Even Jacqui Smith had enough decency to appear chastened on this morning’s Today programme, as she attempted to explain away her expense claims. Though clearly she still believes her worst sin is failing to account for a tenner invested in blue movies, rather than spending the nation's taxes on furniture for her family's house. Gordon Brown may be taking a second home allowance, despite being housed in the most famous residence in the country, courtesy of the public purse, but at least he has made some placatory noises about scrapping the payment which he currently pockets. This contrite mood has clearly not yet reached Northern Ireland, where the First Minister reacted to suggestions that his family are receiving extraordinary quantities of taxpayers’ cash, with an aggressive rant which targeted the Conservative and Ulster Unionist parties.
Naturally Tory and UUP representatives were quick to deny disseminating a story that was carried, over the weekend, in two of the most popular tabloids. Whichever source alerted national newspapers to the extent that public money sustains the Robinson clan, it was not responsible for filling out their expense claim forms, nor did it encourage them to employ their children.
Certainly Ulster Unionist deputy leader Danny Kennedy did distribute a press release (according to his party website) which expressed concern at the level of funding received by double jobbing MP / MLAs, of whom the Robinsons are two conspicuous examples. The DUP responded by releasing a note to the media containing a rather amorphous reference to ‘legal advice’, which it was supposedly seeking, relating to so-called ‘inaccuracies’ in the UUP statement. Local media chose not to pursue a story about Democratic Unionist expense claims. The News of the World and Daily Mail were not so easily dissuaded.
Kennedy’s initial piece, which was incomparable in tone to the ‘swish family Robinson’ tabloidese which so offended the First Minister, raised important questions about the enervating effects on democracy of subsidising twice, those with double mandates. Although, to a degree, it is a symptom of their success, MLAs who also represent their constituencies in Parliament enjoy enormous advantages in terms of staffing and funding, in comparison with single mandated Assembly colleagues. Whilst the representative might be thinly spread, in terms of appearing in two separate chambers, he or she nevertheless enjoys an electoral advantage by claiming enough finance to maintain a conspicuous constituency presence. Danny Kennedy was highlighting an issue of public interest, and the DUP’s ham-fisted attempt to stifle debate is typical of the party’s authoritarian approach.
And a scene which also epitomised the DUP and its leader, unfolded in Stormont’s Great Hall yesterday afternoon. White lipped with anger, Peter Robinson, whose temper clearly was not improved by questions about his expenses, harangued BBC political correspondent, Martina Purdy, for having the temerity to ask whether perhaps the programme for government might need to be reappraised. Especially given the fact that, you know, it was based on projections of sustained growth in the economy. Not that the First Minister spat back, with his disdain, irrefutable evidence that the sums added up. Rather his contemptuous barrage was bundled with the meaningless platitude that the PfG had prioritised the economy! It was a pathetic outburst which would have shamed any politician, regardless of their position. ‘Ignorant as sin’ is the colloquialism which most readily sprang to mind.
Of course, whilst the DUP can browbeat the Northern Irish media and bully Martina Purdy, the national press are not so easily cajoled. The First Minister is badly out of step with public opinion if he thinks he can tritely dismiss queries about monies which he and his wife so eagerly claim. The public want to know why the MPs are banking two sets of the same allowance for one apartment. They are curious how the couple can sustain three expensive homes and decorate them in a style which would be considered lavish by a Bolivian drug lord, when they are both supposed to be servants of the state. The DUP is accustomed to meeting political challenges with flailing aggression; perhaps in this instance controlled humility would be more appropriate.