Category Archives: Uncategorized

Air routes another tale of shocking Executive incompetence

Last summer the Executive – a DUP First Minister and Economy Minister and a Sinn Féin deputy First Minister and Finance Minister – announced that it was giving £9 million of your and my money to an American airline to continue to operate the profitable Belfast-Newark route.

As highlighted on these pages at the time, this was a deeply shocking move. Essentially it amounted to using your and my rates to add to the profit of a foreign airline.

It emerged subsequently that the Executive had no business case for this spending, that it was operating contrary to Civil Service advice, and indeed that value for money could not be demonstrated. This is grotesque incompetence, even before it turned out that it was also illegal and the route duly closed anyway last month.

One of the many reasons there was no value for money was that it did not once occur to the DUP or Sinn Féin Ministers that, even if you acccept a Belfast-US air link is essential, there were other airlines available. The only reason for continuing with the particular airline they wished to pay was that it had been operating the route.

Note that the route was profitable by the airline’s own admission. Its issue was that, by moving planes from the Belfast route to another route, perhaps within North America, it would be even more profitable for it. Quite how DUP and Sinn Féin Ministers became experts in international air routes to assess on their own that the compensatory cost would be £9 million is unknown…

Even basic common sense would tell you that, if you needed a particular route to be maintained, what you would in fact do is tender for an airline to operate the route.

And so it turns out that at least one other airline is interested in operating the route. So why on earth did the DUP and Sinn Féin top Ministers try to allocate £9 million while never bothering to check?

One volunteer blogger, paid nothing and with no advisers, could work out that allocation of £9 million of your and my money was dubious. Both the DUP and Sinn Féin (with their big salaries and SpAds) are guilty, on this issue alone, of gross and costly incompetence.

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. 

Never Waste a Good Crisis (III) – Party Donations

By Richard Price:

Waste of public resource is not all that has been unpalatable in the #RHI scandal. We could mention the whiff of cover-up, allegations of out-of-control special advisors, and general bungling and incompetence at the top levels of government. But sitting alongside all of this is an unsettling suspicion that special friends of parties of Government, may have became in-the-know about generous new Government boondoggles, and subsequently benefited.

Those making returns off the renewable heat incentive scheme, that we so far have been allowed to know of, include church organisations with historic links to the DUP and family members of DUP special advisors.

That those with connections to the DUP should be found to be benefitting from schemes put in place by DUP ministers raises particular concerns in an environment where we still enjoy close to zero transparency in respect to political party donations in Northern Ireland.

The Electoral Commission is clear. Information about direct donations to political parties in Northern Ireland should be made public as “It’s important for people’s confidence in the democratic process and in politics generally that there should be transparency about who is funding political parties.”

For as long as information on political party donation remains secret, the public can never know the full extent to which wealthy friends of the DUP derived benefit from the RHI scheme. This is a recipe for ever more cynicism and mistrust towards those in power.

It may well be that the DUP have nothing to hide on this and my suspicion is entirely misplaced. In which case though, why not follow the legal custom of declaration on political party donation that has applied in GB for the past 17 years? Just declare.

On a long-term basis, it is time to bring our laws on political party donation transparency into line with our GB counterparts.

On the back of the #RHI scandal, to rebuild trust in the political process with the public, all Stormont political parties should state their commitment to achieving transparency in respect to party donations, and launch immediate activity to achieve the necessary amendments to legislation to make this so.

Never Waste a Good Crisis (II) – the Speaker

 

By Richard Price:

The office of speaker is no mere procedural position. The role of the speaker goes beyond simply chairing plenary meetings of the Assembly. The speaker should act as the champion of the legislature and if needed, adjudicate in the interests of Assembly, over that of the Executive. The RHI scandal has exposed this, yet in a potentially helpful way.

The second opportunity provided by the RHI scandal is to elect a new speaker who understands and lives the full remit of the role, and will be a champion of reform to Stormont procedures to ensure the legislature is all that it can be.

John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, isn’t everyone’s cup of Earl Grey. But the argument that he has elevated and asserted what the role of a speaker/Presiding Officer in an elected chamber is, in comparison to his immediate predecessor, must surely be hard to counter.

His championing of reform, his promotion of scrutiny tools such as urgent questions, his quest for order in proceedings at all times, has earned him respect, even if given begrudgingly, from all who cherish the position of the House of Commons at the centre of our national political system.

Sadly, Stormont has yet to see any such Speaker in the modern era. A speaker who takes it as their goal to elevate the status and operation of the legislature, heedless of past party loyalties, or potential complaints from the Executive. It has also become clear that that person will not come in the form of Robin Newton MLA.

Whilst the circumstances of December’s RHI Statement and Adjournment ‘pantomime’ might have provided a test to any presiding officer, all the same, the test was not met.

Where procedure should not have permitted the First Minister to provide a Statement without the Deputy First Minister’s support, strange allowances in favour of his old party colleague were afforded.

Added to the charge sheet has been a conflict of interest in ruling against legitimate public interest questions on funding for Charter NI.

Then we should recall that under another of Stormont’s “quirks” (failings?), unlike John Bercow, Mr Newton (presumably) remains a fully paid up of the DUP with intention to run for election under the party’s colours again.

Up with this we can no longer put.

The Chamber should elect from its number an individual committed to upholding the needs of Assembly debate and scrutiny, over and above those of any erstwhile political friends in Government.

The Assembly further requires a Bercow-style champion of continuous improvement of the House’s procedural structures, including:

  • Proper opposition debate time and speaking rights.
  • Greater facility for urgent questions.
  • Speedy reform of the broken ‘petition of concern’ mechanism.
  • A plan for long term removal/diluting of ‘community designation’ and its importance.
  • A truly independent speaker who breaks ALL ties with their former party.

Northern Ireland needs a speaker who puts the legislature first, the Executive second. A speaker with an appetite for reform. A speaker who feels the dismay of the public at broken systems and takes it as an impetus for transformation. A speaker who has a plan for taking the Assembly from its present nadir of public esteem, to a place where it can hold its head high against any western counterpart*.

It is still possible that the fallout from #RHI could achieve that. Let us hope so.

(*And wouldn’t John McCallister have made an excellent candidate. Sigh…)

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.

Liofa funding real cause of collapse

I appeared briefly in BBC Talkback yesterday and no sooner had I emphasised yesterday’s point that the Secretary of State should not proceed to an immediate election but probably would, he stood up in the Commons and confirmed he would.

The DUP is now swiftly retreating from previous positions in order to appear not responsible for an election for which it is clearly responsible. Why is a public inquiry the right thing now when it “wasn’t going to happen” on 19 December?

What I did not get to say was that something much worse for power-sharing occurred four days later. DUP Communities Minister Paul Girvan withdrew funding from the Liofa programme, helping poor children learn Irish in the Gaeltacht. The amount was minuscule but what it said to Irish Nationalists, indeed to non-Unionists, was massive. At just the moment bridges needed to be built and respect needed to be shown, the DUP opted for the opposite. It was an appalling act – along with “leprechaun language”, “curry my yoghurt” and a boat renaming, it was yet another needless and gratuitous assault on a language which, though not widely spoken, is at the heart of many Northern Irish people’s national identity.

It is that act more than any, just before Christmas, which made it impossible for Irish Republicans to stay in the Executive as per the “status quo”.

The DUP could yet escape an election by announcing a new bursary and that it would not stand in the way of a reasonably cost-neutral Irish Language Act. It would be free to dress this up under the recognition that, after all, “Presbyterians saved the Irish language”. This would in fact come at no financial or political cost whatsoever.

Yet the DUP probably does not even realise that such a move is necessary, and would probably be too arrogant to pursue one even if it did.

We could be in, resultantly, for a completely unnecessary and nasty election – or even two.

It is simply ludicrous.

Why there absolutely must not be a snap Assembly election

The DUP and Sinn Féin are hopeless at government but very good at politics. Any immediate snap election will be on their terms, in effect electing negotiators for St Andrews II (or Good Friday III or Sunningdale IV) which will inevitably push people to the extremes to “keep themmuns in their place”. This is how Northern Ireland operates.

(These extremes no doubt now consist of three rather than two leaders, with polling and media bids showing rational people fed up with “Unionists” and “Nationalists” are increasingly turning to Naomi Long. I am not objective, but it is fair to say anyone objective would agree her party would probably do quite well too.)

Therefore allowing an immediate snap election, while jobs are at risk due to no Budget, lives are at risk due to lengthening waiting lists, education is at risk due to a teachers’ pay dispute and so on, would be the height of lunacy. There is no justification for allowing two parties running away from these issues then to set the terms of an election, not least when that may well be an election to nothing.

Instead, the Secretary of State should use the “reasonable” time period he has before having to call an election to leave the Assembly in place and convene reform talks involving those elected to it only eight months ago for a five-year term. He should note that he can pass emergency legislation to remove the requirement for an election at any moment, since one would be pointless.

And he should note that, at any time, he can also pass legislation restricting the use of the Petition of Concern.

Remove the abuse of the Petition of Concern, and you essentially remove the entire problem. Arlene Foster would be censured; same-sex marriage would pass; relevant inquiries could be set up; Irish language bursaries could be guaranteed; necessarily tough Budgets and reforms would be easier to get through.

Those talks should be the next step, not an election. And civic society should lose no time in saying so.

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!