Reform will certainly come before revolution…

Fortnight magazine has a fictional character called Lord Falls, a slightly revolutionary constitutionalist. It’s a razor sharp satire which does however expose some of the dilemmas in the transition from one political state to the other. It’s the territory that Newton Emerson challenges Pat Doherty’s assertion “that the civil service apparatus of the former regime is the greatest block to bringing about radical and progressive change under a new system of government”, and argues that it ain’t likely to be quite that simple:

There is no question that the NIO is unwieldy and overstaffed but Sinn Féin is not proposing public sector cutbacks or an administrative efficiency drive. In fact, Sinn Féin wants more programmes and more spending in every field of government activity, which can only mean more complexity and more oppressors in pin-striped suits. Rather than reducing the artificially-inflated number of Stormont departments, which would mean reducing the number of Sinn Féin ministers, the party also wants an extra ministry for policing and justice.

If the NIO is going to grow while the “apparatus of the former regime” shrinks then it seems that what Mr Doherty is actually proposing is a good old-fashioned purge. Bureaucrats will become the new securocrats as the Shinners seek out those with unsound political views or suspicious golf-club membership. But how is a political party supposed to enact this dubious policy? Civil servants in Northern Ireland are hired, fired and promoted under some of the strictest equality laws in the world. Should those laws be disregarded? If so, how?

The truth he reckons is that Sinn Fein’s actual plan for engagement with senior Civil Servants is rather more prosaic than that:

The truth is that Northern Ireland is not entering a “post-insurrectionary phase” with “a new government”. It is simply reacquiring a devolved regional assembly under slightly different rules. Sinn Féin will control two or three out of 10 ministries with a further half-share of the first and deputy first minister’s office, leaving it in no position to rewrite the rules of public-sector employment. Stormont’s republican etiquette lesson will amount to nothing more than a bad-tempered episode of Yes, Minister, in which our Sinn Féin heroes blame all their frustrations on the fact that Sir Humphrey is a Prod.

But, as Emerson notes, the real tragedy may be that:

…the NIO badly needs to be knocked down a peg or two and devolution provides plenty of scope to put manners on some very arrogant people. But these opportunities will arise during mundane hearings of the Public Accounts Committee or tedious negotiations at the Department of Finance and Personnel. Sinn Féin simply doesn’t know how to present such achievements to an electoral base fired up with hopeless expectations of tribal victory.

, ,

  • middle-class taig

    How depressing. Is Emerson unable to write about SF without accusing them of sectarianism? I’m a recent convert to SF, and nobody has ever promised me “tribal victory”.

    Doherty, and SF more generally, were and are talking about the conceptual, intellectual and moral framework in which the NIO takes decisions. Emerson’s vision for civil service reform appears to be limited to the number of advisers in your local Bru and the
    quality of the tea-bags in government buildings. His view of the role of the political leader is utterly managerial.

    There was a delightfully Tebbitesque list of “successful” former Crown dominions. I could practically hear the thwack of leather on willow, and the polite, stilted round of applause. Need the “willing ex-pat” poojahs to keep the natives in line, what Newton? “Self-rule” what a gloriously post-colonial word for independence and freedom. How staggeringly un-fresh. How depressingly un-iconoclastic. How curiously un-Emerson. How unseemly to watch a commentator slip somnambularly into middle-age.

    I particularly rejoiced in the line: “Civil servants in Northern Ireland are hired, fired and promoted under some of the strictest equality laws in the world.” (did he get it off their promotional material?) juxtaposed with “Catholics are now fully represented at all but the most senior levels of the civil service.” Is Newton implying what I think he’s implying? Some catholics, it seems, are fabulously able – almost good enough for the top levels. Almost. No doubt they’ll still be saying that kind of thing about the RUC in a few years.

    Quite why Emerson feels the need to sneer at republican interest in fostering the use of Irish in public life is anyone’s guess. They seem to manage equivalent linguistic duality in Wales, Catalonia, the Basque Country, the Hebrides and elsewhere in Europe. I don’t speak Irish. But when I see gaelgeoiri trying to push their agenda I feel I should applaud their attempts, against considerable opposition, to foster and celebrate our diversity and heritage? Better, in Emerson’s view it seems, to conjure some vague allegation that SF want to place linguistic obstacles in the career path of non-nationalists attracted to public service.

    Wearyingly, in the last line of the article, the artifice is revealed. This is all just a big rant to belittle several hundred years of Irish resistance to colonial domination. “No doubt this struggle will be just as worthwhile as all the others.” For the equality legislation of which Emerson spoke would have come about organically, and sure the civil rights movement achieved nothing that the NIO wasn’t already struggling manfully to put in place, and of course the Irish State has been an unmitigated disaster, and 1916, what a travesty that was….

    Amazing how those who would have previously slated SF for pursuing not reform but revolution now decry them for eschewing revolution for reform. Amazing the careers that can be carved out or enhanced, North and South, simply by sneering at Sinn Féin from time to time.

  • Aquifer

    For purges read fat severance packages. Tiofach ar La.

  • Shore Road Resident

    MCT, haven’t you been claiming to be a “recent convert to Sinn Fein” for about three years now?

  • dodrade

    Newton Emerson is simply the best columnist and political commentator in Northern Ireland today.

  • Mario el argentino

    Is Fortnight still published? I have not seen their new issue online since they did the Crucifying Harry article. Its quite a good mag.

  • Quaysider

    You’re really reaching here MCT. It’s obvious that what Emerson means by ‘juxtaposing’ existing equality laws with Catholic representation up to all bar the highest levels is that those laws are still working through the system – in fact he says exactly that in his next line. And you’re accusing him of throwing around false accusations of sectarianism?

    Why don’t you try answering some of the questions in the piece? How is SF going to throw out the ‘old regime’ while simultaneously expanding the NIO? How does it propose to select people for the putting on of manners without breaching those equality laws you give SF credit for in the first place?

    Doherty was talking tribal balls and he richly deserved to be pulled up for it.

  • memo to MCT

    MCT you have made many a decent and well thought out comment in your time but this one sucks !!!!

    I don’t agree with everything newt writes but on this occasion I think you have deliberately misinterpreted him and he is mostly right.

    Catholics are now evenly represented in most levels of the civil service..the change has been wholesale and in 10 years time there will be representation pro rata from top to bottom although perhaps there will be a need for positive discrimination in favour of protestants at the bottom.

    Personally if you are a cheer leader for sinn fein then i really feel sorry for the party because you’re spouting crap and it is crap about post colonialism. The North of Ireland is not comparable to the big colonial get up and goes from around the globe.

    You completely confused newts’ point by the way as he was not saying catholics were not able for the highest level simply that it takes time to subvert the status quo!


  • SuperSoupy

    In the middle of the piece Emerson agrees the civil service does need manners put on it, even referring to it as pompous (not all civil servants but the leadership and direction, just like SF).

    Around that, in his effort to have yet another pop at SF, he first argues that the Civil Service don’t need manners put on them and then SF would go about it the wrong way.

    As he admits the necessity of changing the focus and attitude of those leading the civil service, his attack on SF who propose doing exactly that seems to contradict his own position and seems merely a straw (shiner) man set up for him to tilt at.

    TIP: If you want to attack people for saying something needs changed don’t agree it needs changed in the middle of your histrionics.

  • Quaysider

    I’m not seeing the contradiction. The title of this piece is ‘Reform, not revolutionary rhetoric’. Emerson wants reform through ongoing equality, the public accounts committee and ministerial work at Finance & Personal. Doherty… well, Doherty’s not really saying what he wants except removing “the hand of the pin-striped oppressor” (while pumping up the NIO budget left, right and mostly left) and the rest of SF is talking about “putting manners” on either the entire civil service or unspecified members thereof.
    The histrionics here are coming from the Shinners.

  • SuperSoupy

    “The tragedy of this farce is that the NIO badly needs to be knocked down a peg or two and devolution provides plenty of scope to put manners on some very arrogant people”

    He agrees with SF. His problem seems to be over how exactly the same point is articulated and his personal hostility to SF that means even when he agrees he has to disagree with himself and set up a straw man argument to have a dig.

    He doesn’t like how SF present exactly the same sentiment as himself. That’s nice for him and at least he got this week’s copy out of it.

  • Quaysider

    He also says:

    There is no question that the NIO is unwieldy and overstaffed but Sinn Féin is not proposing public sector cutbacks or an administrative efficiency drive

    …and there’s the question being ducked. How is Sinn Fein planning to ‘put manners on the entire civil service’? They’re not talking about reform, they’re trotting out infantile revolutionary rhetoric and making promises they’re not going to be in a position to deliver.

    Case in point: SF’s election literature claims the party is going to set up ‘all-Ireland units’ in every NIO department. But they’ll only be in control of 2 or 3 of those departments, so this is rubbish. The party is firing up its base to distract attention from the limitations of its actual position. It’s laughable.

  • SuperSoupy

    Two separate issues.

    1. Putting manners on an arrogant top tier (something Emerson agrees with)

    2. Staffing levels (one of many straw men arguments to rebut point one – the one he agrees with)

    Argument two doesn’t relate to the SF position he is attacking: taking the ‘arrogant’ members of the civil service to task (the one he agrees with).

    He’s rebutting one argument by raising something entirely different while actually agreeing with the initial point. Seems a bit weak to me.

  • Gum

    Have to support MCT on this one. Why Newton has to spin EVERY SF comment that’s a bit ridiculous as sectarian as well lets him down.

  • Nevin

    “‘Plan B’ not best option for republicans, says Doherty


    WEST Tyrone Sinn Féin MP Pat Doherty says that the ‘Plan B’ scenario talked about by both governments in the event of the DUP refusing to share power by March 26 may be a case of far-off fields looking green.

    Speaking to the UlsterHerald yesterday, he said, “It is understandable that in the present climate many republicans and nationalists could find the prospect of Plan B, as alluded to by both governments, as a more attractive proposition than trying to tie the DUP into power-sharing and all-Ireland institutions.

    “However, I would caution those who believe that Plan B would amount to some form of Joint Authority to look at the minimalist approach taken by the Dublin government to the potential contained in the All-Ireland architecture of the Good Friday Agreement to date, and then consider the unlikely prospect of the Dublin government changing from this minimalist approach in a Plan B scenario.”

    “The reality is that Plan B may not be much different from the current political status quo, with all the people of the six counties being subject to the unaccountable and punitive nature of British Direct Rule for years to come.”

    Mr Doherty went on to say that in the absence of the power-sharing and all-Ireland institutions, the British Treasury will be given carte blanche to continue with its asset stripping and stealth taxes crusade against the people of the six counties while at the same time cutting public expenditure in health, education and other public services.

    “While 50 years of unionist misrule at Stormont officially ended in March 1972, and a while a procession of British Direct Rule ministers have come and gone since then, political unionism has retained its ability to control and manipulate affairs in the Six Counties through the offices of the NIO.

    “As former hunger striker, Laurence McKeown recently said of this unionist power base, ‘Those who staffed the highest positions of the NIO throughout the decades of conflict and devised and implemented discriminatory policies against working class communities and republicans are seldom mentioned. The structures and processes they set in place still remain today and we bear the impact of them, most particularly in terms of financial investment. It has been repeatedly identified in post-insurrectionary phases of struggle around the world that the civil service apparatus of the former regime is the greatest block to bringing about radical and progressive change under a new system of government. It’s easy to spot an armoured jeep pass through our estates or identify the uniformed figure but less so the hand of oppression in the pin-striped suit.’ ”

    Mr Doherty added that the restoration of the institutions is by no means a panacea for all our ills but without locally elected and accountable representatives at the helm people here will remain powerless to effect positive change, whether it is political, economic or social change.

    “Republicanism directly confronts partition and the legacy of eight decades of British misrule in the six counties.

    “Republicans have worked systematically to expose, undermine, and ultimately dismantle the traditional power bases of the Orange state, its sectarianism and discrimination, its denial of Irish identity and cultural rights, its repression through a militarised state apparatus, the hard edge of which was a sectarian, paramilitary police force. Policing has been a key power base of the failed Six County state that we have sought to dismantle,” Mr Doherty concluded.” … Ulster Herald (link was ‘black-listed’)

  • SuperSoupy


    Thank you.

    It is amazing how utterly out of context Emerson took the quote that started his histrionics.

    A pure SF bash. Talk about twist and spin.

    And people don’t check this crap.

  • SuperSoupy

    Doherty was talking about confronting misrule and sectarianism…..Newt brings this to supporting big government and colonialism and endorsing misrule. What a spinner.

    I’d like to give the same partial quotes and judgements Emerson gets away with but unfortunately the content linked to gets away with more crap than this site will permit in the comments….

    …I’ll sign off with …*cough*…*bullshitter*

  • People do check it and, as it’s the Irish News, as long as it bashes SF etc, it goes in.

    The thing that Newton doesn’t get is that SF and republicans generally have been fighting tedious battles with the NIO over a number of years. And winning them. And if he thinks they don’t have the patience to carry on this battle, he’s wrong.

  • SuperSoupy

    The Irish News has been notable in it’s bias of late.

    It ignores the elections and electoral issues of interest if they don’t work to SDLP advantage:

    Lagan Valley – don’t cover it in case people realise the SDLP are dead and the only Nationialist that can win is the Shinner.

    South Antrim – ignore the fact that the SDLP feud means the most likely Nationalist is the shinner.

    A paper of don’t cover it. Pathetic. Though, find the space for a dissident if he may take votes from SF – how many column inches? a photo? no problem!

  • realpolitik


    is this just sour grapes because the Daily Ireland had to close through lack of interest?
    The Irish News can choose whatever editorial line it wants and those with intelligence can judge for themselves whether it is partisan or not and then decide whether to buy it or not. It would appear that there are plenty of shinners willing to shell out for it given the level of comment and interest on here.

  • Quaysider

    Am I missing something? The full context of Doherty’s comments simply adds more ridiculous revolutionary rhetoric to the lines quoted in the Irish News. His closing line about dismantling the police proves that his proceeding lines about dismantling the NIO are similar bluster. SF has not dismantled policing – they’ve recognised it after a decade of doing nothing about it. Presumably, the NIO is in for the same ‘post-insurrectionary’ treatment.

  • Shore Road Resident

    There’s a pattern here – no civil servants who don’t agree with Sinn Fein, and no newspapers or columnists who don’t agree with Sinn Fein either. Should be about as effective as the campaign for no policing not controlled by Sinn Fein, which I believe is where we “struggled” in.
    Still not answer from the regulars on how to expand the NIO while removing the old regime and upholding equality laws, I notice.

  • cynic

    “The truth is that Northern Ireland is …. simply reacquiring a devolved regional assembly under slightly different rules”

    In all the hyperbole, the fact that Stormont is just a County Council with a few more trappings of power and little real authority, is often being missed. It’s the NI equivalent of Ken Livingstone but with less sense of direction.

    And forgive me but didnt the most recent figures show that large parts of the NI Civil Service have real equality problems already with men and protestants under represented in many areas outside the very top levels? So, to both downsize and meet their eqality objectives, its simple. The Shinners will have to fire lots of female Catholic’s and employ more male Prods. That should go down well on the hustings.

    Is it me or of recent months is the SF Machine starting to lose its iron grip on the pronouncements of the daleks on the backbenches? Lots seem to be opening their mouths and spouting their own (often half baked) ideas. Peristoika?

  • Nevin

    Cynic, ironically the NI Equality Commission is bad and getting worse. It’s 59.3% perceived Catholic and in the most recent figures (2005) four Catholics and two Protestants were appointed.

  • lib2016

    This is something which the DUP, still less the UUP, has yet to come to terms with. The unionist part of the population is aging and the best and brightest are leaving yet unionist politicans refuse to back fair employment legislation or affirmative action programmes.

    It seems to be a re-run of their daft decision to oppose the reform of an educational system which was failing their own supporters.

    If Sinn Fein have to realise that they are becoming a party of government then the DUP also need to start realising that the Evangelical bloc has been estimated at 200,000 people at maximum.

  • Mike

    Newtown Emerson and several poster on here don’t seem to realise what the NIO actually is – the NIO is actually seperate from the NI Departments and the NI Civil Service, yet they seem to use the former term to refer to the latter.