Brian Kelly reviews Sam McBride’s, ‘Burned: The Inside Story of the ‘Cash-for-Ash’ Scandal and Northern Ireland’s Secretive New Elite, and looks at what it tells us about the rotten cycle of politics in the North and how the Left can offer a way out.
There are occasionally times when the onset of political crisis can cut through the aura of invincibility by which ruling elites exercise their authority, bringing into sharp and concentrated relief everything that is wrong in a particular society. Even before the details were widely known, the stench arising out of Northern Ireland’s Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) scandal was enough to disperse the power-sharing Assembly at Stormont. Despite occasional pleading from sections of the Irish and British establishments, more than two years later the absence of any sense of popular despondency over Stormont’s demise is striking.
While the urgency of ‘restoring the institutions’ figures prominently in almost every statement emanating from London, Dublin and Washington, Stormont’s reputation is in tatters at home. The simple truth is that almost no one misses it. The widespread sense that we are in many ways better off without them—or at the very least no worse off—will be powerfully reinforced by the publication of Sam McBride’s blow-by-blow account of the story behind the RHI scandal. In his restrained but comprehensive exposé which, a week after hitting the shelves, is already in its third printing, the political editor of the staunchly unionist Belfast News Letter delivers a devastating indictment of the astonishing dysfunction at the heart of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The scandal so meticulously reconstructed by McBride leaves almost no corner of Stormont’s reputation untarnished. There is endemic, swaggering corruption on display at its highest levels, but that is not all. There is the deliberate subversion of a scheme aimed at repairing the environment into its opposite—a calculated, no-holds-barred assault on our ecology—but even that is but a small part of the story. There is the complete lack of democratic accountability among politicians and their untouchable ‘spads’ (special advisors) who seem to regard public funds as play money to be handed out among friends and relatives, but nauseating as that is it does not quite get to the heart of the matter.
The most damning revelations expose the neoliberal foundations upon which Stormont rests, in which an elected and unelected political elite have trampled democracy and bent government to satisfy the greed of a rapacious private sector. To be sure the DUP is at the heart of the debacle, with Arlene Foster culpable for the scandal happening on her watch; but in broad terms this was a cross-party affair, and their partners in government, Sinn Féin, will be just as keen to bury the story forensically reassembled by McBride. The massive theft of public funds at the root of the scandal happened, of course, over a protracted period in which every plea to curb the excesses of austerity has been swatted away with the excuse that the money just wasn’t there. Of course it was.
Consider this: in July of 2018, disabled mother-of-four Anne Smith, from Belfast’s Poleglass estate, was sentenced to six days in Hydebank Prison at the age of 59 for failure to pay a TV license. It matters not in the slightest that Smith hails from (nationalist) Poleglass, and could just as easily have happened in a majority Protestant estate elsewhere in the city. Nor is hers the most appalling example of the callous treatment that working-class people are routinely subjected to in the ‘new’ Northern Ireland: we have record waiting lists across our health service and people literally dying on hospital trolleys, after all, and an epidemic of suicide among young people that does not discriminate along sectarian lines. We have had 20,000 public sector workers made redundant, with those spared seeing their real pay falling year on year. There are long lines for social housing, and while it lasted Stormont presided over the implementation of vicious welfare cuts that are driving our most vulnerable to panic and desperation.
What does matter—or what should matter urgently after the revelations in Burned—is the vast, obscene disparity in the state’s ostentatiously punitive approach toward people who, like Anne Smith, are struggling to get by, and the casual impunity it has extended toward those responsible for disappearing up to £800m in public funds through RHI. To date not a single individual among those in government or the private sector who gloated about ‘filling their boots’ in the RHI scandal has spent an hour in jail; nor are we likely to see this. Arlene Foster—who presided over the scandal as DETI1 minister in charge of RHI—walks free in the confidence that she will never face jail time, courted—until recently—by the Tory ‘law and order’ gang as a powerbroker who might help deliver Brexit. She struts about the world stage wearing power suits rather than prison stripes, feted by the BBC and others as a clever stateswoman rather than someone whose ministry abetted the massive theft of public funds.
The Scheme in Action
McBride’s careful rendering—compiled in the face of an outrageous campaign of legal threats and intimidation from the DUP—is exhaustive, and difficult to distil in a limited review. But the essentials are as follows: Stormont’s RHI program developed from 2012 as an extension of an environmental scheme applied across the water, where financial incentives were offered to entice domestic and commercial users to move toward renewable energy sources, most prominently biomass boilers. Two factors shaped its rollout in the North: the DUP’s assumption that full costs would be borne by the British Treasury, and Stormont’s abject subordination to the demands of agri-business interests, and especially the Tyrone-based multinational poultry giant, Moy Park. Ever wrapped in the Union Jack and hyper-vigilant in guarding their ‘British identity’, the DUP never missed an opportunity to gouge HM Treasury to dole out among party supporters, and in this respect RHI was perhaps their finest hour.
McBride is at pains to stay within range of the evidence available to him, and the secretive political culture at Stormont makes this especially challenging. The DUP operation was based on an elaborate regime of deliberate concealment and obstruction: the highest ranking government officials and their spads restricted communication mainly to personal e-mail and texts that (they assumed) could not be retrieved by investigators; Foster famously used ‘post-its’ to go back and forth with spad Andrew Crawford, who was extremely close to Moy Park and the main co-culprit at the heart of the RHI scandal. Behind the scenes much of the DUP’s day-to-day operation was driven by unelected spads, often paid more than MLAs and with names mostly unknown to the public. The key feature in the cosy ‘chuckle brothers’ partnership that developed between the DUP and Sinn Féin before RHI began to come crashing down was backroom wheeling and dealing, and early on both parties seem to have agreed that no formal notes would be taken at meetings. Crawford served seven years as Foster’s spad at DETI, and could not recall ever seeing formal notes from a single meeting.
Stormont’s RHI went off the rails mainly because it became clear early on that its generous subsidy meant that anyone availing of the scheme would profit from converting to biomass boilers: installers copped on early enough, openly advertising that there was ‘cash for ash’ available. Indeed the more one burnt the higher the return. Over and over again the same flaw was made clear to Crawford and others; but over a period of more than three years spads and high-ranking civil servants bent every effort to ensuring not only that the scheme would not be shut down, but that subsidies would not be reduced as they had been in England. When the scale of the disaster was finally acknowledged and cuts were at last contemplated, some among them worked energetically to keep the gates open as long as possible, liaising with Moy Park, the DUP-friendly Ulster Farmers’ Union, family members and others to pack the scheme before it ended.
The DUP was happy to encourage this as long as they assumed the British Treasury was picking up the bill, and panic only set in late in the day when it became clear that the huge losses to public funds would come out of NI’s Westminster ‘block grant’. Some of the take up at the bottom end was legitimate, McBride insists, but there were many cases where boilers were being run 24/7 all year round in empty sheds. The advantages were quickly noted by Moy Park, the Brazilian-owed multinational that is Northern Ireland’s largest private sector employer, and which draws upon hundreds of local suppliers and kills some six million chickens every week. McBride notes correctly that Moy Park ‘knew that it had [Stormont] at its mercy,’ and relied on its position in the local economy to help get around environmental regulations and demand publicly-funded infrastructure that would enhance its profitability. No one at DETI or Invest NI seems ever to have questioned this: following Foster’s 2013 trade mission to Brazil, Invest NI set aside £9.5 million for Moy Park’s expansion, a top-up on £5m it had donated toward an upgrade of its Ballymena plant just three years earlier.
Media accounts have focused on the way in which high-ranking spads and DUP officials gorged themselves. By the time the scheme was shut, Crawford’s extended family had 11 boilers installed, having been provided with confidential government information throughout; prominent spad Stephen Brimstone heated his home under the non-domestic scheme, claiming that he tended a flock of sheep, but when inspectors came to his home they found the boiler in a sheepless shed, with heat being funnelled into his adjacent home. The brazen trough-swilling of Stormont’s untouchables makes for sensational reading, but it is in some ways a minor aside: the key to the scandal lies in the close liaison between Foster’s office—through Crawford mainly—and the poultry industry and other private sector executives.
As the DUP’s partner in a power-sharing government, Sinn Féin’s role in all of this is a subordinate one, but for a party that goes before the electorate brandishing its commitment to ‘an Ireland of equals’ it is no less damning. As McBride demonstrates, the system of unrecorded, closed door negotiations preferred by the DUP suited Sinn Féin as well, and particularly—one has to speculate—when accommodation was being sought around sensitive issues like policing, and where public scrutiny would likely reinforce the impression that they had bent too far to placate unionists and Westminster. At the moment RHI broke, McBride points out, the Stormont executive was ‘more united than any power-sharing administration [that] preceded it’. In September the two parties had taken advantage of an obscure prerogative belonging to the Queen to hire a ‘joint spokesman’ for the executive—essentially a spin doctor paid handsomely out of public funds.
Their deep investment in making Stormont work meant that Sinn Féin were all over the map in trying to agree a position on the breaking RHI scandal. A week after BBC’s Spotlight programme first alerted the public to the crisis underway, the DUP and Sinn Féin held a joint meeting marked by a ‘collective spirit’, with sources insisting there had been “no ill will at all—far from it”. Conor Murphy and Mairtín Ó Muilleor would both later claim credit for delaying the closing of RHI, contradicting Michelle O’Neill’s claim in January 2017 the party had “shut it down straight away” when the problems became clear. In mid-December 2016 prominent Sinn Féin spokesmen went back and forth in a farcical scramble, one day calling for a full public inquiry, hours later retracting themselves, only to repeat the cycle days later. McBride rightly observes that this early chronology
contradict[s] later unionist fears that Sinn Féin always wanted to pull down Stormont and did so at the first opportunity. But they also undermine SF’s later claims of taking a principled stand when it was made aware of RHI. Both parties’ instinctive reaction was to keep Stormont together, even if that was at the expense of getting to the truth.
Readers should work through McBride’s explanation for the collapse of Stormont themselves, as it is a complicated trajectory, but one point is worth emphasising. Sinn Féin’s room for manoeuvre in keeping the Assembly afloat was limited, in part, by the challenge it faced on the Left. This can be overplayed, but it certainly figured in the developing crisis. The crucial context is that in May 2016 People Before Profit had, with extremely meagre resources, taken two MLA seats in key nationalist wards in Derry’s Foyle and West Belfast on an anti-austerity platform. Sammy Wilson’s assertion some time back that the Assembly’s collapse had little to do with RHI, but was down to Sinn Féin’s unwillingness to take “hard decisions” around the budget “because it was looking over its shoulder at PBP” is bolstered by McBride’s account. ‘Within days of Spotlight, Sinn Féin’s left-wing rival PBP was organising “Foster Must Go” street protests. It was obvious that Sinn Féin was not.’ Without getting carried away with this, it should serve as a corrective for those who argue that the organised Left is eternally consigned to the margins in the North, and unable to shape events.
An Alternative Politics
The bigger and more urgent lesson lies in what the RHI scandal can tell us about the way mainstream politics works in post-conflict Northern Ireland. McBride is aware, at some level, that there is a huge gap between the public theatre of endless antagonism and the reality that for a long time they worked together closely behind closed doors, driving through a programme of government that consolidated the status quo, implemented vicious austerity and effectively handed over the keys of Stormont to the region’s most powerful private sector employers. What eludes him somewhat is how this arrangement combines with a deeply rooted legacy of sectarianism to generate a toxic mix, so that society in the North seems to lurch repeatedly from one crisis to the next. Socialists have argued that, far from eradicating sectarianism, since its resurrection after the Belfast Agreement the regime at Stormont has had the effect of institutionalising division, and the fallout from RHI demonstrates vividly how that operates.
The general election now pending in the wake of the Tories’ endless Brexit fiasco should, in any normal society, see the DUP driven out of political life and banished to the margins. If being up to their necks in the RHI scandal were not enough to bring this about, then their role in propping up the most vicious Tory government in recent history—whose policies will have pushed many of the DUP’s working-class constituents to desperation, and who could not bring themselves to lifting a finger to help workers thrown on the heap at Wrightbus and elsewhere across the North—should see the DUP run out. As in the past, however, unionism has a trump card up its sleeve. Along comes Jamie Bryson to bang the drum, warning of the impending doom in store for northern Prods if they desert their standard just now. McBride acknowledges that in the wake of the Assembly collapse in early 2017, Arlene Foster deliberately built the electoral campaign that followed around ‘the most tribal contest in years.’ The DUP’s reflexive tendency when faced with the prospect of fissures within unionism is to ramp up sectarianism to rally ’their side’. The message is clear, and by now familiar: close ranks around well-heeled unionist politicians, ignore the hardship their Tory allies have brought you, forget about the hundreds of millions in public funds they have squandered, and concentrate your fire on the Fenian bogeyman.
At some point we need to step away from this cycle of division and despair, and the only path pointing away from the precipice of renewed sectarian tension is class politics. The Left has made a modest start at building a fighting movement that will stand up against austerity and send a message to elites on both sides of the divide, but we are in a race against time to make a politics of working class unity relevant across this society, and need to be more ambitious in our aims. Otherwise the rotten system that gave us RHI side-by-side with a crumbling NHS will come back for more, and always with the menace of a return to sectarian violence looming behind it.