Claire Aiken: Standards matter - and we should all act as such

To great fanfare, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his partner Carrie Symonds have just undergone a redecoration of the rather expensive variety
To great fanfare, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his partner Carrie Symonds have just undergone a redecoration of the rather expensive variety

WITH the news last week that Eoghan Harris had been fired from the Sunday Independent for running a pseudonymous Twitter account which, amongst other things, had criticised journalists, academics and others for supposedly being “soft” on Sinn Fein, you can’t help but be drawn back to the easy stereotype of ‘how standards are slipping in public life’.

Normally in such circumstances, I tend to think ‘actually, it is a one-off’, then quickly move on to issues of so called substance. However, this time, I started to question whether such an erosion of standards in public life is so rare.

If we’re going to entertain the prospect of diminishing standards, it’s probably fair to start with Prime Minister Boris Johnson who is presently subject to at least two investigations relating to standards. As is well recorded, he resides in No11 Downing Street where, to great fanfare, he and his partner have just undergone a redecoration of the rather expensive variety.

Tastes aside, and it does seem to show a very particular taste, the budget appears to have soared above the £30,000 limit offered to Prime Minister’s for redecoration by approximately £58,000. Johnson contends that he has now met the full cost and, actually, the voters of Hartlepool don’t care very much. Well, that’s all well and good then. Thanks, but no thanks. The public deserve to know how the money was initially funded, by whom, whether it was a loan and on what terms.

Transparency lends political leaders credibility in that it can showcase that they are beholden to no-one’s interests but the electorates.

Without it, that credibility is absent and private interests can rule. Johnson may be a parody in living form, a humorous antidote to some, embarrassing to others, but that persona helps him to obfuscate around more serious matters.

The fact the Conservative Party was able to win a by-election while Johnson is being investigated for how he funded an absurdly expensive redecoration alongside a more appealing but nonetheless still luxury holiday is regardless. Standards do matter.

Now, this is by no means a party political issue, or unique to one country.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has been interviewed by detectives from the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation about the leaking of a confidential document to his friend Dr Maitiú Ó Tuathail.

‘Leaking Leo’, as I’ve seen him called, has accepted he leaked the document, but contends it was with the aim of building support for the proposals.

Well, whether or not the Garda believe him to have committed a criminal offence, freelancing government policy is rarely a good idea.

At this point, I would point to Priti Patel, who was sacked by former Prime Minister Theresa May for a series of undisclosed meetings with the Israeli government where she was also ‘freelance’, as a forewarning.

However, Patel is now Home Secretary, having seemingly shaken off very pointed accusations of bullying, which suggests that if standards are implemented they are insidious with their lifespan being shorter than warming French cheese sitting for clearance in Dover.

Maybe the Tánaiste’s fellow TDs can provide an analysis of the saga in which Mr Varadkar has become embroiled. One such opponent, Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane, referred to it as a “scandal”. Mr Cullinane is right to draw attention to the issue and scrutiny should be encouraged.

However, it also true that he was perhaps less right to be caught on camera in 2020 yelling “Up the ‘Ra” at an election night celebration.

Now, Cullinane argued there was context and that he should not have to apologise. And, come to think of it, so did the others.

In Johnson’s case he has actually now met the cost and there is therefore no issue. For Varadkar, he was actually trying to build support and for Patel, well, she actually did tell someone at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I’m beginning to sense a bit of a pattern, actually.

If your humour is of the more cynical variety, some of this can be laughed off. Either because it is too stupid or too brazen to actually do any real damage, we can smile wistfully and get back to those issues of substance.

This time, however, I think it is different. Covid-19 has given us time, probably too much, for some reflection, retrospection and even a couple of elections. It’s not an experience many of us would choose to repeat, but it has given us time to understand what is important.

Whether that is moving closer to home, achieving a better work life balance or reconnecting with loved ones, we have all registered what matters most.

For me, seeking higher standards in public life across the board is part of that, if only to do justice to the majority who do so much for society. Enough of the rule benders, and controversialists. Standards matter - and we should all act as such.

:: Claire Aiken is managing director of public relations and public affairs company Aiken.

:: Next week: Brendan Mulgrew