This is a “post-honour era”

I thank Where Are You Francis Hutcheson for permitting me to place its most recent piece here, as it is extremely important for an understanding of the current scandal in the NI Executive.

One of the catch phrases for 2016 is that we are now living in the post-truth or post-factual era. This is described as a global phenomenon (as in the US presidential election or the opposing descriptions of what is happening in Syria), a European phenomenon (as in Brexit), but also as a local phenomenon, here in Northern Ireland.

The recent interviews with First Minister Arlene Foster and Economy Minister Bell hit home to the viewers and listeners in NI that someone senior in government is certainly lying. The two accounts of the events surrounding the dying days of the Renewable Heat Incentive gravy train, accounts from two people closely involved, are irreconcilable. At least one of these accounts includes alterations to the truth.

One account hinges on the role of Special Adviser (Spad) being no more than advisory, the other account admits that the role of the Special Adviser includes pressing one (more junior) Minister to comply with the wishes of another (more senior) Minister. Jim Allister described the role accurately on Good Morning Ulster today when he called Spads the political parties’ enforcers.

In practice the role of most Spads in parties that have more than one minister is to ensure that all ministers toe the party line, that is, they are there to prevent “solo runs”. In the current and immediately past Executives, this matters most for the two parties with most Ministers, the DUP and Sinn Fein. The cultures within these two parties are similarly hierarchical, with the views of the First and Deputy First Ministers dominating their respective parties and, accordingly, their other Ministers.

I have witnessed two occasions that demonstrate the role and power of a Spad in practice. The first occasion was in a meeting with a Minister, their Spad and a few representatives from local small businesses. In response to a question from one of the businesses, the Minister started to answer. After a couple of sentences the Spad interrupted the Minister and said “What the Minister means is ….” and went on to say the opposite of what the Minister was saying. The Minister in question accepted the interruption and the embarrassment of being contradicted in front of others.

The second occasion was when a member of the board of an arms length body was querying recommendations received from a Spad. One of the board members asked, pointedly, “Is this the Minister’s considered position?” to which the Spad replied “Yes it is, although they don’t know it yet.”

The sad truth in NI is that junior Spads have more power than Ministers because they are seen by those more junior Ministers to carry the wishes of their party leaders. Crossing the Spad is thus crossing the party leader and so is career suicide.

From the current scandal, it is clear that at least some Ministers and Spads have been economical with the truth. It now remains to be seen how the senior civil servants will behave. This, in my view, is what really, really matters. Politicians and Spads, with their varying and variable values, come and they go. It is one of the prime roles of senior civil servants to be the guardians of the values of the system which they serve. A society lives or dies by the integrity of its leading public servants.

Too many people working with NI government departments have seen in the last ten years the role of the Permanent Secretary morphing from “How can I help my Minister achieve the greatest good for the greatest number with the resources available?” towards “How can I implement my Minister’s wishes?” As the details are revealed of who said what when in the rise and fall of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, it will become clear how well or poorly senior civil servants guarded our public sector values as they implemented their Ministers’ wishes.

Finally, I am not sure that we have any less truth in this era than previous ones. A study of political history, whether in NI, Europe or on other continents, reveals lies galore. The difference between today and the past is that, formerly, there was an accepted penalty for being caught lying. The person exposed as committing the offence either resigned or was sacked much more frequently that is the case today. Both actions were to protect someone’s personal reputation and integrity, with the objective of somehow salvaging some honour from the situation.

Today’s political culture allows lying with impunity. It is a post-honour era that we live in.

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One thought on “This is a “post-honour era”

  1. Eileen Cairnduff says:

    This is like an episode of Yes Minister. Often Sir Humphrey would say ” what the minister means is …” I am astounded to learn that this now happens!

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