Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Weekend a long time in politics

This week there was considerable media coverage surrounding the fact that Ian Paisley Junior was renting an office in Ballymena from a company apparently controlled by his father-in-law? The fact that the company was an ‘off the shelf’ company registered initially with the controversial property developer Seymour Sweeney as its sole director added to the media interest. However, what prompted most interest was the fact that the rental paid by the two Paisleys from their Assembly allowances was regarded by many as significantly in excess of the market rate.

Despite all this, it seemed that as long has Ian Paisley senior was DUP Leader and First Minister, then Paisley Junior would remain in post.

It was indicative of the rapidly shifting sands of power within the DUP that the leading figures around Paisley senior were in fact able to force him to tell his son to resign.

Ian Paisley Senior on borrowed political time?

The revelation that Ian Paisley Senior employs his son, Paisley Junior as a Westminster assistant is a ticking time bomb under his political future. Can the Paisley’s prove that while busy as an hard working constituency MLA and a Junior Minister, Paisley Junior was able to justify a salary apparently in of £10,000 as a Parliamentary Assistant. There is no doubt that Ian Junior plays a vital role in support of his father but more in his father’s role as First Minister than in the execution of his Westminster duties.

The truth is that Paisley senior’s fate probably rests in the hands of the Labour party. Much of the current interest in the use and abuse of the allowances system dates from the controversy surrounding David Conway MP and his apparent abuse of the system at Westminster. The fact is, however, that the report of the Huse of Commons Standards and Privileges Committee into Mr Conway’s conduct was damning but it was the (understandable) exploitation of the report by its Labour majority that put the nails into Mr Conway’s political coffin.

Labour MPs and (other members of the Committee) are unlikely to want to hasten Ian Paisley’s political demise quite so enthusiastically. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if the Committee didn’t get around to considering this complaint until after the Queen has visited, the Americans have appeared at the investment conference, Paisley Senior has addressed ‘the field’ on the Twelfth and gone off preaching in America or Africa in the summer. But the appointment of a new First Minister in September must be a strong possibility.

Allowances system yet another failing of the Assembly organisation

Last week we reported that the Speaker of the Assembly, Willie Hay, addressed the Northern Ireland Government Affairs Group AGM and admitted that many of the arrangements at the Assembly left much to be desired. The past week have revealed yet another astonishing failing.

How could it be that the Assembly set itself such vague rules on the use of allowances? Did it occur to no one that Westminster had some experience in this area? Would the easiest thing in the first instance not have been to replicate Westminster’s Green book and then revisit the subject at a later date? Why were the experiences of Wales and Scotland and indeed the Republic not taken in consideration?

The result of this affair has been that the standing of Northern Ireland politicians will have plummeted. This is actually unfair as most people go into politics with the best of intentions and frankly to suggest that going into Northern Ireland politics in particular was some fast track to riches is nonsense but perception is often more important than reality.

The cynic might suggest that the politicians wanted lax rules in order to subvent their parties with taxpayers money but the truth is it looks like individuals have been abusing it for personal gain. I suspect, as always the truth is more cock up than a conspiracy – those charged with drawing up these rules simply didn’t have their eye on the ball.

Don’t mention the N word

“Nepotism is the showing of favoritism toward relatives, based upon that relationship, rather than on an objective evaluation of ability or suitability. For instance, offering employment to a relative, despite the fact that there are others who are better qualified and willing to perform the job, would be considered nepotism.”

The media have performed a valuable exercise in flushing out the extent to which the allowance system is being abused both with regard to renting property and employing relatives. We have been treated to list upon list from the parties as to which party members employ relatives but there seems a reluctance to use the word nepotism even though this is obviously what is going on – it is simply inconceivable that this number of relatives would be recruited if they had all faced an open and transparent recruitment process.

Given the nature of job, one can see the logic in an MP, who has to travel frequently to Westminster and work what many who regard, has anti-social hours, deciding to employ his or her spouse. The life of an MLA frankly does probably justify the employment of a spouse. Employing other family members will strike many as an inexcusable abuse of taxpayers money.

Others coming under the spotlight

The on going investigations on allowances are likely to rumble on for some time. The DUP MLA and MP Gregory Campbell got himself into hot water on Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster while defending employing his wife as a secretary and paying her £12,000 to rent an office.

The saga of UUP MLA Billy Armstrong’s ‘portacabin’ also drags on – not only was he paying rent to his wife to but there is now some question as to whether or not it needed planning permission.

The News Letter has drawn attention to the fact that some Sinn Féin MLAs were renting space in Sinn Féin party premises.

Having reviewed the complete list obtained under the Freedm Information from the NI Assembly by the Belfast Telegraph, some of the rents seem very high – doubtless this will be part of any review in the future. While the Paisleys’ rent of £57,200 tops the league, there are a significant number of MLAs claiming over £12,000, which seems excessive for office accommodation, particularly in rural areas.

Maze Prison/Stadium decision closer?

The business case for the proposed new stadium at the site of the former Maze prison has been passed by the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL), Edwin Poots to the Finance Minister, Peter Robinson. The report by Price WaterhouseCoopers has been made public but there is no timescale regarding how long Peter Robinson will take to consider it. Nelson McCausland, the North Belfast DUP MLA has alleged that the DCAL Permanent Secretary refused to endorse the report.

Policing and Justice

Some media reports suggest that the UK Government is still working towards the idea that there will be agreement on the devolution of policing and justice in May this year. To bolster the idea or rather attempt to give it a modicum of momentum, the Government has commissioned an opinion poll which apparently shows support for the idea of devolving these powers now. None of which changes the fact that the same Government gave a veto on this issue to DUP leader Ian Paisley.

Assembly Business

The goings-on in the Assembly last week were, in contrast to the excitement elsewhere, exceptional dull. Only the debates on the Quinn murder and the Reclassification of the Terrorist Campaign raised the temperature.

Two interesting points attracting little or no coverage. One was the statement by the Environment Minister, Arlene Foster about the number of councils there are to be as part of the review of the Review of Public Administration. Mrs Foster insisted that if the Executive failed to reached agreement by the end of the month i.e. next Friday then the existing 26 councils would have to be re-elected in 2009 for another 4-year term. Some current councillors would be extremely disappointed by this as many of them as hoping to get a severance payment. More worrying is the fact that any envisaged savings in public expenditure would obviously also be delayed.

Meanwhile, Peter Robinson, the Finance Minister, has hinted that the new water tax – due to be introduced in April 2009 may be further delayed. Delayed taxes mean less revenue which will squeeze budgets even further. In addition, it means that the eventual introduction of the tax will be closer to the next Assembly election. This could be political suicide for all the parties associated with it. One only has to look at the Labour party’s current standing in the opinion polls in the UK to see what a combination of ‘sleaze’ allegations and tax rises can do to a party’s position.

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