Yes, Ross Hussey made an error in judgment... but he deserves our sympathy, not our contempt
Rather than a scandal, politician's story speaks more about the issues of loneliness and despair, says Gail Walker
Let's be honest - some people will have been shocked to lift their Sunday newspaper and discover that a Stormont politician was sending unsolicited nude pictures of himself to someone he'd never met and arranging a rendezvous for "stranger sex" in a hotel. It's not exactly the stuff of hearts and flowers.
And yet, for all his lapse in judgment, West Tyrone MLA Ross Hussey deserves our understanding and support. Yes, some will be appalled, others will snigger, but there will be many, too, who will feel a sense of sadness and more than a touch of pity for him.
On a straightforward level, such exposure of aspects of his private life, provoking - as it will - smutty laughter - must be awful. The sense that "everyone" is talking about him and looking at those pictures will be mortifying.
As Mr Hussey said in his "unreserved apology", when he was contacted by a reporter looking for a response, he thought his "world was crashing around me".
He went on: "I was for the first time in my life almost 'struck dumb'. I was very upset. I accept fully that I have used websites and the internet to meet others and, as I am a single man, I did not think of the consequences."
For Mr Hussey - whether he remains in politics or not - this is not the stuff of vulgar comedy, this is the stuff of tragedy. Most of us would crumble upon the threat of such public humiliation.
And, of course, there are the sidebars of embarrassment. Though unintentional, there will be an element of bodyshaming. For some, Mr Hussey's "crime" isn't seeking "stranger sex", it is being a portly man seeking "stranger sex".
Of course, the reaction on social media practically suggested that sending dodgy pics of yourself to strangers was simply a routine part of modern romance. As is turning up to have sex with someone you had never met before in a hotel.
The fact remains that Mr Hussey's behaviour could be construed as reckless - especially as a member of the Policing Board. Also, put bluntly - and I appreciate this may seem to strike an old-fashioned note - the public might just expect a politician to show a bit more sense, a little more judgment and awareness of his office.
And yet, this is not a great political scandal. Rather, it strikes me more as about those poignant issues of loneliness and despair. It takes a cold person to look straight at such emotions and not be moved. Not in the sense of "there but for the grace of God go I" - for few of us go down the road of impersonal stranger sex - but we are all, in the right circumstances, capable of self-destructive behaviour involving drink, drugs, addiction and addiction to risk.
And the main driver of such behaviour is unhappiness. This is, for some a lot of the time and all some of the time, a hard, unfeeling world.
For a 57-year-old single man in public life, it must be a rather lonely existence.
Not merely because he doesn't have a partner, but also due to the strange dichotomy that all in the civic spotlight must bear: on the surface, they must be the smiling, friendly public man with the ready quip at the opening of this centre and that charity cheque handover; Mr Affable when meeting constituents; across every issue, dealing with Jimmy McGinty's dispute with the council, like Zeus having the answer to all the political issues of the day.
It can't be easy to spend your life as "the man in the big picture".
Perhaps behaviour such as Mr Hussey's doesn't so much speak of moral hypocrisy, but of a person at the end of an existential tether, a person not wishing to destroy themselves, but rather wanting to take a break from the responsibility of being "Ross Hussey".
He isn't the first to feel trapped by their own lives and wishing - if only temporarily - to break free.
Can any of us deny that we haven't been subject to such thoughts?
All of which is why Mr Hussey should not hang his head in shame and leave public life.
Since the story broke, the UUP MLA has been swamped with messages of support from the public, his party is standing behind him and politicians from other political parties have expressed understanding.
Even in Northern Ireland, we are changing in regards to our attitudes towards sex. This is not 1957 anymore. We are more tolerant, less easily shocked and less willing to condemn.
We want representatives to carry out their public duties with vigour and honesty. Mr Hussey works hard for his constituents, who returned him to Stormont at the recent election, and has long been involved in charity work, including being a trustee of the Royal Ulster Constabulary GC Foundation.
Judging by the response to last weekend's events, people like him, pure and simple. That's not a bad basis for launching a comeback.
The older you get, the more you realise there are very few things there is not a way back from.
Often, people are kinder and more understanding than you think.
Who knows? There may even be some sort of relief in finally being able to talk about some of the issues that may be troubling him, such as feeling lonely, or isolated?
As Mr Hussey says, he has made a grave error of judgment. Except, in the great scheme of things, it wasn't that grave - he wasn't involved in anything illegal.
He didn't murder anyone, or commit fraud. He went online to meet people to have sex, he sent some photos that he admits he'd have been wiser not to send. He has paid for it.
He merits sympathy, not outrage, or contempt.
Follow me on Twitter at @GWalker9