As the title says, what was revealed on Spotlight is no expenses scandal. As the Justice Minister rightly implied, it is in fact systematic fraud which needs to be dealt with by the criminal justice system – and also, to an extent, by the electorate.
There are numerous points here to do with:
- the distinction between potentially criminal activity and legitimate if questionable claims;
- the distinction between corrupt MLAs (and parties) and fundamentally honest ones;
- the inability of the political system to function while moral depravity (of which this is a symptom) lies at its core; and
- the inability of politicians to act to restore order to public finances while they themselves are – in limited, specific but serious cases – abusing them.
Firstly, the distinction has not satisfactorily been made between legitimate if somewhat questionable claims (say for two iPads but also for thousands of stamps) on one hand, and blatantly fraudulent behaviour (claiming for journeys which were not made on behalf of someone else) rising to straightforward tax evasion (paying sums above the VAT threshold to a company not registered for VAT). Questionable claims are not ideal of course, but they are legitimate and any expenses system will have loopholes – there is a question of honour here, of course (as a Councillor I didn’t claim everything I was “entitled” to if I didn’t feel the entitlement was truly justified), but that is to be assessed by the electorate. Fraudulent claims are a different thing as they lie outside the rules and are an indication that the rules (regardless of what they were) were being blatantly ignored, and this is to be assessed by the courts.
As such, this is a very serious challenge to our political and legal institutions. We are about to find out whether we live in a true democracy or in a mafia-like state where some people are above the law.
Secondly, it is an understandable but deeply and seriously flawed reaction to suggest MLAs are “all the same”. They are not. The very point of having elections is to boot out the ones who are corrupt, dishonest and incompetent. To opt out of elections, as seems to be the widespread view, is in fact to leave the corrupt, dishonest and incompetent ones in place. The voters have not only a role but a duty here to inform themselves and get to the polling booth to make a choice. That’s what democracy is – it is harmed when people opt out of it, and replaced by mafia-like behaviour ranging from incompetence right up to outright violence.
We in Northern Ireland should be more than aware of the penalty for not cherishing democracy – we must participate, campaign, vote and, frankly, elect the good guys (and gals).
Thirdly, we should now quit the blethering about “talks”. You simply cannot negotiate with outright liars – the ludicrous notion, for example, that one party did a deal with the Assembly Finance Department to allow it to engage in tax evasion is one such lie. This comes on top of outrageous, uncivil and plain nasty behaviour from the “extremes” on each side (in inverted commas because they are central to politics currently) which had already dripped too much poison into the process. The two Governments, who seem to have forgotten they are guarantors of the Agreement which disallows such uncivil behaviour, need to forget about negotiations and start setting some ground rules while calling out bad behaviour for what it is.
And actually, you know what, if we want to “make it work” as the excellent campaign suggests, we must accept we are going to need different political leaders. That, again, is down to the electorate.
The most serious short-term problem is the shocking state of Northern Ireland’s public finances. The scale of the mismanagement there is already staggering. Yet now we are beginning to see why some parties in particular are unwilling to implement any cuts or consider any revenue raising – they actually can’t, without obvious questions being alsed back about their own behaviour. Most stunning of all, frankly, was an MLA on my own Twitter feed suggesting “cuts” would not be necessary were it not for tax evasion – when all along his own party was evading tax! This renders the necessary financial interventions practically essential but politically impossible. It is a very serious conundrum with no obvious answer.
This isn’t an expenses scandal. It is a fundamental democratic crisis with real implications for jobs and services. We all, each one of us, need to grasp that.
To be clear, there’s no point in calling for “reform of the rules” when the issue is that the rules were ignored; there’s no point calling for an “independent inquiry” when we already know who was outright cheating, who was a bit dodgy, and who was basically honest; there’s no point negotiating when there is no trust and no justifiable basis for any; and there is no point opting out of the system if that merely rewards those who are blatantly abusing it.
Citizens and voters of Northern Ireland – it’s over to you in May!