Thursday 24 October 2019

Are we so certain that John Perry's wife isn't the best person for the job?

Other than lame ­accusations about 'perception', what ­exactly is wrong with TDs hiring family members, asks Sarah Carey

POLITICS IS A FAMILY BUSINESS: John Perry and his wife Marie. Photo: James Connolly
POLITICS IS A FAMILY BUSINESS: John Perry and his wife Marie. Photo: James Connolly

Sarah Carey

I wish politicians had more backbone. It's so annoying to watch them cave into pressure, be it from Germans, lawyers waving the Constitution or journalists getting their knickers in a twist about 'perceived' conflicts of interest. And it really bugs me to see politicians, cowed by media mobs, abandon a core value actually worth keeping - loyalty - and dump on a colleague when he's the subject of a few headlines.

I'm referring to Fine Gael TD John Perry, who hired his wife Marie as his parliamentary assistant. I don't know much about Deputy Perry except that he borrowed too much money; couldn't pay it back and ran into a bit of trouble as a result. That puts him in the same category as half of Ireland. So, we're not judging him for that, are we?

Perry was a junior minister until he was replaced last summer in the reshuffle. The money problems weren't helping his image I suppose. Around the same time, his parliamentary assistant left his job and Perry's wife gave him a dig out by taking over some of the work. Since political wives spend their lives supporting the political effort, that's entirely natural.

Having done it on a voluntary basis for months, he officially gave her the job in January. Good. Didn't we spend International Women's Day lamenting that women's work - domestic and voluntary - wasn't included in the GNP? I'll shed no tears if just one of the wives gets some independent remuneration for the services she performs in support of her husband's career. The salary is reportedly around €38,000. If they're short of a few bob, well, you can understand even more why she should be paid. Why do it for free when it's an official post with funding available?

There have been objections, but I don't see how they stand up. First, allegations of nepotism would be fair if the job was elsewhere in the public service and/or outlived his term of office. But the life cycle of this post is exclusively tied to Perry's electoral existence.

Second, the term "conflict of interest" has been mentioned, but what is it, exactly?

The purpose of the job is to look after the best interests of the TD by looking after the best interests of his constituents. These goals are entirely consistent with one another. An actual conflict of interest would be, say, if Perry's wife were appointed to a body that allocated a suspicious number of grants or other advantages to Sligo-North Leitrim. But there's no such extraneous power here. Her job is to look after Perry. That's it.

Third, there is no waste of taxpayers' money. The post would have to be filled at the appropriate salary scale anyway. What does it matter to the bottom line who does the job once they're doing it properly?

Finally, if Perry was the only TD with a family member on staff and this was out of the ordinary, you might understand the row. But there are about two dozen public representatives who have spouses or siblings working in their offices. This isn't even anything to do with being a party of government, since family employers come from all parties and even include Independent deputies. Either this is a problem, in which case it's a problem for all TDs, or it's not. Why pick on Perry? What's so special about him?

Something obviously, because he's agreed to let his wife go after he came under pressure. Some of that pressure came from his own side. Minister Paschal Donohoe and the Taoiseach himself provided sops to media questions about the appropriateness of keeping it in the family and saying it wasn't "best practice" to hire a relation. That was disappointing. Lads, stick up for your own. There's no need to panic every time journalists decide that something is a scandal. Sometimes it's not.

Anyway, what does "not best practice" even mean?

What precisely is it that disqualifies a family member from doing the job or makes them less efficient at performing it? Isn't it the case that a family member is very often the most qualified to do the job? I grew up in a political family, and it's a family business. If you're a politician and someone has worked by your side for years, they've been bred into the job.

Everyone contributes in some form or other to the mission. There's no clocking off like other jobs. Above all, you can trust a family member (or at least, one hopes so) - which in politics is crucial. Sometimes, it's not just common sense but justice that they get the job.

Until someone can tell me that Mrs Perry did something specifically wrong, or why family members should be banned from holding office entirely, all I see is a scalp unfairly shorn from another victim's head. Other politicians shouldn't look the other way, because it could be their head in the firing line next time.

Sunday Independent

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