The big stink that ended a Fresh Start: what the Northern Ireland crisis means for its civil service

Written by Alan Bermingham on 18 January 2017 in Analysis

With a snap election looming after the Northern Ireland executive was brought down by a scandal over renewable heat incentives,  Alan Bermingham explores the governance and public finance implications of the Stormont crisis 

The Fresh Start Agreement, signed in late 2015 and setting the scene for a new administration in Northern Ireland the following May, is all but a distant memory just 14 months later. The new executive of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein has been bogged down by repeated controversies surrounding good governance issues.

These include ministerial influence in outsourced housing maintenance contracts; alleged corruption in property deals; public resources going to fund community groups linked with paramilitaries; and the controversial decision to cut funding for Irish language projects. Then there was the debacle of the Renewable Heating Incentive Scheme (RHI) or ‘cash for ash’ as it is known.

That scheme is likely to cost the Northern Ireland tax payer close to £500m over the life of the scheme due to generous scheme tariffs agreed to by the minister in charge at the time – DUP MLA Arlene Foster, who is now the first minister.

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This debacle was the final straw for Sinn Fein: on Monday 10 January, the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuiness (Sinn Fein), effectively ended the chances of the assembly continuing with his resignation from the post. His resignation resulted from Foster’s refusal to step aside during the period of an independent enquiry into the RHI scheme, one which she has accepted needs to take place.

At an Assembly plenary session on Monday 16 January, the two main parties in the executive had the opportunity to re-nominate members for the positions of First and Deputy First Ministers. As was expected, the DUP nominated Arlene Foster to continue in the post of First Minister and Sinn Fein did not make a nomination. Without that nomination the shared executive collapsed and the secretary of state James Brokenshire swiftly announced the date of 2 March for fresh elections to the assembly. The Assembly will be effectively dissolved from the 26 January.

So what happens next? My personal view is that without a massive shift in voting intentions, we will have the same two parties in a position to form an executive following the result of any new elections. This is likely to lead to a new round of negotiations about the conditions under which a power sharing executive will come about, an even fresher fresh start agreement, so to speak. But, in the meantime there are a number of not insignificant financial management and business issues to be considered.

First there is the issue of setting a budget for 2017/18. The Government Resources and Accounts Act (Northern Ireland) 2001, requires that if no budget is set prior to the end of the financial year for the following year, then the authorised officer of the Department for Finance would be able to use resources in the new financial year equating to 75% of the previous years authorised budget. If no budget act is passed before the end of July in the financial year, this limit is increased up to 95%.

In practical terms this is likely to result in existing projects, polices and services obtaining continued funding, it’s unlikely any new initiatives will be pursued without clear political direction. Departments’ available resources are also likely to come under pressure because the legislation is unclear on the issue of retaining income generated during the year – or, in technical terms, accruing resources. It’s not clear whether the authorised officer would have the legal ability to enable departments to retain their planned income levels. Therefore a department working to a net spending position could be under budgetary pressure fairly quickly into the financial year if it has a significant income level that it cannot use to offset its expenditure levels.

The prolonged uncertainty of an election followed by a potential for negotiations over the formation of an executive will also lead to concerns from groups and organisations funded by the Executive over certainty of that funding. The umbrella group for the community and voluntary sector in Northern Ireland, NICVA, is already concerned about the need for organisations affected to consider putting staff on protected notice due to this uncertainty.

There is also the wider national issue of planning for Brexit: it is unclear what the impact of an election in Northern Ireland might have on the UK’s timetable to leave. The UK Supreme Court is due to rule on whether the devolved nations of the UK are required to give legislative consent to the UK’s exit from the EU and, given Northern Ireland’s unique position as the only land border with the EU it seems like possibly the worst timing ever to be in a position of holding an election when Article 50 is about to be triggered by the UK government.

Lastly, there is the issue of resolving and recovering as much as possible from the RHI scandal once the Executive is formed. This will also likely involve some form of independent enquiry to address the concerns over the circumstances under which this was allowed to happen. How did the situation arise in which the policy allowed £1.60 to be paid out for every £1 spent – a feature that fundamentally undermined the core principles of the scheme? 

While these are all issues that need to be addressed, there is also a more fundamental issue to consider: the need for good governance within the executive. Without good governance there will be no way to clear the smell in the long term. Acting in the public interest at all times must be seen as the focus of the shared executive in order to restore confidence, and progress much needed public service improvements.

About the author
Alan Bermingham is a policy expert, devolved nations at CIPFA.

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Dr Sara C Lanier (not verified)

Submitted on 18 January, 2017 - 11:52
Thanks for this article, both informative and to the immediate political point. But it fails to set this crisis in an historical framework. In simple terms in order to understand the background of this present crisis all any interested observer needs to do is follow the money. The political policies of the Peace Process here were predicated upon years of academic studies all of which were framed within a culturally simplistic neo-marxist ideology wherein economic iniquities were given priority over all other human experience. Just throw money and political privilege at the bad guys and in time they will all become good citizens, seems to have been the summation of Mandelson's and Blair's peace policies. This has led to an unhealthy political prioritising and funding of and focus upon the most criminal elements in both communities. This political directive was delivered within the framework, even at this time academically discarded as a divisive disaster, of American style multiculturalism without any reference to the deep realities of actual history and culture of place whatsoever. Consequently, this multicultural ideological framework has only served to effectively deepen the sectarian divide. This 'there is no plan B' Westminster directive has also tragically led to an effacement and silencing of those whose suffering could not easily be harnessed to such ideological political ends. I was a postgraduate at Queen's in the late 1990s early noughties and witnessed firsthand this startlingly disastrous Westminster brutality to the many inconvenient Others more than once. Those around me were too busy feathering their academic nests and climbing greasy power poles to hear my observations at the time. The entirely predictable consequences of this policy of 'paying the Danegeld' can be seen in the ruling institutions and Executive of Northern Ireland today. Two decades on and instead of having a vibrant society with an economy that is strong and growing, as should be the case given the high educational standards and work discipline of youth here, we have a society that is in powerless thrall to a wealthy, corrupt, duopoly even more deeply riven by sectarian and racist hatreds than ever. The majority in Northern Ireland after showing superhuman levels of tolerance in response to these blatant abuses of power are now exhausted and are becoming very angry indeed. Most will no longer bother to vote because there is literally no one they can vote for. Unless this basic political faultline, one which is situated in the rotten policies of the Blair/Clinton Peace Process era, are recognised, named, shamed and rejected as a serious failure of UK leadership, at the very least, and all the subsequent Agreements revisited and redrawn, we will stay stuck in a tautological tyranny of ever unfolding conflict.

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