God, Nolan ... and wood pellets

16 Dec 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 16 Dec 2016

Arlene Foster: what did she know?

There are many reasons why people choose to be interviewed by Nolan: an instruction from God will be a new one to most of us. 

Yet this, apparently, was the motivation for former DETI Minister Jonathan Bell for breaking ranks with his party and providing Stephen Nolan with his latest exclusive. At least that is what he said. He even allowed himself to be filmed praying before the encounter.

It seems impertinent to debate the ineffable workings of the Divine.  Except, perhaps, to ponder the timing of the interview and to wonder why God, in His infinite wisdom, did not also advise Mr Bell that the temporary closure of a children’s ward at Ulster Hospital is the result of staff shortages caused by inept workforce planning rather than the massive losses yet to be caused by the botched Renewable Heating Incentive Scheme. It is sad that it was closed, but it should not be troubling his conscience too much.

But there is no escaping the irony that of all issues, the over-enthusiastic application of a policy designed to prevent climate change should cause so much damage to the DUP.

When Sammy Wilson was Environment Minister he famously said that efforts to curb climate change were a gigantic con that would cost billions better spent on other things. At the time environmentalists characterised him as a buffoon.  The more devout members of his party will now, with bitter irony, be likening him to the Prophet Ezekiel.

Several members of the party are also associated with the Caleb Foundation and Young Earth Creationism. They believe that the world was created by God in six days and that the Bible is literally true. Therefore the end of the world will take place as foretold in the Book of Revelations and will not be affected by the blasphemous errors of science. We should be ready for the assault of Gog and Magog and not trouble ourselves with carbon dioxide emissions.

Putting theology aside, the scene is now set for a very secular apocalypse, with the future of our institutions at stake.

An early impact could be on lowering of Corporation Tax here. The Treasury has stipulated that it needs to be satisfied with the competence of the Executive to manage its finances. It is unlikely to be impressed with this debacle.

More significant will be the impact on public confidence in our governance. This was not high before this scandal broke. If there were such a thing as an Apathy Party – comprising of people entitled to vote who chose not to -  it would have won all seats bar one in the last General Election.

This is important because for any government to function it needs to have the trust and confidence of the electorate. It is even more important in a post conflict area so recently the scene of communal violence.

It is imperative not only that government is fit for purpose, but it is universally seen to be so, and respected for that.

In that context comments made by both First Minister Arlene Foster and Jonathan Bell to Stephen Nolan are troubling.

In Mr Bell’s case he stated that he had wanted to close down the scheme at an earlier date which would have considerably lessened the financial loss. He said that he did not do so because Special Political Advisors from the OFMdFM and the Department of Finance stopped him. He said that the principle of “collective responsibility” made this possible.  He claims he was told this by a senior civil servant.

This is a strange interpretation of a long-standing convention. Collective ministerial responsibility is the custom that at all members of the cabinet (our equivalent is the Executive) must publicly support governmental decisions even if they do not agree with them.

So how you might expect that to play out is that a Minister brings a policy forward to the Executive. If it is overturned at that point, he or she should publicly support that position.

Mr Bell appeared to be saying that in the Northern Ireland context the system works differently. Special Political Advisors have a role that goes beyond merely giving advice: they have the authority to veto the work of other departments and the Ministers involved have to accept what they say. In other words elected politicians have to obey the dictates of their employees.

This needs to be clarified because on the surface it appears to raise disturbing questions about the operation of government.

In Mrs Foster’s case even more troubling issues emerged. In her interview she consistently maintained that she was not informed by civil servants of critical developments in the operation of the scheme. Essentially her case was that she could not take action if she was not informed of problems as they emerged.

This is a very serious charge, because it implies that for whatever reason a government minister was not being kept properly informed by her department about matters she should have been aware of. If what she is saying turns out to be correct, then we need to start asking questions about government accountability. Because if she is vindicated in this regard, this raises the issue of Ministerial Responsibility, another long standing convention. How can she be responsible for matters she was not informed about? And if she wasn’t what does that say about the office of Minister. To go further, and this is what should trouble our political classes the most - what’s the point in having Ministers if they don’t know what is happening on their watch, and, in any event can be over-ruled by political advisors?

So scrutiny needs to go beyond the scandal itself and need to look very closely at how government works. Time, as it says on Dr Paisley’s old church, is short.



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