Belfast Telegraph

Time to ground folks on the hill

Flying first class to America is fantastic but do our politicians need that luxury when the rest of us are struggling, asks Ivan Little

So for nearly six heavenly hours on my transatlantic flight of fancy, I was able to stretch out my extra-long legs and sip a different wine with every sublime course of a five star meal which took my own waitress - sorry stewardess - some hours to serve, before she pampered me with a neck massage to relax me for my film choice, with an almost endless choice of movies.

The last time I'd been offered such airborne affluence was on another unsolicited upgrade from Cairo, but I'd contracted dysentery in Egypt so New York was a new high.

The only reason my attendant was able to attend to my needs so diligently was because a Northern Irish millionaire businessman across the aisle from me didn't want any attention at all.

He'd made it clear he wanted to sleep from take-off to landing and insisted it wasn't a waste of money because he needed the shut-eye in readiness for an important meeting in New York.

How he chose to spend his money was his business, of course. But Northern Ireland's Executive Ministers, Assembly members and civil servants don't have the same excuse.

Today's revelations of the high life enjoyed by our politicians and civil servants on trips abroad allied to the disclosures by the Taxpayers Alliance that Stormont Ministers from the DUP, UUP, Sinn Fein and the SDLP have all had thousands spent on their anything-but-little luxuries aren't just eye-opening, they're positively jaw-dropping too.

Especially at a time of belt-tightening austerity for the people who put the politicians in power.

No-one expects the Stormont travellers to slum it on stand-by or to book into iffy B-amp;Bs, but four-figure bills for five-star hotels and flights are definitely way over the top.

The politicians can claim all they like - and they do - but a two day visit to Washington costing eight grand for two is a bit rich in anyone's book.

Alban Maginness is quite right to say he was working hard promoting Northern Ireland in DC but to describe the cost as 'reasonable' won't go down well with the sort of people whom another Assemblyman, Mike Nesbitt, wants to put him up for the night in a deprived area of Belfast.

The new leader of the Ulster Unionist Party has been ridiculed - by me amongst others - for his offer but maybe it is just what he says, a long overdue attempt to find out how the other half lives.

And it's certain that at the travel prices quoted by this newspaper and by the Taxpayers' Alliance, the other half will never get to sample the high life of the Folks on the Hill.

Sammy Wilson, the Minister who does the housekeeping at Stormont, clearly thinks his colleagues could be more frugal.

He hasn't exactly told them to get down and dirty but he's urging them to make economies and eschew their away-from-home comforts like expensive hotels and even dearer flights.

Sammy's advice sounds decidedly more down-to-earth.

He has apparently banned people in his Finance Department from travelling first-class, reminding civil servants and politicians alike that it's public money that's in the public purse.

His edict will probably not have been applauded by some Stormont veterans who've acquired a taste for the finer things on easy street.

I know the feeling. After years of business-classing it to London airports and catching taxis to the city centre, my former employers ordered staff to go economy and use tubes.

It was a shock to the system but in reality it was nothing more than a return to the way we all travelled in our own time when the money was coming out of our own pockets.

Which is probably the acid test in the current row.

Would the ministers, MLAs and civil servants go round the world in big-bucks and bucks fizz extravagance if they were picking up the tabs themselves?

No, you probably don't need to phone a friend for the answer.

But let's face it, politicians and other public figures are damned if they do and damned if they don't keep themselves away from the rest of us mere mortals.

Remember the hoo-hah after David Cameron flew Easyjet on a holiday to Spain? He got more stick over that than when he joined President Obama on Air Force One last month.

Only this week English newspapers sneered at actor Terence Stamp for using the bus in London.

And Lord Alan Sugar has said former Tottenham Hotspur manager Christian Gross was never accepted at White Hart Lane because he became a figure of fun for travelling to work on the tube.

No-one's asking our ministerial managers to catch the 20A or 23 to Stormont in the mornings.

But in the midst of an economic crisis when millions of people are having to pay more for food, heating, petrol, clothes and a hundred other essentials, surely it would be as easy for Stormont's top people who have to have urgent face-to-face meetings outside Northern Ireland to take to the Skype rather than to the sky.

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