Given the thoroughly corrupt character of the political settlement in the north the exposure of the sordid dealings that accompanied its inception at the St Andrews talks should not come as a surprise. Some of these have now been revealed in a ministerial letter released under the Freedom of Information Act.
This letter was a response by one of direct rule ministers at the time to a “shopping list” of demands from the DUP’s Ian Paisley Jnr. The demands raised by Paisley were pure pork barrel politics - all related to commercial activities with his own north Antrim constituency. They included planning approval for a "resort spa" including "200 homes"; a request for "private sector land to be included in development" of the new visitors centre at the Giant's Causeway; and a suggestion that a judicial review of lands in Ballee be dropped. The letter concluded with an assurance that Tony Blair’s government would "try to respond positively" to the requests, that the letter itself should be regarded as a “statement of intent". The clear inference of such correspondence is that the restoration of devolution would be eased by a favourable response.
Ian Paisley Jnr claimed that that these dealings were on the “margins” of the talks and that he was merely taking the opportunity to raise issues pertinent to his constituents. However, when his “shopping list” is examined it is clear that its items relate to one constituent in particular. Two of the projects listed are linked to the millionaire developer and DUP member Seymour Sweeney.
The judicial review of the sale of land in Ballee related to a dispute between the Department of Social Development over how much landowners would have to pay for the return of land that had been vested in the 1970s. The legal action taken by landowners, which was subsequently the subject of a review, was backed by Sweeney. At the time Paisley was lobbying for the review to be halted Sweeney and his associates were offering just £9m for the land. The court battle was eventually settled in June 2007 when a £50m price was agreed. For a party that supposedly supports law and order (with Paisley Jnr as its justice spokesperson) the DUP was very relaxed about such an overtly political intervention in the judicial process.
The case of the Causeway visitors centre is better known, with the attempts by the DUP to scupper the long standing commitment to a publicly owned centre in favour of a private development owned by Sweeney. The subsequent decisions by DUP ministers on the Causeway are consistent with the demands made by the Paisleys’ in their lobbying of British ministers. What these cases have in common is that despite the rhetoric about benefitting the constituency, all the benefit accrues to Sweeney. In both cases the public loses out.
Despite the allegations of sleaze and corruption building up around the DUP, Paisley’s Jnr in particular, there is very little criticism from other parties. Obscure backbnmcnhers are allowed to make minor criticisms. But without backing from the party leadership their opposition is merely tokenistic. When asked to comment on the Paisley shopping list, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams made some pious statement about his party not being interested in side deals but the common good. This is nonsense. Sinn Fein have made numerous side deals with the British. Most of these have either collapsed, such as the On the Run legislation, or been reneged upon, as in a case of the devolution of policing and justice powers. The difference with the DUP’s side deals is that are actually delivered upon. Four of the six demands on Paisley’s wish list have been granted!
Given the lack of real opposition, scandals such this are unlikely to destabilise the settlement. However, they do serve a useful purpose as they erode the illusions that workers may have in the Assembly. Such a process is as essential element of building a new opposition movement.