Bizarre as it may seem, and whether or not we like it, this election *is* about #RHI…

I notice this morning that Alex Kane is suggesting that the election campaign so far is full of humbug. That’s partly (as I suggested in yesterday’s #SluggerReport) because most folk have been concentrating on getting some basic administration done just so they can stand.

This election has nothing to do with RHI. It has nothing to do with producing an alternative that will be demonstrably better than the one elected last May. And nothing to do with any guarantee, let alone pretence, that the ‘difficult’ issues are more likely to be addressed and resolved this time around.

Yesterday Newton Emerson had two pieces out: one in the Irish Times and the other in the Irish News. Each takes a separate look at the post-election landscape. In the latter, he recalls a piece he did for the late lamented UTV Insight series which looked at the permanent government:

Under direct rule, Stormont’s oversight role passed to Westminster’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC). Its members told us they were appalled by the amateurism – and worse – they had uncovered in Belfast, despite having relatively little time to devote to it.

Watching MPs grilling the permanent secretaries was excruciating. At one PAC hearing a senior Tory reported telling his secretary on receipt of a Stormont file. “It’s from Northern Ireland so it will be full of fraud and incompetence – and it is.”

Other PAC verdicts included “waffle”, “ripping off the taxpayer”, “turning a blind eye to fraud” and “the worst report I’ve ever read”. All this took place more than a decade ago and the senior personnel at Stormont has changed.

Now, I’ve little doubt much of this is just Westminster othering of ‘stupid provincials’, and some of it is genuine ‘stupid provincialism’. But the point is that if we are to take the RHI matter seriously, in its own non-political terms, then how far are such messes replicated across the piste?

As occasional Slugger contributor, Ed Straw highlights in Stand and Deliver, throughother-ness in the civil service is endemic. According him the problem is the lack of constitutional structure, in which there’s little obligation for parties and civil service to align resources to a single purpose.

He cites a visit to the IOC in the mid-90s (when he was heavily involved in the restructuring of the Labour party) where he suggests to them that Olympic bids should be accepted where it had the backing of a political opposition.

The point was not made simply as a matter of self-interest (Labour were in opposition at the time). It speaks to a deeper need to get broad agreement on objectives that are sustainable over a long time arc (the span in which most robust and pervasive public goods get created).

Such an approach should, he argues, attract different kinds of politicians with different formative experiences and the temperament to get things done and prevent the psychological flaws of politicians and civil servants dominating.

If there is a significant interregnum, then you can kiss goodbye any of this happening anytime soon (although in his Irish Times piece, Newton offers some cursory evidence that this might not be the case):

So the permanent secretaries will officially be running Northern Ireland, without ministers of any description. At first they will simply continue existing programmes but soon they will face meaningful political decisions – the health service already has urgent needs implying cuts elsewhere.

Budget capping applies across the board rather to each department, while the law says the department of finance permanent secretary can spend within it “as [he] may direct.” So he will be compelled to prioritise, with every permanent secretary no doubt bidding for funds.

This is indistinguishable from the behaviour of ministers in an executive. If it continues beyond the summer, it will have lasted longer than our previous executive.

The flipside of not introducing direct rule is that the assembly will presumably be allowed to limp on in some shape or form, enabling all-party oversight of officials via the Public Accounts Committee.

So unelected civil servants will be our government, while everyone we elect will be the opposition. And that is not even the punchline to this looming farce.

David Sterling, permanent secretary at the department of finance and our chancellor-to-be, was permanent secretary at the department of enterprise when it set up the Renewable Heat Incentive.

Bizarre as it may seem, and whether we like it or not, this election is about the RHI. Or at least it’s about policy, how it’s made, who makes it, who carries the can and, crucially, who can you vote for who can make a difference in the longer term?

Everything is bluster and avoidance of the proper accountability of power.


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  • anon

    I think this point is overworked. In many democracies you basically have a choice of two alternatives.

    In GB you vote Labour, or you vote Tory. Or you vote for someone else as a protest. In essence, you have two choices of ruling party.

    In the US, you vote Republican or Democrat, or you stay at home.

    In the South, there’s always a coalition but you’re voting for a FF led or FG led coalition.

    In NI, you always have a coalition. If you’re a Nationalist, you have a choice of SF or SDLP. If you’re a Unionist, you have a choice of DUP or UUP. There are 4 potential outcomes. If you want to protest you can vote Alliance, PBP, TUV or whoever. If you can’t end up with the Government you want, at least you can boot the other lot out for a while and send a message that they need to buck up their ideas. If you want rid of SF, vote SDLP. If you want rid of the DUP, vote UUP. And if you think that they’re sh** and don’t even deserve your vote you again have two choices – abstain, or join the party and change it.

    If you’re not happy with the status quo, follow the advice given by Frederick Douglass in 1895 – “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!”

  • nilehenri

    good to see you getting back to form with this post mick.
    there is still a lot of comment on social media about what happened lately, the papers are compulsive reading and there is still a month to go until the elections!
    i think that all this, on top of the dup brexit position, will lead to feet on the street.
    the apathetic and well-informed non-voters saw the recent charade of arlene and robin making a ham of basic procedure in stormont and they will remember this, and take a stand to say that enough is enough.
    i hope that the dup are about to be served a huge portion of punishment vote pie. maybe then we can get on with actually doing something about this place.

  • Kevin Breslin

    This election is about whatever the electorate want it to be.

  • mickfealty

    I disagree. It’s actually not worked half well enough. I mean, after we have the peace (which we do BTW), what on earth do we think we’re paying these lads and lasses a great deal of money to do? I’m no poujadiste by the way. I don’t begrudge the money, but people need to see a return for the cash.

    To state the bleedin obvious, we need them to take the time to find out what we want them to build and then get on a build it. And to do that they need to look for the necessary cross community consensus to fecking well build it, in such a way that it doesn’t come crashing down.

    That’s why I referenced the Straw stuff. We aren’t just dealing with our own crap past, the, ahem, Imperial Civil Service is just as crap as our own Permanent Government. They’re advantaged by the fact there actually is some oversight and direction given them by their politicians so they’re less expected to take the initiative than our lot.

    Try Ed’s He talks about the core material that unlay the RHI scandal. Lack of ownership, expecting generalists to do a specialist jobs and poor leadership in the translation of EU directives into a practical and manageable policy. Not easy to translate on the doorstep, but this ultimately is the mess that will have to be got back to when it’s all over.

  • mickfealty

    Lazy boy. Come on Kev, you’re better than that!! 😉

  • ted hagan

    As has been said before, the DUP will only suffer if its supporters see an alternative, and, realistically there isn’t one with the UU/SDLP pact (how Nesbitt must regret that now, I would think) or there is a big turnout of traditional non-voters, which seems unlikely.

  • nilehenri

    this is a bit like the argument that we have to try to make the dup followers see sense, and must accomodate their views. we don’t. this is the political arena, not some feel good meet and greet event, letsgetalongerism is dead, and good riddance to it.
    the real task is encouraging the jaded and the disenchanted to come out and vote.
    i think the nationalist vote weren’t so much apathetic in the last decade, more so taking things easily with a cautious confidence, as we’ve never had it so good here in the north. but the rhi/redsky/robinson/robinson/ad infinitum scandals have taken their toll, and seem to have served as a wake up call to an important swathe of the electorate, because it is blatantly clear that the only hope for change here is an all out attack on the dup.

  • I have to agree about the lack of alternatives. We have the orange crooks, the green crooks, the Eastwood/Nesbitt “nobody knows what we stand for” party, the “neither orange nor green (but sort of green)” Trotskyite party, the “moving Northern Ireland forward, but not quite sure where to” party, and finally the party for discontented middle class lefties.

    Nobody is articulating anything near a plan that will improve the lives of the majority of citizens, and address the real issues around health, quality of life, educational attainment, economic development etc.

    If anything, as we lack any credible political party, the latest round of scandal is more likely to swell the ranks of non-voters, as people will not come out and vote for a plethora of candidates who don’t have the ability and skills (excepting a handful of highly capable MLA’s) to make a better living doing something else.

  • mickfealty

    “Who is this we Kemo Sabe?”

  • Brian Walker

    Mick, I’m not surprised that Newton Emerson has upped his output. I always read him eagerly. He actually reads long documents and is financially literate, two characteristics that make him stand out. But there is a natural compulsion to reshape a running story on the basis of the day’s events. This is quite problematic just now when so much is so uncertainty over Brexit, and what the local parties will actually do after the election. So much are straws in the wind that blow away.

    When he writes quoting Enda post-Theresa, I know what he means.

    “We will maintain very close contact over the coming weeks.”
    That makes it official, and quite specific. Sinn Féin’s issues at Stormont have been kicked up to sovereign state level, to be dealt with by the co-guarantors of the peace process”.

    It may be that both governments will try to exert pressure, as they did for a full year in 2015 and 2016. But what have they got that they haven’t already offered? Are there any shots left in the locker? What may be more significant is Sinn Fein’ s alleged willingness to join a southern coalition, which means that standing outside the northern coalition risks looking ridiculous. Solidarity with the other Dail parties over Brexit and renewed membership of the northern coalition gives them a unique vantage point on both sides of the new Brexit border – a pretty good outcome in the circumstances for the ( so far) only all-Ireland party.

    At the risk of being naive I would ask if the manifestos will tell us anything. Will there be manifestos?

    Re Newton’s piece on the civil service, there is ample scope in the terms of reference of the Coghlin inquiry to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of the entire system of power sharing and invite a further study from experts in governance on how it could be improved. Rather like the Dissenter piece on the RHI scheme you’ve earmarked, we think we know quite a lot already but it would be good to have it laid out objectively to produce pressure for change.

  • SDLP supporter

    Masonmci, you come over to me as a tad smug and self-satisfied. If you have all these ideas, there’s still time for you to nip down to the Electoral Office, get the forms, choose a constituency, get ten electors to sign your papers etc., slap down your £150 cash and hey presto you’re a candidate yourself with the right to send out a communication setting out your brilliant ideas to every voter on the register.

    Otherwise, stop gurning. I am bitterly opposed to some parties here, but at least their activists have the courage of their convictions, and I respect them for that.

    Non-voters deserve nothing.

  • Msiegnaro

    Is that pact official?

  • Redstar

    Newton 99% of the time is bang on the money. Drives me nuts at times but he usually turns out to be correct.

    Always makes me think of a great footballer who plays for your rivals-secretly you wish he was on your side!!!!!

  • On the fence!

    The really sad thing is that one of the main specific reasons why I voted for the GFA, was because I thought our own elected politicians (of whichever persuasion) would be so much better running our wee place than having everything done directly from Westminster.

    Man, did I ever get that wrong!

  • nilehenri

    the rational, those who understand that governance is a little more complex than the sandbox politics that whitehall currently allows the northern pocket politicians to dabble in.

  • Gopher

    I don’t see the imperative here whether it’s Brexit or. RHI. With Brexit it’s out of our control, 300 seat majorities tend to have that effect. As for RHI all that is in the public domain is Mairtin firing his gun into the roof in a Stormont committee and a MLA’s nerve collapsing. How that effects Bunting, Easton, Middleton Lockhart etc etc I don’t know. Unsubstantiated paper chases might make good copy but I’m not sure it is of decisive importance. It’s beginning to look like Foster can “rope a dope” as the opposition coagulate around non issues. It was a big mistake to make it personal instead of governmental and it was a worse one to let SF off that governmental hook and get them on ground of their choosing which the opposition (sic) are going to suffer for once this election starts to get brutal. Every day that goes by those dreary steeples become more visible.

  • ted hagan

    I don’t know if it’s official but it will be the perception that counts.

  • Brian Walker

    Handwringing isn’ t enough. Gopher. There’s plenty to do over Brexit. New powers are winging this way from Brussels and plenty of cross border needed to make the outcome work as smoothly as possible. GFA structures are more important than ever.

  • Brian Walker

    Btw Ted.. just interested.. Why all the obssessing over the details of the election if its all such a waste of time?

  • Brian Walker

    Shouldn’t we wait for manifestos and see how the campaign goes before writing them off completely?

  • grumpy oul man

    the only gun produced was the one Arlene used to shoot herself in the foot, repeatably.
    and what hook was SF let off?

  • ted hagan

    Because I’m interested in it. And I think, actually, you are being rather rude, for no good reason.

  • grumpy oul man

    Ted did you miss the bit were the DUP proved they cant be trusted with the books.
    and how does a (theoretical) UUP/SDLP pact make less sense than the SF/DUP pact.

  • ted hagan

    I wouldn’t trust the DUP for a minute, I just can’t see theiir supporters turning to the UUP as an alternative, and I think doubly so because of their tie-in with the SDLP. I hope I’m wrong,to be honest and will be delighted if I am.
    The SF/DUP pact is a different matter altogether – two arch enemies forced to work together in an unholy alliance.

  • notimetoshine

    Raises an interesting point. We’re not long after an assembly election cycle, and all other things being equal another wasn’t expected for a few years. Elections are a costly business in terms of organisation and finances. So even for the big beasts, SF and the DUP a scrambling to get finances and organisation is to be expected. For the smaller parties even more so.

    I have to wonder then given the surprise nature of the election and its proximity to a previous election, that the smaller parties would be under significant strain financially and in organisational terms. This could well be to the benefit of the DUP, as the smaller unionist parties have real mud to throw over the RHI mess.

    The surprise nature of the election may be the saving grace of the DUP, and to a lesser extent SF. I imagine party headquarters at the TUV, Alliance, SDLP and UUP are madhouses at the moment. Never mind the electioneering, getting the money and people in place is probably the overriding priority. The DUP and SF certainky seem to be dominating election coverage so far.

  • Gopher

    Dublin and London will decide the post Brexit Ireland, Northern Ireland’s parties will just do what they always do make noise.

  • Gopher

    The governmental hook

  • Jag

    Given it’s only 10 months since the last election and the slogan’s haven’t changed (even if “change” is at the heart of many parties’ campaigns!), it’s going to be a fairly boring campaign. Until….

    I’d bet Friday 24th February when the parties (other than the DUP of course) will shovel as much as they can RHI into interviews, ads, door-to-door, press statements and posters. The message is simple really. RHI is going to cost this country hugely. It was introduced by the DUP. There are strong grounds for believing there was sleaze, greed, corruption, golden circles, “filling their boots”, “making out like bandits”.

    The weather forecast suggests temperatures will be below average for end Feb, which is a godsend to non-DUPers. As long as the non-DUPers pummel the hell out of Renewable Heat Incentive, they should all steal from the DUP.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Look voters will be voting on all kinds of crazy individualist reasons and hearsay, it’s all part of the charm.

    Saying that I probably should have repeated about in that statement I was mentioning, so if you could please consider this an apology.

  • grumpy oul man

    Which was what!
    You will have to explain this. This whole mess was created by Arlene and the DUP through a mixture of incompetence and arrogance.
    Trying to blame the Shinners or suggest it has somehow got them out of some sort of unspecified trouble will unless explained seem like just clumsy propaganda.

  • Teddybear

    Can we just accept the fact that NI & its people are dysfunctional, backward, useless , incompetent and will never ever be like our brighter neighbours to the south and to the east of us

    It’s not nice for the intelligent few but that’s life.

    To paraphrase a well known local soccer chant : We are not England, Germany or France or Australia. We are Norn Iron

  • eamoncorbett

    I thought after Brexit , less powers would be winging this way , however post Brexit I don’t think there will be a customs border simply because the PM will capitulate in the face of the CBI and others and simply pay Brussels huge sums for the privilege of access to the single market without the freedom of movement clause and that’s because at the end of the day common sense will prevail, couple that with the threat from Japanese car manufacturers about tariffs and you get a clearer picture of how things will pan out . At the end of the day money will talk , taxpayers money that is.

  • eamoncorbett

    NI elections have never been about the issues you mention , they are grudge matches based on sectarian and constitutional issues ,oneupmanship zero sum games , as for the electorate they’re just the audience in the theatre of farce.

  • Gopher

    Clumsy would be the way to describe SF’s spell in government. “Irelands biggest party” (sic) got a nose bleed when there was no SDLP to carry the can of sharing power.

  • Zorin001

    I think the proof in the pudding will be if the electorate give the established parties a kicking or if they go for the same old same old.

  • file

    Just because the UUP and the SDLP did not accept their executive seats the last time, it does not necessarily follow that they will not accept them this time. this is politics, the art of the possible. Before it actually happened, no one believed that Sinn Féin and the DUP would go into an executive together – and in fact many wasted years were wasted by the Northern Ireland Office listening to Trimble’s bleating on this matter and taking it for granted that it could not happen.

  • Fear Éireannach

    This election can facilitate things by reducing the DUP below 30, preventing them from using Petitions of Concern to obstruct the assembly holding them to account. It can also provide an assembly that reflects the majority of the NI population on Brexit and which supports recognition of NIs position.

  • ted hagan

    Wait for the manifestos? Yes, they should make fascinating reading. But then you always were very establishment in your reporting days, Brian. Didn’t rock too many boats.

  • mickfealty

    Those people exist in almost every party tbh.

  • grumpy oul man

    Still no actual meaning there.
    Im sorry i thiught you had something to say, i didnt realize you were just trolling.

  • Brian Walker

    Now Ted, you’re getting sour. It helps to go on what’s on the record as well as look behind the scenes. Parties can be judged on what they offer to the voters. If that’s “establishment reporting” I plead guilty .

  • Gopher

    So what your telling me was SF’s spell in government was competent? What words would you use to describe Kearny saying no Public enquiry on live radio and then someone (sic) deciding 5 minutes later there would be a public enquiry? What policy decision making process is there? Horrorscope? Dice? Or the direction a rubber duck points in the bath. I think “Clumsy” is a fair description of SF’s spell in office. I would not want you to accuse me of trolling by applying harsher and correct appelations.

    What about the DUP you will say, well the DUP have taken the endemic Northern Irish financial mismanagement to a new level. But one thing I will give the DUP at least they admit they were actually in Government through the last 10 years of Executive incompetence.

  • grumpy oul man

    Im not claiming that SF had a competent time in office. And im glad you fleshed out your comments.
    The previous posts you made where just snipes with no reference to the incompetence and casual sectarianism of the DUP.

  • Gopher

    I’m sorry but I’m not qualifying every single post especially when the opening post was patently about what the election would be fought on. I thought dreary steeples was descriptive enough.

  • grumpy oul man

    It just seemed that you were blaming everything on the shinners and ignoring the fact that the whole deary mess was the result of the DUPs rank incompetence.

  • murdockp

    the running of government in NI does raise some philosophical questions regarding the extreme left wing and socialist policies of SF and DUP.

    most governments serve the people. I don’t think this is true of NI parties. they seem more focused on preserving and enhancing working conditions of government staff. they never stand up for the ratepayer always defending the rights of the worker.

    austerity (which NI has not experienced in the expenditure sense) has been felt by the public at service delivery level as it is true that services have been cut. however not at staffing level in government as their jobs have been preserved.

    we now have huge government departments that deliver very little. roads service for example have cut back their projects and workers can now been seen passing thier days playing cards in the staff canteen as there is no work to do.

    yet ratepayers continue to be taxed harder and harder and no efficency in service delivery.

    my point is dup and SF don’t care to serve the wider public as they know their hardcore supoorters will vote them in again and again so as long as their benefits are maintained.

    Northern Ireland needs a government to drive through efficiencies and to take the big decisions.

    how can this country ever unite with roi if public expenditure in NI is not aligned with public expenditure in ROI the country SF wishes to join.

    the waste and inefficieny has to be tackled and for me that is what this election should be about.

  • Gopher

    Are you a shinner?

  • grumpy oul man

    No i am not! But this whole thing was caused by the ash for cash scheme mess and the DUPs failure to deal with it properly.
    Arlene was arogant in the extreme Girvan displayed contempt for the a Irish language and the revelations that he was throwing money at the OO and nonexistent “UlsterScots” groups was the final straw but you seem able to ignore that is your haste to have a go at the shinners.
    You seem happy enough to put up with the incompetence (at least) of the DUP and attempt to blame the shinners.
    I have given you a couple of chances to explain this in the hope that it wasnt just a crude attempt at shouting , NEVER MIND US LOOK AT THEMMUNS! Thing but your last question proves it was.

  • Gopher

    Really it looks like your playing Connelly House Scrabble 2017 edition, SPAD is a triple word score by the way, but only if you can use it in isolation of SF. To be fair to the DUP nobody gave them a chance to clear up the mess especially not SF who have called the election. With the knowledge of RHI I have, Arlene should have resigned but since she did not and personally believes how ever deluded in that belief, that she is innocent and the blame lies eleswhere, natural justice then kicks in and she is innocent until proved guilty.

    SF and the DUP have been poking each other in the eye in government for ages they have also been abusing public money for ages what can I say you get entirely what you vote for.

    So who should I vote for to change Stormont?

    Nope I will repeat the opening post was about what the election would be fought on, not how senstive Shinners are to criticism which you seem to be turning the subject of the thread into.. Making it personal with Arlene was a huge mistake for the opposition parties and if they care to read down your responses they should understand why.

  • grumpy oul man

    We will ignore the connelly house scrabble BS as the petty diversion it obviously is.
    The DUP was given every chance to sort the problem but refused. The Shinner were not the only party to walk out all the oyhers did when Arlene made the famous ststement at stormount and they were not the only party to call foe her to step down are you accusing the SDLP, UUP, TUV, Alliance and PB4P are all playing Connelly house scrabble, because they all called for Arlene to stand down while the thing was investigated she refused.
    I believe MmG give her several chances to do the right thing she refused and left the shinners with no choice.
    Who saidlatelt the some people would rather be robbed by a prod than ruled by a taig. are you one of those people!

  • Gopher

    As a historian I always find the chronolgy is important. Why did Mairtin not bring to the floor of Stormont a detailed report into RHI instead of sounding off in a commitee? Why was that report then not debated, voted on and motion of no confidence presented and executed? Thats what usually happens in parliaments. Can you explain why something which he described in such an off the cuff manner as a financial disaster was not given the respect such an important issue deserved from the start?

    I’m not so sure that MmG should play fast and loose with innocent until proved guilty.

    Right so who should I vote for to be governed by? Its a STV election so you can suggest the transfers aswell

  • William Kinmont

    Sorry sinn Fein, the dup are the real republicans . Banana republicans exploiting public funds and resources to facilitate the nobility turning their vast forestry resources into cash via rhi pellets. Not just rhi money grants and subs for growing and maintainig. Our tax money to fund their legal tax avoidance .by the way it’s perpetual under the rhi rules we must replant every pellet burnt commits us for years to come

  • grumpy oul man

    Well it more than passing strange that a “historian” would call a timeline if facts Connolly house scrabble!

    did you miss the bit in the history where the DFM asked the FM to step down while a inquiry into RHI took place, which would have been the correct procedure,
    I would not dream of suggesting who you vote for that is your business and since i don’t know where you live and who is standing (a “Historian would take that subtle fact into consideration before asking advice) i could not possibly advise you anyway.
    I however will be voting ( if they are standing) PB4P, Alliance,Green, SDLP,UUP and lastly DUP and SF.

  • Gopher

    It was very late in the day when Marty attempted to put an “Attainder” on Arlene and long after Mairtins histrionics in commitee. I just dont understand why it was flippant then and life or death now. Perhaps SF did not think the matter was serious for several months, months they were actually in government and months they were well aware of RHI.

  • grumpy oul man

    I do love the way that you are trying to blame the sginners on this, the obly other person to try that is jolly raj of this parish.
    Even the DUP realise that this mess cant be put down to Martin and his ganhmg. The closest they have come to that is AR saying she wouldnt stand down until a enquiry is completed because she isnt going to do what a shinner tell her to do.
    You have built a lovely collection of alternative facts there with no actual connection to reality, i can prove that very simply.
    If AR. or the DUP thought for one minute that they could even share the blame for the RHI thing (never mind pass it on) they would be shouting it from the rooftops but no shouting happening.
    Interestingly the UUP and the TUV dont seem to see what you see as a matter of fact veryfew people see what you are seeing here.
    Sorry Gopher old chap this is one that the DUP are responsible for added to the obvious sectarianism of Girvans handouts to flite bands (mininium £60,000) and the OO along with fictional ulster scots societys (£1.9 million) whils claiming he didnt have £50,000 to spare for Irish language burserys which he seemed to find quickly enough when AR got into trouble over RHI .meant that the shinner had no choice to pull the plug.
    To be honest i find it difficult to see how a historian or anybody else could see this any differentally.