to be shared and how communities are to respect each other in public spaces.

If they had we wouldn't be going through yet another talks process to find big answers to old and simple questions.

Northern Ireland is about the size of Connecticut.

For a third more of what our First Ministers spend on their responsibilities, Barack Obama can govern Connecticut and 51 other states.

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, if they had their budgets and their responsibilities trimmed and were answerable for less, might concentrate more intently on what matters; which is stabilising this society and insuring its future, not empire building beyond the reach of their own capacities.

Maybe if, instead of indulging Downton Abbey fantasies, they went to work every day in a simple office in the centre of town and shared a desk and a filing cabinet and had one secretary and one press officer between them, and left equality and inquiries to the other ministers, they might get more done.

Maybe if they worked small they would be able to think big.

Belfast Telegraph