Watch the birdie


Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit it, but sometimes I think politicians are given a hard time. I suspect that if many of us were to be judged on the standards we expect of our politicians, we’d be found wanting.

Many a journalist has accepted gifts and hospitality, yet castigated politicians for doing the same. Likewise, the expenses scandal saw a fair degree of doublethink. In my day I’ve seen many an inflated expenses form from a colleague. But hypocrisy is part of the human condition, and harsh judgments are made.

Northern Ireland is dealing with one such instance at the moment. A golfing trip by the first and deputy first ministers.

Trips abroad – jollies in journalistic jargon – are often a target for comment in the papers. You know the stories, local councillors going to Florida to look at how bin collection is handled or visiting Amsterdam to examine how the Dutch authorities manage the vice trade.

Some of these trips can be legitimate. Politicians often need their horizons expanded, countries need to engage in soft diplomacy to build relations and foster trade, and sometimes the only way to find out how something works is to see it at first hand.

Quite what category you would put Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness’s visit to Gleneagles, where this year’s Ryder Cup is being played, is anyone’s guess. Rory McElroy certainly doesn’t need them cheering from the sidelines.

Unsurprisingly, the visit has not played well back in Northern Ireland where people are increasingly fed up of the inability of their politicians to work together.

Anyone who understands political history will be familiar with the term Rotten Borough. Northern Ireland is a Rotten Province. The Northern Ireland assembly is a disgrace to democracy.

The MLAs – 108 of them – are twiddling their thumbs while collecting their salaries and expenses. No legislation is being passed, yet major reform is needed to deal with the deep social problems that blight the lives of people from both traditions.

In that context, the visit to Gleneagles looks like a giant two fingers to the people of Northern Ireland. No doubt it will be said that their presence increases the chances of attracting major golfing tournaments to some of Northern Ireland’s exceptional links courses.

A much better way would be by demonstrating to the world that Northern Ireland is facing up to its responsibilities, and its politicians are focusing on the things which make a material difference to people’s lives. They need to demonstrate it is a functioning democracy.

Business, tourists, and multi-million pound-earning sporting events will come to Northern Ireland when people are confidence they are coming to a society that is comfortable in its own skin.

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness both have to watch their backs politically. But sometimes history calls on politicians to put their own personal preservation to one side, and to take the tough decisions needed to advance the best interests of their people.

If ever a place needs leadership, it is Northern Ireland. It will not be found on a golf course in central Scotland.