Whatever government touches…RHI through a different lens

DUP strategists hoping that the arrival of Christmas would bring them a gift in the form of a petering out of the RHI saga will have been disappointed when the affair re-erupted after a brief interlude over the holiday.

On Thursday evening, a letter to the bosses of local banks, in which Arlene Foster asked lenders to look favourably on applications for loans to fund business’s initial RHI investments emerged. In it, Foster assures banks that the scheme is a sustainable long-term investment and that it will be renewed indefinitely.

On the face of it, Arlene’s fingerprints are all over this unmitigated disaster which has led to a reported overspend of £490 million. But a closer look at the issue, while not quite absolving her of blame, certainly places the affair in an entirely different context.

For many people in Northern Ireland, particularly the liberally-minded minority, politics is increasingly a question of personal competence. This, we are all told is ‘normal’ politics. Indeed, if Arlene steps aside or is indeed forcibly removed by her own party, it will be the first time a Northern Irish leader has stepped down over such an issue. Peter Robinson notoriously survived personal and financial scandals that would have been career-ending in any other part of the UK and other leaders have usually only resigned as a result of ill health or in the act of making a point. Claiming Foster’s scalp would not only be a boon for the opposition but would herald a move towards a politics of accountability, where we get rid of people who mess up and replace them with someone else. It’s hardly a scandal of Suez or Profumo-type significance, but it’s a start. Or so the theory goes.

But while the affair has produced a ream of written evidence which implicates both Foster and her successor as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Industry Jonathan Bell to various degrees, the fact that civil servants felt they had to save down proposed amends to papers from spads and write written accounts of meetings that took place implies that there was a dynamic formed in the creation of the scheme that many felt uncomfortable with.

Many of the conversations that took place will never be divulged, but the inference from both Bell’s evidence and the letter divulged on Thursday evening is that those involved with the scheme believed that Westminster would be funding the scheme indefinitely.

On the face of it this could be just a standard major administrative balls-up but then again it could be because the policy would be doomed to fail if not supported by infinite amounts of taxpayer cash. There are two issues to consider when apportioning blame therefore.

Firstly, trying to move people to ‘sustainable’ energy – in this case wood-fired power, in an attempt to ween Northern Ireland off its dependence on oil-fired heating was always going to be unachievable, if not a highly questionable thing for a government to be doing.

The market for oil locally is well developed and not exactly prone to failure. A home-grown manufacturer of wood pellets and wood-burning boilers however had to be found and had to be convinced that the investment on their part would be worthwhile. Therefore, if the scheme was to be a success, government had to stimulate the demand through a subsidy and central planning. Supposed scandal aside, this is just poor policy making. To counter the challenge from wood, the oil industry would have reciprocated with lower prices, which would have then led to greater subsidy on the part of government and a never-ending spiral in which the purpose will have been lost.

Secondly, the increasingly clear nature of government in Northern Ireland is that it is carried out with due -regard to self-interest. The parties themselves are not actually to blame for this. Rather the culprit is the institutions themselves.

Both sides are elected not because they’ve brought the population round to their way of thinking, but because they increasingly say what they know their people want to hear. After all, when they’re tied to a system of power sharing, why would they ever need to try the former option? It’s easy to get back in at election time – just deliver for the people who put you there in the first place. Throw some extra money at a few flute bands, secure some funding for the Irish language, knock Uber for six, or create an industry for renewable heat. At some stage, a scandal involving Sinn Fein’s infrastructure program for pointless roads for nationalist voters will emerge to underline this point.

Many of our politicians are a bit wet behind the ears when it comes to understanding the relationship between government and the market, as are the civil servants bred in a land of subsidy, support and paternalism in Troubles-era Ulster. We live in a small country where personal relationships count for a lot and politics is markedly unideological and underdeveloped. Against this cultural backdrop it’s not hard to see how these things can happen.

So while removing Foster may seem a symbolically important step, that’s all it would be. It wouldn’t go any way to correcting the understanding of what government is meant to do. Neither would the apparent alternative, Sinn Fein pulling out of government and forcing us all back to the polls, deliver any political change.

The fact is that whatever government touches, it ruins. And that’s more significant than one person.