The great gravy train on the Hill


So farewell then to Conall McDevitt MLA, whose short foray into the world of local elected politics added greatly to the gaiety of the nation.

There is no point in raking over the ashes of his departure from the great gravy train on the hill, but we should be thankful to him for allowing us a glimpse as to how the political class at large behaves with the money that is extracted from our pay packets and wallets.

Mr McDevitt, as an MLA and member of a quango, was commissioning tens of thousands of pounds worth of research every year, as he was perfectly entitled to do.

There are 108 MLAs plus an unknown number of others cluttered around the boardrooms of the quango industry, enabled to spend your taxes with similar abandon.

That is an awful lot of money that could be getting thrown around with very little control.

The first question that springs to mind is why are MLAs and quangocrats handing out research work to academics and consultants? Should that not be the work of our legions of civil servants?

What oversight is there as to how this money is being spent? Are checks being made to ensure that all this research is even necessary or that the information being sought is not already sitting about on a shelf? Do we know if the research being bought is in the public interest and relevant or is there anything to stop money being pushed towards colleagues or favoured campaigning organisations to produce skewed, partisan, position statements dressed up as research?

What sort of quality control is placed on this work? What is to stop MLAs commissioning trivial research on a whim?

Should research, paid for by taxpayers, not be put in the public domain? Or at least put out to public tender?

This laxity may help to explain why, in recent months, we have seen the local political classes block any and every attempt to introduce greater transparency to their activities.

The Assembly has ensured that Northern Ireland retains one of the most draconian libel regimes west of Moscow, making it difficult for the media to probe and poke around for political peccadilloes.

Local politicians have set their face against legislation to regulate the activities of lobbying organisations and Northern Ireland retains a heavy cloak of secrecy around political donations.

The upshot of all this is that you are unable to see who is handing cash to your elected representatives, who they are spending their time with in return, and who they are giving your money to.

We are not allowed to see if the political classes are harvesting donations from those upon whom they bestow the favour of taxpayers’ money, or if decision making is being bent to the will of those who push the most money into the coffers of the political parties.

This is less than ideal, in fact it stinks, and contributes to the erosion of trust between the public and that elected institutions, particularly after the series of lobbying and expenses scandals in Westminster, in which Northern Ireland politicians have featured prominently.

And Stormont’s elite seem to have put themselves above legal scrutiny.

When Ruth Patterson, a lowly councillor, made some stupid comments in a social media discussion about a hypothetical attack on a republican rally, the sort of slabbering heard nightly in public bars, she found herself arrested and charged.

In contrast, when Gerry Kelly, one of the big beasts of Stormont, and a member of an organisation that actually committed the sort of vile acts that Ms Patterson merely fantasises about, made a speech that could be construed as promoting terrorist barbarity, nothing happened.

When Stormont interloper Jim Allister referred the matter to Douglas Bain, the Assembly Standards Commissioner, still nothing happened.

The commissioner refused to investigate, not because the complaint was considered to be without merit but because, the modern day Poo-Bah said, there was a conflict with another of his roles.

Because he has two jobs, if the matter is to be investigated someone else will have to do it, at an additional cost to the taxpayer.

This is the sort of stuff usually only found in the most absurdist of satires, yet because it is Stormont, no one bats an eyelid.

Increasingly the public is seeing a small regional assembly, of indifferent capability and responsible for a population and economy smaller than many European cities, becoming the home of an arrogant, disconnected, spendthrift, jet-setting, elite that have set themselves above any normal standards of scrutiny or accountability.