Genuine power sharing with Sinn Fein would have averted the RHI mini-crisis

Did the BBC snatch or stage Jonathan Bell’s prayer before his confessional trial before Nolan? Either way it resembled nothing more than a man having his head laid on the block and making peace with his Maker before execution (and I don’t mean Nolan).  While the mawkishness of the prayerful moment recalls the early Paisley playing the martyr before or after some act of provocation, Bell’s evoking of the DUP’s spiritual origins is unlikely to save him. He is now a political heretic and will be cast out.

Bell’s claim that collective responsibility forced him to continue the Renewal Heating Incentive scheme for weeks against his conscience runs directly contrary to the accepted theory. Collective responsibility (which by the way was supposed to be strengthened by Fresh Start) properly means the collective policy of the whole cabinet or Executive, not just the DUP ministers or their leader. The irony is that had it been exercised the crisis might have been avoided. But patently Sinn Fein were not involved and seem to have laid off entry into the controversy in the interests of Executive cohesion until it became inevitable with the announcement of a  tomorrow’s  “vote of confidence “ in the First Minster.

No, whatever the decision, it was taken by the DUP party caucus led by Mrs Foster, a special procedure necessary in coalitions when parties wish to diverge without threatening the government’s existence. In Northern Ireland terms, however, this was  regular old school conduct of  one party trying to conceal its dirty linen from the other and the world – the sort of behaviour carried on over say the “flegs” protests but now applied to a row over non-sectarian  incompetence and lack of accountability.

Sinn Fein have no right to complain about a decision taken by party caucus. Their own response was pronounced by a party leader who isn’t even elected by Northern Ireland voters. So party rules OK remains the norm.

Why on earth was a tariff not imposed in the scheme in the first place? In her turn Arlene  Foster refused to accept the pure doctrine of ministerial responsibility.

“It has been acknowledged, indeed by the permanent secretary, that I did all that was appropriate in the circumstances,”  she told us. “If anyone has any knowledge of the amount of instructions that a minister gives on a day by day basis they would understand, it is custom and practice actually, that it is only if there is some issue, if an exception is raised with me by an official that it would come back to my desk. That didn’t happen on this occasion. Of course I regret that it didn’t happen on this occasion but that’s the reality.”

Indeed the sheer complexity of modern government has compromised the pure doctrine,  but blaming  officials is not done. In the case of Northern Ireland where government is a lot more straightforward than in Whitehall  it is  fair to ask  why  ministerial responsibility wasn’t better exercised from the beginning.

With the initial slow takeup of the scheme and the underspend and her switch of portfolios  there is  probably enough wriggle room in conventional accountability terms to let Mrs Foster  off the hook and prevent Sinn Fein withdrawing support. This was evident when she   “won” the interview with Nolan by sticking to her guns in a direct clash of evidence with Jonathan Bell.

The exposure of incompetence and malfunctioning  is at least as serious as the political drama. Spads in general more permanent and therefore more powerful than rotating ministers.  Rotating ministers nominally in charge but without the protection  afforded by genuine ministerial responsibility (why didn’t the Finance minister  question the scheme?) ; civil servants  working to ministers of different parties with different policies, and waiting often in vain for  direction from either their ministers or the  centre.

If  I am  right,  Mrs  Foster will survive and Sinn Fein has no choice but to  fall reluctantly  into line, perhaps with agreement  to hold some form of independent inquiry . It is hard to see what  other price they can extract for compliance. DUP embarrassment will continue. The  Executive will look a little weaker but it will not collapse as this is  an “ordinary” matter of  competence and accountability and not a  traditional toxic issue.

But Fresh Start is looking stale already. It can only be freshened up by genuine collective responsibility, with each party sharing   more of its troubles with the other as a matter of course. Would Mairtin O’Muilleoir and Simon Hamilton have sorted this out between them before it peaked as a crisis? Now there’s a thought.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London