by Tommy McKearney writing in Socialist Voice published by the Communist Party of Ireland in Dublin
The political crisis enveloping the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive is the result not only of an ill-designed and poorly administered grant for renewable energy but the inevitable product of a failing political entity.
This “cash for ash” scandal, as it is called, is the latest in a series of questionable projects and practices that go beyond merely undermining confidence in the North’s institutions. What the fiasco surrounding the renewable heating incentive (RHI) demonstrates is that the Six-County state is more an arrangement than an administration. It is an arrangement that depends for its survival on a form of sectarian clientelism, profoundly inimical to the well-being of working-class people.
In a society where conventional class politics have been ruthlessly curtailed through the cultivation of sectarian politics, there is a long history of rewarding important sections of the community from the public purse. Since the foundation of the northern state, government contracts were directed towards certain industries, construction projects were awarded to favoured companies, and some farmers benefited disproportionately from exchequer largesse.
There was also a degree of subtlety to this that may surprise many outsiders. In the days before the civil rights movement James Craig and his successors bought the Catholic hierarchy’s acquiescence by granting them control of their congregation’s education, a measure that simultaneously increased clerical influence through their power to award school-building contracts.
Since the Belfast Agreement this previously informal understanding has in effect been formalised into a designated structure that recognises and accommodates sectarianism rather than replacing it. As a consequence, political advantage accrues to those who are seen to provide best for their own supporters. This has led in turn to a series of squalid deals that have involved, among others, the dubious sale of NAMA property and the provision of a controversial £80 million social investment fund that in effect is controlled by the ruling DUP-Sinn Féin coalition as well as the now infamous RHI scheme.¹
Exacerbating this clearly unhealthy situation is the fact that under Assembly rules and procedures it is virtually impossible either to prevent unregulated practices happening or to punish those who benefit from the flawed system. Any party commanding 30 votes (the DUP has 38) can issue what is known as a petition of concern, preventing any piece of legislation being enacted or criticism recorded. This device has been used 115 times in the past five years and ensures that the DUP, in particular, is immune to censure.
As the RHI scheme was designed to encourage businesses and other non-domestic users to move from using fossil fuels to renewable heating systems, we can be sure that poor pensioners, single mothers and just-about-managing families will not feature among the beneficiaries; and this fact takes us to the heart of the matter. This scheme was seen by several of the Stormont political parties as a means by which they could win favour with the small and medium business community. That they were doing so by what amounted to, at best, sharp practice was seen simply as how the game is played through the judicious distribution of grace and favour.
However, while the DUP in general and its leader in particular cannot escape responsibility for their part in this latest debacle, other parties in the Assembly have questions to answer. How, for example, did this clearly defective project pass unnoticed by Stormont’s 108 MLAs until the BBC “Spotlight” programme drew it to the public’s attention?
How did the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee scrutinise and approve the legislation before its chairperson, Patsy McGlone (SDLP), told the Assembly that “committee scrutiny of the development of the renewable heat incentive has been considerable and reflects the importance and long-term nature of the proposals . . .”
Why is the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister now so reluctant to publish a list of RHI beneficiaries when, for example, in what may be considered an appropriate comparator, the National Lottery furnishes a comprehensive list of its prizewinners?
Nevertheless, it is how the Stormont Assembly is dealing with the affair that has done most damage to its already meagre reputation. The first minister, Arlene Foster, is being accused of, at best, incompetence through mishandling the introduction of the RHI scheme. While she does not dispute authorising the initiative while she was minister at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, she insists that her officials did not properly brief her about the potential pitfalls inherent in the legislation.
Just how threadbare this explanation is has been exposed by no less a source than the staunchly pro-Unionist News Letter and its political correspondent, Sam McBride.² Writing before Christmas, he reported that in April 2012 Foster had signed a note in relation to the RHI that said: “I have read the Regulatory Impact Assessment and I am satisfied that the benefits justify the costs.”³
Yet in spite of what appears to be the proverbial “smoking gun” (in fact there are several) the first minister remains in office and appears determined to do so. Moreover, other parties in the Assembly, and the DUP’s coalition partner, Sinn Féin, in particular, appear reluctant to take decisive action to bring this crisis to a head. Public ridicule may in time force these parties to take a firmer stand, but they have already sent a message that they value the status quo more dearly than principled politics.
As a consequence there is little risk that the institutions established by the Belfast Agreement will collapse in the near future, or that civic peace is endangered by these Stormont shenanigans. The Assembly and its Executive will most probably carry on, albeit with less credibility than ever and with what credit they retain diminishing by the day.
Nonetheless, this continuing situation of cynical manipulation of the system must surely have long-term consequences as the authority of the Six Counties’ political institutions are being steadily eroded. This may not be of immediate importance but would be significant if a more serious constitutional crisis were to occur. And such a scenario can never be ruled out in a society as divided as the North.
For the sake of the long-suffering working people of the area, it’s surely time to begin thinking of a viable alternative to what is now in place in Stormont.
1 See “DUP and Sinn Féin votes stop bid for independent Social Investment Fund review,” Belfast Telegraph, 6 December 2016.
2 See for example, Sam McBride, “Official explanation for catastrophic RHI decision is not remotely credible,” News Letter, 19 December 2016.
3 Sam McBride, “RHI scandal: Foster signed key costs declaration,” News Letter, 19 December 2016.