‘Compare and contrast’ was a very popular English essay mechanic during my secondary school years. It came to mind as I remembered that the summer pressure festival, known as the Junior and Leaving Certificates, begin this week. It was also in my head due to the ongoing political expenses scandal that is raging on both sides of the Irish Sea. Like the volcanic ash cloud, it comes and goes sporadically. It had a huge effect in the UK last year and we watched as the Press outed British MPs for squandering taxpayers’ money. The frivolities ranged from second homes to expensive duck houses and overly fancy plates. As the debacle unfolded, I remember thinking at the time that if such a hunt was conducted here God alone knew what would be unearthed. I wondered if any Irish TDs were feeling distinctly uncomfortable as they watched the inevitable fallout on Sky News.
It is very difficult to try and compare what goes on here with the UK.
While they are our nearest neighbours and many elements of our pop culture cross over, in population terms alone we differ so enormously that you are not even close to comparing like with like. Our attitudes also appear to be quite diverse. We have a much higher anger threshold for political skullduggery, nepotism and the general nod and wink political culture that exists. In fact you could go so far as to say we celebrate it somewhat. The current Anglo fiasco and NAMA bail out are possibly the greatest examples to date. On the face of it we would appear to be a more tolerant and forgiving nation than the British, but I’m beginning to wonder if we are just plain naive and stupid. Maybe we should consider changing the name of our seat of government from Dail Eireann to ‘Hard Luck Stories R Us’.
A few short weeks ago David Laws was appointed Treasury Chief Secretary under the new government in the UK. Within a week of his appointment he had resigned and his career was in tatters. Parliamentary watchdogs had investigated his expenses claims and found that he had legitimately claimed £40,000 over a number of years for rent, but he was renting from his boyfriend which is not allowed under the new rules. The irony of this particular disclosure was that if David Laws had been honest about the fact that his landlord was actually his partner, they would have been entitled to more money!
Mr Laws said he didn’t disclose the information as he didn’t want to disclose his sexuality. A plausible enough reason but the bottom line is that you are not allowed to rent houses or rooms from a partner and he knew that. Within 48 hours David Laws had resigned. Those that spoke about him afterwards were adamant that he had devoted his life to politics. They called him dedicated, a workaholic, a genuine guy with the best interests of the country at heart. His own statement to the press was dignified and responsible, “Ultimately I alone have the main responsibility for deciding how to react to recent events. I have therefore today spoken to the prime minister and the deputy prime minister to inform them of my decision to stand down. This is my decision alone. I do not see how I can carry out my work on the budget. At this time, the Chancellor needs a chief secretary who is not distracted by personal troubles. I regret leaving the Treasury and such vital work which I feel my entire life has been leading up to.
“While my recent troubles have been caused by my desire to keep my sexuality secret, I cannot now escape the conclusion that what I have done was in some way wrong even though I did not gain any financial benefit from keeping my relationship secret.”
I have no doubt that in this country there are people milking the system for all it is worth. There will definitely be revelations and while there is some consolation in watching the arrogant get their comeuppance, I’m sure it is sickening for the decent politicians to watch as the political foundations are further eroded.
A message to those with their noses in the money trough. If exposed as doing something wrong, take the honorable route. Put your hand up and resign because there is no excuse in times like this for taking more than you need. We may have laughed it off as a perk of the job in previous years but the mood is distinctly different these days and, frankly, it really isn’t funny any more.