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.

, ,

  • Diluted Orange

    It is obvious that the British government is to blame here for their continued and unrelenting oppression of the Irish people.

    If Ireland was united there would be no need for the Stormont Assembly and so no need for any Sinn Fein involvement in any government – anywhere. You can’t blame the Shinners for being made to govern against their ideological will, and therefore having to screw it up as a matter of urgency, in order to highlight the failure of the Northern Irish state.

  • Diluted Orange

    [i]What gave Ms Gildernew’s officials to believe they were any less suibject to EU regulation than their Westminster counterparts?[/i]

    Perhaps they were so used to seeing Sammy Wilson putting his foot in his mouth that they thought that the EU restrictions which previously applied to Nick Brown during that crisis had been scrapped?

  • BonarLaw

    “The finger of suspicion then must therefore fall on the quality of her advice and her advisers.”


  • Mick Fealty

    On the matter of budgets, this kind of small but highly visible waste, is giving hostages to the fortune of political opponents who have responsibilities for more front line services and complaining that they’ve been short changed by changed circumstances, and the corporate inflexibility of DFP’s three year budgets.

  • joeCanuck

    I hear you are changing nappies. Congrats, hope everyone is well.

  • Mick Fealty

    Thanks, I’ll say something when we have chosen a name… Now, back to the topic?

  • joeCanuck


    I commented on Turgon’s thread.

  • The Raven

    Well let’s name some advisers, shall we? (ok, so I won’t here)

    I hear of, and occasionally meet, these advisers from time to time – in all the camps I must add.

    Who are they? What are they paid? What qualification do they hold to be “advisers”?

    I trust they are paid from party budgets….

    Oh, and do the parties ever think to go beyond some of these advisers and actually talk to “real” people? Sorry, sorry, I know I know…how stupid of me…it’s after midnight…I am addled in my old age.

  • The Raven


    I mean, I won’t name any here at whom fingers could be pointed at. That wouldn’t be fair.

    Especially as she only has the one. Apparently.

    May I step away from my normally neutral stance at this point, and say: Gosh, what a shit week to be in Sinn Fein!

  • “Agriculture minister gaily leaves port with her bow doors wide open”

    … not forgetting the DRD minister who’s (still) away with the ferries. FOI requests across these two islands have uncovered non-DARD ‘porkies’ – more later.

  • Pigeon Toes

    “What gave Ms Gildernew’s officials to believe they were any less suibject to EU regulation than their Westminster counterparts?”

    I would say being in the Northern Ireland Civil Service…

    Perhaps Michelle could commission a “independent” “investigation” at huge public expense to clear her “advisers”, which could oh say bleme the farmers or all the horrible peasnts who have dared critcise

  • “to trip the minister up by devious officials”

    How competent are these officials? How much do they tell Ministers?

    Even a cursory glance at the Rathlin ferry investigations ‘scandal’ will reveal sometime public servants expressing legal and psychiatric opinions off their own bats as if they were qualified to make such assessments.

  • Pigeon Toes

    Sometimes they forget that when they send correspondence there is a recipient. So even if they “foget” to save it to theeir electronic filing system or hit the (by now) worn out delte button, the recipient may not have.

    “Oh what tangled web” and all that

  • “the department’s inability to sell off some of its estate”

    Mick, the UUP’s Tom Elliott is more specific:

    Now however, we are told that the site is barely worth even 3% of the original estimate, meaning that it is worth no more at this moment in time than a maximum of £6 million pounds.”

    “How are the farming community in Northern Ireland supposed to have any faith in the Minister and the Department when they take the prize assets of our sector, place incredibly wrong estimates against their worth and destroy a wonderful resource? It simply isn’t good enough. There needs to be some explaining done to the farming community, otherwise the little confidence people have in the ability of those at the top will continue to decline.” ..

    “The amount of money that would be left following DARD’s move away from Crossnacreevy would be minimal, if anything at all. Putting it is simple words, the whole situation is a disaster and has shown Minister Gildernew to be incompetent and incapable of providing for the farming community as she should.”

    “I warned the Minister that she was playing with fire when she decided to sell the Crossnacreevy site. She didn’t listen and now she will get burned. The whole mess is a disaster for all involved, embarrassing for the Department and harmful to the farming community that deserves and needs strong leadership.”

    From £200m to under £6m. How could such a monumental blunder have been made?

  • Pigeon Toes

    However, they may make better use of their spellcheck facility, than I am capable of

  • “the Minister enjoys a warm and supportive relationship with her senior civil servants”

    Mick, it’s obviously not warm enough. But who has the wherewithal to hold Ministerial and Permanent Secretarial feet to the coals?

  • PT, a friend has just sent me this little spat on the topic of ‘joint First Minister‘. Shock and awe!!

    Ballymoney Times ‘spool chocker’ produced this lovely glitch about Paisley jnr where the poor wee lad was ‘stabled’ in the back by his supposed friends.

  • OC

    “There is an old joke that asks: how many gears does an Italian tank have? The answer: six…”

    5 forward, and 1 reverse (in case they are attacked from the rear)…

  • OC

    Oops, should read:

    “5 reverse, and 1 forward (in case they are attacked from the rear)…”