Category Archives: Politics

NI Civil Service must review Audit procedures

This blog post clearly did not convey the intended message with anything like sufficient clarity, so I will simply let the two comments below stand (as they do a much better job of making the point I was trying to make!)

There is no reason anyone would have been negatively affected by it, but sincere apologies for any misunderstanding, the responsibility for which (as ever in my publications) is entirely mine. 

How about just abolishing First Minister?

As I explained here, the role of First Minister and deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland is nothing like as important or powerful in practice as it sounds. Whereas the First Minister in Scotland and now in Wales has a Director’s role, the First and deputy First Ministers in Northern Ireland remain merely Chairs. Even their Ministerial functions, shared rather ludicrously with two extra Junior Ministers with no fewer than eight “Special Advisers”, apply only to the tiny Executive Office.

In fact, for all the fuss made about who is First and who is deputy First, the craziest thing is that the role may not even be necessary at all.

It would be quite possible simply to remove the office from the relevant legislation. An Executive would proceed to be formed, and then the largest parties in each designation in the Executive could simply nominate one of their Ministers their “Senior Minister”, who would perhaps receive a small additional allowance to perform the role of joint Chair of the Executive and whatever representative functions arise. In fact, it would be quite possible for this role to rotate around the Ministers over an Assembly term.

This would have three happy consequences: it would remove the expense which currently comes with such an unnecessary role (no specific extra Ministerial salaries; no Special Advisers; no Junior Ministers); it would remove the delusions of grandeur which have led to its being performed so abysmally; and it would remove the whole issue from Assembly Election campaigns, allowing the focus to be on competence and policy where it should be.

Indeed, you would wonder at anyone opposing this idea…

DUP’s unbiblical Fantasyland

There is no border control between Norway and Sweden“, “the Great Britain legislation was the same as the Northern Ireland legislation” and “the RHI scheme [without cost controls] was passed by the whole Executive” are just three outright lies told by one DUP MP in recent months.

There will be no public inquiry” said one Lagan Valley MLA, only for another Lagan Valley MLA to say there had been “no U-turn” when the DUP decided it did want one after all.

Due to efficiency savings, it has not been possible to renew Líofa funding” read one DUP Minister’s press statement, removing £50,000 not only to find it again 10 days later, but also to find another £10.1 million to do up community halls predominantly used by his party’s supporters, do up a town centre in his own constituency, and do up a town centre in his party leader’s constituency.

[Our SpAd] has no personal interest in the poultry industry. His family home farm has chicken houses but [they] are not part of the RHI scheme” read a DUP party statement the day before it became apparent that in fact his wife’s home farm does indeed have an interest in the form of two RHI boilers.

Do not steal; do not lie; do not deceive one another” – so reads Leviticus 19:11.

The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy” – so we are told in Proverbs 12:22.

1 Timothy 4:2 warns specifically of “hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron“.

There is nothing as grotesquely unbiblical as the outright lies and deceptions stated above by DUP MPs, MLAs, Ministers and Press Officers – the same people who then, incredibly, dare to invoke the Holy Book to justify everything from arch social conservatism to outright discrimination.

What is perhaps interesting is that they are not even good lies. It is not like any serious attempt will be made to deny that they are lies. In fact, this is the mark of an addict – DUP representatives lie not because they will get away with it, but because they are simply addicted to it.

In DUP world, as in UKIP world and Trump world, the truth in fact has no value at all. They live in a Fantasyland of their own creation, and then simply state the fantasy as if it is the truth. When someone comes along and points out the truth, they are cast aside as not a true believer, an enemy within, or some other deviant.

On 2 March, let us hope the “hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron” face the harsh judgement from the voters they deserve. Perhaps then they can examine their own conscience clause. After all, the only thing worse than a liar is a hypocrite.

What comes after #AE17?

During the campaign, if there is one, I do not intend to post further on political opinion until eve of poll, but will occasionally post on matters of political structure and likely political (not electoral) outcomes.

3 March 2017. After the “brutal” election campaign, the DUP and Sinn Féin have been returned as the largest parties in their respective designation, and have a majority of the 90 Assembly seats between them. There are three weeks to get a functioning Executive up and running.

What next?

It is essential we are realistic about the answer to this question. Forget the #StormontIWant hashtag, what happens next will be based on what suits the DUP and Sinn Féin.

I would guess two things would go a long way to helping re-establish the institutions in that eventuality:

  • an “arrangement” around the Petition of Concern (an initial review of its operation plus perhaps some agreement not to use it in certain areas apparently in line with “A Fresh Start”) – this would enable at least some of the issues in Mr McGuinness’s resignation letter to be dealt with while also moving in the direction of stated DUP policy; and
  • a commitment from the UK Government urgently to introduce an Irish Language Act (which would take the form of placing a duty on public authorities to ensure respect for the language at all times, maintenance of Charter obligations, and certain other rights particularly in education) – this would cover this St Andrews obligation and secure the respect agenda, but would enable the DUP not to have to legislate.

Although there would be other things to iron out (like a Justice Minister, the speed of the “RHI Inquiry” and, not least, damaged personal relationships), such an agreement would at the very least make it difficult for either party to justify the continuing and worsening instability of a second election.

Of course, such a deal could be done NOW, so it may not be so easy.

3 March 2017. After a “brutal” election campaign in which it became apparent that both Executive parties are guilty of appalling financial mismanagement (RHI meet Welfare Reform delay; dodgy office costs meet inactive cultural societies; community hall grants meet agricultural subsidy blunders; United Airlines meet Ballykelly relocation; NAMA meet, well, NAMA… oh, and they don’t seem to have fallen out over SIF, funnily), the DUP and Sinn Féin are returned as largest parties in their respective designations but weakened so that they no longer command an overall majority between them. 

What next?

Noting that they, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP do have a narrow majority, the Alliance Party proposes (via a combination of its 1988 Governing With Consent and 2004 Agenda for Democracy documents) that the three parties clearly could form a power-sharing Executive which would command a majority in the Assembly. It would clearly be a nonsense not to proceed on that basis.

Initially by changing the time limit for appointment of First and deputy First Minister to 28 days rather than 14, the Secretary of State has time to introduce emergency legislation making the Executive a separate institution from the Assembly (as in Scotland and Wales) and allowing him, in practice in consultation with the Government of Ireland as a fellow guarantor of the Agreement, to nominate a full Executive consisting of all three designations which may then be approved as a whole by simple majority in the Assembly.

That is what should happen. Remember, if this unnecessary election does come pass, YOU decide…

That issue of “Parity”

There remains some confusion as to quite why the Renewable Heat Incentive ended up being financed as it was.

Necessarily, this is a somewhat simplified explanation.

Essentially, there are two types of public spending in the UK – that falling under “Departmental Expenditure Limits” (budgeted, in other words) and that falling under “Annually Managed Expenditure” (estimated, in other words). [The former is also split between “capital” and “revenue” spending, but that is not relevant here.]

Education, for example, is budgeted – a budget is set for the financial year (or financial years) and that is deemed the Departmental Expenditure Limit.

Welfare, for example, can only be estimated – it depends ultimately on how many claimants there are. A marked economic decline (as, for example, in 2008/9) can mean the amount required goes up swiftly and otherwise unpredictably. This, therefore, has to be “annually managed”.

In the case of DEL expenditure, because it can be budgeted, the UK Treasury allocates the money for “geographically identifiable issues” (health, education, infrastructure) to each devolved Finance Department in advance. In the case of AME, however, the UK Treasury pays (albeit via a local Department) as the expenditure is accrued.

However, “parity” applies. This is the concept that the UK Government will cover all spending (whether DEL or AME) on the same basis, provided no part of the UK seeks an advantage either by changing main taxation or by changing policy in an area funded under AME. Where such a change is made by a devolved Government or Department, any extra expenditure must be paid from its own devolved Budget. As is well known, that is the issue with corporation tax and welfare reform.

Schemes encouraging a particular behaviour, for example the use of renewable heat, would fall under the latter – as you do not really know how many claimants there will be, you cannot put in place a “budget” as such. The idea is, provided the scheme is properly managed, that it will reap long-term benefits (though, say, improved energy efficiency, or improved public health due to lower pollution or cleaner power).

That is why, when you operate such a scheme without being able to budget, you implement appropriate cost controls and annual reviews. With regards to a Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, it would therefore be the height of lunacy in Northern Ireland to remove cost controls from the model legislation and not ensure annual reviews were implemented. Not least since it thus renders and policy different and breaches parity, and thus it falls to the people of Northern Ireland to pick up the tab, which was the whole reason we had to implement welfare reform after all…

Business has to think again about NI political preferences

A few months ago I appeared on Nolan to argue that the retail sector can only go so far in delivering jobs and growth, and that the focus needs to shift somewhat towards real exports. Understandably there was an opposite number from the retail sector arguing his case – but then, rather less understandably, he went on to heap praise on the DUP/SF Executive (in a kind of ‘I haven’t always agreed with them in the past but now they’re wonderful’ way).

It continued to be striking subsequently how few organisations, particularly though not exclusively in business, would dare criticise the Executive after it was formed in late May. Private conversations sometimes revealed some wariness, but this was always followed by a ‘But you have to understand…’

Well no actually I don’t have to understand. For example, all business organisations who polled their members found them majority opposed to Brexit in Northern Ireland (this went as high as 81% in one case), yet in the face of the DUP no outright campaigning was to be seen at all. ‘Ah but corporation tax…’

Ah but nothing. Left to its own devices the simple fact is, by a selfish determination to protect its Leader at all costs and a distinct lack of grace towards others, ‘Arlene’s candidates’ have taken just eight months to deliver catastrophic instability – at just the very time business (including retail) could not afford it.

Business organisations have a stake in Northern Ireland and now they must finally find a voice. The unstable situation brought on by the current Executive is intolerable; businesspeople have a vote; and they must use that vote to punish those who brought it about.

After all, that’s how democracy is supposed to work.

Arlene Foster’s delusions of grandeur

We perhaps should not blame Arlene Foster for calling herself “Leader of Northern Ireland” when the BBC itself has been calling her “First Minister of our country”. She is in fact neither, and it’s an important distinction.

The office of “Prime Minister of the United Kingdom” is one which is traditionally recognised by convention rather than law – the very title “Prime Minister” did not appear in any law until 1939. It continues to attract no salary (the salary being paid instead to the “First Lord of the Treasury”, who has been the same person for the past century). Initially the title was understood to mean the Minister without portfolio who chaired the Cabinet – “primus inter pares” (first among equals). Since the War it has become much more of a Leadership role, with convention now dictating that the Prime Minister may overrule other Ministers.

Scottish devolved government was set up with a “First Minister” who held much the same role at devolved level – not just Chair, but actually Director. There, the Scottish Executive (now Government) was set up as a separate body from the Scottish Parliament just as the UK Cabinet is separate from the UK Parliament, and Directorates were set up within it (for Education, Health, Justice etc).

Wales and Northern Ireland, however, were set up differently. In their case, the Executive is a Committee of the Assembly. The role of “First Minister” (shared in effect by two Ministers in Northern Ireland) is much more the older one – Chair of the Committee of Ministers. There is no overrule function.

Thus, as the outset, Scotland had a “First Minister of Scotland” but Northern Ireland and Wales had a “First Minister of the Assembly” – a clear distinction in title for a clear distinction in function.

Wales changed its system after a referendum in 2011 and now its Government, as in Scotland, is a separate entity from its Assembly. Its First Minister now has a role more akin to Scotland’s.

Northern Ireland has not gone that way, however, and it is an important distinction. In Northern Ireland, unlike in Scotland or Wales, each Department is an independent legal entity. Its Ministers are thus Heads of Department and are responsible for that Department (unlike their equivalents in Scotland and Wales, now known as Cabinet Secretaries, who are part of a single entity known as the “Government”).

The role of First and deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland, therefore, has no “leadership” function beyond that of the Executive Office itself (whose functions are now extremely limited). The role is in fact a representative and a chairing one. In other words, unlike in Scotland and Wales, the First Minister(s) in Northern Ireland are not responsible for the conduct of the devolved Government as a whole, only for their own Office and the Executive Committee itself.

It is to be hoped that Arlene Foster understands this, as it not only means that she is not responsible for other Departments now (and is thus not “Leader of Northern Ireland”), but she was responsible for the conduct and decisions of any Department of which she was Minister while she was Minister.

And, at the very least, we should expect the joint Chair of the Executive Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly to understand what her role is – and isn’t.

MLAs’ curious lack of curiosity

Einfallslos. 

This is a German word without obvious translation, but it is always the first word which comes to my mind when I think of Stormont. It means really “idea-less” in the sense of “lacking in things (ideas) occurring to you”; perhaps “lacking in creativity” would cover it in some circumstances.

I was reminded of this by one correspondent over Christmas, who remarked how he found so many MLAs “lacking in curiosity” (his term).

Indeed, I spoke to a German interpreter who worked with a delegation from the German State of Baden-Württemberg to the Assembly, who remarked to me that MLAs did not ask their visitors a single thing about where they were from. Baden-Württemberg, a diverse State (a third of the population of its largest city, Stuttgart, have no German passport) with among the very highest living standards in Europe on the back of a flourishing economy (think Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and countless companies in areas from pharmaceuticals to accounting), is apparently of no interest whatsoever to us. It subsequently elected a Green First Minister, the first in Europe, for the record.

This lack of curiosity, tied to a lack of creativity and basic ideas, is deeply troubling. Frankly, we should not be electing people who are not interested. The penalty is isolation and parochialism, leading inevitably to standards of policy-making, legislation and governance which fall well below the best globally.

We always expect the rest of the world to be curious about us. It is time we were led by people who were curious about the rest of the world – einfallsreich, perhaps!

DUP/SF simply unable and unwilling to govern properly

A snowball is now rolling within the Northern Ireland Executive which means that, seemingly, without a blatant climbdown by one party or the other the Executive will fall, necessitating elections.

Such elections would be utterly pointless of course because, assuming they returned roughly the same Assembly as in May, all the problems at the root of the Executive’s trials would remain. (A few more would be created too – the “convenient” Justice Minister which saved the Executive from an immediate collapse after the last election would probably lose her seat, for example.)

No, at the heart of this, just over half a year in, is the simple fact that the people of Northern Ireland elected into government two parties who are incapable of and uninterested in governing.

People therefore lose give up on “politics”, but actually we should know better than anyone that the choice is between politics and violence. Politics therefore has to be made to work. There is a cost – in drugs unfunded, operations missed and schools unresourced – for having unable and uninterested people in government.

The fact is you could almost pick ten people at random off the street and they would provide a more competent government than the Executive we have (the one we elected). At least some of them would have a basic ability to get on with each other.

The DUP’s story is, of course, not straight. Low level issues concerning the recipients of office rent and maintenance contract have now become huge public interest stories of public money shuffled through mysterious incompetence to people who, some might say suggest, just happen to fit the stereotype of a typical DUP supporter. Claims there is only one letter, or that there were no meetings, or that there was SpAd interference, are soon disproved. British libel laws are blocked by a purportedly British party and the free press attacked for doing its job. Meanwhile the party professes to stay loyal to a Leader whose Ministerial career has consisted of one error or oversight after another, as so eloquently outlined by the Green Party leader on the Assembly floor before Christmas. That Leader is of course capable of absolutely no charity to her coalition partners, literally from Day One talking up the past and even before Day One suggesting she had to remain Finance Minister while her colleagues played hokey-cokey because Nationalists as an entire group could not be trusted with the purse strings (what goes around comes around, it turns out…)

Not that Sinn Féin is an innocent party by any means. It has had the chance to deliver on key issues for it such as an Irish Language act but failed due to ludicrous overreaching; it too has gone against Business Cases (e.g. the movement of an entire Department to Ballykelly is against advice); it has then shown itself confused about what a public inquiry is and how it works (the ludicrous notion that the politically appointed Attorney General would have anything to do with making appointments to an independent inquiry, for example, shows basic ignorance of the legal system and an unwillingness to become informed even when this is pointed out); and then it too has lashed out at the media merely for pointing out inconsistencies in exactly what its demands are. Meanwhile the left hand is unclear what the right hand is doing, and its Finance Minister denies any involvement in the scandal despite plainly knowing about it since before a Committee meeting in early October and holding an office through which he could act to limit the damage.

Fundamentally, if the DUP and Sinn Féin cannot work together, then they have no business going to the electorate pretending they can and then just hobbling from crisis to crisis. No matter how good they are at populism, the fact that elections could even be spoken of only eight months after the last ones shows how utterly useless they are at democratic government.

After all, it does not take a genius to see that, in a democracy, when things go wrong you have a proper independent inquiry into who was responsible and what can be learned. So why is the Executive set against this obvious course of action?

They are not only useless, but they evidently also have something to hide, just as they hide their donors. The notion of pointless elections should not deflect us from that key point.

Oh, and always remember. Pride comes before a fall.

Never Waste a Crisis (I) – Opposition

Tuesdays on this blog were taken up almost entirely by the EU Referendum and its consequences in 2016, but there is a more local crisis now in the form of the scandal over the removal of Cost Controls and failure to implement proper Reviews around the Renewable Heating Incentive Scheme from 2012.

Past guest blogger Richard Price will take us through five points over the next five Tuesdays on how he would use this crisis to reform the institutions and make them work more effectively.

In 1976, a medical doctor, M.F. Weiner, published an article in the journal Medical Economics titled “Don’t Waste a Crisis — Your Patient’s or Your Own.” In it, he encouraged his colleagues to consider how a medical crisis can be used to improve aspects of personality, mental health, or lifestyle.

In its still comparatively fledgling status, Stormont cannot afford to let the opportunities for improvement posed by a crisis, such as the Renewable Heating Incentive scandal, go to waste. There’s been quite enough waste already.

What opportunities for improvement are posed? I submit 5 suggestions for discussion. Readers will have more of their own. Please be sure to suggest those in the comments section below.

The first opportunity for improvement posed by the RHI scandal is to…

  • Coordinate the opposition in a formal and structured manner

The renewable heating incentive scandal was quite a test for the new opposition structures at Stormont. It was also a necessary test. Voters, and indeed some still-nervous party insiders, needed to see, smell and taste the strong public value of a well-functioning opposition system, doing its job of scrutiny.

It was a test that the opposition largely met.

On the first level, each opposition party delivered its own valuable forms of critique on the matter, conducted their own forms of investigation and provided important varying spokesmanship on the topic both in the Assembly chamber, and more widely. Each new line of attack, each new form of enquiry, helped to generate new heat, as well some light, upon the matter.

Secondly, there were clear signs of coordination and cooperation across party lines, from the jointly submitted motion to exclude the First Minister from office, to the shared (and justified) haranguing of the speaker and walkout from the chamber.

The need for such coordination cannot be over-emphasised. There are six parties represented in Stormont, but not participating in the Executive. There is an ever-present risk of the opposition allowing itself to appear divided, duplicating scrutiny efforts, avoidably stepping on each other’s toes, scrambling for limelight in an undignified manner, squabbling and falling into all manner of other bear-traps native to the party politics landscape.

Arguably the public outrage on #RHI helped to force cooperation. However, this context cannot be guaranteed in future.

The first opportunity for improvement posed by the Renewable Heating Incentive scandal is, while the soil is still fertile for it, put in place formal structures for coordinating all of the opposition in Stormont.

One vehicle for this could be a cross-party opposition coordination committee. This might meet once a week to coordinate opposition activity, assign remits across party lines, generally provide a forum for determining how to enhance the status of Stormont opposition, and establish trust between the opposition parties. This latter aspect is all the more important if the promise of “offering the voter a choice of an alternative” at Assembly Elections is to ever be offered. Seeing that parties can work together well in opposition will breed confidence they may be able to do so in Government.

From an opposition perspective, a potentially under-reported aspect of RHI is, why did no MLAs from other parties, bar perhaps Steven Agnew, pick up on the scheme’s failings earlier?

For now, some (admittedly poor) level of excuse can be provided in that the SDLP, UUP and Alliance were all in the Executive at the time of its introduction, and so were not working full time on opposition scrutiny as is the case today. Such failure to conduct scrutiny may be less forgiven in future. An opposition coordination committee/working group can ensure every line of every Executive regulation and proposed programme gets the intense glare of critical examination it merits, by sharing out the roles in an effective manner.

Or in short, the forensic talents of Jim Allister, Steven Agnew and People Before Profit, are too good for Mike Nesbitt and Colum Eastwood to waste. Work together folks, on a long term and structured basis. It doesn’t compromise the separate offers each party makes to the public in respect to policy priority, but does ensure the current wielders of power know all that they do is being watched.

Finally, there are still major deficiencies in the way Stormont opposition functions. Privileges and tools for opposition usually accorded in other legislatures, are still lacking. While the public will not have a great deal of patience for endless whining about process, all 6 parties should prioritise their joint demands for improvement, and ensure all avenues for enhancing how they can conduct their scrutiny role, are identified and pursued.

RHI showed that the opposition parties can work together. Now to ensure that is sustained.