In Northern Ireland, the ‘peace process’ is routinely nudged along by ignoring political misbehaviour. This collective ‘looking the other way’ can take the shape of glaring injustices, like comfort letters and royal pardons for IRA murderers, or subtler omissions, such as a high tolerance for sharp practice in public life.
Some critics will feel that yet another eye-wateringly expensive public inquiry report – this time into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), the ‘cash for ash’ green energy scandal – draws upon this tradition. The document, written by Sir Patrick Coghlin, is over 650 pages long and covers evidence that astounded the former appeal court judge when the hearings were taking place, but having heard the evidence, he concludes that there was ‘no corrupt or malicious activity’ on behalf of ministers or their advisers. Indeed, much of the report’s most severe criticism is levelled at civil servants, who are accused of providing misleading or inaccurate information to politicians, as a result of neglect and incompetence rather than anything more sinister.
Yet even if God had not proven himself to be quite a staunch Free Prebysterian, and the Coghlin report hadn’t fallen into a plague pit, it’s naive optimism to think that anything would have been done. The comprehensive, undeniable uselessness of the NICS (the local civil service) seems to be a state of affairs that suits the Northern Ireland Office. In any part of the country or for any other aspect of government, a report like Coghlin’s which detailed the terminal ineptitude of the NICS would have led to a Royal Commission at the very least and its abolition almost certainly. ‘Unfit for purpose’ in no way does justice to how poorly Ulster is served by its baleful local bureaucrats.
The actual scandal which couldn’t be covered up was “RHI”: the renewable heat initiative. This was a payment scheme that rewarded businesses and farmers for installing ‘biomass’ boilers that burned wood chip fuel. There is a similar incentive in Great Britain, which has not been without its own problems (and you have to suspect more scrutiny nationally would uncover some pretty depressing numbers for the GB scheme). But Northern Ireland’s version – started in 2012 – stripped cost controls out of legislation that was otherwise copied and pasted from the national model.
The scheme’s main problem was that the tariff for running boilers was higher than the cost of the fuel that fed them
The scheme’s main problem was that the tariff for running boilers was higher than the cost of the fuel that fed them. This flaw would not have been fatal if payments had been reduced once the cost of installing a boiler was recovered. Instead, the subsidies continued unabated, with the result that owners could profit from burning as much fuel as possible and keeping their boilers on round the clock.
Inevitably, some companies and individuals did exactly that, and the inquiry heard evidence of empty sheds being heated throughout the year. In the end, some estimates put the likely overspend at £490 million over a twenty-year period, but that figure was later revised downward thanks to retrospective cuts.
None of Northern Ireland’s political parties come out of the inquiry with credit, but much of the evidence focussed on secrecy, cronyism and incompetence in departments run by the DUP. The party’s current leader, Arlene Foster, was in charge of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) when it initiated the scheme. Sir Patrick criticises her for failing to read the legislation that governed RHI, despite recommending its contents to MLAs at Stormont.
The report rejects a more serious allegation, levelled by Jonathan Bell, Mrs Foster’s successor as DETI minister, that she personally intervened to stop him applying cost controls when it became clear that RHI was failing. That finding will probably save the first minister’s job, but, at best, the DUP comes out of the report looking incompetent and unprofessional.
Their main partners in government, Sinn Fein, are part of a movement that murdered thousands of people, covered up child rape and stole £40 million from the Northern Bank, among countless other crimes, so the appearance of being venal and useless may not damage the DUP beyond repair. On Saturday, the day after the report was published, media coverage was overshadowed by an aggressive republican campaign to undermine the chief medical officer’s advice on coronavirus and force Northern Ireland to take the same approach as the Republic.
Even in a history as ignominious as that of Irish nationalism, using the biggest public health crisis of a generation to push an all-island agenda has to be worth a chapter. None of which means that the RHI debacle is not important. Evidence in the report exposes an appalling attitude to public money among Northern Ireland’s politicians and civil servants, even though Sir Patrick Coghlin chooses not to linger on the theme in his analysis.
The document refers several times to a ‘lack of understanding’ of the scheme’s flaws among officials at DETI. Yet, the main misunderstanding, among ministers, their special advisers and civil servants, seemed to be that RHI would be paid for by Westminster. In his definitive book about the subject, Burned, the journalist, Sam McBride, describes a culture at Stormont that regarded AME funding, which comes directly from the Treasury, as ‘free money’.
With RHI, the key mistake was to assume that it was paid for through normal AME and that led to a belief that it was there to be exploited. The report criticises this attitude, but in fairly mild terms. “While in principle there is nothing wrong with a desire to have as much money available for the devolved administration as possible, it must be remembered that all taxpayers’ money has the same value.”
This is hardly a damning judgement on the morality of squeezing every last pound out of the Treasury by any means possible. And the report uses equally measured language to describe other failings at Stormont.
For example, civil servants routinely failed to minute meetings, in case the DUP and Sinn Fein found those records politically awkward later. No senior civil servant has paid a price for this knowing and intentional political complicity. When this collaboration was publicly exposed, no senior NICS mandarin took personal responsibility and resigned. The parties ‘breached the spirit and /or provisions’ of legislation on the appointment of special advisers (SpAds), who wielded “very significant power” and did not feel they were accountable to ministers. The behaviour of Arlene Foster’s spad, Andrew Crawford, is described as ‘unacceptable’ – he shared confidential information about RHI with his family but failed to alert the minister to a ‘massive spike’ in applications during the summer of 2015.
All of this is extraordinary. If it had been uncovered elsewhere in the UK, political resignations would certainly have followed.
Meanwhile, the report rejects the idea that the former finance minister, Sinn Fein’s Mairtin O Muilleoir, merely consulted a ‘senior republican’, Ted Howell, in an email about the timing of cost controls. This secretive, unelected figure, a close acquaintance of Gerry Adams, was signing off the minister’s decision. Notably, police forces in both Northern Ireland and the Republic believe that Sinn Fein takes direction from the IRA army council. No civil servant saw fit to dispute the propriety of Sinn Fein devolved ministers’ actions; and bitter laughter is required at the idea that Westminster might require some ethical compliance by Republicans. Even a blind eye turned would amount to far more scrutiny than Whitrhall is ever prepared to subject Sinn Fein to. this does not change whether there is a Labour government or a Tory one unfortunately.
All of this is extraordinary. If it had been uncovered elsewhere in the UK, political resignations would certainly have followed. Yet, in Northern Ireland, it merits a report containing some carefully worded disapproval and things carry on as before.
We expect bad behaviour and contempt for the British taxpayer from Sinn Fein, but the party most intimately linked to this scheme is supposed to be unionist. Sam McBride – political editor of the pro-unionist News Letter – accuses the DUP of practising ‘economic nationalism’ in partnership with its republican rival.
The RHI scandal was exposed only months before the party used ‘confidence and supply’ negotiations with the Conservative Party to claim it had secured an extra £1 billion of public money for Northern Ireland. One of the many problems with politics-by-numbers is that voters can and should add up both sides of the ledger, and the DUP’s losses were all too easy to see.
The RHI scandal was primarily a symptom of Stormont’s attitude to public money rather than an expensive, honest mistake. Sir Patrick Coghlin’s inquiry highlighted this attitude and other failures of devolved government by assembling a wealth of evidence, but the final report consists of moderate criticism that won’t stop waste or prevent further controversies. For that, the entire political culture in Northern Ireland needs to change. It remains to be seen whether unionists in Northern Ireland, in the form of the leadership of the DUP, can stop performing the impossible on a regular basis. Namely no longer appearing to voters as somehow an even shabbier prospect than Sinn Fein.
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