ENVIRONMENT Minister Arlene Foster will be giving evidence to Stormont’s environment committee in a few minutes, with the Giant’s Causeway visitor centre high on the agenda. While most of those interested in the ongoing controversy have no doubt that Foster acted with propriety throughout the affair – she was thrust into the debate because of a party colleague’s failure to inform her that her decision would benefit one of his friends, who’s also a DUP member – it is still possible she can shed some light on matters. For example, Alex Kane notes that “we have absolutely no idea of the nature of the discussion which took place between Mrs Foster and Mr Dodds, nor why it was decided to make their announcements a few hours before the Assembly debate. Was it a party decision, a ministerial decision or a Departmental decision?” And why was Ms Foster “minded” to rubber-stamp Seymour Sweeney’s plans when they only provided for 200 parking spaces? After all, officials were seemingly delaying passing the publicly-funded proposal until it could accommodate 400 cars without spoiling the protected area – and as soon as this objective was met, the DUP Ministers scuppered those plans to back Sweeney’s scheme with half the parking. What possible explanation could there be for this? Some observers have been wondering why the other parties are so weak in their probing of the DUP over the Causeway centre plans. Brian Feeney asked yesterday why open debate about Executive decisions was apparently being stifled at Stormont, adding: “What explains Sinn Fein’s muted response to the Causeway visitor centre controversy?” Here’s why (with more below the fold for those with no subscription). The DUP made greater accountability in government a cornerstone of their conditions for entering a new executive. Let’s see if they can give us confidence in their promise – because there is none at present.Feeney wrote:
SF doesn’t want to stop Arlene Foster or Nigel Dodds in their tracks because you can be sure that not far down the road an SF minister is going to propose something unpalatable and they don’t want it stymied.
The DUP claimed they had renegotiated the Good Friday Agreement in such a way that no minister could force anything through without the consent of the executive and, if necessary, the assembly.
The party is now in the process of proving its claim wrong and SF is not about to stop it.
The truth is that the DUP finds it suits it as well as SF for ministers to be able to paddle their own canoes.
The fact is that both SF and the DUP have an identity of interest in making the machinery of the administration work in a way that suits them.
It’s in nobody’s interest to have a bust-up in the executive.
Anyway, if SF was to show that a DUP minister had done something untoward, there is no way it could get rid of the minister and secondly, people would ask, what are you doing in an executive with them if you don’t trust them and are always sniping at them, metaphorically speaking of course.
The same goes for the DUP, where plenty of people are already asking that question about its Sinn Fein partners.
For the same reasons neither Ian Paisley nor Martin McGuinness is going to admit they are blocking each other in any way in case it stirs memories of Trimble and Mallon and prompts people to ask how can anything substantive be done.
In the end something will have to give.
With issues like education and the numbers of councils and their powers looming there will have to be a day of reckoning.
Turning a blind eye to controversial issues like the Causeway visitors centre or Victims’ Commissioner only postpones the inevitable.
Both main parties are not just pushing the blockage further down the drain, they’re throwing more debris into the drain.
It will all come to a trade-off but one outcome you can be sure of is that the DUP wants as much power for individual ministers as Sinn Fein, so they’ll not rein each other in.
The Giant’s Causeway is a World Heritage site, with the potential to generate millions of pounds of revenue into Northern Ireland’s public purse. There may be a convincing argument for allowing a private developer – even one who happens to be a member of the DUP – to run part of the operation, but that argument seems to have been buried. In order to wipe away even the merest whiff of impropriety or cronyism, it would be advisable for both ministers to put their discussions and justifications into the public domain.
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Had Mr Dodds and Mrs Foster saved their announcements until the Assembly debate on Tuesday afternoon, informed the chamber of the fact that Mr Sweeny was also a member of the DUP, and then placed on record every stage of the decision-making process, this whole mess would have been avoided.
The fact that they chose another route entirely is the strongest possible argument for ensuring that the mechanisms are in place to stop such a thing happening again.Those mechanisms are the foundations of democracy, scrutiny, transparency and accountability; the very mechanisms which the DUP claimed to have embedded in the St Andrews’ additions to the Belfast Agreement. It really is about time that we had a formal, funded, effective and official Opposition within the Assembly structure.