Belfast Telegraph

Tom Kelly: RHI inquiry has shone light into the very darkest corners of Stormont


Dame Una O’Brien, chairman of the inquiry Sir Patrick Coghlin, and Keith MacLean
Dame Una O’Brien, chairman of the inquiry Sir Patrick Coghlin, and Keith MacLean

By Tom Kelly

There is a old German saying: 'The less people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they sleep at night.'

Watching events unfold at the RHI Inquiry there may be some truth in that. If there are enthusiastic cheerleaders for a speedy return to devolution as we have recently experienced it - there is no evidence they are clamouring for it.

Even the most ardent supporters of the two large parties appear happy for the current stalemate to prevail. Democracy as perpetrated (and I mean perpetrated) by the DUP and Sinn Fein has been obliterated.

The RHI Inquiry has shown us, not just how our sausages (aka laws) are made - it has taken us on a journey through the inside of the sausage-making machine. And boy, it's not a pretty sight.

In fact it's rank. There is a huge difference in winning power, which Sinn Fein and the DUP excel at, and the administration of that power which both parties fail miserably at.

Over the years, DUP and Sinn Fein administrations love-bombed the media with photo opportunities.

Press releases gushed with their achievements, when in effect, their most incredible achievement was simply sticking it out for so long when the scaffolding which held them together was built on the twin pillars of distrust and disrespect for each other.

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Yes, they were good at political lip-syncing when the occasion demanded, but when the lights dimmed the trust evaporated.

It was like a dysfunctional marriage hidden behind lace curtains.

The evidence as presented to the RHI Inquiry this week has been shocking - ministers appearing to approve of leaks to direct the media away from their party.

Some individuals seemingly allowing themselves to be cuckold by political advisors. Non-accountable party political figures beyond the reach of public scrutiny and external to the making of public policy apparently signing off on key decisions.

This would be farcical if it was a House of Cards episode or a comedy scene worthy of a Baldrick or an Alan B'Stard: the fact it masquerades for real time politics in Northern Ireland is no laughing matter.

It's not much better for those parties in opposition either. So poorly funded, under-resourced and overly-reliant on departments for accurate information, scrutiny committees are more like toothless Tiggers than tigers.

The RHI Inquiry is shining a light into the corners of administration within Northern Ireland into which there was no light.

One can expect a degree of political shenanigans between parties forced into a mandatory coalition but what we are witnessing is the corruption of process. Not corruption in the sense of personal or illegal activity but a corporate and collective corruption of governance.

Without prejudging any conclusions the RHI Inquiry Panel may come to, it's hard to see anyone coming out of this with any credit. Not the civil service, certainly not the two big political parties and most definitely not the system of special advisors as operated by the DUP. Ministers, who are meant to be actually politically accountable for their advisors, departmental staff and policy have been reduced to playing cameo roles in their own productions. Anyone following the RHI Inquiry can only be as flummoxed as those on the Panel at the explanations.

We are told that a jigsaw puzzle is an assembly of often oddly-shaped interlocking and tessellating pieces that when finished produces a complete picture -a bit like our system of governance, only some of our pieces are missing: namely those of accountability, responsibility and scrutiny. And if the civil service embroils itself in partisan actions to please or acquiesce political parties, impartiality is missing too.

A worrying factor is the way the public are now immunised against whatever the machinations of politics.

In a recent by-election, albeit in a mostly unionist area, eight out of 10 voters stayed away from the polls. And yet, still the DUP prevailed.

Voter apathy is a curse on all political parties but it changes very little in terms of outcomes. Stay at home voters may be turned off by politics but they are also a godsend to political parties in turmoil because they let them off the hook.

Recently a group of young 16-24 year olds from Northern Ireland went to Westminster to lobby MPs for a second referendum. They feel it's their future that's being squandered. If, as Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg and others suggest, that it will be between 25 and 50 years before the so-called perceived benefits of leaving the EU emerge for the UK, it is young people like these who will be shouldering the burden.

These young people listen to the RHI Inquiry with incredulity. They resent that their arguments about the future are reduced to those of Orange versus Green by local politicians.

It's unfortunate that at this time our young people are witnesses to politics at its worst. A time when political polarisation is actually being fuelled by the main political parties. A time when the very system of government is paralysed and the governance itself is being bastardised. Where is the leadership for them? It's not at Stormont nor at Westminster at the moment.

Some people in Northern Ireland are fond of quoting scripture - so here is one for the leadership of the DUP and Sinn Fein: Proverbs 29:18: "Where there is no vision, the people perish".

People are perishing on hospital waiting lists and corridors, attending under-funded schools and dealing with crumbling infrastructure, all for the want of a vision. To the wider public, politics is seen as the preserve of the greedy and self-serving.

That is regrettable. Many are drawn to it by the noblest of convictions. Others drag politics to the level of the grubbiest gutter.

The old German saying is wrong about making laws but right about making sausages. To make laws we need transparency. We need light.

The type of light provided by the team at the RHI Inquiry. Too much of our past was shrouded in darkness and we know where that led.

  • Tom Kelly is a political commentator

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