Newton’s law of physics, DUP-style

Posted By: October 18, 2017

Brian Feeney. Irish News. Belfast. Wednesday, October 18, 2017, column FM News

It turns out the DUP’s Robin Newton was a quantum adviser to what is euphemistically described as ‘the UDA-linked Charter NI’.

He’s living (or dead?) proof of Erwin Schrödinger’s Cat conjecture in which the cat could be either alive or dead or both, but you wouldn’t know which until you opened the box it was in and looked.

So,  Newton was an adviser who wasn’t an adviser until the BBC’s Stephen Dempster looked in the Charter NI documents and saw he was. He wasn’t a member of the Charter NI board but sat in board meetings as an adviser who wasn’t an adviser, kind of overlapping. Technically,  this is the political equivalent of quantum superposition when two apparently separate waves interact. As you see, it’s a perfectly reasonable defense of unacceptable behavior but for some reason, Newton never thought of it. He just preferred the time-honored explanation that a black crow is white.

Of course, he’s just the fall guy, too stupid and smug to realize that his actions left a trail of paperwork that exposed conflicts of interest and double standards. There are others in The North who sit on Social Investment slush fund steering groups and are party to awarding ‘their’ community groups six and seven-figure sums. That’s the real issue which demonstrates in Newton’s case that the DUP has not changed.

Newton’s problem is that he is Speaker of the Assembly and remains so with the mighty salary of £87,500 plus expenses and access to lovely official accommodation and various perks. It’s the sort of sinecure that could go to your head. It has certainly affected his judgment. Leading figures in all other parties except his own have called for him to do the honorable thing and fall on his sword because in his role as Speaker he turned down a question about Charter NI but didn’t disclose his links to it until later when he admitted he was wrong.

However, for the silent DUP, that’s OK. That’s an ominous sign for Sinn Féin who are trying to find ways to induce the DUP to behave properly. The party’s failure to uphold standards taken for granted in every democratic assembly in the world demonstrate that the DUP would behave in exactly the same way as they did in the past if there were a new executive. Ministerial code, standards commissioner, auditor general mar dhea. To Red Sky, Nama, RHI etc you can now add Charter NI.

However, the unacceptable behavior doesn’t stop at the DUP. Taxpayers’ money is sacred. Sinn Féin and the DUP both need to show the public they understand that and to show that they do the first priority must be to dismantle the Social Investment Fund which is pork barrel politics and cronyism at its worst. Taxpayers’ hard-earned money must be allocated in an open, transparent, publicly accountable manner. People appointed to allocate public money must be able to show they have no connection with the recipients of that money and certainly no prospect of benefitting from it. That’s elementary but it’s not what’s going on in the SIF.

The Spotlight programme only scratched the surface of what is a £80 million plus scandal. There used to be programmed like Targeting Social Need which wasn’t perfect but which allocated funds to districts on the basis of objectively assessed needs. SIF doesn’t,  and an inquiry into its establishment and operation would swiftly show that. It would also raise questions about a Civil Service which allowed such a slush fund to be set up with no formal objection in the teeth of opposition from other political parties correctly identifying it as a slush fund.

We’re back to the question. How does the political system create a functioning standards commission which has powers and sanctions over public representatives? Westminster has failed to do it. They sack any commissioner who looks like doing his or her job. Our lot simply ignore or override the findings of a commissioner. The chancers up at Stormont act as judge and jury in their own cause and so far have got away with it.

The DUP are simply the worst and most audacious offenders but bringing them to book doesn’t solve the problem.