RHI, NAMA, SIF, Red Sky. The list of Stormont scandals is long and widely known. Here, Eamonn McCann looks back at the scandalous past of the NI Assembly and places it’s roots in the sectarian headcount on the hill.
It’s frequently been observed that in any other jurisdiction the corruption in which the DUP is mired would have spelt the end of the party leadership, if not of the party itself.
Sectarianism has been a key factor in the survival of the fraudsters.
The charge-sheet is long and lengthening. The Renewable Heat Incentive business is only the latest in a long line.
In February 2008, Ian Paisley junior and a DUP sidekick, property dealer Seymour Sweeney, were rumbled for involvement in a major scam. Paisley lobbied for planning permission for Sweeney to build a Visitors’ Centre at Giants’ Causeway—the North’s top tourist attraction. Sweeney stood to make a mint.
It then emerged that Paisley had bought a holiday home from Sweeney. He insisted he’d paid market price. He explained that the house had remained in the name of Sweeney’s wife long after the “sale” because of an unfortunate “administrative error.”
In 2013, The Daily Telegraph revealed that Paisley, now an MP, had claimed more in expenses that any other of the 650 members of the Commons – a gob-smacking £232,000 in a year. The second highest claimant was his fellow DUP member Jim Shannon. Between them, they trousered half a million quid tax-free in a year – on top of £77,000 salaries.
Fraudsters, the pair of them, as the cynics might say. But not out of kilter with the rest of their party.
This – skipping over the Red Sky scandal—brings us to the DUP’s top swindle, the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme. The Inquiry into this debasement of democracy has provided an opportunity to laugh and cry at the same time.
RHI: money for jam
The RHI arrangement gave property-owners a subsidy to persuade them to switch from oil or gas and use wood pellets in their boilers instead. The Incentive took the form of returning £1.60 for every pound invested in wood pellets. Money for jam.
Outrage at RHI brought the Assembly and Executive tumbling down in November 2017. It was obvious from the outset that the Department of Energy and its minister, Arlene Foster, either knew what was going on or ought to have known.
The cost of RHI to the public purse has been at least £470 million.
We have learnt along the way that Special Advisers (Spads) to DUP ministers had gotten into the habit of sending their relatives and friends advance copies of confidential documents so as to give them the jump on other applicants.
Colourful details of interactions between DUP Ministers and their Spads were revealed. At a dinner in New York (bill for the trip picked up, goes without saying, by the hapless tax-payer) one Minister threatened to break his Spad’s finger and/or “swing a punch” at him.
Pantomime stuff. Conor McGregor should apply for party membership.
The DUP makes Fianna Fail in the hey-day of Haughey look like a choir of angels.
The role of Sinn Féin
One of the notable facts of the RHI case is that Sinn Féin originally didn’t want to take the DUP on in the matter.
On the contrary, in 2014 SF lobbied successfully for the scheme to be extended for two weeks. As a result, 289 extra boilers were installed. In November 2016, Sinn Féin refused to back a Stormont motion calling for Arlene Foster to stand aside until the RHI inquiry had reported.
When other parties—the SDLP, Alliance, People Before Profit, the Greens, the TUV—upped the pressure, Sinn Féin realised that they were in danger of doing themselves harm and U-turned with alacrity.
The party may also have been nervous that if they hammered the DUP on the issue they might leave themselves vulnerable to allegations of practising what they didn’t preach.
Also in 2014, the BBC revealed that the party had, over 10 years, picked up £700,000 for the services of a research company. But the “research company” didn’t exist.
Sinn Féin didn’t turn a hair at the revelation.
Neither did the DUP or Sinn Féin seem at all perturbed by the exposure during the inquiry of their insistence that no minutes be taken of meetings between ministers, Spads and party officials, so as to thwart members of the public who might apply for papers under the Freedom of Information Act.
GFA’s endorsement of sectarianism
How come the two biggest parties get away with this scandalous behaviour? The answer has to do with the sectarian nature of the Northern State and the endorsement of this sectarianism in the Good Friday Agreement.
The GFA implicitly calls for single-community elections. Nationalists and Unionists each elect candidates to champion their community vis-à-vis “the other side.” In this situation, the more determined and strident parties will, more or less inevitably, defeat their softer opponents.
Then the two most hard-line parties form an unstable “power-sharing” administration.
The only issues which matter in this process are those which fit into the Orange- Green paradigm.
In the name of communal solidarity, voters are urged at pain of letting “the other side” win to vote either DUP or SF.
To challenge this sectarian duopoly we have to campaign precisely to cut across communal allegiances and appeal to working-class voters irrespective of their background.
The DUP is not so much a party as a gang of no-goods milking the system for the benefit of themselves and their pals.
It would be wrong to say that SF are just as blatant or as bad. But they are as cynical as the DUP and, when the opportunity arises, are not above lining their party’s pockets with money filched from public funds.