The metaphor linking the political arena with a battlefield applies in one special case.
Ex-politicians are like unexploded munitions.
Eileen Bell came into Northern Irish politics through the Peace People. From there she migrated to the Alliance Party, as General Secretary. She went into Stormont as a “top-up” candidate in 1996, and took a seat in North Down in 1998, which she held in 2003.
In 2001 Alliance was riven by debate over its future direction, which led to the resignation of Seamus Close as Deputy Leader. Bell was appointed to his place. When Sean Leeson departed the Leadership, Bell went for it. Her competition was David Ford; and it came down to the essential question of “Alliance? For heaven’s sake, why?” Bell was the builder of bridges between the communities: Ford’s LibDemery is more ideological. Ford took the leadership, effectively 2 to 1, and Bell remained his Deputy.
In 2005 she announced she would stand down, but her consolation prize was to become Speaker of the Transitional Assembly, and so she opened the new Assembly in May 2007, before handing over to William Hay.
All of which would make her, with a CBE for services rendered, a very small footnote to recent history.
Hold the front page! Politicians on the take!
The BBC’s Good Morning Ulster shrewdly interviewed Bell about the recent Stormont “sleaze”. At first this schemozzle had been a spin-off from the Derk Conway business, but has achieved a life of its own, and with good reason.
Westminster rules preclude MPs pushing money for office rental onto relatives. Not so at Stormont.
Particular attention became focused on the intricate financial arrangements of the Paisley clan. The Reverend Doctor was paying his son (already in receipt of £43,201 as an MLA and £19,609 as a Minister) to be his research assistant. They were renting their constituency offices, at £62,500 a year, from Junior’s father-in-law, James Currie. All of this, of course, was coming from the public purse. Even more curiously, that same office had been bought by Seymour Sweeney (of Causeway Visitors’ Centre fame, property developer, beneficiary of Junior’s lobbying at St Andrews, DUP member and — doubtless — general good guy) before being assigned to Currie.
Then an even more curious arrangement became public gossip. This time the cynosure of all eyes was that pillar of Presbyterian morality, Gregory Campbell, who twin-tasks as DUP MP and MLA for East Londonderry. He needs two constituency offices, so he rents one (acquired for the occasion) from his wife. Using his Stormont allowance, he pays £12,600 a year for the facility (which must set something of a record for premises in Bushmills Road, Coleraine). He then employs the same wife (nothing polygamous about our Gregory) in that office.
Enter, stage centre, Eileen Bell.
Back in 1998 she had been instrumental in drafting the Stormont Code of Conduct. Yesterday, she was saying the Code had been “abused”. She pointed to, and read out a key extract:
“Holders of public office should take decisions solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family or their friends.”
The morals of this story:
There is no such animal as a “harmless”, “nice” politician. All can, and do bite.
While you keep your friends close, and your enemies closer, there are no “friends”, only clients, in political life. Hence the regular supply of Committees of Enquiry to keep your cast-offs busy and dependent.
No politician is dead until memorial service and memoirs are safely concluded, and mine-disposal has cleared the grave for use as a dance-floor.