Imagine for a moment that it was Sinn Fein being scrutinised at the RHI Inquiry at Stormont; that they had held the responsible ministry for energy when the RHI scheme was devised and implemented and that the shoe was on the other foot for this whole scandal. Imagine that it was Michelle O’Neill that was being hauled over the coals, not Arlene Foster.
What would the discourse be on this issue in that scenario? Would it be any different from now?
I think it would. Massively.
Sinn Fein and their allies would be making repeated accusations that this was a British-orchestrated plot to discredit them and keep them out of office; that it was a crude attack on Irish republicanism itself in an effort to marginalise the Catholic community and the Irish nationalist aspiration.
BBC’s role in RHI
After all, the entire RHI scandal was first identified by Britain’s state broadcaster, the BBC, in July 2016 who went on to give it massive coverage through its Spotlight programme in December 2016 and on the Nolan Show ever since.
Now they continue that focus through their detailed and ongoing coverage of the inquiry. Even to the point of providing a link to the live coverage of proceedings which the Nolan Show encourages people to watch.
The BBC have been a ‘public service broadcaster’, but in recent years they have become the ‘state broadcaster’ in Britain, increasingly reflecting the British Government’s position on most issues. They are regularly criticised for their pro-government reporting.
There is little doubt that in this hypothetical scenario of Sinn Fein in the dock, the motives of the BBC, and by extension their political masters the British government, would be called into question and come under enormous local and international scrutiny.
But because it is the defenders of all things British – the Democratic Unionist Party – in the dock does that mean there are no political motives behind the investigations into the RHI affair?
This scandal has already cost Northern Ireland its devolved institutions, throwing the region into political chaos for almost eighteen months and as a result may well do enormous long term damage to the union, the Northern Ireland Civil Service, the fortunes of the DUP and the career of its leader, Arlene Foster.
Northern Ireland has seen nothing like it.
The BBC has attempted to expose other financial scandals here, most have focused on the DUP, but none have had any serious political affect until RHI:
- Ian Paisley Jnr is forced to resign in 2008 as a Junior Minister at Stormont over allegations of an improper financial relationship with a property developer. Paisley was subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing.
- Iris Robinson’s (DUP MP, MLA and Councillor) financial dealings and her extra-marital affair are exposed in 2010 (Spotlight again) . Mrs Robinson is forced to leave public life. Peter Robinson was also forced to step down temporarily as First Minister while investigations were conducted into his wife’s behaviour.
- Red Sky – the award of housing maintenance contacts following alleged ‘unwarranted and improper interference’ by the DUP’s Nelson McCausland – MLA and Stormont Minister – was exposed by Spotlight again in 2010. Nelson McCausland is no longer an MLA.
- NAMA – in 2016 allegations were made that the First Minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson, stood to benefit from a £7.5m “fixers’ fee” upon the completion of the sale of NAMA’s property portfolio. BBC Spotlight reported on some shady dealings like this where Frank Cushnahan, former NAMA adviser and ex-Chair of Belfast Harbour Commissioners appears to take a bribe. BBC Spotlight ran with this story and suddenly dropped it – just before the RHI scandal broke. Since then NAMA is rarely if ever mentioned by the BBC. It’s as if someone had pressed the ‘Off’ button on NAMA. The National Crime Agency has been investigating NAMA since 2015. To date no charges have been brought against any individuals.
Then, after these apparent ‘practice runs’ the BBC hit scandal gold with the RHI affair in late 2016.
You would have thought that given the backgrounds of the DUP’s opponents and the opponents of British rule in Ireland – Sinn Fein’s Adams and McGuinness among others – and BBCNI’s penchant for investigative journalism and exposing wrongdoing, that there would be more investigations of Sinn Fein’s past. However, looking back there has been surprisingly few exposés, none that have done any damage to Sinn Fein and certainly very little alleging financial impropriety by the party. This is in spite of the IRA robbing a bank in central Belfast of £26 million during the ‘peace process’ in 2004.
These are the main controversies affecting Sinn Fein in the north since the party gained office.
- Máiría Cahill affair – in 2010 Ms Cahill (niece of IRA leader, Joe Cahill and former Sinn Fein member) exposed her rape by an IRA member in 1997 and 1998 and her mistreatment by the PIRA in a subsequent investigation. Ms Cahill resigned from Sinn Fein in 2001.
- Liam Adams – older brother of Gerry Adams is convicted in 2013 of the sexual abuse of his daughter. Gerry Adams gives evidence and is accused of concealing his knowledge of his brother’s behaviour. The PSNI decided that there was no case to answer.
- Adams and the McConville affair – in 2014 Gerry Adams was arrested in connection with PSNI investigtions into the disappearance of Jean McConville in 1972. He was released without charge and has not been questioned since.
- Kevin McGuigan murder – in 2015 the PIRA’s murder of McGuigan in an alleged dispute over funds from the Northern bank robbery threatened to collapse the institutions. The DUP left the Executive and returned a month later. No convictions were brought for the murder.
- Denis Donaldson’s murder – in 2006 the former Sinn Fein official and British spy is murdered and in 2016 BBC Spotlight aired allegations that Adams was implicated. Adams threatened to sue. No charges were ever brought against Adams.
- Barry McElduff* – in 2018 Sinn Fein MP & former MLA is accused of insulting the memory of the victims of the Kingsmill massacre by posting a video of himself with a loaf of Kingsmill bread on his head on the anniversary of the 1976 massacre. He protests his innocence, but is forced to resign as MP.
*McElduff is perhaps the only Sinn Fein casualty of all the accusations leveled against the party in recent times.
DUP in the dock
But today it is the Democratic Unionist Party in the dock, the defenders of the union, with the ‘enemies of Ulster’ (as defined by the DUP) apparently occupying the moral high ground with little of their past attaching to them, no suggestions of financial impropriety and little of the RHI scandal rubbing off on them.
What if it was Sinn Fein?
As we said at the start, imagine if the shoe was on the other foot and it was Sinn Fein in the hot seat over RHI.
Allegations of a British witch-hunt against Irish republicans would be everywhere. After all it was the BBC who first aired the allegations and gave them such tremendous ongoing publicity causing the collapse of the Executive and Sinn Fein’s exclusion from office, then the BBC whipped up demands for a public inquiry and it is now the British judicial system sitting in judgement at the RHI Inquiry.
So if it had been Sinn Fein in the RHI dock would such allegations of British treachery be so ridiculous?
But because it is the DUP – champions of all things British – no such allegations of political motives on the part of the British state are made. Why would the British do this to ‘their own’, as it were? Yet there is no love lost between the DUP and the BBC. The DUP boycott the Nolan Show and have made a complaint to OFCOM about the BBC’s behaviour – specifically the Nolan Show – in their handling of the RHI issue.
One DUP MLA has accused the BBC of being involved in ‘regime change’, but the party hierarchy remain tight-lipped on the issue. If they did give voice to such suspicions where would that end for them? They daren’t publicly question the commitment of Her Majesty’s Government to the union. They are like lambs to the slaughter afraid even to name their executioner.
BBC controls the political agenda
But why would the BBC go after the DUP so consistently since they partnered Sinn Fein in government to the point where serious political damage has been caused to the delicate peace arrangements here?
Nowhere else in the UK does the BBC conduct such rigorous investigative journalism. In fact the BBC is regularly accused of ignoring scandals and suppressing news. After all you could argue that it is not the job of the state broadcaster in any country to go around causing internal political instability. But in Northern Ireland that rule does not seem to apply. Here the BBC dominate the local media and local debate in a way that is reminiscent of the old Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc.
We only have to see how the NAMA scandal was dropped so completely from local discussion to realise the power and influence of the BBC locally.to shape events and debate in Northern Ireland. We must know from this that the British Government, through the BBC and the Secretary of State, had the power to stop or change the nature of the RHI scandal at any point to avoid serious political damage.
I’m not suggesting that the RHI affair does not justify public scrutiny or attempting to defend the conduct of the DUP leadership in this matter, but there are many other scandals of equal and greater magnitude in Northern Ireland that get suppressed. Nor do I carry any brief for either the DUP or Sinn Fein. I am simply asking questions that I believe should be asked: particularly questions about the powerful position of the BBC in Northern Ireland politics.
We are all entitled to ask why has the RHI affair been singled out and jumped on with such enthusiasm to the exclusion of all others, especially when it had such dire political consequences? Could it be it was exactly because it had those dire political consequences?
Could there be a link to the Brexit negotiations? It seems to be very convenient and timely. The last thing Theresa May wants is the Northern Ireland Executive interfering and snapping at her heels while she concludes delicate issues around the border with the government of the Irish Republic and the EU Commission.
Why have the British political establishment refused to apply much energy to resurrecting the Executive destroyed by an exposé run by their state broadcaster: an agreement that presidents and prime ministers worked hard to put in place, brought peace and was the jewel in the crown of peace initiatives the world over?
The powerful images of the leader of modern day Ulster unionism, Arlene Foster, being grilled in unionism’s former holy of holies, Stormont – where unionists have lost their age-old majority – by the RHI Inquiry legal team has all the symbolism and hallmarks of a show trial of an old and dying regime, but no one will give it that name. It’s the proverbial elephant in the room.
Has the British establishment – or a powerful faction within it – fallen out with the DUP and decided to put the party or its current leadership on trial in an effort to discredit them as part of a wider strategy?
But of course these questions are not asked. Who would ask them? We are not a democratic society with a strong parliamentary opposition and a robust fourth estate. We are heavily controlled by the British state and its agents, such as the BBC.
Finally, in case you are in any doubt of the BBC’s motives in all this, here is a crude image – a photograph lifted from the BBC’s RHI Inquiry Live web page. A picture, as we know, tells a thousand stories.
What do you think the BBC is trying to tell us with this bizarre camera angle?