Opposition’s chance to light fire under Marlene

Posted By: December 09, 2016

This is also an important test, too, for Claire Sugden, the independent minister.

Alex Kane. Irish News (Belfast). Friday, December 9, 2016 

IN THE same week when we heard that the actor Andrew Sachs had died it seemed wonderful, almost farcically appropriate that a succession of political and civil service “Manuels” from our own Fawlty-Towers-On-The-Hill informed us, one after the other, “I know nothing”.

Had Arlene Foster been in Barcelona rather than China, I’m sure the Hole In The Wall Gang could have booked a hall somewhere and turned the whole thing into a pantomime.

The Renewable Heat Incentive (a very rare example of some people being able to have their cake and heat it, too) follows hard on the heels of Nama and Charter NI; follows on in the sense that nobody seems to know who bears responsibility, made key decisions, accepts responsibility, or ‘fesses up’ and stands down when the fan is hit and clogged with the stinking reality of collective ineptitude.

Adding to the farce is the certainty that the DUP and Sinn Féin will circle the Executive wagons and protect each other. In the past few weeks – since the appointment of David Gordon as their ‘minder’ – Arlene Foster, Martin McGuinness, and their respective ministerial teams have been turning their fire on the Opposition. The Steptoe and Son and Craggy Island jibes are classic PR distractions; what’s known in the business as getting your retaliation in first. But no amount of well-crafted one-liners will allow them to escape the public perception that our government would be hard-pushed to organiZe a drinking spree in a brewery.

As I’ve noted before, perception is everything in politics. I’m willing to bet that not one person in Northern Ireland, not a single one of them, was shocked, surprised, stunned or staggered by this latest example of incompetence. And not one of them will believe that this will be the last case, either. We have grown used to it. We have grown used to the fact that no heads will roll and no paper trails leading from A to Z will be uncovered. No minister will be picked apart in the assembly, no motion of no confidence will succeed and no special adviser or senior civil servant will be hung out to dry. And if at any time, an individual minister becomes too uncomfortable, then you can bet your bottom dollar that ‘Marlene’ will be trotted out to tell us: “Yes, there are problems, but it’s better than it used to be. Do we really want Northern Ireland dragged back to the bad old days?”

This particular story is the first major chance for the opposition to shine. Their individual and collective approach to their role hasn’t amounted to a hill of beans, or landed a major blow, so far; so now is the time to join forces and claim a few scalps. It’s a pity that the BBC Spotlight story (more great work from that team, by the way) broke a few days before the assembly heads off for the Christmas recess, but that shouldn’t prevent Nesbitt, Eastwood, Long, Agnew, Allister and McCann from meeting and pooling their energies and resources. Calling for Foster’s resignation isn’t enough. This has to be a clinical, forensic deconstruction of how decisions are made, how lessons can be learned and how civil servants and their masters cannot be allowed to escape in the smoke. If the opposition fails this test then they are doomed to utter irrelevance and political emasculation.

I think this is also an important test, too, for Claire Sugden, the independent minister. She has an opportunity to set out her concerns about how the Executive works and how it reacts when a story of this magnitude breaks and damages the collective credibility and accountability – which now includes her. It is one of those moments when an individual voice will be heard and will have some sort of influence. In a recent interview with me, she said that “this Executive is different from previous Executives”; yet in its response to criticism it seems to be much the same as the others. It takes an insider to make a stand and acknowledge that wagon circling and firing blanks at the opposition is entirely the wrong form of response.

No one expects the government to be perfect and we all know that mistakes will be made. But NAMA is not a mistake. The SIF stuff around Charter NI is not a mistake. A half-a-billion balls-up on renewable heating is not a mistake. All of this is incompetence, stupidity, recklessness and a cavalier disregard of criticism. It boils down to bad government: arrogant government from arrogant, aloof ministers and their senior staff. It isn’t just the woodchips that are going up in smoke around the clock – it’s also the confidence of the electorate and the taxpayer.