Stormont’s unenlightened attitude to expenses and the oversight of public money…

It’s hard to say that when we are talking about expenses, that the figures concerned are hugely significant when it comes to overall fiscal spend in government.

Spotlight’s well researched part two on MLA’s misadventures in claiming expenses showed that each of our political parties have fallen into the ‘free money’ well of the Assembly’s under regulated expenses regime.

We’re not talking about massive overruns on a £30 million public contract for instance. Nevertheless, as David Ford put it this morning:

“What last night did was raise a number of questions which need to be subjected to a proper inquiry,” he said.

“The system may be dysfunctional, but that doesn’t justify people pushing the boundaries to the edge of the system or possibly, as seemed to be alleged last night, beyond what is reasonable.”

Almost every case was a question of either putting the interest of party, or more often the individual MLA ahead of the public interest. In the case of the UUP it was handled incompetently, the DUP the intriguing question of wider relationships re-emerged, the SDLP just plain odd and with Sinn Fein the problem appears to be comprehensive and corporate.

The name of Research Services Ireland came up:

Over the past 10 years, 36 different Sinn Féin MLAs claimed about £700,000 in total through Stormont expenses to pay Research Services Ireland.

Martin McGuinness alone claimed £42,000 over 10 years for the expertise of the company.

The company is run by Seamus Drumm and Sinead Walsh, who are in charge of running Sinn Féin’s finance department in Northern Ireland.

That name will be familiar from the McDevitt ‘scandal’, where we pointed out there was only one serious issue in this regard.

Was there work done for that £700,000, or not? If not, then that money was claimed under false pretences. Likewise the fuel claims for Davy Hyland’s non existent use of fuel from Newry to Belfast.

No evidence we’ve seen suggests that Mr McDevitt did not have work done. Nevertheless, under extreme political pressure he resigned his seat and has now left politics.

What next? Well Sir Alistair Graham has already called for an inquiry into renting arrangements after last week’s programme. The sheer scale of this problem suggests that there’s need for a quick but thoroughly independent paper check inquiry into the legitimacy of expenses claimed.

That then should lead on to a comprehensive overhaul in the expenses regime.

What’s concerning is where the political will lies on this. With the exception of the Alliance and some of the smaller parties, everyone has some dirty washing here, though none on the Mumbai lunchbox scale that Sinn Fein have been practicing.

What’s frustrating here is that these are merely the foothills of the problem. If MLAs are so handily putting their own interests ahead of the public’s, what are the chances of them catching serious (ie, multi million pound) corruption within the system?

All across Europe (not just Northern Ireland) democracy is under siege, and public trust is falling… It’s important that the problem is not only recognised, corrected and then fixed but seen by the public to be so done.

All of this runs the risk that we get threatened with the ‘if you make us do the right thing we’ll all fall apart you won’t be able to fix us routine. That is a danger, and more than that neither Dublin nor London has the bandwidth they did a generation ago to broker a new fix.

Open government must start at home. That means raising expectations of government, not lowering them. And not treating Sinn Fein as though as a piece of a little bit weee and a little bit wooo style entertainment.

Genuine equality (ie, not the trojan horse type) means equality under the law first and foremost. If not, it’s not only not a trojan horse, it isn’t equality either.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty