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.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty