From a systemic point of view, the most worrying aspect of the Northern Ireland Water story (in all its often obscure complexity) was the unfit-for-purpose nature of internal (and external) reporting around government processes. In yesterday’s subscription only Irish News Newton Emerson offers a fascinating and important insight into ‘how things are done’ in Northern Ireland
politics government yesterday.
The picture he gets reading from the back of the Inquiry report on Helm housing’s disastrous venture into property speculation is very different from that given at the front, or indeed the Minister’s statement. Newton notes that ‘No real acceptation of the seriousness of the issues” in the back end moves to “openness and integrity throughout the process” in the minister’s statement.
Ah, process. That word has a certain familiar ring to it in Northern Ireland..
The Minister’s response was to put two extra inspectors into the regulatory framework to mend what appears to be an issue primarily of competence: ie, adding even more red tape, tamping down innovation even further in the sector.
Emerson offers one reason why the ministerial response was so limited in scope: everybody was at property speculation and no one in government has any particular appetite for tackling the problems associated with it in any terms that might bring improvement in dealing with the social need the likes of Helm are supposed to address.
Although the property bubble was one of the most significant economic episodes in Northern Ireland’s history, it is now ignored in the manner of Princess Diana’s funeral, as if everyone is mortified by what public fools they made of themselves during the made of themselves during the mass hysteria.
Roger Scruton – whose new book ‘Green Philosophy’ helped me name this distinction – says of NGO’s that ‘they often exist purely for the sake of their goals’ and, he alleges, they are ‘unable to discuss the validity of their goals since they are defined by them’.
Whatever the nature of the problems in housing provision, and it has to be said the local administration is certainly exposing more knotty problems than most departments, a revision of the purpose of public funded housing, its role within the wider economy, and the validity of current goals is long overdue. Sticking plasters will not make the thing go away.