Belfast Telegraph

St Patrick? It's curtains for him!

By Lindy McDowell

Public money is cheap, effortless and painless. Which is why we're so very, very good at throwing it around us in Northern Ireland. In terms of the wastage of taxpayers' money we are beyond Olympic standard. We could give master classes in the subject. Funded by the public purse, naturally.

The latest example?

A 'statue', said to depict St Patrick, which has been erected on the outskirts of Downpatrick. It cost a mere £128,000.

But Nelson Mandela it ain't.

Unlike the bronze of the patron saint of celebrity hand-shakers which was unveiled recently in London, the Downpatrick job is not what you'd call true to life.

Ok, it does appear to feature a crook (a bishop's crook) and when it's pointed out to you that it's meant to represent St Paddy, you can in a squinty, impressionistic kind of way see a stick-preacher somewhere in there.

Then again, you can also see curtain poles.

That was my first impression anyway. A number of bent curtain poles (a couple of them with swirly finials) propped up against each other.

Supporters of the statue maintain that it will immediately signal to tourists that St Patrick had a close connection with the town.

Equally it may leave some visitors scratching their heads and wondering why Downpatrick has erected a statue to Harry Corry. (Not that, given the number of jobs the curtain-maker has created in Northern Ireland, this would be a bad idea.)

So is the statue of St Patrick a bad idea? Leaving aside the question of whether it's a great statue, is there really any need for a £128,000 representation of the great man?

If the point is to flag up St Patrick's connection to the town after all, couldn't this money be better spent? Wouldn't, say, a simple sign illustrating the link be more effective? Not to mention much cheaper ?

And here we come to the crux. The cost to the public purse.

The St Patrick statue is not the only - or even the worst - example of public money being extravagantly splashed around.

But it is, in a way I expect the artist never imagined, symbolic of a spending sickness that in Northern Ireland starts right at the top.

For leading the way and setting the pace in making free with taxpayers' money is the Assembly.

The Office of the First and Deputy First Minister currently employs twice as many people as 10 Downing Street.

This would be hilarious if we weren't all paying through the nose for it.

Add to this the recent acquisition of more highly paid advisors for junior ministers - making 16 in total. Then there's the jollies, the expenses, the lavishly appointed offices, the art works ...

If St Patrick was to return to Northern Ireland in a format more recognisable than his current curtain-pole incarnation in Downpatrick, his first job you imagine would not be the eradication of snakes - but a clampdown on extravagance.

Given that there are many, many areas where public funding is vitally needed - health, education, the care of the elderly to name but a few - surely the time is long overdue when we all took a longer, harder look at how public money is tossed around this place.

That St Patrick's statue could, as I say, be described as symbolic of official extravagance.

But it would be worth every penny, if it was to mark a change in local attitudes to public spending.

One that signalled 'curtains' for extravagance we can ill-afford.

From one David to another...

Since he's arrived in LA, David Beckham has suffered from recurring injury meaning he's had to sit out many of his new team's games. Where they've regularly gone on to lose.

This isn't doing Becks' reputation any great favours stateside. Nor is it helping to promote the Beautiful Game in America in the way that fans must have hoped.

If soccer, as they call it there, catches on in the US it would pay enormous dividends for the sport in general.

In Becks, LA Galaxy understandably thought they'd got a star who'd set the game alight in one short season.

It hasn't exactly happened that way.

It would be a bit of a sacrifice - but maybe we should send them David Healy?

No more lonely nights, Renee?

After his disastrous marriage to Heather Mills, Paul McCartney appears to be back on the pull. He's said to be dating Bridget Jones.

This could be v.v. interesting.

Actress Renee Zellweger has not exactly been lucky in love herself. Her marriage to country singer Kenny Chesney lasted not much longer than a Beatles' album.

That's not to say that she and Macca might not be a match made in heaven.

But it's hard to see either of them rushing down the aisle.

Maybe this is not so much about romance - more about two bruised souls finding common ground.

Paul McCartney's Lonely Hearts Club?

Troops are real heroes

On the day that a British withdrawal from Basra was announced, George Bush surged back into Iraq.

It was a PR move designed to steady nerves at home, but it's unlikely to work. With military experts queuing up to attack US strategy in Iraq, the writing's now on the wall for the Blair/Bush project. From the 'shock and awe' of the opening bombardment of Baghdad, Dubya's war has descended into shock and anguish at the rising casualty toll.

It is a conflict where the heroism of the troops is eclipsed only by the stupidity - and the deceit - of the men who sent them out there.

* According to reports, the love-in between Ian and Martin is to get an image overhaul. In future the pair will be seen to be putting a bit of distance between themselves. Apparently party supporters - both DUP and Sinn Fein - have been less thrilled by the sight of Messrs Paisley and McGuinness chuckling at each other's jokes than have the international media. Hence the decision not to be seen out together so much. A bit like Charles and Camilla in the days before they got spliced - we'll know Ian and Martin are partners, but we won't be able to see them in the same photo frame. Is it just me. Or is this place getting more lunatic by the day?

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