DUP learns it pays to be civil to your servants
Posted By: January 21, 2017
Newton Emerson.Irish News.Belfast. Saturday, January 21, 2017
The problem with blaming your officials is that it requires them to defend themselves. In the case of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) that means a defense from Dr. Andrew McCormick, who has been a civil servant for 37 years and a permanent secretary – the top mandarin in a Stormont department – on and off for 15 years. His five-hour testimony to the Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee dropped precision bombshells on DUP special advisers, already in the frame after not seeming to know which of their family members were chicken farmers or indeed to know the definition of ‘family member.’ McCormick was kinder to DUP ministers – but they are still ultimately responsible for their special advisers. The permanent secretary’s factual evidence would have had to be delivered regardless. What was striking was his speculation about particular advisers and “layers of information.” While he was careful to say he had no absolute proof of this, it was enough to require the DUP to defend itself. Incidentally, in any period of Direct Rule, it is the permanent secretaries who are in charge.
Secretary of State James Brokenshire says he is not contemplating a period of Direct Rule. However, it is implausible that a deal will be reached within the three-week post-election deadline to appoint a new Executive and it is equally implausible that Brokenshire will let this trigger another election. There is scope to postpone a second poll for a ‘reasonable time,’ defined as however long a deal might take. Another option would be a suspension that stops short of direct rule, perhaps by leaving the Assembly in place. The British government repealed its power of suspension under the 2006 St Andrews Agreement so it can restore it anyway it likes. St Andrews created a two-month ‘transitional assembly’ to prepare for a new executive. Could that be a model?
Customs controls on The Border were abolished in 1992 as part of the creation of the EU single market. The peace process began a year later, which is apparently more than a coincidence, judging by claims that restoring controls will be the end of the peace process. Never mind that Theresa May, in her landmark Brexit speech this week, spoke of associate membership of the customs union – or that Brussels has just assured Dublin it wants a soft border. Could some of the nationalist annoyance at this be a little bit over the top? May did commit to leaving the single market but pledged to retain the common travel area, which could mean passport controls across the Irish Sea. This might not annoy Unionists as much as it did during the Second World War, now that everyone flies and uses a passport for ID anyway. But Nationalists think it will annoy Unionists, so perhaps that will restore the balance of the universe.
Police have to act on a complaint, which is presumably why the wheels are turning on an investigation into Stormont’s Nama witness coaching scandal, which led to the resignation last August of Sinn Féin’s Daithi McKay. The PSNI has written to loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson, the alleged coachee, seeking a voluntary interview. Bryson is now acting the martyr, but it all looks rather perfunctory. The common law offense being investigated, misconduct in public office, is of legally debatable relevance to put it mildly – it is not even clear if McKay broke Stormont’s rules. Having put the wheels in motion over so little, how can the chief constable advise “pragmatism” over UDA links to the Social Investment Fund? And can the PSNI ignore the fraud complaint the UUP has just sent it over RHI?
As education minister in 2002, Martin McGuinness famously used the last working day before his office was suspended to abolish the 11-plus. His DUP successor Peter Weir has just done something similar, although he has been cuter about it. Weir has abolished the so-called ‘entitlement framework,’ introduced by Sinn Féin in 2015, requiring all post-primary schools to offer 24 courses at GCSE and 27 at A-level. Now they need only offer 21. So instead of cooperating to deliver the full curriculum, schools can resume differentiating themselves by curriculum – which will, of course, be presented as the more ‘academic,’ the better.
Edwin Poots says the DUP did not sign up for an Irish Language Act at St Andrew’s, although an act is promised in the St Andrews Agreement, which the DUP signed. Former secretary of state Peter Hain adds that not every signatory should be held to everything as long as an agreement moves things forward – but the DUP has a far better case than that slippery cynicism. St Andrews committed the British government to enact legislation, without saying how or when. The Northern Ireland Office did issue draft bills for consultation, but then devolution was phased back in, by there being an agreement, putting language in the hands of a DUP culture minister who could quite justifiably claim to have made no promises whatsoever. The moral of the story for Sinn Féin is to be more careful next time.