SHARED RESPONSIBILITY, AS WELL AS SHARED POWER, MUST BE RESTORED IN NORTHERN IRELAND
The scandal of Northern Ireland’s Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) is one of bureaucratic failure, sloppy political oversight, and culpable procrastination, all leading to a colossal waste of public money. It is exposed in a book entitled “Burned” by Sam McBride, a well known Belfast based journalist.
This book will be avidly read in the UK Treasury, from which a large overall net subsidy comes to maintain Northern Ireland’s excellent public services.
The author draws heavily on evidence given to the Public Inquiry into RHI, which will publish its findings in the New Year.
His book shows that simply restoring the Northern Ireland Assembly will not guarantee good governance. There must be a complete change in mindset among the civil service as well as among the politicians. Structural irresponsibility must be tackled head on.
Sam McBride shows that, even when the power sharing Administration was working, there was no collective responsibility or proper communication among Ministers. Each government party ( DUP and Sinn Fein) treated the Ministries it held as independent fiefdoms. Checks and balances did not work. The opposition parties ( SDLP, Ulster Unionist, Alliance and others) did not call the government to account, until it was too late.
The RHI started with a good idea, that of incentivising businesses in Northern Ireland (NI) to use renewable fuels (like wood), rather than ones that would eventually run out (like oil, coal, and gas) to heat their premises. It followed the model of a scheme already launched in Britain. That scheme was deliberately generous in the initial period, in order to promote a step change in business mentality about heating.
But the Northern Ireland version of RHI went further and contained some fatal flaws.
The rate of subsidy was so generous that it exceeded the cost of the fuel!
So the more heating used, the more profit was made.
And the overall budget for the scheme was not capped. These were elementary errors. When firms discovered big upfront profits could be made from abusing the scheme, there was a huge rush of applications, and no limit on the UK taxpayer’s liability.
The fact that such a flawed scheme could ever have been put forward by civil servants for approval by their Minister (Arlene Foster at the time) is a damning indictment of the culture of public administration in Northern Ireland. This book shows that that culture is characterised by an unwillingness to ask hard questions, evasion of responsibility, and poor record keeping. Restoring the Assembly alone will not solve that.
The motivation for the poor design of RHI in NI is even more troubling. The working assumption was that the full cost would be met by funds coming from London, and not from Northern Ireland’s own budget. So nobody bothered to look out for loopholes that could be abused. As money coming in from outside, so controls were not important.
If the money had had to be raised from NI taxpayers themselves, much more care would have been taken, both by civil servants and by Ministers.
In this sense, the careless attitude to money calls the current model of devolution into question. Devolving spending power, without equivalent tax raising responsibility, inevitably leads to poor decision making.
This was also shown when the decisions on welfare reform had to be handed back by Belfast to Westminster, because the NI parties in the Executive could not agree or take responsibility.
Arlene Foster of the DUP was the responsible Minister when the flawed scheme was launched. When the scandal was uncovered, her party sought to delay the closing down of the scheme, because so many NI businesses were by then exploiting it. When they found out, Sinn Fein Ministers were also slow in taking action.
This book contains a mass of information. Its conclusions are deeply troubling, but it is not light reading.
It contains salutary lessons for all who would like to see responsible government restored in Stormont.