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Mary Kenny: Let's stop frowning on our politicians who keep it in the family

At least 27 members of the Oireachtas employ members of their own family as secretaries, personal or parliamentary assistants: some, such as Brendan Griffin TD, employs both his wife Roisin and his cousin Tommy, and some, such as Michael McGrath, Fianna Fail finance spokesman, has three members of his family on his payroll.

Deirdre Keaveney, the wife of Labour chairman Colm Keaveney has been particularly criticised because she has worked for her husband as his parliamentary assistant for 11 years.

My question is -- what's exactly wrong with hiring family members to help out with a TD's or senator's administrative work? If it is all above board, and the family member -- be it wife, husband, sister or kinsman -- can do the job competently, I can't understand why it should be considered unethical, or why the political parties are in principle opposed to it.

In all societies family members are the primary group of co-operative employment. What is a farm but a family co-operative? A huge body of social studies about Irish family and kinship patterns have been based on this template: the family farm. All over Ireland -- and elsewhere -- there are small businesses, and larger businesses, named for the owner, "and son", and sometimes, even, "and daughter".

Pubs, shops and the retail trade were traditionally built up by family co-operation, and Asian shopkeepers, whose diaspora is spread all over the world with renowned success, will attribute the success to the fact that the family pitches in -- often at much lower wages than an employee would require.

For decades, doctors and dentists have been helped out by their spouses, and in the Church of Ireland, and among Nonconformist Protestants, the rector's or the pastor's wife has always been a key element in looking after the faithful. One of the best arguments in favour of married Catholic priests is that they would have a wife and a helpmeet to give them support.

Granted, TDs and senators are paid by the taxpayer and are not in a family business taking risks with their own investments, but I don't see that this makes any substantial difference to the case. Indeed, a spouse, or a relation has every incentive to work especially hard for the TD or senator -- because there is a sense of family feeling or support and that, arguably, is providing even better value to the paying taxpayer.

At Westminster, some Members of Parliament have argued that when the wife is their parliamentary assistant or secretary, it boosts their marriage, and even prevents the member from the temptations of straying. This is especially true for MPs whose constituencies are far away and parliamentary sittings in London often involve weekly separations.

But if the spouse is present and correct, dealing with the politician's correspondent, it is more likely to keep the marriage stable. Politicians with stable marriages are probably serving the public interest better than if they are running around town with floozies -- they're more likely to have their eye on the job.

One Labour veteran, Jim Dobbin, the MP for Heywood and Middleton in Lancashire, is proud of the fact that his wife has been his parliamentary secretary for the last 35 years.

She knows the job thoroughly, he has said. She is familiar with the constituents and their problems; she is also extremely discreet about matters of confidentiality, since constituents often confide in MPs about personal matters.

Mr Dobbin knows that his wife Pat will handle it all with sensitivity; she'll not be leaking some poor constituent's personal information on a social network.

A family helpmeet who is experienced, trustworthy and serving the best interest of the MP and of Parliament -- what's not to like? Obviously, if it becomes evident that the family member the politician has hired is dishonest or flakey -- yes, then there are grounds for calling for a dismissal.

One Tory MP hired his son, who happened to be an outlandishly gay character, which wouldn't have mattered in principle except that the lad seemed to be trousering a substantial salary for doing very little except swanning around the Commons in fancy attire, and resignations were eventually required in this case.

But once a family member is doing his or her job conscientiously and correctly, I see no reason why they shouldn't be entitled to work for the Oireachtas. Does it give an unfair advantage to those not related to politicians? That can be argued, but if we start to curtail an individual's right to hire whoever he or she judges is best for the job, we might as well dismantle most of the business enterprises throughout the world. It is only common sense to recognise this as a reality principle.

I once met a rich Lebanese banker and asked him how his day went. "Well, I get to the office and I phone my cousin in Moscow. Then I phone my cousin in Frankfurt. Then I phone my cousin in Paris. Later I call my cousin in New York." "Do you only do business with your cousins?" I asked. "My cousins I can trust," he replied. That, folks, is the real world.

mkenny@independent.ie

Irish Independent