Agriculture minister gaily leaves port with her bow doors wide open…

There is an old joke that asks: how many gears does an Italian tank have? The answer: six, but they are all in reverse. Today’s news that the Northern Irish agriculture Minister has been slapped down, very very publicly on national UK radio by an EU Commissioner’s spokesman, is likely to lead to a quick shift to whichever reverse gear gets her out of trouble fastest. Despite some heavy obfuscation on Stormont Live, it seems the Minister and her department heads were acting unlawfully in providing money to farmers on a first come first served basis.

So how big a mistake was this? Well, on the face of it, not very. There were never going to be more than 1,200 farmers get the benefit of the £5,000 that was on offer. Although, one of the advantages of this populist way of distributing EU money was that it would have been very cheap to administer.

So as well as wasting the time of those farmers who did stand in queues for up to 48 hours, it is likely that substantially fewer of them will actually get paid once the costs of a new and legal means of distributing the money are developed and then loaded on to an already tight departmental budgets.

It’s not the first time the department has beaten a retreat from its original plans. Ms Gildernew required a hasty dig out from the DUP run Department of Finance and Personnel when the department’s inability to sell off some of its estate mean it failed to cover its liabilities over the nitrates directive.

Nor is it the first time this particular department has signally failed to communicate at critical times with other bodies. Not least under the dioxin scare, when the Belfast based Food Standards Agency (FSA) was contacted by its counterpart in the Republic more than 24 hours after the Department of Agriculture itself knew. Confusion, as today, reigned. The department then, as now blamed someone else (in that case they suggested the Republic’s government ‘could have done much, much more’).

I doubt, as Willie McCrea suggests, that this is or perhaps even should be a resigning matter. The figures are small and the scale relatively minor. Besides, where is the mechanism to force such a resignation in what is effectively a closed shop Executive? Ms Gildnernew will only move when her party decide it is best for them to move her along to pastures green.

Nevertheless, the nature of the mistakes being made here are basic and inexcusable. It’s well known in political circles that the UK Minister for Agriculture, Nick Brown was pinned back by 24 hours in every day of the foot and mouth epidemic, by the need to seek approval for his actions from the European Commission. What gave Ms Gildernew’s officials to believe they were any less suibject to EU regulation than their Westminster counterparts?

Slugger understands that the Minister enjoys a warm and supportive relationship with her senior civil servants, so it is inconceivable that this is some kind of an attempt to trip the minister up by devious officials. And the Minister is less inclined to play party politics with her brief than some of her party colleagues in the Executive. The finger of suspicion then must therefore fall on the quality of her advice and her advisers.

The embarrassment is that, as the late Nick Ridley once rather indelicately, but very accurately, put it in another time and another place, they have let their minister set out from port so gaily with the bow doors flung open to the oceans.

If this were a properly accountable democratic dispensation, heads would certainly roll. Maybe next time they will, when they mess up on something really big and really important? In the meantime, Ms Gildernew level of trust within the farming community must take another beating.

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