Genuine power sharing with Sinn Fein would have averted the RHI mini-crisis

Did the BBC snatch or stage Jonathan Bell’s prayer before his confessional trial before Nolan? Either way it resembled nothing more than a man having his head laid on the block and making peace with his Maker before execution (and I don’t mean Nolan).  While the mawkishness of the prayerful moment recalls the early Paisley playing the martyr before or after some act of provocation, Bell’s evoking of the DUP’s spiritual origins is unlikely to save him. He is now a political heretic and will be cast out.

Bell’s claim that collective responsibility forced him to continue the Renewal Heating Incentive scheme for weeks against his conscience runs directly contrary to the accepted theory. Collective responsibility (which by the way was supposed to be strengthened by Fresh Start) properly means the collective policy of the whole cabinet or Executive, not just the DUP ministers or their leader. The irony is that had it been exercised the crisis might have been avoided. But patently Sinn Fein were not involved and seem to have laid off entry into the controversy in the interests of Executive cohesion until it became inevitable with the announcement of a  tomorrow’s  “vote of confidence “ in the First Minster.

No, whatever the decision, it was taken by the DUP party caucus led by Mrs Foster, a special procedure necessary in coalitions when parties wish to diverge without threatening the government’s existence. In Northern Ireland terms, however, this was  regular old school conduct of  one party trying to conceal its dirty linen from the other and the world – the sort of behaviour carried on over say the “flegs” protests but now applied to a row over non-sectarian  incompetence and lack of accountability.

Sinn Fein have no right to complain about a decision taken by party caucus. Their own response was pronounced by a party leader who isn’t even elected by Northern Ireland voters. So party rules OK remains the norm.

Why on earth was a tariff not imposed in the scheme in the first place? In her turn Arlene  Foster refused to accept the pure doctrine of ministerial responsibility.

“It has been acknowledged, indeed by the permanent secretary, that I did all that was appropriate in the circumstances,”  she told us. “If anyone has any knowledge of the amount of instructions that a minister gives on a day by day basis they would understand, it is custom and practice actually, that it is only if there is some issue, if an exception is raised with me by an official that it would come back to my desk. That didn’t happen on this occasion. Of course I regret that it didn’t happen on this occasion but that’s the reality.”

Indeed the sheer complexity of modern government has compromised the pure doctrine,  but blaming  officials is not done. In the case of Northern Ireland where government is a lot more straightforward than in Whitehall  it is  fair to ask  why  ministerial responsibility wasn’t better exercised from the beginning.

With the initial slow takeup of the scheme and the underspend and her switch of portfolios  there is  probably enough wriggle room in conventional accountability terms to let Mrs Foster  off the hook and prevent Sinn Fein withdrawing support. This was evident when she   “won” the interview with Nolan by sticking to her guns in a direct clash of evidence with Jonathan Bell.

The exposure of incompetence and malfunctioning  is at least as serious as the political drama. Spads in general more permanent and therefore more powerful than rotating ministers.  Rotating ministers nominally in charge but without the protection  afforded by genuine ministerial responsibility (why didn’t the Finance minister  question the scheme?) ; civil servants  working to ministers of different parties with different policies, and waiting often in vain for  direction from either their ministers or the  centre.

If  I am  right,  Mrs  Foster will survive and Sinn Fein has no choice but to  fall reluctantly  into line, perhaps with agreement  to hold some form of independent inquiry . It is hard to see what  other price they can extract for compliance. DUP embarrassment will continue. The  Executive will look a little weaker but it will not collapse as this is  an “ordinary” matter of  competence and accountability and not a  traditional toxic issue.

But Fresh Start is looking stale already. It can only be freshened up by genuine collective responsibility, with each party sharing   more of its troubles with the other as a matter of course. Would Mairtin O’Muilleoir and Simon Hamilton have sorted this out between them before it peaked as a crisis? Now there’s a thought.

, , , , ,

  • hgreen

    I thought showing the footage of the prayer before the interview was a very clever bit of politics by Bell. He was clearly playing to his Christian electorate and not the wider tv audience. How could any real Christian criticise someone who’s clearly telling the truth.

  • Arlene “Won” the interview? I’d be interested in hearing that opinion expanded upon, certainly any opinions I’ve heard are quite the contrary.

  • Declan Doyle

    Somewhat childish swipe at SF there. Adams leads the party and is an elected member for Louth, MmG is elected member for Foyle and so on etc. All Ireland party with All Ireland aims objectives and policies. Adams made a speech as leader. Thats it, it doesnt matter who voted for him.

  • Redstar

    I think we always knew that the junior partner in the charade executive would of course fall into line. The fact that they won’t even back a call for Foster to stand aside means their call for an independent enquiry is pointless- Arlene says no to that what do they do?

    No real surprises all round then

    The only people that should really get a wake up call after this ( and add to it Red Sky NAMA and the SIF slush funds) are those who criticise non voters

    They tell us you must vote because otherwise how can there be accountability- yeah right, Stormont accountable, – the ship has sailed on that one

    When the sham toytown govt on the hill is based on the premise that the only way any of them can be sacked- is if their own party agrees- it doesn’t deserve to exist

    4 major scandals involving up to £500m in total- no resignations, no sackings, no ones to blame.

    Accountable, how are ya

  • Declan Doyle

    Well she did probably win it in the basis that she appeared to have no help from the hand of God.

  • eireanne3

    “Collective responsibility (which by the way was supposed to be strengthened by Fresh Start) properly means the collective policy of the whole cabinet or Executive, not just the DUP ministers or their leader”.

    This observation may well be, and probably is, correct.

    Unfortunately it does not take into account either the DUP majority or its God-given view of its mission to have and hold Ulster in perpetuity and do what it wants and spite any putative sharers of power or collective responsibility.

    What mechanism/s if any is/are in place to enforce the principles of sharing power, rather than sharing it out, and collective Executive responsibility?

  • Gopher

    Your making the mistake of shifting this to a zero sum game between SF and the DUP without the hindsight of the list of beneficiary’s. This I frirmly believe is not the case. A contract of over 1.2? If Martin did not know about such a vast scheme and had no input he is a worse roll over to DUP politicain than even his worst detractors claim. Whats he doing up there sleeping along with Arlene, Peter and Johnny while civil servants alledgedly wreck the country Your following the wrong scent here. The focus is half a billion will vanish from the budget.

  • So, Brian, more of the same with incompetence leading offices is your take on the near future. Yes, I would expect nothing more nor less from a hacked and cracked Establishment model.

    Proof positive in deed indeed that intelligence services are failing to supply leading intellectual property to both their masters and puppets. And that is a catastrophic systemic vulnerability in a nation’s security portfolio which will always be ruthlessly exploited by both state and non state actors alike to have maximum impact in any number of ways.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    Is anyone dumb enough to believe that Bell wasn’t asked if he was prepared to have the prayer filmed? It worked for Bell as much as for Nolan – pure political theatre. Sinn Fein need to be careful they don’t become part of the narrative. I advise them that their silence is more powerful than political point scoring. Let the DUP implode by themselves. Trust your nose folks – the whole corrupt farrago stinks and the usual players are up to their ears in it.

  • Sliothar

    Throughout the interview with Nolan, the one thing Ms Foster showed absolute conviction for was her state of total denial that she was at fault in any way for the debacle and that all the blame lay at the feet of her officials in the NICS and the incoming minister.
    That’s as fine as it goes, but if she wishes to run a government with fewer problems than has been evident so far, she had better mend fences with same officials – and quick! I know if I were a senior civil servant advising ministers, all nods & winks, off the record briefings, etc, would be verboten from hereon in. I wouldn’t open a door in future without a written instruction.
    The permanent government does not like being trashed which, in effect, is about the only thing Arlene has accomplished in this whole sorry saga to date given that ministerial responsibility seems to be an ex-parrot. It should therefore be interesting to see if the number of leaked emails, documents, memos, etc, increases as a means of proving that the empire can indeed strike back. And, of course, shifting the blame upwards at the same time.
    Nonetheless, ALL of this pantomime is a side show and distraction. ‘Follow the money’, should be the maxim.

  • Granni Trixie

    Interesting that this crisis occurs at a time when interviews for Head of Civil Service is taking place. Or is the crisis holding up the process?

  • Sliothar

    ‘Fovik’? Typo or small state in Outer Baluchistan? 😉

    If ‘Civil’, maybe no one’s eye was on the ball!

  • Granni Trixie

    Difference is once i i noticed the mistake I corrected it in seconds. Cost the public purse nothing. Similarity is that I am not taking the blame (it was predictive text wot done it,honest gov.)

  • Brian Walker

    One question is whether it went to the Executive committee for approval.

  • Gopher

    Remember NAMA and the email that allegedly never reached Marty from his SPAD. SPAD’s have become “If a tree falls in the woods even if your SPAD hears it does it make a noise”

  • Kevin Breslin

    Genuine power sharing with Jonathan Bell seems would have avoided this issue.

    With the highest possible benefit of the doubt given to Arlene and her SPADs, this economic misadventure could’ve been managed better by respecting the distribution of power and being humble enough to accept the feedback of the minister in charge.

    We know of course Durkan, Kennedy, Farry and Ford pretty much went on solo runs against the two big parties and were shouted down, it seems Bell buckled by the fact that his solo run was never that open. At some point the rationale of collective responsibility has to work both ways, even if benefit of the doubt given to Arlene here, this was ALL Bell’s fault somehow, and Foster knew absolutely nothing, she still has to take blame as a leader of an Executive that failed here.

    Even if benefit of the doubt being given to Foster this is just a misadventure, a bad judgement call due to lack of data/information, it stands to reason the DUP are going to have to deliver an apology to the public, deliver a means to rectify the loss of money mitigating the damage of the scheme, and a reform of best practice to allow departments to improve best practice so this does not happen with bigger funds, say farming and fishery subsidies.