Unionists must not defend the status quo but return to first principles by asking ‘what works?’

Unionists must not defend the status quo but return to first principles by asking ‘what works?’

by The Dissenter
article from Friday 26, March, 2021

FAILURE OF SEPARATISTS in Government is matched only by failure of unionists to hold them to account. Big or small, no matter the size or scale of failure, our devolved politicians seem impervious to accountability, responsibility or shame for poor performance. 

When the story of the Renewable Heat Initiative (RHI) was first reported in Northern Ireland, the then Minister (Dept. Enterprise, Trade and Investment), Simon Hamilton, accepted there were issues that everyone was working to resolve, and offered assurances that any fraud within the scheme would be rooted out. By the end of the year, Martin McGuinness’s health was in terminal decline, the media was febrile and there was the prospect of a cost to the Northern Ireland budget of around £400 million over twenty years. Ostensibly, RHI brought down the Stormont Executive, though in time that seemed itself a side show. 

A public inquiry hastily confirmed by the Finance Minister, Máirtiín Ó Muilleoir of Sinn Fein, spent months running through the background and fallout, only to find that generally the scandal was caused by overall poor management by politicians and civil servants. The saga is well documented in a book by local journalist Sam McBride, entitled Burned.

This week, the Belfast News Letter reports that the audit of all schemes (part of the Departmental promise to address issues and root out fraud) has little to show for the years of review. One of the scheme’s users makes the valid point: 

“To date only 1% of all sites have been found to have acted outside the terms of what the scheme was for and less than a quarter of 1% of total payments made since 2012 are being recouped by the Department for the Economy.”

He concludes:  

“Scheme closure will unfairly penalise those businesses who played a genuine part in lowering Co2 emissions at the same time as making them uncompetitive with their peers in GB and Ireland. Scheme closure will damage an already fragile economy further. Scheme closure is unnecessary just because of the 1%.”

In truth the likely £20 million per year for twenty years could have been more than accommodated within the Stormont budget. It is nothing alongside the scandal of BiFab Yard and Prestwick Airport – which together has already made a £200m hit to the Scottish Budget. As noted in the recent Scotsman article by Brian Monteith, that is nothing to the Scottish Government’s underwriting of the Lochaber smelter, which might well amount to a staggering £600 million charge to the Scottish budget – money more than needed elsewhere to repair the damage the SNP has done to schools, hospitals and wasted in bold but futile legal actions. 

The current Finance Minister at Stormont, Conor Murphy (pictured), when Minister for Regional Development, rejected the application of Alan Lennon as head of Northern Ireland Water (the water utility). A tribunal subsequently awarded £150,000 damages for discrimination to Mr Lennon, judging that the successful candidate had been appointed because "he was not from a Protestant background and because he was known to the minister and his [then Sinn Fein] ministerial colleagues Michelle Gildernew and Caitríona Ruane, who were consulted about the appointment." The tribunal found Conor Murphy's evidence was "implausible and lacking credibility", and that, during Murphy's tenure at the Department for Regional Development, there was a "material bias against the appointment of candidates from a Protestant background". 

A year later, Conor Murphy appeared as a witness at Belfast High Court in the case of Declan Gormley, whom Murphy had sacked in 2010 from his post as a non-executive director of NI Water. Gormley sued Sinn Féin over two press releases which he argued were defamatory. Gormley was subsequently offered £80,000 in damages. 

In 2015, the Northern Ireland Assembly Committee drew up a report which: “found that former social development minister Nelson McCausland "acted inappropriately" by asking for a contract for maintenance firm Red Sky to be extended.”  This related to contracts awarded to the company to provide maintenance to the public housing body, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. The DUP members of that Assembly Committee drew up a minority report, which unsurprisingly believed that Mr McCausland: "in fact ultimately supported the Housing Executive's decision to proceed with the termination of the contracts." 

Inevitably this article arrives at the current headlines around Nicola Sturgeon and what she did or didn’t know/ did or didn’t do in the running saga of Alex Salmond and his admitted ‘inappropriate’ but not criminal behaviour. 

The headline of course is that Nicola Sturgeon did not breach the ministerial code in her handling of the Alex Salmond harassment case. The Scottish Government’s independent adviser on ministerial standards, James Hamilton QC, was clear on that single point. The headline is what matters in a news world dominated by what can be squeezed into 280 characters. 

The underlying questions of whether Nicola Sturgeon handled the allegations against her predecessor appropriately, or whether she really remembered the nature and content of meetings on that topic, will be forgotten soon enough. Even though the Holyrood Committee found Nicola Sturgeon’s evidence at its meetings ‘hard to believe’ or ‘seriously flawed’ that is a matter of opinion and not ‘evidence’ to challenge the First Minister’s account – though that doesn’t mean there is nothing to see here 

James Hamilton has previously resided over an inquiry into the actions of a First Minister. Labour’s Carwyn Jones had referred himself to an independent inquiry over allegations of bullying at a senior level within the Welsh government, following the death of assembly member Carl Sargeant. Although James Hamilton found “no evidence of bullying in the Welsh Government” then as now, there remained unanswered questions, Carwyn Jones announced his resignation in April 2018 shortly after that report. 

Of course there are questions of accountability and ‘scandal’ in Westminster. The difference between Westminster and Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh is a rigorous media and an effective opposition – together with a willingness of backbenchers to break ranks and speak out against their own parties. 

Struggling with a shift in public attention to online, social media, and the breaking of traditional media financial models, regional and local media have been hollowed-out editorially over the past couple of decades. Sometimes this cuts through. The work of Sam McBride at the News Letter in Belfast on the intricacies of the RHI scheme is nothing less than outstanding. It shines out all the more for lack of comparable support from owners to the type of brave and relentless investigation into a story at other media outlets. 

Most of all, we are missing effective opposition in the devolved regions, less so in Wales where politics has not as yet fallen down the nationalist rabbit hole. In Northern Ireland and Scotland, the drive by nationalists to view everything within the frame of separatism from the UK means there is nothing that can’t be either blamed on Westminster, Unionists, Tories or anything else but themselves. 

Where else would the performance of Conor Murphy as Minister for Regional Development not be a barrier to a greater role as Finance Minister in the current Northern Ireland Executive? How does an administration responsible for the spend on BiFab or Prestwick simply brush these off and move on to bigger and more expensive things? 

In Northern Ireland there is no Official Opposition in the Assembly. There could be one, but no Party chose to take that role: it is worth noting that when the UUP and SDLP did take that role, removing the ‘all in it together’ cover for decisions by the DUP and Sinn Fein in the Executive – the Assembly collapsed. 

In Scotland, the Unionist parties have engaged significantly on the constitutional question, and yet shown low energy towards challenging day-to-day policy and actions of the SNP. Holyrood committees in particular rubber stamp Scottish Government initiatives without a murmur of dissent from opposition members. This has left the SNP with all the room to get on with Government, no matter how badly, without fear of any meaningful challenge and the political space to pursue #indyref2. 

While there is always a section of the electorate that will vote regardless of the ability of its tribal choice to deliver ‘good Government’, there are many more open to switch if the pitch is right and the alternative is more attractive. The failure of parties in opposition to question nationalist sectarianism is pitiful. Not only is the challenge to poor performance in Government weak, the ability to project a better option for the electorate fails at every level of political ‘opposition’ in our legislative insititutions. While it is always easier to call for a resignation on the hoof, forensic and detailed interrogation of Government’s action is exactly the approach to opposition that seems completely absent. 

That impacts on debate around The Union. Nationalism has proven able in arguing for another type of Government (separatist) – while less able to deliver competency in the core job of delivering public services efficiently and effectively. That there has been a failure for unionist parties to step up to the job of holding nationalists to account in Government, often because of their own foibles, is obvious. 

If unionist parties are to make any headway they need to step up and clearly demonstrate that nationalism, separatism, is not only a poor option constitutionally but that trying to run a Government on the singular policy of proving how devolution is ‘not enough’ only delivers poor public services and a no-win scenario for all. 

Devolution has not improved public service delivery, and arguably health, schools and justice have been noticeably diminished. There is an argument that Unionism is weakened by the insipidness of arguing for the status quo. Yet in public policy, nationalism has delivered change for the worse. That is the starting point. There is plenty of room for unionist parties to make the case that far from believing in the status quo, they want to build better. Ironically, it is separatism that has built the foundations for that case to be made. 

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@thedissenter blogs regularly at www.thedissenter.co.uk and produces the PoliticalOD podcast along with @3000Versts.

Photo of Conor Murphy MLA, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87141906

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