As the drama around SIF continues to unfold, Eamonn McCann brilliantly unpicks the scandal to reveal exactly how these kind of schemes sustain a sectarian and corrupt system.
The Renewable Heat Incentive scheme seemed to many to mark a new low in the ethics, so to speak, of Stormont politics.
Certainly, it was full of colour, drama and revelations of criminal misbehaviour by ministers, party officers and special advisers, almost all of the guilty parties coming from the DUP – although Sinn Féin has to shoulder at least a sliver of guilt for either turning a blind eye or nodding and winking to the fraudsters they were in government with – and tentatively dipping their own hands into the trough when the opportunity arose.
The debacle drew massive audiences to talk-in shows and, for the first time, found an audience in Nationalist areas for the Belfast Newsletter where political correspondent Sam McBride led the field in digging facts out from the mountain of evidence.
In terms of political significance, however, the scandal of the Strategic Investment Fund (SIF) overshadows RHI. It is common ground among commentators that if RHI had happened in almost any other jurisdiction, the politicians involved would have been kicked out of office in disgrace long ago.
Anywhere else, the SIF affair would have not only drummed the miscreants out but would have led to the collapse of the entire government – if we had a government to collapse.
The recent report into SIF from NI Audit Office – the Northern Executive’s financial watchdog – reveals a startling level of corruption in relation to funding of community projects.
Members and supporters of the DUP and Sinn Féin have routinely used their community positions to divert public money towards projects designed to boost their parties’ fortunes and reward party members with positions of influence, if not control, in their respective communities. This has been a factor in shoring up the two parties during elections.
“We are on the ground slaving away for the community,” ran the mantra, “while that other lot keep carping from the sidelines.”
The most notorious example so far involves the former speaker of the assembly, Robin Newton (DUP), who was exposed as providing a conduit for channeling public money towards “community groups” in his own East Belfast constituency which turn out to involve paramilitary groups, or even to be little more than front organisations for the paramilitary groups.
Newton is still picking up £76,000 a year plus expenses for acting as speaker of an Assembly which, for practical purposes, no longer exists.
Nice work if you can get it, but you have to be a member of the DUP or Sinn Féin to have any chance of getting it.
Sinn Féin is far more efficient than the DUP at this sort of thing – as at most things. It is always necessary to keep in mind that the DUP is stuffed full of dunderheads.
Any party which makes Jim Wells a minister is daft as a brush.
Auditor Kieron Donnelly made the point that a number of heavily subsidised schemes aimed at addressing poverty and deprivation in particular areas existed prior to the creation of the SIF – the Neighbourhood Renewal Program, Pathways to Success, the Belfast Investment Fund, a series of local investment funds, etc.” Why, then, the Strategic Investment Fund?
The most significant aspect of the SIF is that its structures could have been designed to generate and facilitate conflicts of interest.
Nine “investment zones” were identified to receive £79 million between them. (This has since been topped up to £93million.)
Steering Groups where established in each of the nine zones. It was laid down that these should consist of up to 14 members – four from the voluntary and community sector, four from the political sector (the local parties), up to four from the statutory sector and two representing the “business sector.” All appointments had to be confirmed by the First Minister and deputy First Minister
Each steering group was allocated a “consultant” to guide them in their deliberations and decision-making at a total cost of £478,000, and an “observer” from the Department of Social Development to ensure that everything was on the up and up.
The steering groups tended to reflect the interests and outlook of the main parties in their areas – in almost all cases Sinn Féin or the DUP.
Naturally, the projects and people approved for funding tended to be those which met the approval, or least not the disapproval, of one or other of the two parties. Moreover, it was common that that the groups applying for funding would themselves be represented on the steering group – voting on the funding of projects in which they themselves were involved.
To say that this ran the risk of conflict of interest is not to make an allegation but to observe the obvious facts.
Virtually everybody involved in community activity in the “zones” knew well what was going on. Very few raised public objection. They felt, with good reason, that they’d get nowhere in face of inevitable contrived anger from SF/DUP supporters and well-founded fear that they might never work in the community sector again.
Examples abound. The practice had been well established even before the SIF came along; a well-qualified, even over-qualified, young woman rejected for a community job in Creggan in Derry in favour of a unqualified applicant who happened to be a member of the party dominating the particular community organisation. Everyone knew, but nobody said. There was a consensus that it would be best not to look for trouble.
In another case, a man with years of experience in difficult cross-community work was rejected for a community job in the Waterside. Instead of walking away, he took his case to the Fair Employment Tribunal, claiming that he’d been discriminated against because he was a supporter of neither the DUP nor Sinn Féin.
In February last year, after four days of oral testimony, the Tribunal endorsed his claim and, significantly, castigated the role of the Department’s representative on the steering committee. She had told the Tribunal that she had destroyed her notes on the job interview – but for the life of her couldn’t remember why.
The official had been sitting at the table alongside the panel throughout the interview and the subsequent discussion of which candidate to appoint. The Tribunal said bluntly that it didn’t believe her sworn evidence or the evidence of two of the three interviewers, one from the DUP and one from Sinn Féin, who backed each other up. The Tribunal described Boggs’ evidence as “simply not credible.”
Ms. Boggs was an official of the Department responsible for the scheme. She was the guardian of public money and proper practice, but was found, in effect, to have perjured herself in order to defend misuse of public money and job discrimination. This was reminiscent of the bad old days of one-party Unionist rule – although now it is Sinn Féin and the DUP which operate together to see to it that your face doesn’t fit SF/DUP requirements, you have little chance.
It is baffling too, or ought to be, that £3.3 million was handed to an employment scheme in west Belfast to encourage and equip local unemployed people for work. The area has one the highest unemployment rates in the North. But around a quarter of participants in the scheme were found not to come from the targeted area at all, or otherwise failed to meet the set criteria. We can only speculate how or why the ineligible candidates came to be interviewed and hired.
The Audit investigation reported that in many cases there seemed no rhyme or reason for the way projects were selected for funding or how they were managed after receiving the funding. In some cases, the investigation could find no minutes of steering committee meetings attended by civil servants at which funding was discussed, or any other relevant documents.
The RHI comes vividly back to mind.
The audit identified eighteen voluntary and community groups which had received capital funding from a steering group which had a director, trustee or employee who was also a member of the applicant group. These 18 received more than £12 million between them.
It was laid down, as per usual practice, that any member of a steering group who had a conflict of interest in relation to a funding application should leave the room when the application was being discussed. But only in one single case did the investigation discover anyone leaving a steering committee meeting for this reason. (In fairness, it should be recorded that some SIF programmes – the Foyle Community Work Programme, for example – were found to have operated satisfactorily.)
The main purpose of this sort of thing is to sustain the policy of the Northern Ireland Office of supporting single-party domination, Orange or Green, of working-class communities. In return, each favoured party is expected to keep a lid on discontent on its own patch while working as harmoniously as possible with its partner from the “other side” to maintain political stability.
The NIO would be dismayed if the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists gathered enough support to match their respective rivals. This would complicate their every calculation of how to maintain “balance” between “the two communities.”
This search for balance cannot be said to be going well. The DUP in particular has never wholehearted accepted power-sharing, while Sinn Féin has to maintain its credentials as a party with no deep-down interest in keeping the northern State intact.
Hence, the constant declarations that they won’t tolerate the other party’s intransigence, followed by assurances that there’s nothing they’d like better than the restoration of the Stormont institutions.
And nothing at all they’d like less that radical parties outside the Orange-Green set-up gaining enough support to challenge Orange-Green dominance.
This is an aspect of Northern politics which is very likely to survive in whatever context emerges from the “Brexit.” Then need for “balance” will be even greater.
Meanwhile, the interests of people in working-class areas remain low in the list of priorities when it comes to dishing out public money.