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Martina Devlin: Ex-TDs can make amends with community service


A FLOCK of former politicians is about to hit the jobs market as TDs, ministers and Taoisigh vacate Leinster House by the dozen -- you wonder where they'll all find work.

Some are retiring, others will shortly be retired by the electorate. But are there enough consultancies and directorships to share round? The EU isn't likely to be marinading the fatted calf for them. They can't all go to the Aras or the Mansion House.

So what's a previous Master of the Universe to do, now that his or her universe has shrunk to domestic parameters?

The need to find paid employment is less pressing in a number of cases, where pension entitlements are aristocratic by the standards of any republic, let alone a banjaxed one. Certain ministers and Taoisigh spring to mind here.

But former top dogs aren't always content to snooze in the sun, especially if they happen to be relatively young and energetic. After licking their wounds, they'll want something to do.

So I have a suggestion for our one-time leaders. Forget status. Forget fancy titles. Forget paid employment -- most of you have income enough.

Do something for others instead. Make reparation for your sins of omission and commission, your years of chancing your arm and pulling our legs. Try voluntary work.

Take the English politician John Profumo as your role model. Profumo was secretary of state for war in a Tory government, who fell from grace for sharing a call girl's favours unwittingly with a Soviet spy.

When tongues wagged about his affair with Christine Keeler and the potential security breach, he lied to the House of Commons. His evasions only prolonged the inevitable, however, and he was obliged to resign in 1963.

At which point his story really becomes interesting. Profumo had considerable inherited wealth, along with a baron's title which he chose not to use, but he neither retired to a country estate nor plotted to inch his way back up the greasy pole.

Instead, he did something strikingly original -- something that deserves to be copied. He parked his privileged lifestyle and quietly started cleaning toilets for a charity in the East End of London.

For the rest of his long life, Profumo worked tirelessly for the poor and underprivileged of the East End, basing himself at Toynbee Hall in Tower Hamlets, still one of the most deprived boroughs in Britain. When he died in 2006 at the age of 91, after a lifetime's devotion to fundraising and other good deeds, he was Toynbee Hall's longest-serving volunteer.

"He made a serious mistake but . . . underwent a journey of redemption and gave support and help to many, many people," then prime minister Tony Blair said, leading the tributes after his death.

"He atoned for his mistakes," said former Tory minister and journalist Bill Deedes.

"What he did, and continued to do until quite recently, was a very long stint of social work for the poor of east London, and if that isn't considered to be sufficient atonement for the mistake he made, then there is no such thing as forgiveness."

What will the obituaries say about Brian Cowen, Bertie Ahern and other members of their cabinets? That they loved their families? That should be a given. That they held important posts in the Irish State? Indeed they did. But how did they fulfill their duties? And in cases where their judgment was found to be flawed, with disastrous consequences for citizens who placed their trust in them, how did they respond?

If any outgoing politician is looking for a new direction, John Profumo is the way to go. Not that I'm putting mops and buckets into the hands of our erstwhile top tier -- well, maybe for a few months; it might help them to re-acclimatise after cabinet life. But they have to find a way to make restitution, as Profumo did.

It is not enough to say they did their best. Their best was deficient. An apology is an improvement and carries some weight, as Micheal Martin's did, but more is needed.

Apologies have power: they confront the past and heal rifts -- in the case of the Bloody Sunday killings, relatives in Derry cheered with tears in their eyes when David Cameron apologised last year, saying their dead could rest in peace. But apologies must be matched by actions, which speak louder than words.

Society has a weakness for stories in which people find redemption. That's why the Profumo model is so compelling. We are never going to be impressed by Pontius Pilate impressions: "Golly gee, I wish someone had told me about the banks." We prefer people to accept their mistakes and make amends for them.

Incidentally, while we're discussing actions compared with words, if Micheal Martin is sincere about his desire to reform Fianna Fail, why has he appointed Willie O'Dea, caught red-handed smearing a political rival, to his frontbench? Martin's campaign rhetoric and his decision are inconsistent here.

And Ivor Callely may feel the High Court has restored his reputation to him, along with that €17,000 for 20 days he didn't work, but not everyone would agree. Perhaps charity work, rather than going to law, would have been more effective if it was his good name he wanted back.

John Profumo's lifelong act of contrition demonstrated the sincerity of his remorse more vividly than any apology for his shortcomings as a minister. He spent his life purging his errors, and in the process not only redeemed his reputation but burnished it.

Worth pondering, in the political class?

Irish Independent