Nothing principled in those who are cute

Posted By: December 17, 2016

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 organisation 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 behaviour in public office. Stormont is guided by the Nolan Show.)

I have worked with (or under) about half a dozen permanent secretaries and a number of 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 institutionalised sectarianism is no way to run a  government. It facilitates mutual maladministration, often under the pretence 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 in the noble Irish art of cute hoorism. It states that even in Irish politics, arrogance is no substitute for cuteness.