Monday, 9 January 2017

Westminster's Non-Interest in Northern Ireland

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigns and the Northern Ireland Executive tumbles into chaos, again. Though I suppose it's a measure of progress given the history that it was an old-fashioned political scandal leading up to this, and not something bound up with the entrenched sectarian divide. What we have is a tawdry tale. A tale of money and the most incredible incompetence.

While First Minister Arlene Foster held the enterprise portfolio, the Executive introduced the Renewable Heat Scheme, a system of subsidies to encourage the take up of renewable sources of heating. So far, so banal. The problem was this scheme was generous, extremely generous. For example, according to the BBC, a business using a renewable-fuelled boiler over 20 years under the equivalent scheme in Britain could look forward to a government bung of £192,000. The Northern Irish scheme would have paid out £860,000. And so a scheme that had a £15m underspend in 2015 jumped to a budget-busting £400m overspend by the time it was closed around this time last year. If that wasn't bad enough, there is some evidence that it was being gamed by unscrupulous sorts. Thanks to a whistleblower, there were reports of "entrepreneurs" setting up boilers in previously unheated sheds, warehouses and garages and putting in claims. Ouch.

There is absolutely no suggestion that Foster is embroiled with crooked applicants, but there are claims of inept arse-covering. When the improper use of the scheme first came to light to senior civil servants, it is claimed Foster was uninterested in the allegations and fought to keep it open. And when it became too prohibitive, there is a suggestion that her subordinates tried to cover it up and make it look as though she was unaware of the problems. Are there any truth to the rumours? The evidence suggests so, but that's for the inquiry to unearth and, yes, McGuinness and Sinn Fein are right to argue that the DUP arm of government can't pretend business-as-usual. Especially when it's not the first time the party's leading figures have got into trouble with public money. But also, SF aren't entirely masters of their own fortunes here - as 'Cash for Ash' has rumbled on, they too have come in for criticism for appearing aloof from the whole affair. No amount of absurdist Gerry Adams tweets can alibi their quietude.

As the province gears up for an election, it's worth making a couple of points about Northern Ireland's relationship to wider politics. Or, should we say, non-relationship. Coverage of its affairs can be found in the broadsheets, but apart from the occasional trip across the Irish Sea by Question Time, it's not even a sideshow to Westminster's big top. The sad truth is that since SF and the DUP sorted out their power sharing arrangements, leading to the utterly surreal double act of Martin McGuinness and the Rev Ian Paisley, the rest of politics isn't that interested. The Northern Irish office, once one of the toughest briefs in front line politics is now considered a backwater. Small wonder Dave was content to leave it in the hands of Theresa Villiers. For example, back in summer 2015 there were two paramilitary murders - one an alleged commander of the Provisional IRA, and another an ex-member in what was widely seen as a tit-for-tat attack. The Provos, of course, weren't supposed to exist any more and so Stormont was plunged into crisis. The Ulster Unionists withdrew from the executive and Foster came in as a caretaker after the resignation of Peter Robinson. And yet this barely ruffled a Westminster engrossed in the drama of Labour's first leadership election.

Where mainstream politics is concerned, Northern Ireland is considered a settled issue. The bombs have stopped, sectarianism doesn't appear to be as ugly or violent as per The Troubles, so just leave them to it. They're a long way from London, nothing much happens there now and it only becomes useful for EU argument fodder or as a stick to beat Jeremy Corbyn with. But distance is only part of it. For the political establishment, whether its conservative or liberal variants, Northern Ireland is something to be feared and something to be ashamed of. Feared, because from their point of view the intractable sectarian division is primeval and tribal, and that irrationality could spill over into renewed violence on the mainland. And ashamed because Northern Ireland is out of step with the story official Britain likes to tell itself. The idea that not only does religious hatred scar one of the four components of the United Kingdom, but that the sectarian divide is institutionalised in its official politics. It embarrasses and offends a sense of (liberal) British self prided on inclusivity and tolerance. The best way is not to try and understand what's happened and happening in Ireland, but ignore it.

As long as there's no violence, out of sight, out of mind.


Ed said...

A small example of this: when Luftur Rahman was ousted as Tower Hamlets mayor, one of the main charges against him was 'spiritual corruption' (or some such formulation), because some east London imams had urged Muslims to vote for him. I'd no great love for Rahman, but this irritated the hell out of me, because the Victorian-era legislation that made this charge possible had originally been passed to try and stem the rise of the Home Rule party in Ireland. The presumption in both cases was the same: if Irish Catholics were voting for Parnell's candidates, or British Muslims voting for Rahman, it wasn't because they preferred them to the other candidates, it was because they were mindless sheep in thrall to their clergy. The judge in Rahman's case even made a comment along the lines of 'we can't judge these people by the standards of a metropolitan agnostic elite'. Frankly I don't see any case for disbarring Rahman because he was supported by imams unless you disbar Tories because they were supported by the Express; as far as capacity for rational or critical thought goes, the most hidebound religious believers can't be much worse than Express readers who take it seriously.

Anyway, I made this point in a Guardian thread, and straight away there was somebody saying 'we can't have this, we don't want our politics to end up like Northern Ireland!' I had to point out to them that if people in NI had been mindlessly in thrall to Catholic, Anglican or Presbyterian clerics, they would have been significantly less likely to support the IRA or the loyalist paramilitaries. Paisley is the only real exception, but even then the great majority of his voting base was based on secular concerns, and they paid no intention to his invective against line dancing and other such evils (the UVF members who loved Paisley for his sectarian rhetoric typically never ventured near a Protestant church).

Lidl_Janus said...

The thing is, I clicked the 'Ireland' tag at the bottom of this article and found 3 articles, including this one, in the 10 years this blog's been going. It's not just the government that doesn't care - none of us give a shit, really, whether it's the government, press, people or even Eire.

I suppose there is a question about whether NI is backwards in its social politics and hence votes DUP, etc., or whether it can't progress because the only options are the DUP, etc.

Phil said...

Guilty as charged. But then again, I'm not a multi-staffed news media organisation with an audience of millions. Well, not yet anyway ...

Lidl_Janus said...

I'm not exactly pointing fingers at this blog; in the same way North Korea's two oceans, river and minefield make it uniquely placed for dictatorship, so NI's geography and social politics make it uniquely placed for no-one to give a shit.

It's testament to how little influence the place has, for example, that the Tories' majority should have made the DUP much more powerful over the last 18 months, but they're still a blip.