Stormont a sanctuary for the untouchables

Posted By: July 11, 2015

Patrick Murphy. Irish News (Belfast). Saturday, July 11, 2015

ALTHOUGH the north’s post-Troubles political culture did not make the Nama [National Asset Management Agency] scandal inevitable, it certainly made it possible and maybe even likely.

By concentrating on a carve-up of power between the political parties, the peace process facilitated two unwelcome (and, until recently, largely underreported) developments: a political vacuum in relation to social and economic issues and an often unhealthy interaction between public, private and political interests.

Nama is merely the latest of a string of scandals in the latter category. It is unlikely to be the last. If, as we are told, we have the world’s most successful peace process, we might now reasonably observe that it has brought more success to some than others.

The culture of self-interest first emerged during the St Andrews negotiations in 2006. In a side deal, the DUP presented the British government with what Republican News called “a shopping list of 

property-based demands”.

Although the issue was largely ignored in the subsequent adulation for the Chuckle Brothers, the culture of self-serving politics never went away, you know. Only this week, for example, Sinn Féin and the DUP complained about a series of perfectly reasonable reform proposals for MLA expenses.

This claims culture has often gone over the top. For example, Sinn Féin claimed £700,000 in expenses for using its own research company, even though a BBC investigation could find no evidence of research.

Allegations of serious wrongdoing have also come to nothing. Nelson McCausland’s Stormont committee found that he had acted inappropriately in attempting to extend a Housing Executive contract to a maintenance firm. However, the DUP blocked an assembly motion of no confidence through a petition of concern.

Nama’s Northern Ireland advisory committee was born into this culture. Surprisingly, its Northern membership was not open to public competition. The DUP’s (presumably political) appointees were: Frank Cushnahan, a member of the board in Peter Robinson’s and Martin McGuinness’s office, and Brian Rowntree, chair of the Housing Executive, which was subsequently found by the audit office to be unsatisfactory in performance.

While there is no suggestion of wrongdoing, was it best practice to appoint (and later reappoint) to a highly demanding position the chair of a housing body which required time-intensive governance?

While still in Nama and the Housing Executive (oh, and the Policing Board) Mr Rowntree was later appointed chair of the Northern Ireland Civil Service Commission. The commission is charged with guarding the merit principle in the public sector.

An opposition TD in the Dáil revealed the Nama scandal. Opposition MLAs in Stormont could not do it because there are none. Only the principled Jim Allister pursued the matter.

In the absence of an assembly opposition a handful of dedicated journalists, particularly in this newspaper, have done more for democracy and transparency than Stormont’s 108 MLAs (excluding Mr Allister). Peter Robinson had a point in suggesting that no-one should read The Irish News.

He appears to have undertaken a U-turn on the sale of Nama’s northern assets. Opposed to a quick sale of its properties as late as May 2013, by the autumn he was calling for their immediate disposal. Fianna Fáil’s Sean Fleming has queried in the Dáil’s public accounts committee whether this indirectly represented political interference in the sale.

The five executive parties appear to have supported his U-turn. Why? Gerry Adams has asked for a commission of inquiry. He might ask his party colleagues in Stormont why they agreed the U-turn without debate.

Were Messrs Cushnahan and Rowntree instructed by the DUP, or the executive, to change their views on Nama’s property disposal policy? Mr Cushnahan later resigned and subsequently stood to gain £5 million from a potential bidder.

Stormont’s finance committee’s inquiry will achieve little. It has already failed to identify the most pertinent question: why did the finance committee not investigate the financial implications of Stormont’s U-turn on the sale of Nama properties?

The answer lies in our culture of government which, particularly through petitions of concern, has made Stormont a sanctuary for the untouchables. As the scandal emerged into the wider world, the Law Society, in Alban Maginness’s words, looked silly. The PSNI looked reluctant.

At the time of writing we still have not heard from all this story’s major players. Ian Coulter, for example, might helpfully come forward and give us his version of events to provide balance against the currently accepted narrative.

The issue at stake is not just the £7m. It is the political culture which allowed events to happen. Maybe, in the words of the television character Father Ted, the money was just resting in someone’s account. In that case, Northern Ireland has become Craggy Island.