Posted By: December 17, 2016



Nothing principled in those who are cute

Patrick Murphy. Irish News (Belfast). Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Stormont executive’s increasingly battered reputation – further damaged by Thursday’s astonishing interviews with Jonathan Bell and Arlene Foster – can be traced to its behavior as an Irish, rather than a British institution. Although legally British, its governance and decision-making are a crude imitation of the Dublin government’s long tradition of what is affectionately known as “cute hoorism.”

Liberally translated, the phrase refers to the use of state power and resources for electoral, party or personal gain: a hospitality tent here, a “dig-out” there.

Ireland’s experience is part of a wider post-colonial pattern in which governments of newly independent states maintain the colonial practice of patronage and privilege, usually with a new flag and a stirring national anthem. (Think of how British rule in Ireland was eventually replaced by, for example, Charlie Haughey’s governments.)

The North is not a post-colonial state, but it acts in a post-colonial manner, with the natives now running part of the show. They have displayed remarkable diligence in adhering to the old Stormont’s noble tradition of skewing government policy to benefit friends in high places – and a few low ones as well.

Of course, all governments use power to some extent for electoral advantage, but the British, for example, do it in style: a knighthood here, an arms deal there.

Stormont does it with no style at all, as evidenced by four major scandals from a long and scandalous list: Red Sky, Nama, the Social Investment Fund and most recently, the Renewable Heating Incentive.

In the Red Sky affair, an investigative committee found that former social development minister, Nelson McCausland, had behaved improperly in seeking to extend a public contract with a now-defunct housing firm.

The committee found the decision was ‘politically motivated.’ A DUP petition of concern blocked any assembly action against the minister. Charlie Haughey would have been envious.

Then there was the sale of Nama’s northern properties, now the subject of a criminal inquiry. There have been allegations of a £7.5 million fee finding its way to an Isle of Man bank, destined ultimately for those familiar with Stormont’s greasy till. We still do not know the full story of how the biggest property sale in Ireland was handled.

Meanwhile, Stormont’s Social Investment Fund gave almost £2 million to Charter NI, which is headed by a man linked to the UDA, an organization which the PSNI (but not the Stormont executive) believes is engaged in criminal activity.

That brings us to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a trough full of taxpayers’ money, which attracted the snouts of those with political and business connections to an increasingly dodgy-looking executive.

(Britain has the Nolan principles for behavior in public office. Stormont is guided by the Nolan Show.)

I have worked with (or under) about half a dozen permanent secretaries and some other senior civil servants. All of them were risk-averse, professionally cautious and meticulous about detail, particularly in financial matters.

No permanent secretary whom I knew would have failed to warn the minister of the scheme’s risks. Anyone can make a mistake, but the heating initiative smacks more of political greed gone wrong, than civil service incompetence.

Stormont’s attempt to replicate cute hoorism is founded on its 16 special advisers (Spads), secretly appointed on a salary of up to £90,000.

The argument against direct rule was that unelected civil servants ran the place. Now unelected Spads run the place, often (but not always) without the same understanding of government accountancy, or the same eye for financial and ethical detail. Arlene and Martin have eight Spads between them. The Welsh assembly has eight in total.

Politics now permeates (some might say contaminates) the civil service. Most Spads carry more weight than permanent secretaries on policy direction and in advising civil servants on how to prepare ministerial answers to assembly questions.

We do not know who authorized the many flaws in the RHI scheme, but it is unlikely to have been civil servants. The answer can best be found by following the money to those who benefitted.

All Stormont’s leading politicians (except Jim Allister) supported the introduction of the current Stormont system. This column has long suggested that institutionalized sectarianism is no way to run a  government. It facilitates mutual maladministration, often under the pretense of peace and always in the knowledge that a petition of concern can block any investigation.

Bringing Arlene Foster to the Public Accounts Committee, without changing the Stormont system, is the equivalent of stamp collecting. All that will happen is that those in power will have learned the first law of the noble Irish art of cute hoorism. It states that even in Irish politics, arrogance is no substitute for cuteness.


Claims require investigation

Posted By: December 17, 2016

Irish News (Belfast). Editorial.Saturday 17 December 2016

On these pages yesterday, Irish News columnist Alex Kane wrote about the ugly face of what passes for normal politics in Northern Ireland.

The viewing public who watched Stephen Nolan’s interviews with Jonathan Bell and Arlene Foster on Thursday night will have seen for themselves not just the ugliness of our political system but the sort of vitriolic, back-stabbing, deeply personal nastiness taking place within the ranks of the biggest party in the north.

The Renewable Heating Incentive saga has taken a number of twists in recent weeks, but few could have predicted that a former DUP minister would break ranks and point the finger of blame at his leader and first minister.

After Mr. Bell’s emotional interview setting out his version of events, Mrs. Foster then hit back in terms that left people in no doubt that she was determined to fight for her position and would use whatever means she considered necessary.

Thus we had her firm rebuttal of Mr. Bell’s allegations in relation to the RHI scheme, but she went much further, engaging in what Jim Allister described as “character assassination” of her party and assembly colleague.

It was a particularly unedifying aspect of the entire, quite remarkable, interview during which Mrs. Foster looked distinctly uncomfortable.

Aside from the jaw-dropping sight of two senior DUP figures tearing lumps out of each other on late night television, Mr. Bell’s claims are significant and need further investigation.

At the very least, the emails, notes, letters and other documents relating to this botched scheme need to be put into the public domain.

Mr. Bell also made serious allegations about the role of special advisers who worked for Peter Robinson and Mrs. Foster.

This is another aspect of the entire affair which is frankly disturbing and if nothing else there needs to be a root and branch review of how these key officials are appointed and operate.

Special advisers hold central positions in government but are not elected, or selected by an open recruitment process. They are there to provide advice, but the suggestion is they wield considerable influence in the Stormont system, particularly those working for the DUP.

Questions also need to be asked about the number of special advisers. Stormont has 16 in total while the Welsh Assembly, dealing with a larger population, has just eight.

Why do we need too many highly paid special advisers and what exactly is their role in the day to day running of government?

There is no doubt the DUP – and Arlene Foster in particular – are damaged by the unraveling RHI scandal.

The opposition parties will seek to exploit this weakness and such is the nature of politics.

As partners in government, Sinn Féin’s position is different and in that context Martin McGuinness’s intervention yesterday, calling for Mrs. Foster to step aside while an investigation takes place, has to be seen as a significant development with major implications for the executive.


Arlene’s recall of “whistleblower” approach differs from her deputy’s

Posted By: December 17, 2016

NO LAUGHING MATTER: Arlene Foster’s initial explanation to Spotlight about an email on RHI contradicted that of DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds earlier this week