Monday, 14 March 2011

Sleazy come, sleazy go.

The real sleaze behind Iris Robinson's downfall is not the tabloid titillation, but the non disclosure of business and personal interest. But can we really expect transparency from a politician whose party opposes the notion at every turn?

Lost among the endless column inches dedicated to the exposure of Iris Robinson's affair with Kirk McCambley was the initial fact that Mrs Robinson helped raise some £50,000 in investment funds on McCambley's behalf which she did not declare to either Westminster or Stormont, and failed to disclose her personal interest when Castlereagh Council awarded him a cafe lease. It's perhaps not that surprising really, Mrs Robinson outspoken comments on morality issues, in particular her opinions on homosexuality meant that her extra martial activities were seized upon. But following the Public Prosecution Services decision last week not to bring charges against her, one would be forgiven for thinking that the real political issue has been swept aside amidst the personal life gossip and speculation.

The PPS does not go into detail as to why charges are not being brought and there is still an Assembly Standards investigation outstanding, but whatever the legal outcome there remains the issue of a serious breach of trust between Mrs Robinson and the constituents of Castlereagh who expect their council representatives to declare invested interests in the awarding of licences, tenders and leases. At the time the Council itself saw criticism levelled at it for its slow and limited online publication of council minutes - had anyone known of the existing relationship between Robinson and McCombley, could they have raised objections to the award if details of council meetings been more readily available? For a couple of weeks, clarity and scrutiny in local authority dealings became topic de jour, unfortunately this was mostly in the independent and freelance writing sphere, from online bloggers and in political forums, as much more attention was paid by newspapers and mainstream media to the 'sex scandal' aspect.

But is the now resigned Mrs Robinson's behaviour merely a symptom of a culture of non disclosure that has infected certain areas of NI politics? Though no longer a member of the DUP, while in office Iris Robinson was arguably the poster girl for the party; a long standing councillor before becoming MLA and MP, married to the First Minister and mother of party member. The criticism she and her husband faced during the expenses scandal admittedly damaged this reputation somewhat and later her non disclosure of funds and interest would most certainly have been condemned, but her affair made a far more convenient objection, deflecting from the obvious question of how do you protest against one woman's failure to volunteer personal interest, if she represents a party that refuses to publish it's own party donations, and therein, its own vested interests.

In January this year the DUP, along with the SDLP and UUP, openly moved to preserve for a further two years, the current legislation that conceals the public identity of party donors and lenders. Transparency it seems is not something that should be led by example. While we cannot cast any aspersions as to donors and subsequent decision making by party representatives, we cannot have open, clean politics until donations are declared. There is even a substantial argument that you cannot have impartiality until business donations are taken out of the equation all together. In the meantime though, I'd just be happy to see the books opened and let the public decide whether the decision making process for tenders is as fair and honest as it should be. One woman's marriage indiscretions simply won't provide a long term smokescreen on this issue...

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