Family comes first despite promises

FAMILY feeling is very strong in Ireland. It seems to be exceptionally strong in the corridors of power. Several Fine Gael and Labour junior ministers in the new Government have hired close relations to work for them in Leinster House or in their constituencies -- against the wishes of the two parties' leaderships.

Ciaran Cannon (Training and Skills) employs his wife as his secretary and his brother-in-law as a driver. Shane McEntee (Agriculture) has also appointed two family members: his daughter and his sister share the job of personal assistant.

On the Labour side of the Coalition, Kathleen Lynch (Health) employs her husband as her personal assistant. A sister of Sean Sherlock (Enterprise) works in his office. Willie Penrose (Housing) employs his brother.

Several backbenchers similarly keep family members close to them. One is a member of one of the country's best-known and most respected political dynasties. Arthur Spring once worked as a parliamentary assistant for his uncle Dick, the one-time Labour leader, Tanaiste and foreign minister. Now he himself employs his brother Graham, also as a parliamentary assistant.

There can be little doubt about Graham Spring's credentials. Indeed, there can be little doubt about the credentials of any of those similarly employed. They have to prove their competence to an outside agency.

But those who appointed them might have given a little more thought to how the system must look to the public at a time when 440,000 people are unemployed. A time, too, so soon after the coalition parties won a sweeping general election victory after a campaign in which they promised a new and better style of government.

Mr Cannon in particular might like to reflect on a statement he made during the campaign, when he said that Fine Gael would "fix our political system and sweep away the culture of cronyism".

Obviously he meant the kind of cronyism that contributed so heavily to the economic cataclysm. And obviously there is no comparison with ministers or deputies employing competent people in their offices in relatively humble capacities and usually on modest salaries.

But the party leaders should remember the principle of a spotless "Caesar's wife". The issue is hardly serious enough to warrant legislation, but certainly the practice should be discouraged -- along with another, the strangely smooth transition of deputies' relations into council seats. It is well worth exerting pressure to back up the disapproval which ministers and deputies will encounter from disillusioned voters.