I’m starting to have a gut feeling that history will show that it was the RHI scandal in Northern Ireland that ultimately lit the fuse (pardon the pun) under the union with Britain, not the long war of the Irish republican movement, the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish language, Brexit or any of those big bogeymen for Unionism.
Loyal to the Half Crown, not the Crown
It will be a simple and sordid tale of a Unionist conspiracy to milk the British Exchequer of millions for the benefit of its cronies in the farming and business communities – exposing the age-old accusation that Ulster unionism was always about loyalty to the ‘half-crown and not the Crown’ – that will be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
Bizarrely RHI has already destroyed, not just representative local government, but in fact any form of government here, in a way that the ‘Long War’ never did. Even during the ‘Troubles’ we had a system of Direct Rule in place where English ministers filled the vacuum to ensure Northern Ireland continued to function during a prolonged attack on its constitutional position. Now we don’t even have responsible ministers flown in from Surrey to hold the fort. We exist in a constitutional vacuum while major challenges – such as Brexit – swirl about us.
RHI has shown that the arch-unionists, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), were not the frugal, dour former Scots they always claimed to be. Sound money managers they were not. For generations unionists claimed to be protecting the British Crown from the feckless, freewheeling spendthrifts of Irish nationalism. The unionist story went that if the nationalists ever got their hands on the purse strings they would use it to wage a war of economic terrorism on Her Majesty’s Government.
Instead the reverse was true. It was the DUP who conducted a form economic terrorism against HMG, milking the system for all it was worth – just what they accused Catholic Ireland of doing for generations. The RHI Inquiry has shown that the DUP were into HMG for around a cool half billion and rising, until the guilty Red Hand of Ulster was caught in the imperial till.
The DUP’s approach put a whole new meaning to the phrase in the very first line of the 1912 Ulster Covenant, when the founding fathers of Ulster unionism set out their reasons for wishing to retain the union with Britain:
‘BEING CONVINCED in our consciences that Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster….’ (my emphasis)
So two questions now arise:
- Was it always just about the money and, if so, has this ruthless pursuit of ‘material well-being’ (for a select few) proved to be unionism’s undoing?
- Can the DUP be trusted with the purse-strings ever again by both Her Majesty’s Government and the electorate?
But it’s worse than the emperor having no clothes. It seems his entire court is naked.
Northern Ireland Civil Service
The RHI Inquiry destroyed another myth.
It has exposed the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) as an incompetent organisation.
During all the ups and downs of Northern Ireland’s recent history it was NICS that was seen as a bastion of stability and governmental rectitude – however plodding they were. RHI has revealed that its senior staff did not know the difference between insider dealing and courtesy calls to their cronies in the private sector – senior civil servants fed sensitive financial information to cronies in the private sector, while being simultaneously economical with the actuality of the scheme’s risks with their ministers and lacking the expertise and basic managerial ability to control the heating scheme.
So who now can central government turn to?
Abuse of the elderly in a broken state
More recent revelations have exposed in many ways an even greater scandal than RHI – greater because vulnerable elderly people have suffered tremendous agonies in a private nursing home, Dunmurry Manor in South Belfast regulated and inspected by bodies responsible to the Department of Health during 2014-2016. Guess under whose watch these abuses occurred?
Like the RHI scandal, it is yet another tale of a broken state with the DUP as ever close to the fractures.
In spite of reports of the gross neglect and terrible abuse of elderly residents by the management and staff of this home no one has been held accountable, amazingly the health trusts still send the elderly to live (if it can be called living) in this ‘home’, the company that owns the home – Runwood Homes – continues to trade and receive financial support from the state.
Because there is no representative government in Northern Ireland, it appears no statutory authority can be held accountable. What statutory authorities there are refuse to explain their behaviour and the police remain largely inactive. We are left hoping that a radio presenter, Stephen Nolan, can get some justice.
Imagine the political repercussions if a DUP politician still held ministerial responsibility for the overview of these private nursing homes, adding accusations of gross negligence to those of corruption already made by RHI? If there is a public inquiry – and without representative government it’s difficult to see who would take such a decision – will we again see another collection of former DUP minsters hauled across the coals as in the RHI Inquiry?
Is this abuse confined to just one home or will it emerge that it is more widespread, possibly systemic; abuse that should have been identified by the state long ago?
How long will it be before the BBC in the form of Stephen Nolan begin to ask questions of the DUP as they did with RHI to great cost?
Northern Ireland – a region of the United Kingdom which has until now largely been run as a colony – is publicly exposed as highly dysfunctional. Not only is its political class, or at least one half of it, seen to be highly incompetent, negligent and allegedly corrupt, abusing the system of devolved government; but more significantly, the local civil service has shown itself to be equally unsound.
Since the Irish ‘Famine’ (aka genocide) of the 1840s the British government has sought a regime or regimes in Ireland that could be relied on to act as their agents, to keep the natives in order – north and south – so that the imperial government was not dragged into any more messy situations. When the regime showed itself not to be up to the task, it was got rid of. First, the old Anglo-Irish landed class was gradually removed during the latter half of the nineteenth century and then in 1972 the ‘Big House’ of northern Unionism was removed from power in a single day and thereafter unionism’s traditional ruling class quickly departed the scene.
In the north-east it was the Northern Ireland Civil Service that held the pieces together after partition and after the demise of Big House unionism in the seventies. They loyally served the Direct Rule ministers from Britain during the decades of the ‘Troubles’. They were seen to be the guardians of British rule when the unionists had demonstrated they were not up to the job.
NICS held the line while the wild men roared around them: a cautious and safe pair of hands in the midst of the chaos that Her Majesty’s Government could turn to and rely on. That illusion has now also been shattered.
Somehow both the ruling class and its coterie of bureaucrats in the north of Ireland have been deeply corrupted and hollowed out over recent years leaving a vacuum that can only be filled by an entirely new dispensation.
In terms of real politic, with both a dysfunctional and treacherous political class and an incompetent and negligent civil service, who do the British Government turn to?
In other colonial scenarios – and throughout Irish history – where the old order could no longer be relied upon, the British looked to entirely new and separate alliances to marginalise and replace the old order, so that their overall control was maintained and not put at risk.
Let’s watch this unfold. Stripped of representation we can only spectate & speculate.