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After a glimpse behind the scenes this week, giving Northern Ireland more power is just unthinkable

By Nick Garbutt

Earlier this week an influential think tank recommended that Northern Ireland should be allowed to raise its own taxes, help administer a £10bn fund to boost regional economies and run its own immigration policy.

It would be interesting to know if the IPPR Commission on Economic Injustice, which includes the Archbishop of Canterbury among its members, still stands by that judgment today.

Close study of the RHI inquiry suggests an urgent re-think.

The inquiry has lifted the lid on what really happens behind closed doors between ministers, their special advisers ('spads') and senior civil servants. It would be hilarious but for the money involved and the questions it raises about competence, cronyism and ethical behaviour at the highest levels of government.

We had allegations that former minister Jonathan Bell had tried to break his spad's finger and swung a punch at him. We heard that his former spad Timothy Cairns told him "Listen to me, big b***s" during a row witnessed by senior civil servants.

There were lurid suggestions of sexual misconduct made about two of Mr Bell's ministerial colleagues.

There was evidence that Mr Bell was unable to adequately discharge his duties the morning after a late night in New York.

There were claims that Mr Cairns answered to other spads rather than his ministerial boss and that some of them had families who stood to gain from RHI.

All this, before we even consider Mr Bell alleging that the Executive's spin doctor David Gordon characterised him as a "monster" who needed to be put to sleep and that a senior journalist was advising the DUP about how to attack him.

The former permanent secretary of his department stated that colleagues at Invest NI had complained of Minister Bell's "limited contribution to Northern Ireland's interests regarding foreign direct investment and trade" and the risk of him "making inappropriate or unhelpful comments".

After a trade delegation he was due to lead to the US on St Patrick's Day was dropped, it was further stated that he delayed providing routine information to OfM/DfM and travel authorisation for Invest NI staff out of pique.

Most of those settling in to watch the live feed were expecting to hear a Northern Irish version of Yes Minister. What they got sounded more like a particularly fractious episode of the Jeremy Kyle Show with the DUP family at war.

During the hearing it appeared that Mr Bell's memory of key events and grasp of detail is far from perfect, that he made secret recordings of conversations with civil servants and party colleagues, and that spads rather than he made key decisions.

Regardless of the veracity of any of the claims, the rest of us are left wondering about the ethics and integrity of those who govern us.

Sadly, the civil service does not emerge well either.

The people running the RHI scheme appeared not to be able to spot basic flaws. The unit was under-resourced, no staff had specialist knowledge of a complex field and personnel changes meant that there was no continuity as the crisis unfolded.

Most people will be shocked and bewildered by all of this. Of course, the media can distort and sensationalise stories. But this one gets worse if you follow the live coverage and read all the documents.

We have no government. But if and when we do, there is no case for dancing in the streets.

Civil servants and ministers will have much to prove. We need to trust that civil servants have the competence to manage large budgets, ministers the ability to lead them, and that unelected party officials are controlled by ministers, not the other way around. Until that confidence is restored, providing Stormont with yet more power would be unthinkable.

Nick Garbutt runs Nick Garbutt PR

Belfast Telegraph

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