So where does all this leave the Executive?

If you’re brain is numb with all this fine detail, that probably means you are as up-to-date with this saga as any of us. In case you missed the general story, here’s my own attempt at a recapitulation. Corrections, omissions, additions all gratefully received! Oh the joys of ‘involuntary coalition’!!Peter Robinson is as we speak (this could change) engaged in a stand off with the SDLP’s only Minister in the Executive Margaret Ritchie. It’s getting very messy. He’s said that she was lying about sending him her legal advice as soon as she had it. She’s claiming that the DUP and SF colluded in doctoring minutes that record her agreeing to things she claims were not even formally discussed. A position supported not necessarily supported by Reg Empey and Michael McGimpsey’s dissent from the accuracy of those minutes.

The problem for Ritchie (apart from the death threat now hanging over her head) is that her decision could be reversed after a judicial review. The problem for Robinson is that the Executive’s actions all along have been ambiguous, to say the least. That’s not to mention last night’s public allegation that an Executive colleague lied.

The best you can say about the disputed minutes is that they rather conveniently get rid of an ambiguity that arose back in June when the Minister first raised the possibility of withdrawing a particular funding stream because of the UDA’s continuing misbehaviour.

Ritchie’s contention is that members of the Executive offered ‘no comment’ when she took it to them in June. They complain that she had already made an announcement. But their refusal to even discuss the problem at that early stage has opened an unaccountable void in the chain of command which the Ministerial Code forged in the negotiations for the St Andrews Agreement simply do not cover.

It may also have been a calculated gamble on their part that she would not do something so politically, legally, not to mention mortally dangerous as to actually carry out her threat.

When a policeman was shot at the end of July followed by riots over police house searches a week later in early August, she upped the ante and gave the UDA 60 days notice that she would terminate the funding, if they did not begin to meaningfully engage with the international decommissioning body.

The disputed minutes now record that, at the very last minute, Minister Ritchie obliged herself at an Executive meeting in early October (ie, the day before the funding deadline) to consult her ‘cabinet colleagues’ before making her scheduled announcement in the Assembly last Tuesday, at a meeting slated to happen two days after that announcement.

The fact that they are disputed does not affect the fact that they are now ‘the official version’. That means the Executive, and not Ms Ritchie, is now responsible for making the decision to cut or sustain the funding. Perhaps they will finally get around to having that ‘difficult conversation’ they should have had last June? If they pull the funding, they face a possible Judicial Review.

If they don’t, then some of those that would necessarily be involved in making a decision will face some awkward questions about a very real 180 degree turn from last week when Ms Ritchie was prematurely cast as the UDA funding villain.

Ritchie has already elected to face her dangers. The alternative was to get politically shafted by Sinn Fein who, rather embarrassingly for them, have been flip-flopping on this matter ever since the Minister’s last minute switcheroo on Tuesday. At this stage, she may have little left to lose but to let this whole matter grind through to its conclusion.

But the others appear to be running a high risk strategy. Not simply in confronting Ritchie over a story that in the court of public opinion they cannot win. But if this story does take a further twist and go to court, we might expect Ritchie’s people to open up second and third legal fronts on the internal conduct of government.

Perhaps that’s a loose lid that more than one of her partners in government might prefer was left tight shut?

,

  • The Spectator

    Mick

    What second and third legal fronts?

  • sms

    admittedly the whole thing is complicated but is it true ,as you state, that Reg Empey and Michael McGimpsey agreed with Margaret Ritchies opinion that the minutes were deliberately altered. As I read it they stated that their recollection of the minutes tallied with hers and as anyone knows who attends committee meetings recollection of minutes often differ but it doesn’t necasserily follow that they were deliberately altered one way or the other. hence the reason for all minutes being proposed and seconded before adaption.Reg Empey may be able to clear this up if he were to release the notes he has on the meeting which he admits he has.

  • dewi

    In terms of stopping the flow of money Mick, does this conclusively not happen without executive approval?

  • Rory

    Given that co-operation is necessary in a coalition administration and that some measure of compatability might be desirable for co-operation, I cannot help but recall Ambrose Bierce’s definition of “incompatability” in his The Devil’s Dictionary:

    Incompatability,n: In matrimony a similarity of tastes, particularly the taste for domination.

    Which mention of matrimony leads me to recall this definition:

    Bride, n.: A woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her.

    I fear that in that regard this marriage is a modern one where all are brides.

  • Mick Fealty

    Thanks sms. Amended accordingly.

    I had this email from a friend for whom this was all news:

    “It really smacks of inexperience all round. Coalition government is really tough – and being able to step back and take a deep breath is a key quality. Of course, coalition govs fall regularly even in relatively stable countries like the Netherlands. It’s the problem of not having a single party to keep things under wraps!”

    Spec,

    Are you saying that this whole sorry mess has no potential to throw up legal complications?

  • ulsterfan

    Lets not get too excited about this. Although we have a coalition government we can not allow it to collapse because there is nothing to take its place.
    In other democracies there is an opposition but who do we have?….the same people, same policies and separate vested interests which in other words means no change!

  • Nevin

    “But their refusal to even discuss the problem at that early stage”

    Mick, this is at odds with Devenport’s and Poots’ recollections in the BBC (youtube) report from the Assembly. As I understand it, the problem was discussed and the Executive decided at that time to make no change. Ritchie may or may not have put a range of options for action to the Executive.

    Did she subsequently clear her 60-day ultimatum with the Executive? When did she first seek legal advice?

  • joeCanuck

    Really appreciate that summary Mick. I’ve been away for past 3 days and lost the thread of things.
    I had a good break though.

  • Nevin

    Am I right in saying that she first sought legal advice following the Executive meeting on October 8?

  • Mick

    Nev,

    Worth checking again what Poots actually said, and bringing here. I don’t recall him giving such a detailed response. But I am happy to be corrected.

  • Rubicon

    You have to wonder to what extent this really is a coalition government – as opposed to a federation of fiefdoms forced to occasionally gather together to play reluctant homage to the fig leaf of collective responsibility. Can someone point out how the SAA made any difference? With 90%+ of MLAs belonging to parties in the Executive the key element of collective responsibility; i.e., accountability cannot be enabled.

    Recent events are pointing to ‘collective responsibility’ being in fact nothing more than joint decision making enforced by joint DUP/SF majority rule. This should be a pretty uncomfortable environment for the UUP & SDLP and the longer they stay in the Executive the more of this we’ll see.

    It’s simply not the case that the Assembly doesn’t allow for opposition. The nominating officer of each party is free not to propose a minister and – if they so choose – the nomination then passes to the next party in sequence. It is true that an opposition does not have any special privileges; e.g, speaking and questioning privileges, but don’t be fooled by the guff that there’s no opposition. What there isn’t is the absence of an invitation to join the gravy train.

    The DUP & SF have sufficient MLAs to pass any vote on a cross-community basis. Neither the UUP nor the SDLP have 40% of members of the unionist or nationalist communities. It might help democracy here if the electorate were free to choose whether they’d like to continue this dominant DUP/SF axis. But – if all parties choose to join the Executive anyway – who would blame the electorate for wondering what was the point?

    Sorry if this appears a little off-thread. If you think about the last week – isn’t it this issue that may be looming next? IMO – it should be.

  • Nevin

    Here’s the youtube link to the BBC item posted earlier on Slugger:

  • DC

    Are there not grounds for a challenge by those in Ritchie’s quarters that the contract thus made was done so without a legitimate democratic mandate, which in this instance Ritchie was working under and had the opportunity to review given the change in power base, ultimately derived one from free elections.

  • Thanks for the excellent summary: it covers all the bases but one.

    Sorry to keep belabouring that defunct equine, but why did Robinson choose to go “over-the-top” in full public view?

    He must have known he had the votes to sort it behind the arras. That would have left Ritchie either to do a reverse-ferret and carry through the agreed policy or to resign in a snit. So either he lost it, or he miscalculated the Jeanne d’Arc potential, or he had to head off something worse than what has transpired. And, even in that latter possibility, why did he lay his own prestige on the line, when any bag-carrier could have pressed the point?

    So, for me, the big issue is not the funding: there are various ways to skin and re-upholster a cat. Why does a man of 25+years parliamentary experience go for the jugular in the arena rather than work through the “usual channels”?

  • DC

    Cont’d – Therefore the circumstances in which the secretary of state made impositions on her department was not one that she could maintain without necessary reform given the shifting balance toward democratic methods of governance and that of the slide towards further disintegration of the UDA during a time when the project was already funded to bring the opposite result.

    Leaving aside concerns of collective governance.

  • DC

    “So either he lost it, or he miscalculated the Jeanne d’Arc potential, or he had to head off something worse than what has transpired.”

    At the time it looked like a stunt to cover Poots’s ass on dropping Irish-language legislation but he seriously miscalculated public opinion on the UDA funding issue.

  • Mick

    Nev,

    That’s the easy bit. Can you fish us out the exchange you’re talking about? I’m on a hideous deadline. Thanks in advance.

  • Nevin

    As I understand it, the impetus for the funding of paramilitary related projects came from London and Dublin in conjunction with SF. Perhaps the DUP/SF ‘coalition’ is really protecting SF butt from exposure to Ritchie’s ‘full frontal’ assault. The Farset project, as I’ve already pointed out, is only one of a number of ‘conflict transformation’ projects aided by Government/EU/other funds.

  • Nevin

    Mick, Poots contribution begins 6 mins in with 3 mins to go.

  • Mick

    Ain’t got time Nev. Honest.

  • Frank Sinistra

    Mick,

    Another additional factor of possible long term significance was flagged by Chris – legal advice seems to indicate that all funding provided on the basis of community identity could be illegal and open to JR. Thus a range of programmes funded under the ‘renewing communities’ programme that solely target what are called ‘PUL – Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist’ areas could be open to challenge equal to that of funding the UDA linked CTI.

  • Thanks for the recap. Unfortunatly for me it came just too late, as the previous post led me to understand the situation in full. For the past week I had been sort of in a fog on the issue, wondering if I had the legal knowledge to follow this issue. Good to know that all these details and peoples and contentions are confusing to the pros even.

  • hercules

    Good commentary DC.

    A fact I think that is overlooked, because it is not mentioned, is that the executive minutes of that meeting and earlier crucial ones would have been routinely recorded.

    If they are not recorded I will be very surprised.

    We should not have to rely on Sir Reg’s notes.

    So can someone ask if there is a full electronic recording of the minutes taken. Or if recordings of all or part of the executive meetings are taken.

    And if not why not.

    And be suspicious about the wording of denials.

  • Mick

    Frank,

    I think Chris could be right on that. Although whether either JR would ultimately be successful is another matter. Perhaps that is the fight the DUP would prefer to fight? Although somehow, I don’t think so now the ‘fall guy’ has had responsibility wrested from her.

    Intriguingly (must stop using that word), Martina Purdy said this morning that not everyone inside the Executive was actually in favour of the funding cut. In which case, we may see the pressure begin to ease on Ritchie, as the big boys and girls inside the Executive wind up for their first proper adult fight.

    Somehow I doubt there will be any photo opportunities offered the press on this one.

  • Outsider

    What will it do to the assembly if these claims that the IRA murdered a man from Monaghan are true, surely the DUP are going to have to pull out.

    Conor Murphy has rubbished the claims however, whatever thats worth.

  • Nevin

    Outsider, it seems he was from Cullyhanna, in Armagh, but died from his injuries in Monaghan.

  • Outsider

    Nevin

    My mistake, this claim seems to have come completely out of the blue, it could be critical to the long term future of the assembly executive.

  • Frank Sinistra

    Mick,

    Relatives for Justice (RFJ) have been claiming it was they that put the Section 75 breech into the mix and that this eventually filtered through into the legal opinions. Could they be the group that challenges the Prod only funding of PUL & UDA linked projects? Somebody should.

  • Frank Sinistra

    And apologies to any site user involved in work that benefits communities via PUL funding, I know your work is beneficial but I’m all for funding on the basis of need (TSN) not sectarian advantage. Your projects just exasperate sectarianism IMO.

  • Mick Fealty

    That was in Friday’s Irish Times I think. Didn’t get the chance to blog it. Too busy trying to earn a living elsewhere (with some difficulty over the last few days, I can tell you).

  • Belfast Gonzo

    Malcolm

    I would suggest that Robinson’s over-the-top response to Ritchie’s announcement can be explained by the fact that if she gets away with her decision, it makes a complete mockery of what the DUP says it gained at St Andrews. Robinson’s political reputation depends on Ministers no longer being able to ‘do a McGuinness’ (ie make unilateral decisions on important issues), and if Ritchie’s decision sticks, it means the St Andrews Agreement – which the DUP entered government on the back of – isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. Naturally, that would be a big stick to beat the party with.

    I think that’s why Robbo went ballistic.

  • DC

    Gonzo what did the DUP agree at St Andrews?

    And if Robinson thinks he can use this as a test case his understanding of law is on a simple basis.

    Each and every case is based on its own merits and should another case arise unsimilar to this one it will likely involve different input with the potential for a different outcome.

    When you work in an Executive, the leaders of it come first, don’t blame the crew but its masters.

    It’s not Ritchie’s fault but more so to do with leadership (Paisley’s and McGuinness’s) that’s not working.

  • Mick Fealty

    BG,

    “…it means the St Andrews Agreement – which the DUP entered government on the back of – isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”

    The weakness in this case, for all the loose talk about her job being ‘on the line’ is that the only person who can get rid of Ritchie would appear to be Mark Durkan. Increasingly it looks like that ‘Mickey Finn clause’ about needing to come back to the Executive before making her decision that the DUP and SF slipped into the last meeting/minutes is the only thing that puts her ‘ultra vires’ on this matter.

    But the code means that there are now circumstances where the minister can go ‘Ultra Vires’ by acting outside the Executive’s authority, whereas before there weren’t.

    It looks more and more like a political smash and grab job once they realised that she might actually do it. The trouble for Robinson is that until this highly irregular meeting, MR was absolutely onside with the Ministerial Code.

    The question just abound:

    If they knew she was in legal jeopardy, whichever way she jumped, then what was the big scene in the Assembly really about? And how come SF went along with it? Did they not know? It seems highly unlikely since one organisation that would almost certainly have taken an action Relatives for Justice would not have lobbied them fairly hard. If they did know why did they not point this out in that debate?

    And, finally, where is the Deputy First Minister in all of this?

  • Nevin

    How could she be ‘onside’, Mick? Presumably, she knew she was in legal jeopardy after reading the ‘inhouse’ legal advice.

    Also, when did the SDLP ditch their Hume-led politics of inclusion strategy?

  • Mick

    Keep up Nev. She is in legal jeopardy whether makes a decision or not. The legal advice is not what puts her ‘ultra vires’, that was either spin or a fluffed line from Edwin, just after hearing the Minister say something neither he nor his party expected. It’s not been stood up by anything else I’ve heard or seen.

  • Mick Fealty @ 07:39 AM:

    Yep: that one ticks most of my boxes.

    Nevin @ 10:37 AM:

    Forgive me for stating the obvious: when did a lawyer not find good reasons for taking the money of others? Dear heaven, the drooling salivation can be observed from here.

    And! There’s more! (as the best ads have it)…

    Once matters tee off down that fairway, they’ve been put into the long grass for weeks, months, even years. Farset and anyone else taking CTI money had better not be counting on a settlement in time for the kids’ Christmas prezzies, 2008.

    While all that’s happening, Ritchie can sail on blithely … unless Robinson can torpedo her with precedural points.

    Not too many mixed metaphors there, I hope.

    As for the SDLP ditching their Hume-led politics of inclusion strategy, it’s about time they found a new one: the old “strategy” (which is dignifying it somewhat) wasn’t getting them very far.

  • Nevin

    I’m trying to keep up, Mick!!

    “MR was absolutely onside with the Ministerial Code.”

    Mick, your claiming certainty when there’s doubt. Don’t we need to know the limits of her powers as expressed in her options list of early July, Mick? If her subsequent actions went beyond that list then she may been obliged to return to the Executive.

    It would also appear that her actions in mid-August lay within those limits, as there was no outcry, or were not far beyond.

    Which brings us to the Executive meeting on October 8. At that point she was apparently advised to seek ‘internal’ legal advice before making further decisions – or announcements. The sensible think to have done next would have been to return to the Executive with that advice but it appears she decided to do a ‘smash and grab’ instead – and damn the Code.

  • Nevin

    Malcolm, the old ‘strategy’ was part of the Hume-Adams agenda aka as the Alex Reid and Redemptorist ‘stepping stones’ process. But enough of that!!

  • Mick

    Nev,

    I’ll happily eat my words if I have this wrong, but I think you are in danger of casting doubt where there is actually *some* degree of certainty.

    As I understand it the meeting on the 8th asked only (according to Ritchie that is) that she report back to OFMDFM and the Minister of Finance. That much she did. She appears she understood that that was the full extent of her obligation.

    On the first part, I think you answer your own question. The pertinent question is what changed that her Executive colleagues in the DUP and Sinn Fein needed that last minute recall of powers from colleagues who had up to that point been happy for her (rather than them) to drink the poisonous cup?

    Another question arises. Who is managing this government? OFMDFM, the Ministry of Finance, or the Minister for Social Development? Protocols are crucial to the responsible handling of government business, but they have to be managed and overseen.

    That responsibility might lie with the first two, but hardly the third.

  • There was, of course, a totally different scenario.

    We now seem to have agreement that the 8th October Executive meeting was the crunch, and everything thereafter depends on someone, somewhere getting it wrong. Robinson (“one of Northern Ireland’s longest serving and most respected politicians”, it says here) could have pulled rank, by insisting it was an issue of finance and funding. The script might them have gone like this:

    Statement by the Minister of Finance!

    Thank you, Mr Speaker. By arrangement with the Minister for Social Development (Insert flowery compliments as appropriate), I wish to make a statement on the continued funding for CTI…

    That would generally be termed “leadership”. Any alternative to that suggests designating the can-carrier, by “delegating” the decision.

    Or did I misread it all?