In defence of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir

2 Sep 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 2 Sep 2016

How can politicians expect everyone else to take our political institutions seriously when they show such contempt for them themselves?

How far does public disconnection and apathy have to fall before the institutions themselves tumble?

Westminster has its own problems. These are so serious that there is deep concern about public reaction to the looming cost of repairing the Palace of Westminster itself; why should taxpayers be happy at MPs voting for £3 billion to fix their own building? In point of fact, an opinion survey suggested that only 47% of the population would be in favour.

The Brexit result and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn are both frequently cited as evidence of a general discontent with conventional centre-ground politics and a growing resentment amongst the electorate at being told what to do a by a class of people for whom they have little if any respect.

Post Brexit, politics at Stormont has seemed relatively serene. Yet signs over the past week have not been encouraging.

There has been a lot of evidence gathered about why people are disillusioned about the political process and politicians personally.

According to Hansard Society research just 18%, for example, think that the standards of conduct of public office holders are high and separate research from Transparency International reveals that 67% of the public believe that political parties are either “corrupt” or “extremely corrupt”. This in turn leads to 40% expressing the view that parliamentary democracy is not even necessary.

Over and above this is hangs a weariness with traditional “Punch and Judy” politics, a perceived lack of candour amongst politicians and an inability to admit to their own failings and weaknesses.

These are the three of these most-commonly-cited drivers of public discontent, the Daithí McKay affair has raised the spectre of them all - and subsequent political reaction has served to exacerbate rather than alleviate them. 

It is important to remember the full context. The Assembly’s Finance Committee has been investigating the Nama affair, whereby unsubstantiated allegations of corruption were made against the former First Minister Peter Robinson amongst others. This committee was originally chaired by Sinn Fein’s Daithí McKay. The prime source of the allegations was the loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson.

It has since transpired that Mr McKay and his fellow SF activist Thomas O’Hara coached Mr Bryson prior to the hearing which Mr McKay then chaired.

This was clearly improper and McKay resigned as an MLA once the matter came to light.

By this time, however, he was no longer chair of the committee and thus of the inquiry. He had been replaced by the DUP’s Emma Pengelly, former Special Political Advisor to Peter Robinson and wife of Richard Pengelly, a former member of Nama’s Northern Ireland advisory board who had himself called to give evidence to the inquiry (she absented herself when he appeared).

She’s done nothing wrong. But many will have been asking why, given her connections, she was nominated to chair the committee and therefore the inquiry in the first place. It is hard to believe she feels entirely comfortable in the role.

The Stormont committees are supposed to be a vital part of our democracy whereby back bench MLAs are able to hold government to account. Few members of the public regardless of their political persuasion will have been impressed with the Finance Committee’s contribution to the Nama inquiry.

But it gets worse. We now have an Opposition, but sadly it is not a sophisticated well-resourced opposition, just an opposition whose members should be wearing L plates.

A conspiracy theory was immediately hatched. It went something like this. Sinn Fein has a command and control culture inherited from the IRA, with exceptionally strong internal discipline. It is therefore inconceivable that Mr McKay did what he did without the consent, or perhaps instruction of the leadership which was now hanging him out to dry.

And as the now Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir was also on the finance committee and happened to ask most of the questions that day, he must also be in on the plot and should therefore step aside following an “independent inquiry”, whatever that means.

Mr Ó Muilleoir has denied any such involvement, and no evidence has been produced to suggest that he was. It is therefore conjecture based on a particular theory about how Sinn Fein works, grounded on the paramilitary past, nothing more or less.

To call for a Minister to step aside under such circumstances is frankly ludicrous and does not reflect well on Naomi Long, Claire Hanna (a south Belfast rival of Ó Muilleoir), everyone else who came up with the theory and the DUP up to First Minister level who went along for the ride.

It demeans politics to behave in this way, and does nothing to build confidence in politicians. To expect a Minister to step aside on the basis of a conspiracy theory creates an interesting precedent for conspiracy theorists but is not an intelligent or credible contribution to political debate.  

If and when evidence of any significance and substance was to come to light to suggest impropriety on the part of the minister, these calls could be used with more weight and propriety.

Instead, the accusations we do have are based on the strangest of premises: that a member of Sinn Fein is simply incapable of carrying out an inappropriate, downright foolish act under his or her own steam. Phil Flanagan is a case in point.  We have charted his twitter activity here, and to suggest that this was overseen by his leadership is clearly absurd.

The conspiracy theorists also ignore another, perhaps even more salient fact about Sinn Fein’s past.

Perhaps the SF/IRA connection has meant that the party has evolved rather differently than most. And there is no denying that several elected SF politicians have convictions for IRA activity. But equally members of “the republican family” will also be very much aware of surveillance activity, from State and non state organisations, and will have experience of passing on messages to others without detection. Back in the day messages flowed pretty much unhindered from and to prisoners in high security units.

It is most unlikely that grizzled republican veterans, those aficionados of secret meetings and undetectable channels of communications, would feel at all comfortable about sanctioning a high profile MLA and his constituency worker colleague using Twitter direct messages for “private” dialogue. It’s not exactly John le Carré territory, is it?

The mass resignations of Sinn Fein members in North Antrim, although cited by some commentators as evidence that McKay was used and then thrown to the wolves, is hardly compelling testament to SF’s command and control culture – more perhaps evidence that it does not have an iron grip on members any longer. It is changing.

In any event this week’s developments do not vindicate calls for Ó Muilleoir’s head.

If evidence were ever to emerge that would be a very different matter, and he would have to step down whilst matters were investigated.  

Surely our politicians, of all parties, have much more serious issues to trouble them: starting with how to ensure that we get the best possible outcome post Brexit – and, like it or lump it, they are going to have to work together to achieve that.

Is it really all that unreasonable to expect them to behave with a little more self-awareness, respect for the electorate and for the rules of evidence? Or is this destined to be a Punch-and-Judy show on a deserted beach where the participants are oblivious to the fact that nobody is watching or cares any more?


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